23 May 2024, 22:59
By Furniture News Aug 20, 2015

Behind the demise of May Design Series

May Design Series returned to London’s ExCeL this year for its third outing, timed to hit the end of the international show cycle with products across various interiors categories. However, despite some positive aspects, its performance was not enough to save it from cancellation. Paul Farley explores the development of the event, and attempts to outline the essential flaws that brought low UBM’s all-encompassing marketplace …

Where did May Design Series go wrong? Organiser UBM set out to create a capital-based event worthy of the international exhibition stage, yet, three years in, its identity and direction were no clearer. With little net growth in visitor or exhibitor numbers, the closure of the multi-sector show, announced in June, came as little surprise.

Alison Jackson, portfolio director at UBM EMEA Built Environment, declared: “We’ve decided to cancel May Design Series and put our efforts into our niche market events, as our exhibitors and visitors have informed us they want a more curated experience.

“In a world of information overload, our visitors need a focused event that exhibits the best of new product and thinking within that sector and takes a deep dive into the future of the sector, engaging with new ideas and trends and networking opportunities within that niche of the industry.”

It’s a shame it took three years for the organiser to acknowledge that the event’s lack of focus might be a weakness rather than a strength.

“Bringing four small shows together under one roof always posed a risk of audience dilution despite the cross-sector purchasing opportunities”

One could argue that, on a conceptual level, the show overreached from the outset. Its aim to “put the creative buzz back into trade exhibitions” was, initially, realised – yet bringing four small shows (kbb Ldn, The Arc Show, DX and the new Interiors Ldn) together under one roof always posed a risk of audience dilution despite the cross-sector purchasing opportunities.

Targeting London designers, architects and specifiers, the debut event attracted a raft of high-profile exhibitors, backed up by networking parties, imaginative feature areas and a thought-provoking seminar schedule. The on-trend yet commercial event exceeded the organiser’s expectations and was, tentatively, considered a success.

However, with UBM’s announcement in January 2014 that it was terminating the long-established Interiors UK exhibition in Birmingham, a new element was quickly worked into May Design Series’ second outing, as the organiser attempted to relocate as many exhibitors as possible from the closed show to London, just four months later.

May Design Series 2014 saw new halls and a Furniture Show section added, which housed suppliers from the volume end to the upper middle. Whilst Interiors Ldn had previously offered a small selection of furniture suitable to London’s buyers, this significant expansion meant that a good half of the show was now retailer facing.

Ultimately, the vastly expanded product offer and showfloor saw visitor numbers increase by a mere 1% – a real blow to the newer furniture exhibitors, which had hoped to do significantly more business. UBM had failed to deliver retail buyers to London in enough numbers to persuade the majority of exhibitors to return.

Perhaps the show was taking place at the wrong time, was too difficult to reach for some, or, being turned around so quickly following the closure of Interiors UK, didn’t feature enough new products to engage retail buyers at the end of the season. When challenged on the clarity of the show’s content, audience and direction, Suzie Ager, then brand director of the Furniture Show, replied: “The vision is clear.”

Posing even greater threat was the January Furniture Show, immediately emerging to take the place of Interiors UK at Birmingham’s NEC. When faced with the unproven May Design Series – and particularly in the light of the lacklustre footfall of the second edition – the bulk of the trade’s suppliers opted to align themselves to the January show’s more traditional, mass-market successor.

Despite this, UBM maintained its vision, electing to shift its focus for the 2015 edition from middle market retail to international diversity, and attempting to bring a more business-like tone to the proceedings.

“The bulk of the trade’s suppliers opted to align themselves to the January show’s more traditional, mass-market successor”

One could argue that it succeeded to a degree. The third edition, set across a smaller footprint than previously, set out to provide, in the words of Suzie Ager, “an inspirational environment for the professional design community”.

Presenting over 500 brands across five sectors, the show did indeed deliver on its international promise, with Portuguese, Polish, Romanian, Cypriot, Italian, Greek and Spanish furniture suppliers present, some in good numbers.
Overall, the main Furniture sector looked good, and benefited from the placement of feature areas including the opulent Fabric Pavilion, Designer Makers showcase and various theatres. The conference and seminar programme was typically generous, with the likes of Abigail Ahern, Sebastian Conran and Oliver Heath addressing busy theatres on subjects ranging from high street planning to branding, technology and design in hospitality.

Of particular note was the New Design Britain awards presentation and bar – which became a thriving hub of design conversation at the show’s peak – and the well-attended exhibits from Birmingham City University and Bucks New University. UBM’s efforts to maintain and develop these vital routes to industry for new designers are laudable.

Despite these strengths, it was impossible to ignore the low footfall. A few spikes in attendance were not enough to offset echoes of the flat atmosphere of the previous year, and the aforementioned layout, which favoured the international and upper-middle furniture companies actually sidelined many (principally volume) suppliers, which were located at the opposite end of the hall – a further blow to UBM’s aim to incorporate Interiors UK into the London show.

To my mind, this performance harked back to a central flaw – that May Design Series was too young and unproven an event, operating within an already-overflowing exhibition calendar, to be executed successfully across multiple sectors.

While it’s difficult to deny that the various product areas presented opportunities to certain visitor types, an event must usually reach critical mass before it can risk diversifying. By doing so from the outset, May Design Series failed to excel (excuse the pun) in any one area, resulting in the subsequent about turns in direction and eventual termination.

With the show’s closure, the organiser has offered to relocate exhibitors to one of its other events – kbb Birmingham or London, Sleep, Decorex International or Ecobuild.

While the vision behind May Design Series – as an all-embracing, international-grade marketplace – had merit, in the end it was simply too far removed from the reality of how its retail, interior design, architectural and property target audiences preferred to do business.

Hopefully, the show’s demise will help UBM focus on its more successful shows – whether it will ever be able to engage with the mainstream domestic furniture trade again is another matter entirely …

This article was published in the July issue of Furniture News magazine.

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