22 July 2024, 21:09
By Andy Stockwell Jan 21, 2021

Is it time to rethink trade shows?

With so many trade events being postponed and cancelled, what’s the long-term outlook for them in our sector? Andy Stockwell, buyer/manager at retailer Gardiner Haskins, weighs up the possibilities … 

Trade shows are at a crossroads. Many, including Spring Fair, Autumn Fair, Glee and January Furniture Show (JFS) have been shrinking and declining in importance for a number of years.

Why? The big trade shows are notoriously expensive for suppliers to attend. Stand space and building costs, the use of tradespeople such as electricians specifically appointed by the venues, hotels and hospitality, taking reps off the road … all of this contributes to costs which can amount to six-figure sums.

For many suppliers, these costs simply can’t be justified, so the shows aren’t financially viable – you have to sell a lot of product to recover those kind of figures.

So, they pull out – and when the buyers arrive, they find fewer exhibitors.

Again, for many buyers attending the show it’s a judgement call – there is a cost involved in terms of finance and time. If the suppliers aren’t there, the buyers don’t attend. Fewer buyers makes the show less viable for the suppliers, and so the cycle goes on.

Despite this, JFS remains the biggest show for the sector in the UK. It’s still the place to see the top suppliers in one place. It’s also the place for inspiration, insight, and innovation. As an industry event in the UK, it doesn’t get any bigger.

And what’s the alternative? At-home events are all well and good, and supplier showrooms give an opportunity to show product in the best possible environment - but it’s much more time-consuming for buyers to travel between showrooms rather than see everything under one roof.

Showvans have always been a vehicle (excuse the pun) for taking product to the buyers, but they have limited capacity, and are functional rather than inspirational.

Online is an option, and the Zoom call is the big innovation in coronavirus communication – but furniture is a tactile product, and no image or online presentation can convey the comfort of a sofa, chair or mattress, or the softness or resilience of a fabric.

In a pandemic-riddled world, a combination of the above seems the way forward. Much as the future of retail seems to hinge on omnichannel routes to market, so bringing product to market is best served by a multichannel approach, giving maximum flexibility to suppliers and buyers alike.

It will be interesting to see how the industry adapts now JFS 2021 is cancelled.

Obviously, trade show organisers have their own agendas and business models – but surely it has to be in their interests to maintain the viability of the big UK trade shows? If the suppliers can be attracted back to JFS and to trade shows in general, I'm sure the buyers will also return. 

Organisers need to be honest about attendance figures and stop trying to pretend each and every show was better attended than the previous one. They need to reduce costs so suppliers can afford to return, and this will reverse the trend of decline.

JFS in April 2021 could have been a pivotal moment for the industry. If it had gone ahead, it could have been be the show we realised we couldn't do without, cementing the future of trade shows for years to come. Now it's clear that it's not happening, 2021 may herald a new way of bringing furniture to the market – and an abrupt end to the trade show format as we know it.

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