In My View by Eric Musgrave: Have trade shows got a fair chance of survival?
Where were you on the morning of Sunday 1st September 1996?
Twenty five years and a few days ago I was inside the London Arena, a sports event and concert venue in the capital’s Docklands, ready to see the doors thrown open for 40˚, a trade “event” that changed the way trade fairs operated ever since.
Delivered by the publishing company EMAP, which owned Drapers Record, Menswear and Fashion Weekly among hundreds of other B2B and consumer titles, the oddly-named 40˚ used the familiar washing care symbol as its logo.
That was only the start of its ground-breaking approach to avoid the danger of presenting “just another boring trade fair”. A quarter of a century ago (did I really just type that?), EMAP’s aim was to dominate (ie control) the fashion sector by owning the best trade fairs as well as the biggest trade titles. For a while, they just about managed it.
Business-wise, 40˚ brought together good-quality brands (“No rubbish” was our watchword) in four overlapping sectors: jeanswear, streetwear, fashion sport and clubwear. Its aim was to blend fashion with fun, business with boozing, ordering with near disorder.
EMAP wisely brought in Raoul Shah of the communications agency Exposure to advise on the positioning and marketing of the event (we weren’t allowed to call it a trade fair). Lots of other bright and passionate fashion folk contributed to making this memorable debut.
I won’t bother to go into a lot of details here about what made 40˚ so special apart from mentioning that I spent part of the three-day show (1-3 September 1996) sitting in a bath of warm water on the Levi’s stand getting a pair of free 501s to shrink to fit. It was that sort of happening.
By close of play on Tuesday, I was among the “walking wounded” who were still recovering from a fantastic launch party in a Docklands warehouse on the Sunday night and much merry making besides.
This little wave of nostalgia prompted me to consider the future of trade shows, fairs, events and gatherings in our post-COVID reality. What future do they have? What role(s) might they serve?
During my various stints of captaining fashion B2B titles my colleagues joked I was the king of the trade shows. I absolutely loved them. From Sao Paulo to Taipei, from leathergoods to lingerie, I’ve been to dozens and dozens of them.
About 20 years ago, when editing Drapers Record / Drapers, my trade show trek would start at Pitti Uomo in Florence in early January and end up at a fabric fair in early April.
For me, the events, large or small, long-established or fleeting, were literally the marketplaces of the industry (or industries, if you want to regard every sub-sector of the business as a separate entity).
Unlike the exhibitors or the buyers, I was there neither to sell nor order. I went there to learn what was going on in the industry, to find new brands, to see old friends, make new ones and ultimately to help myself understand what was going on in the sector.
I could never understand those retailers who did not attend any trade shows. How did they track what was happening? Maybe they didn’t…
Looking at a show from an exhibitor’s point of view, they go either to make a brand statement – nice to do if you have the money – or they attend to take orders, especially orders they would not have got elsewhere anyway.
In either case, shop owners and buyers need to attend the event to make the exercise worthwhile for the exhibitors. There has to be a decent return on their often-considerable financial investment.
Conversely, for the buyer, there must be enough relevant suppliers to make a trip worthwhile. It’s a classic chicken-and-egg situation. Which comes first – supplier participation or buyer attendance?
To state the blooming obvious, there are not as many independent buyers in any sector as they used to be. How many decent indie accounts are there now in the UK and Ireland for, say, an upper-mid-market menswear brand? 120? 150 at a push? Who needs to be on a stand for three days hoping to see a decent percentage of those?
There are many more ways for a supplier to present a collection. Buying online is becoming more sophisticated, more usual and more accepted, especially if you are looking at a familiar collection.
Then there are the perennial problems of dates, locations, “adjacencies” (jargon for brand mix at a show). Large companies used to want to make large profits from large shows. And they used to, but I am not sure many sectors still need large shows.
Funnily enough, having started off as the ultimate “alternative” event, after only a relatively few seasons, 40˚ came to resemble the rivals it had been conceived to replace. In turn it prompted the proliferation of small, niche “insider” events, like To Be Confirmed, Jacket Required and the recently-held JUST. These are typically run by fashion agents, not publicly-listed publishing giants.
I sincerely hope trade gatherings of some type continue as the industry needs a place to come together. A network needs a hub, even if that hub forms only twice a year. I still see the fashion business as a community or rather a series of interlinking communities that resemble the double helix of DNA structure. There needs to be regular points of contact.
Trade shows or fairs or events were, are and should continue to be the obvious marketplaces for the market. Or am I being too nostalgic once again?
I’d love to hear your views on this subject.