Trade shows are in a state of flux. Some exhibitions have evolved, while others have failed to develop. But if the events are to survive, changes must be made.
The UK’s trade show environment is indicative of the shifting landscape of exhibitions. ITE, which now controls all the UK’s biggest shows, including Pure London, Moda, Jacket Required and Scoop, is implementing changes that will shake up these existing events in an attempt to re-engage buyers and brands. For example, Moda’s menswear offering will be moved to Pure London from February.
But what does the industry actually want from trade shows?
The best brands
One of the biggest complaints is trade shows’ lack of newness. For many buyers, trade shows are an opportunity to discover new brands and fresh product – hopefully before their competitors. But as some exhibitions have become stale and stagnant, this core function of discovery has waned.
“I’m always looking for new brands,” says Rhona Blades, co-founder of seven-store independent chain Jules B and Lifetime Achievement winner at this year’s Drapers Independents Awards, alongside her husband, Julian. “That’s why I go to as many trade shows as possible. But I’m just not finding them now.”
“We attend trade shows to search for new brands, but they’ve become a little samey,” agrees Debra McCann, founder of east London store The Mercantile. She focuses on overseas events for newness, but finds the repetition of brands across the shows annoying: “Now we try to rotate [which shows we attend], and look at new shows to find newness.”
I dislike the lack of newness and variety, and poorly curated shows, where organisers have lowered their standards
Juls Dawson, Just a Group
For buyers on the hunt for product, a trade show is only as good as its brand list – the better the brands, the better the show. However, as exhibitor numbers have swollen, this has meant quantity sometimes overtakes quality.
“Trade shows should be about the thrill of seeing new product and seeking new brands,” says trade show veteran Juls Dawson, director of sales, distribution and licensing agency Just a Group (formerly Just Consultancies). “I dislike the lack of newness and variety, and poorly curated shows, where organisers have lowered their standards and let in brands that aren’t of a certain calibre.” His advice in terms of brands: “Less is more. Select the best.”
It is apparent the best way to get buyers to trade shows is to create a proposition they cannot miss. Therefore, trade shows should be focusing not only on newness – although this is key – but also on sourcing the best brands.
“I think the key to a good trade show is curation,” says Riannon Foster-Orr, head of menswear at sales agency Polly King. For her, it is a thoughtful mix of different brands, both new and established, that is then clearly segmented, that is missing.
“It is really important for a trade show to educate buyers on emerging brands as well as heritage and power brands,” she says. “A successful show is one that almost leads the buyer subconsciously into brands to buy. The curation of a show should be like that of a store – exhibiting brands that you feel complement each other – that tell a different story but share a similar vibe.”
Fixing the format
While the importance of brand mix will never change, there are elements of trade shows that should. For example, the function of a trade show remains much the same, but the format does not have to.
Some exhibition organisers tend to forget that buyers are creative business leaders and often tastemakers – their buys set trends and establish brands. Trade show organisers should reflect this via inspiring, engaging environments and experiences, rather than the same soulless exhibition halls.
I think shows can incorporate much more than just clothes racks into their aesthetic
Riannon Foster-Orr, Polly King
“Trade shows need a revamp,” declares Chloé Turner, established branded menswear buyer at Asos. “I’d like to see the [exhibition spaces] evolve each season with a rotation of brands taking the bigger spaces and more involvement and engagement with buyers.”
“I think shows can incorporate much more than just clothes racks into their aesthetic. Less exhibition, more show,” agrees Polly King’s Foster-Orr. “Trade shows need some energy pumped into them to keep them fresh and, most importantly, be a nice environment to write orders in.”
She points to new takes on layouts and the addition of installations, exhibitions, sensory experiences and more imaginative locations – generally “thinking outside the box” – as ways to refresh them.
“I would dearly love to see a trade show in a beautifully curated area – in a creative environment with an easy to navigate yet inspiring space,” adds The Mercantile’s McCann.
For Turner, Foster-Orr and McCann, new additions outside of the standard brand stands include areas to relax and digest information; more social aspects that present opportunities to network; and more clearly defined areas promoting elements, such as emerging designers or sustainable brands, but exhibited in new and unexpected ways.
Shows such as Copenhagen’s CIFF are leading in this area, having launched such initiatives alongside a more considered approach to the overall environment – all to positive reactions. At London’s Jacket Required, additions such as its exhibition dedicated to Italian premium outerwear brand Stone Island coinciding with last season’s trade show, also created a welcomed buzz.
As both brands and buyers have turned away from trade shows, many have moved to showrooms, and buyers often prefer this more casual setup.
“Showroom-based events are more relaxed and have an intimate feel, where buyers are at ease and more inclined, given the setting, to write orders,” says Dawson. “I recently went to Paris and visited a few showrooms, including Common Trade, and I believe this is the future.”
Dawson himself launched a similar showroom in London this summer, called Just Around the Corner, which was well attended by buyers.
But what can trade show organisers learn from this? The integration of larger showroom-style stands within the traditional layout has been a growing trend, as they create more intimate zones within the greater trade show space.
CIFF in Copenhagen has again been leading in this area, and brand houses and sales agencies set up satellite showrooms within its halls. The merging of the two formats could provide a more appealing environment, while remaining within a “one-stop-shop” venue.
Looking at the bigger picture, some in the industry feel there are now too many trade shows, which dilutes the offer and creates a fragmented schedule.
I think that a genuine UK fashion event could be a big draw internationally
Tony King, Jacobson Group
Tony Evans, managing director of footwear business Jacobson Group, believes there should be more of a centralised approach: “Maybe now is the time for some consolidation from organisers to create a bigger ‘fashion’ show, and try to get all relevant brands and retailers there?”
In the UK, he believes this should focus on London and be in line with London Fashion Week, when an international spotlight is already shining on the capital: “I think that a genuine UK fashion event could be a big draw internationally. When we leave the EU in 2019, all brands will have to work harder to find new retailers and distribution partners in global markets. A relevant UK fashion trade show could assist in building UK brands internationally.”
Jules B’s Blades agrees: “For me, trade shows are all about ease, and it has to be worth my while. One big show would be great to see as much as possible under one roof. As more people break out of the trade shows, you split off to all the different showrooms, and a lot of them end up being a waste of time.”
Arguably, cities like Berlin are some way to achieving this. The German capital’s fashion week runs alongside its various trade shows across different venues, which include Panorama, Premium and Seek.
However, while the different elements happen alongside each other, it would be more beneficial for all if each organisation worked more closely – and less competitively – to create a more concise and cohesive offering.
Balancing the needs of buyers, brands and trade shows themselves will continue to be a difficult task, as shifts within the industry bring yet more pressures. But what is clear is that trade shows need to evolve and not be afraid to try new things to re-engage the industry.
As Foster-Orr says: “The industry is so fast-paced, it would be good to see trade shows be one step ahead of the industry, instead of five behind.”