By Bernie Jackson.
It may be one of the best known venues in these parts, but for much of its life, the NEC closes its doors to the general public and enters the secret world of the trade fair. I dropped in to this week’s Craft, Hobby and Stitch International Show to uncover some of its stories.
The CHSI show is in its 36th year. Unless you’re a craft business, you’ve probably never heard of it. Yet it attracts people who are the royalty of its own domain. Take, for example, Tim Holtz. Google him and you get more than 1.5 million hits. Tim is the maestro of Creative Design for the US company Ranger. He is so popular that he fills cruise ships with thousands of people ready to take his classes. They line up to buy his inks, craft stamps and decorated papers. And he’s been at the NEC today, teaching retailers how to produce grungy, steampunkish works of art with which they can demonstrate to their clients how to use his products.
Then there are the visitors. You can probably spot them at Birmingham International, trundling their bags across to the NEC halls. At the start of the day those bags are running light. By the end of the day, they are packed solid with brochures, demonstration materials, samples and occasional purchases. The novices are carrying stout recyclable bags provided by the sponsor. And they’re plump with information.
“I had a plan”, said one woman at the fashion show, “but I haven’t been to any of those stalls yet”.
You can spot the exhibitors too. Unfailingly polite and helpful, they carefully watch visitors to judge when to offer information and advice, and when to back off. Come the end of the day, many have a glazed look of exhaustion that a day of meeting and greeting creates. Secretly fuelled by kids’ sweets and water instead of a decent lunch, they have my unwavering admiration.
Then there are the NEC staff. You wonder if they expect different issues from different trade fairs. Peeking through the doors of a boat and caravan show next door, you can imagine an outbreak of fumes, delicate reversing and a whole host of health and safety issues that come with stocking a building with lots of flammable revving trailers. Do they take it all it their stride, or are some shows simply more fun, or more hassle than others?
So, if you’re a trader, what are you doing at the fair? You’re getting some free business advice from some well-attended workshops. You’re seeing new products, with a chance to look, feel and test in a way you can’t with the best online clips. You’re finding new suppliers, hearing about new businesses, and perhaps learning that even if you are a small business, you’re still big enough to grab the discounts of a trade order. You’re getting an adrenaline rush of inspiration from displays, a new catwalk show that forms part of this year’s programme, and simply meeting new people who love what you love too. And you might even be spending a bit of money.
Attendance this year is 15% up on last year. The exhibitors are buzzing with how busy the first two days of the fair have been. Somewhere, and somehow, something’s going right for business. And that’s good news for this region.