The past year or so has been a very tough one for exhibitions and the British Craft Trade Fair (BCTF) was particularly hard hit when the first lockdown in Britain was enforced two weeks before the April 2020 event was due to take place. Home & Giftware magazine spoke to former BCTF owner, Margeret Bunn, who is now working on the event as a consultant following its acquisition by Kerrison Exhibitions on April 14, 2021.
How did you react to the challenge of that first lockdown, which could have marked the instant demise of BCTF after 45 years as a market leader for British crafts?
“The past year has seen unprecedented challenges for the exhibitions and live events industry and the timing of lockdown turned our world upside down, leaving us with a big dilemma. We had over 250 exhibitors scheduled to join us in Harrogate, all the arrangements were in place, the buyers had been invited, the venue was ready to host BCTF in its usual April slot, the hard work in the months running up to the fair to ensure its success and an advertising campaign promoting the event had all gone to plan.
Without exception everyone working on the show felt great disappointment in the knowledge of letting all these makers down, many of whom had been returning to BCTF for many years as it was the mainstay of their trade business. We were determined to not let anything stop us and far from being the end of the road it marked the start of a whole new journey and a new way of keeping the BCTF exhibitors in front of buyers.
It’s at moments like this that you must think outside of the box, and we were fortunate to have a small but very dedicated team working on the show who were willing to do whatever it took to ensure the BCTF brand continued. One of these team members – crucially as it turned out – is a very experienced IT professional, who together with his partner created an online solution in double-quick time.
This enabled us to rapidly pivot into the online market, which as everyone knows is the biggest growth area in retail. The silver lining to the awful cloud of lockdown is that we ended up moving faster into the online space than we might otherwise have achieved, which is a vital element in future-proofing any retail-related business.
BCTF has been an integral part of the British handmade market over its 45-year history and has helped advance the careers of many artists who have taken part. Our goal at the live event has always been to offer designer-makers the best possible platform to convey their artistic expression, where it can evoke an emotional ‘must have’ response in potential buyers.
Our venue in Harrogate – the Yorkshire Event Centre – is renowned for being one of the best in the country, providing the ideal backdrop for the beautiful artisan creations of our exhibitors. The online show has to offer a fair reflection of this spectacular visual feast, which is why our solution is strongly image-led and geared towards a relaxing buyer experience.
The online show is also very egalitarian, with everyone participating on a level playing field with exactly the same features and benefits. We don’t sell online space at different tiers whereby those paying considerably more money can purchase better access to retailers, all our exhibitors are given an equal opportunity to shine – and shine they do!
To this day the solution we are offering is one of the best online exhibition platforms on the market, and it’s been constantly improved upon and honed over the past 12 months. We are looking forward to the next edition of BCTF Online at the end of this month (June 27 – July 1) and then the extremely welcome return of the physical show in April 2022, which new investment from Kerrison Exhibitions has made possible.
People will still want to shop on the high street and return to live events when Covid is finally behind us, but retail analysts forecast that the internet will retain a bigger market share in future. So many people have been converted to the ease, convenience – and by now better offerings – associated with online shopping. They have more confidence when shopping online than they did a few years ago, even though it can’t replace the wonderful experience of browsing in a lovely shop.
This convenience has also benefitted the trade, making it far easier for retailers from around the country – rest of world, in fact – to participate in an event they might not otherwise have the chance to visit. At the first edition of BCTF Online in June last year over 80% of attendees had never visited the show before, which in a normal year would be a figure that exhibitions organisers can only dream of!
Of course, we were also thrilled that our highly valued regular visitors and gold club members turned out to support the online show, even though it was quite a change of scene for some of them. The online format doesn’t suit everyone but as we go into the future it will remain an important complement to our physical show. There will always be a place for great independent retailers, who have also experienced a rallying of loyalty from local customers. There is soaring demand for British made products which spells a big opportunity for everyone in our market, whether they’re selling on the high street or online”.
So has the evolution of BCTF been plain sailing?
“I wouldn’t quite say that! This has been a very tough year and there have been considerable obstacles and stumbling blocks along the way. The vast majority of exhibitors have been incredibly supportive of the predicament we found ourselves in, and I was grateful of all the amazing letters of support I received. We fully understand why people were upset at the cancellation, but when something is so far beyond your control there is very little you can do except try to make the best of the situation and give something back in future, when your position is stronger.
I am immeasurably relieved that we can do this now and that Kerrison Exhibitions has agreed to honour all stand bookings for the live BCTF in 2022 – or the year after in cases where makers are unable for whatever reason to join us next year. I think that by next spring the world will look quite different, and I believe it will be a much better time for people to return to normal trading conditions, as we now get through the last hurdles posed by Covid.
I’m confident we have entered into a bright new chapter in the ongoing evolution of BCTF, an event which means so much to both me personally and the community of British makers”.
Images from top to bottom: Lorna Gilbert at work, Lorna Gilbert Ceramics, Catherine Bowdler, Rosimorosi, Kevin Hutson, Elsiem Jewellery, David Pooley, Sparkle Ceramics and Jewellery, Judith Brown Jewellery, Jackwicks Designs, JV Fine Art, Elaine Collins, Amanda Fox Jewellery, Folkvanger, Small Notes and Clips, Just Joy Designs, Small Thread of Everything, The Painted Card.