Philip Moss pays a visit to John Allison and Annie Bertrand to discuss their plans for the British Shooting Show in 2016 and beyond.
I find myself disorientated as I step into the kitchen of John Allison’s Dorset farmstead. My head is full of twittering birdsong, as if I’ve managed to hit one of the beams with my head but the pain has yet to register. Not for the first time in my life, I feel like a cartoon character. Together with shooting and militaria, John Allison lists the keeping and breeding of canaries as one of his interests, and we are standing in front of an indoor aviary. A strong cup of coffee and the prospect of talking to the powers behind the British Shooting Show soon bring me back to my senses.
“I started off in the building business and I still tend to treat all business ventures as if they are building projects,” says John. “It’s not just having everything in place. It’s more than that. It’s about having everything in place at the right time. And the sense of timing provides the impetus for a business venture whether it’s a building project or a show.”
John and Annie Bertrand run two major shows. The British Shooting Show is their winter work and the recently acquired War & Peace, a military history show, now provides them with a summer project each year as well.
“Both shows have strong profiles,” says John. “This is important to the success of any event, I think. If your event has a strong theme then it helps define the market for exhibitors, visitors and services. When John Bertrand came up with the idea of a dedicated shooting show for the UK, he really determined how the show would develop up until now.”
Annie adds: “The profile of the show as a dedicated shooting event is the real reason why it has grown as it has. The shooting public came to Newark in the early years half out of curiosity, half out of commitment to their sport. Now, visitors expect the show to provide them with the best and the latest that the shooting industry has to offer.”
I’ve exhibited at the show since its second year. I go back for two reasons. One is the level of sales on the first day, which are as good as it gets for my leather shooting goods business. The second is that the show is not run purely for the convenience of larger companies, unlike some Gunmakers’ Rows I’ve been on.
“I like the idea that a big gunmaker’s stand can be next door to a one-man operation making stock-sleeves or handwarmers, and both can do good business,” says John, “but I’m convinced that this only works when the entire show is given over to just shooting and shooters.”
This is a theme John returns to time and again. Some shows, he maintains, started off catering for country sports or rural pastimes, but lost their way. As a trader, I have seen shows that used to be about the interaction of the farming and hunting communities lose their way. Before long, you have monster trucks and jacuzzis on every aisle. Monster trucks and jacuzzis are fine and wonderful things in the right context, but not necessarily at a game fair or shooting show.
“Every year,” says John, “one of the most difficult aspects of the show is trying to decide which exhibitors we take on. I’m not pretending for a moment that the show is perfect for everyone – each year there is natural wastage. We have hundreds of companies applying for limited numbers of spaces and you have to be really careful that you don’t miss some of the smaller one-man operations which might be making the next ‘must have’ in shooting. You also have to be pretty draconian in keeping the show on a ‘shooting only’ basis. We’ve had to turn down some pretty sweet deals because it would mean diluting the shooting theme.”
So how does this strict focus help the exhibitors and traders?
“It’s a similar deal to that with the visitors. At some shows, I see footfall increase but exhibitors’ sales remain static. I want to increase not just the number of visitors but also the number of buyers at the show. Shooting is a conservative sport and shooters tend to be quite old-fashioned or sensible. They are often happy to save up all year if it means that they can come for a couple of days, have a good time and buy what they want. I believe that the strong profile of the show therefore helps our exhibitors too.”
Annie adds: “But a strong profile can only take you so far. We have invested heavily in advertising to ensure that everyone who takes part in the sport knows about our event. That investment is long-term and pretty intensive.”
Pitch-fees, ever the source of discontent among the trading community, meet with a robust defence from John: “You always get rumours to the contrary, but I can confirm that we have capped pitch fees for the third year running. I admit that there are extra costs such as the carpeting, but I believe that this too is important if we are to compete in the international market for shows. There will come a time when we will have to look for growth in visitor numbers outside the UK. We get lots of visitors from abroad already, but to grow that number, providing the presentation and facilities that you see at IWA in Nuremberg or at the US SHOT Show is important.”
I mention that many traders had doubts about the change from the two-day to the three-day format for the show. Again, the defence is robust: “I know that everyone loved the buzz of a manic first day when it was a two-day show, but I can show you that footfall did increase as a result of holding the event over three days. If people want to complain that they are meeting too many customers or selling too much stock, that’s fine but I don’t think that’s how business works. What other events are held in February for shooting? I think that if I can maximise the number of customers I can bring to my exhibitors over three or four or even five days, then I am acting in their best interests. After all, exhibitors have been through the hassle of setting up, getting stocked up, why not sell as much as you can at the one event?”
I left the Dorset smallholding with the distinct view that whatever John, Annie and the team put into their shows, ‘heart and soul’ barely begins to describe the determination involved. I, for one, cannot wait to see how the 2016 British Shooting Show lives up to the objectives outlined by John and Annie during my visit.