The Game Fair 2021 – looking ahead w/ Phillip Moss

We welcome back GTN stalwart Philip Moss of Moss Leather Goods as he returns for this one-off look at the Game Fair, and asks if the future is real, or virtual.

As I write, shows are still cancelling in some parts of the country but the countryside’s biggest fieldsports event has received its ‘good to go’ certificate and is all set to welcome exhibitors and buying public alike. There will be many questions spinning around the minds of ticket holders. 

Can we shake hands, hug and kiss or is the ghastly elbow bump here to stay? Can I pay for tiny purchases with a credit card? The latter is easy to answer: There are no tiny purchases at the Game Fair. Everything is reassuringly expensive. 

According to the organisers, tickets are selling like rolls of lockdown loo paper and they expect hordes of eager buyers to inundate the showground on all three days. And for every buyer there will be at least a couple of equally eager sellers. A quick survey of exhibitors tells of dogged resilience during the months of lockdown. 

And now they are looking forward to meeting their regular customers and a few new ones, partying with friends, networking a bit and eating and drinking far too much, and pretending that they sleep better in the fresh air of shows than they do at home.

This is despite later admitting to their chiropractor that sleeping in a hyperactive marsupial’s pouch would be preferable. They look forward to returning home with every pocket, glove compartment and bodily orifice stuffed with used £20 notes proclaiming the venture a thorough success. 

So is it business as usual? Well, not quite. I did witness at first-hand the champagne-cork sales effect at a couple of the early shows where something of a buying frenzy erupted.  Shoppers have saved considerable sums during lockdown and seem determined to have a good time at the show, so expenditure was on the lavish side. Even I bought a second coffee.

Glyn Gronow of Beckford’s Rum says: “We have always sold well at shows, even at a few during lockdown. At the early shows we didn’t just sell well, we sold out. We expect a similar response at the Game Fair, which is why we are launching our new product, Euphemia – a three-year-old blended and honeyed whisky.”

But listen to the babble carefully and you will soon detect a note of caution. According to Game Fair habitué and head of countryside PR firm, Monty Social Limited, Nathan Little admits: “There was pressure for change on the show sector even before COVID-19. Lockdown has, I think, merely speeded things up.”

Kevin Wilcox of Tidepool Wildfowling adds: “When lockdown started, the choice was clear. Adapt or go out of business. So over 18 months, I’ve turned the business into an online, lean, mean selling machine. My stock is more targeted than ever on items that sell, as opposed to products that make my show stand look good.”

Kit Taylor of Muntjac Trading dog equipment has also built up his online business over lockdown: “Performance has been more consistent throughout the year, not being affected by the weather among other factors. There’s no haggling on price online, which maximises margin. The online experiment has been good for us.”

For years, exhibitors have muttered darkly about online sales as the business model of the future. Well, perhaps that future has arrived and the 2021 Game Fair is a last hurrah before the whole countrysports business sector migrates to the internet? Er, no. Doubtless, online shopping and Covid have changed the landscape but it is not ‘game over’ yet. The shows still have much support and for very sound commercial reasons.

Selling season

Archie Bell of gun merchant Bell Bros points out: “We rely on overseas customers for 50% of our sales, so without them being able to visit you can imagine that things have been a bit tough. We rely on a few carefully chosen shows such as the Game Fair to meet existing and new customers to find out their requirements. The shows can tell you what sort of selling season you can expect.”

Lin Oxley of the Gun Trade Association agrees: “Many of our members can’t just switch to online sales to make up the Covid shortfall. Buying a shotgun or rifle needs a more personal approach and many makers are looking forward to displaying their wares at the Game Fair on Gunmakers’ Row.”

An online launch can hardly hold a candle to a product launch at a show and this year, more than most, everyone has a tale to tell. There is still a question mark over the applicability of online technology to many aspects of game fairs but, without doubt, online business is here to stay. 

So it looks like 18 months of Covid might result in a bit more online business and the loss of a few shows from the schedule. Or could something a little more radical be on the cards? Everyone I speak to —ticket holders and traders alike—say they expect a ‘sharp’ reduction in the number of game fairs and similar events over the next few years.   

Nathan Little says: “Shooting and country sports are very social activities and big shows like the Game Fair will always be firm fixtures in the diary. The question is how many smaller events will there be and what will they look like?” 

Big events like the Game Fair provide an excellent annual and increasingly international showcase for skills, services and products. The attendance at the show is way in excess of most events and attracts competitions with substantial prizes.

Smaller, local shows can also play an important role looking after local clientele and tying a business to its community, but many others complained about the retention of deposits during hard times. Many approved of the Game Fair’s efforts in keeping traders updated.  

In a future with fewer shows, and possibly fewer traders, words such as ‘fairness’, ‘transparency’ and ‘clear communication’—and many other factors that hitherto have been taken a bit for granted—will become increasingly important.

So as the visitors flow through the gate into this year’s Game Fair, there is perhaps more on their minds than heading to the Shooting Line or a coffee to reverse the effects of that early start. Which other shows will they decide to attend?

And for the stand holders looking forward to good sales over three days, which other shows will be able to attract such a crowd? Would their money be better spent investing in their online business? So many questions, so carefully considered over lockdown.

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