Ian Harford is a man with many feathers in his cap. He is the MD of Realtree’s international operations, online TV presenter, content writer for brands such as Deerhunter, and honorary treasurer of the Gun Trade Association. Oh, and then there’s his role as CEO of Countryman Fairs, with responsibility for the Midland Game Fair and four other events.
So he’s busy enough – but he’s keen to emphasise that he is putting all the time required into improving all of Countryman Fairs’ events and ensuring they reflect what businesses are looking for in a much-changed world.
“I think we can all agree that the broader retail environment has changed dramatically over the past 10 years. During this period we’ve also seen the advent of the British and Northern Shooting Shows along with the fall and subsequent rebirth of the Game Fair. Furthermore, what exhibitors want, and what visitors expect from a show, are also constantly evolving. This has lead to a substantial change in the profile of our retailers in recent years,” he observes.
A Thing Of The Past
“It’s a common belief among visitors that specialist retailers are no longer able to attend our shows due to inflated pitch fees – and those that do cannot afford to offer cheap deals. The reality is that over this period our fees have risen by less than the rate of inflation, but the consumers themselves are increasingly buying products online – even if they have tried them on at a show, often to the frustration of the retailer demonstrating the product, who can see what’s about to happen.
“Furthermore, offering substantial bargains and discounts no longer makes commercial sense to retailers who dispose of the obsolete and end-of-line products they’d usually discount at a game fair through their online retail outlets.”
One of the biggest challenges Ian faces is how to manage perceptions of his fairs – an obstacle he plans to overcome by communicating a more inclusive message.
“The next generation of countryside enthusiasts is now coming through our gates and we must deliver the quality and scope of product they are looking for, along with the convenience they now expect as a modern consumer. When I took over the Midland back in 2002, many of these visitors were children, and now they’re coming to the show with their own families. This millennial generation are not possession-driven, and value exciting experiential activities over the opportunity to buy goods.
“They are of course still attractive, affluent retail consumers,” adds Ian, “but they won’t pay to come to an event simply to shop. We must become so much more, increasing our retailers’ pre-event visibility to consumers and encouraging visitors to buy products from our retailers online after the show.
“Rather than slavishly following a somewhat parochial event profile that focuses on a narrow, perhaps even outmoded idea of what we believe a game fair should be – limited to core activities such as shooting, fishing, gundogs et cetera – we must ask this new generation of customers what they and their families want from a modern, dynamic countryside event that more closely represents their desires, culture and aspirations.
“Equally, how do we continue to improve and evolve this model with the ultimate aim of converting their children into passionate game fair visitors of the future? That’s the bigger question. How, then, do we incrementally make those changes to create a sustainable profit model that allows us and our retailers to be here in 20 or 30 years’ time?”
All this takes place against a backdrop of many of the biggest show and fair exhibitors moving indoors – something Ian is all too aware of. “Indoor shooting shows are in vogue at the minute,” he says. “As a specialist shooting event, The British Shooting Show has taken huge strides forward. John and his team have done a magnificent job of transitioning the venue to the NEC, which has cemented the show’s position as the annual showpiece event for the UK gun trade.
“Its continued success, coupled with the impact it has had on the attendance of shooting exhibitors at our events over the past 10 years, had made me question if there was still a place for a traditional game and country fair anymore. I truly believe there is, but they now fill a very different space.
“The British Shooting Show is a fabulous event that has many exciting features, with of the major shooting brands in attendance. However, it lacks the ambience and community atmosphere of a country fair. It’s not a meeting place that holds families all day, with limited social and experiential facilities.
“Though I love the event, there’s a danger that if we as the shooting industry talk only to British Shooting Show visitors – i.e. the converted – sooner or later the flow of new participants into the market will begin to dry up. As an industry we must work together to open up these new audiences, create new field sportsmen and women, driving them to showpiece events such as the British Shooting Show and Game Fair, where they can enjoy the very best we have to offer.
“We must find new, innovative and low-cost ways for our manufacturers and distributors to attend our smaller regional shows to showcase their products to our regional audiences who wouldn’t otherwise be exposed. If they don’t, and access to shooting sports continues to contract, my shows will just evolve in another direction and the gun trade will lose access to a vital and highly convertible potential growth audience.
“I truly believe that regional game and country fairs have an even more important role to play than ever in bringing together those with a passion for field sports and the countryside, while engaging an entirely new audience in our way of life. We need to ask, ‘What do the people that live and operate within our communities want from us and how to we attract those who may not yet be exposed to our way of life?’
That is a really interesting and exciting conversation to be having with people.
“Countryman Fairs has a great opportunity to create an entirely new style and feel for our portfolio of established events – which run from Kelmarsh in April, through Broadlands, Highclere, and Lowther, to the flagship Midland Game Fair in September. It’s a true, national portfolio of events with a substantial geographical spread.”
Change Of Focus?
“I’ve been paying close attention to the reincarnation of The Game Fair and the approach of a new team to the historic challenges of staging field sports’ ‘blue riband’ event. It’s quite flattering that they’ve targeted our core audience by offering free entry to BASC members and I’m interested to see how this ultimately plays out. A ‘free to enter’ model may well be the future, but all of that lost revenue needs to be made up somewhere and it’s fascinating to see how it evolves.
“I haven’t yet seen the traditional pink trouser and mustard cord-wearing brigade there in their previous numbers, which means there’s a substantial affluent potential customer segment in our sector not currently being fully serviced.
“This offers a superb opportunity for our regional events to offer a more premium level of service and accommodation to our visitors than we’d previously considered. We will also look to deliver even more family entertainment and a portfolio of ‘hands-on’ experiential activities focused on adding even greater customer value. We have found that it’s imperative for our events to enjoy a strong local identity, and realistically our visitor growth will increasingly come from a broader demographic, within the local catchment area of each venue.”
Appealing to the dyed-in-the-wool shooter and the average non-shooting local family looking for a day out have often been seen as mutually exclusive goals. It’s striking that Ian does not see things the same way.
“Field sports activities such as clay shooting, gundog events, terriers and lurchers, wildfowling, pigeon plucking and ferrets have long been the lifeblood of the Midland Game Fair, and their passionate followers are of the utmost importance to us. They understand that we all share the responsibility of creating ever more attractive and inclusive routes into these activities so we can capture the imagination of the next generation. We must revisit our presentation to appeal to all participants, whether they be ‘hardcore’ field sports participants or a casual observer.”
Long-Term Plan Ian’s plans for success are grounded in the long-term impacts on the shooting industry, but his hopes for 2019 include strengthening the relationships that have previously been held between shooting events. Indeed, he wants to strike a conciliatory tone with them all.
“I’d like all of the manufacturers and retailers to really focus on what is important to them and work with us as venue and event organisers to deliver the very best events for all of our customers,” he says.
“I’d like us all to be strong, and at the end of the year to share stories of a really strong year of commercial success that we can all build growth on moving forward. I want us all to have a record year, and then to go out for a day of shooting, together, as friends.
“I don’t think I’ve ever been so excited about this sector as I am now, because there is so much opportunity. The little guys like me just have to be the very best we can. It’s a very exciting time and I’m looking forward to the challenges that we face.”