The GTN Interview: John Allison of the British Shooting Show

Ollie Harvey meets John Allison as he lays the foundations for future success with the British Shooting Show.

Many of us are familiar with the fable of the foolish man who built his house on the sand. The biblical tale highlights the importance of solid foundations and belief. These are the characteristics that have helped the British Shooting Show grow into the shooting industry staple that we all know today. 

First established over 10 years ago by John Bertrand, the show served the British market from its original home in Newark. Meanwhile John Allison was busy establishing the FRL Media project, running interviews and videos from the gun trade, alongside his manufacturing business in Dorset.

“John [Bertrand] had beaten me to the idea of the British Shooting Show,” explains John. “I was planning to run my own show from the farm. He approached me about doing some video work for them so we covered the first couple of years and after that he asked me what I thought of the event.

“So I told him that his shop window was wrong and suggested that the industry was better than he was making it out to be. He asked my opinion of moving the show to Stoneleigh, and it was a step-up from Newark so it was a good move for the show.”

When John Bertrand was taken in ill health he sold the business to FRL Media, where John and his team set about moving the show to its current home at the NEC. With a background in manufacturing, John had spent a lot of time at exhibition centres and trade shows in China, and argues: “It was only because I had been around the big conference centres that I was in my comfort zone.”

“We don’t take things on that faze us and we don’t take things on that we cannot do in-house. The NEC chiefs all have their own idea about how things should be done, so I had to make it clear that once we had signed the contract all I needed was for them to supply me with a key – I didn’t want their input because they don’t understand the industry.”

The show returned to the NEC for the second time earlier this year, and John says that the show has grown once again. “Everybody’s figures were up and without the British Shooting Show, the British shooting industry would be on its backside. It is the lifesaver. It is the one that they go to, to prop themselves up and allow them to do other events.

“We set it out differently as well. If you go into Europe, it is set-up of trade shows – those who have been to IWA understand exactly what I’m on about. But the British market is different to Europe. As they say, ‘we are a nation of shopkeepers’, and that’s the gospel truth! We are lots and lots of small businesses, all going about our business without looking at the bigger picture. Go into Europe and it is a very different mindset.

“With the demise of a standalone trade show int he UK and the fact that we had a shooting show that was jogging along quite nicely, I then changed all the marketing to call it a Great British trade and retail show. It is now the UK’s largest trade and retail shooting show – fact!”

John suggests that part of the appeal is creating an urgency to educate the public and potential newcomers to the sport. The organising team spans every demographic, with youngsters and the established old guard represented.

“We have a very good blend of what we can remember from the old days and the new ones who have been brought up on modern technology,” says John. “So let’s try and bring new people into the sport. There’s no point targeting me, I’m already in the trade.

“Once the manufacturers understand my thinking, we can then go back to the retailers and say, all right, the manufacturers are educating people about their products and it’s now up to you to stock it. You need to work as a team and sing off the same hymn sheet.

“Some thought it was mad and that it would never work. During the first British Shooting Show, I had one gun manufacturer come up to me and say, ‘I’m going home.’ I asked how he could be leaving at 1pm on the first day, but he told me he had written a complete order book for the year.

“That particular manufacturer was a sceptic, but he’s had the same success every year since. And many of the manufacturers are doing the same thing – they are all now reaping the benefits of what we’ve put together. And I’m not looking for any praise, it’s just business sense. 

If you look at the growth of it, it comes down to a good foundation. We have built an extremely sound foundation. If that’s in place then you can put anything on top of it and it will stand up there. Our model now has legs, and it’s rock solid.”

Having established the show in Birmingham, the British Shooting Show team announced the ambitious project to launch a second show – to be held in Liverpool in 2020.

“The Liverpool event came around via the trade – it’s got nothing to do with me,” John is quick to emphasise. “I’ve got enough on my plate at the moment. The trade came to us and said they would like another British Shooting Show up north. I got pestered for about three years and I said I wasn’t going to do it.

“But last year I had four big manufacturers come to me and say they loved the way I did the British Shooting Show and that they would like me to expand it. Liverpool. Unbeknown to these guys, Liverpool had repped me hard when I was choosing the NEC.

“So now we need to check that dates don’t clash with any event like Goodwood Revival. But that said, two thirds of the exhibitors have already committed to go and I haven’t even given them a remit of what’s going on yet. You can see how they like this and that it works for them, by the level of investment.”

With a Dutch contingency also in contact regarding a show in the Netherlands, and the long-established War and Peace Revival running each year, John’s team have plenty to occupy them. John estimates that his portfolio contributes £40m to the shooting industry each year.

“You’ve got SHOT Show, British Shooting Show, IWA, and to be held in that league is bloody phenomenal considering we have only done five years,” remarks John. “And out of those five only two at the NEC – to be recognised within that sector in such a short space of time means that you and I are doing something well.

“So what’s our next job? It’s to get more people to go to the show. We haven’t scratched the surface yet. It’s an interesting animal but this is driven by the shooters and not the accountants. That’s the reason we have success. All in all it’s very positive and all we need from you is your support.

“If the British Shooting Show fails, you and I need to go and get another job, because you’ll be unemployed within six months. If this show fails, the gun industry will be in a massive decline in the UK. As long as I’m at the helm that will never happen – I’m too involved and understand what needs to be done to make it move forward.” 

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