You don’t necessarily set off from The NEC on a Sunday afternoon expecting to be seduced by a trade show, but rather to my surprise this is exactly what happened to me at Spring Fair last week.
After 15 years of attendance I must confess that before heading out I was not fully enthusiastic about what can seem like a mountain to climb at the start of each February. Grimly filling my suitcase with comfortable shoes, hand sanitiser and painkillers (but forgetting the 100 pairs of tights I usually take), I couldn’t help thinking I’d seen it all before, but I was in for a big surprise! As it turned out, all the little things I wanted and even one big thing were destined to manifest as I worked my way around the show this year.
First of all my journey there was surprisingly good. Praise the Lord it didn’t snow and somehow London Northwestern railway did one good thing by scheduling a direct train from my home town in Hertforshire right to the Birmingham International, which got me there in double quick time.
Within minutes of arriving – striding through Hall 3 en route the press room, suitcase in tow – I bumped into my good friend and Giftware Review columnist, Brian Wiseman, with whom I set the world to rights and bolstered a tradition of always bumping into him at trade shows. The value of Spring Fair as a networking event was further underscored throughout the course of my visit, as one by one I caught up with old friends and colleagues whilst making valuable new connections along the way.
A focal point for networking was once again provided by The Giftware Association, which hosted the Gift of the Year awards at close of play on the Sunday and gave me a chance to celebrate with this year’s fantastic winners, including my personal favourite, Tikiri Toys, a lovely sustainable brand which is new to the UK market and already making a very positive impact.
Things looked a bit wobbly later than night when I failed to sleep for more than about an hour in my nearby hotel (as always happens to me in hotels), and after missing breakfast I wondered anxiously how I’d get through a full day at the show. Arriving at the Atrium side of The NEC and making my way to the Kitchen & Dining area in Hall 8, I was attracted by a sizeable crowd which had amassed beside the KitchenCraft stand. Roving reporter instincts duly awakened I went over to see what the fuss was about and was greeted by the awesome sight of super-chef Michel Roux demonstrating his considerable skills. Well this was fun! I naturally stayed to watch him cook the full meal and was duly rewarded with hot cakes for breakfast, baked before my eyes by the maestro himself. Suddenly things seemed a whole lot better and I realised this was going to be a good day.
As publicised before the event, Spring Fair had been rearranged and revamped for 2020 and I personally liked the new layout very much, especially in Hall 5 which had looked the same for quite a few years. There was also a great atmosphere, with plenty of visitors and good feedback from most of the stands I visited. The uncertainty of the past few years having been dispelled, I was very much under the impression that British traders are more than ready for business and are forging into the new decade on full steam.
One of my personal goals for the show was to find as many great sustainable new product solutions as possible, which I know is a goal I share with many retailers. As such, I was happy to sign up for the Sustainability Trail, where I was introduced to some wonderful companies offering truly innovative solutions and genuinely sustainable, eco-friendly products.
First up on the list was another Gift of the Year winner, 1 Tree Cards, which won the Festive & Occasional category with its Tree Wishes Festive Box of Tree Planting Cards. The publisher will plant one tree for each card sold and each card also has a seed token inside which can be planted to grow beautiful bee-friendly flowers. They say: “Eco is now mainstream and we are filling this gap in the greeting card market”. Their greetings cards are on 100% recycled board, printed with vegan inks and available either naked or in compostable/biodegradable sleeves.
Next up on the trail was Non-Plastic Beach, which does exactly what it says with a brilliant range of wellbeing, beauty and kitchen products. It supplies retailers all over the world, from Neal’s Yard Remedies to Icelandic eco shop Tropic.is and The National Marine Aquarium to Algarve Surf School in Portugal. As Spring Fair opened they secured a major order with Urban Outfitters to supply silk dental floss, bamboo cotton buds and bamboo toothbrushes. My personal favourite was the fantastic shampoo bar with matching conditioner, which was better than pretty much any shampoo I’ve ever used. Highly recommended, especially for those with sensitive skin that hates chemicals.
The next stand on the trail belonged to contemporary gift manufacturer, Ginger Fox, which had devised plastic free packaging and games to meet the enormous consumer appetite for all things eco.
This was followed by ashortwalk, a Cornwall based product design team specialising in unique design led products for the home, garden or business made from recycled materials. Started in 2003 by Dan Dicker, a former Dyson designer, ashortwalk has grown from a small business based in a garden shed, into a wholesale company supplying to hundreds of UK gift shops, visitor attractions, garden centres, department stores and multiple store chains. Their focus is on creating a circular economy, exemplified by the rcup made from discarded and recycled coffee cups, which has a fantastic lid that is guaranteed not to leak.
We were then introduced to a fantastic company making beautiful home textiles from recycled plastic bottles. Weaver Green is really showing the way forward with this fantastic sustainable collection, which demonstrates that you don’t have to compromise on style when you’re being mindful of Mother Earth.
Hokan Bowls was next on the trail, with its kitchenware products that are designed to save food, time and money by making functional multipurpose items that will fit elegantly into any home. “Conscientious cooking, efficient and compassionate living” is their mission statement. The innovative bowls have received huge acclaim from food celebrities Nigella Lawson and Mary McCartney, chefs Jeremy Lee and Arthur Potts Dawson and customers alike. With the aim of reducing leftover food waste, and providing a multi-tasking kitchenware utensil, they provide a life-long addition to any kitchen adding design and function to saving, storing, cooking and serving food, with each piece of the range interlocking with another for sturdy stacking.
Last but not least we visited Keel Toys, which launched a new 100% recycled range of plush. These eco-friendly toys are manufactured and stuffed with 100% recycled polyester from plastic waste, weighted with recycled glass beads. Traditional glass eyes have been replaced with cotton embroidered eyes which give a unique, and playful character to these Eco soft toys. The iconic Keel symbol and hang tag are now formed from FSC card and attached to the toy with cotton. Even the sew in label is recycled, and all are manufactured in an ICTI ethically audited factory.
Elsewhere at the show we were impressed by some of the great British brands launching their products at the show. Heyland & Whittle stood out with their fantastic range of handmade, packaging free soaps. Equally sustainable home fragrances are on the cards later in spring.
Michel Roux having already whetted my appetite, I could not resist a wander round the specialty food section where I was forced to sample a large quantity of fudge, chocolate, tea, popcorn and other delicacies. My favourite in this sector was the lovely Cornish confectioner, Langleys another producer with impeccable eco-friendly credentials and totally biodegradable packaging. Their chocolate is to die for.
Having fruitlessly hunted for a Ty plush keyring over Christmas, the huge fluffy size of these being perfect for my Tardis-like handbag where everything disappeared, I considered myself extremely lucky when a very nice man with a cart of these very items gave me a rainbow-owl version. I’ll never lose my key again!
And now we come to the big one. As someone who often suffers from a bad back, especially when I’m standing and plodding around trade shows, I sadly spent quite some time in bed fantasising about finding a massage chair when I next went through Heathrow airport (as happened soon after Spring Fair finished). Imagine my surprise, then, when I headed to the back of Hall 3 of The NEC and saw a series of deluxe massage chairs lined up waiting to greet me. Now, the fantastic manufacturer, Sasaki, might have had a ‘you try, you buy’ policy, but there was literally no chance I was about to pass up this opportunity to solve my aches and pains there and then.
After promising to write about them, I was guided into the Series 8 model and therein began the best experience I’ve ever had at a trade show, bar none. Hand’s down! Let me tell you, dear readers, that pricey those these chairs might seem (several thousand pounds for the Series 10), anyone who manages to test one is almost certain to start devising a payment plan! A supplier to the NHS, various football teams and swanky spas up and down the UK, these chairs are the Rolls Royce of massagers and sooner or later there’ll be one in my spare bedroom, even if I have to ditch the bed to get it in there.
Needless to say I could wax lyrical for quite some time about this, which was indeed what I did when I kept my next appointment after this wondrous interlude. The lovely greetings card publisher, Rosanna Rossi, benefitted from my full new-convert speech and, sensibly, is now also figuring out the best way to fit one of these small-vehicle sized chairs into their studio. So against all the odds I managed to leave Spring Fair with a better back than the one I started with and so far I don’t seem to have caught the Coronavirus. There’s still time of course, but finger’s crossed, all’s well that end’s well. #SaksiaForever #PowerofOne
Images from top to bottom: My Gifts Trade Marcella Wylie collection, Giftware Review and personalised chocolate, what more do you need!, Tikiri Toys, Michel Roux for KitchenCraft, Dunoon, 1 Tree Cards, Non Plastic Beach, ashortwalk’s RCup, Hokan Bowls, Keel Toys, Heyland & Whittle, Langleys, Ty, Sasaki.