GLEE 2006 - Page 1 of 4
Over recent years, the Pavingexpert.com review of the annual GLEE trade show held at Birmingham's NEC has become the single most popular news/feature page on the entire site – last year's review was endured by over 80,000 unique visitors in the first 10 days, which I feel rather more reflects the importance of the event to the wider trade than any great literary effort on my part.
This unaccustomed popularity may also explain just why so many exhibitors are unstintingly generous with their time and resources when they see a sweaty, overweight, untidy, disorganised, badly-dressed cripple ambling towards them: after all, most of the exhibitors know they can't sell anything to me, or through me, and so I do appreciate the significant sacrifice they make in having the craic with me rather than doing business with genuine customers.
What struck me this year was the number of regular exhibitors that were actively looking out for me, determined not to be missed out. Indeed, some of them had started the charm offensive days or even weeks ahead of the event, with personal invites in the post, chatty emails giving their precise location and hopes for the event, and even a few 'phone calls to ask about my dining arrangements while at the event.
There was only one question at this year's show. Every exhibitor, every visitor, even the blue-blazered stewards prowling the halls and attempting not to look like superfluous Jobsworths were all asking the same thing: have you seen the Marshalls ' stand?
I think it's safe to say that Glee has never seen owt like this before. I had the honour of being the first visitor to the stand. 9:01 am, Sunday morning, bleary-eyed and totally unprepared for what was to come. Three immaculately-attired young Marshallettes were on hand to ply me with tea and it was a somewhat apprehensive Tina Crossley, Marshalls' Consumer Marketing Manager with prime responsibility for this year's campaign, that guided a gob-smacked ex-flagger around what, at first sight, appeared to be a stage set from a Tim Burton meets Wallace & Grommit production.
The thinking behind this exposition was to make visitors aware of the work that goes on behind the scenes; the product development, the customer research, the materials science, and many of the less glamorous aspects of running Britain's biggest paving manufacturer. So: a series of "pods" (which bore an uncanny resemblance to the hairdryers my ma spent hours beneath at Brenda's Hair Fashions during the 1960s) were used to illustrate various themes. Each pod featured a touch-screen monitor that used "interactive media" to expand the pod theme and explain the Marshalls' thinking.
We started with the M-Joint pod. M-Joint is Marshall's new wonder jointing jollop. Targeted at the market that is currently dominated by GeoFix, M-Joint is a water-activated polymeric that is dry brushed in to the joints between patio flags, and then sprayed with the hose, whereupon it hardens within the joint. It avoids all that nasty staining that always seems to happen with cement-based mortars, and is helluva lot quicker, as demonstrated by the goofy tongue-in-cheek video which picked up the stand's cartoon-like styling and took it one step further.
M-joint is not quite there yet. It's only suitable for patios of natural stone, wet cast and/or pressed concrete paving products, or for the various forms of netted (mesh-back) paving. The grey colour option wasn't on show, and there's some uncertainty about the product's performance when wet. However, this is Marshalls, so you can be sure that, eventually, it will be right. Whether that eventuality will come about before the new season is another matter.
Moving on through the pods, we're presented with, in sequence, a new range of deco aggs, an improved colour and texture for the best-selling Driveline 50 CBP, an extension of the clever circle bonding-in kit that premiered last year, a much extended range of the superb Argent products and a new version of Tegula-ish walling products. The aggs are aggs – nuff said - and the Driveline is Driveline. The bonding-in kit is the best idea to come out of Southowram in a couple or three years. Argent and Tegula are now well-established brands, and so there's no harm in expanding the range.
The centre of the stand was dominated by a too-clever-for-its-own-good robotic arm that was playing a form of roulette with a circle of charcoal driveline blocks. Again, the interactive element was to the fore, and visitors were invited to press a touch-screen button to 'stop' the robot in its rotation, causing it to pick-up a block from the circle, and then present the underside of the block to the button presser. If you were lucky enough to select a block labelled "winner", a cloud of steam-like carbon dioxide was ejected into the glass casing and you walked away with a top-of-the-range Marshalls' mug.
There seemed to be a few teething problems at that god-forsaken hour on a Sunday morning, as four visitors in succession were declared winners, and I wondered whether the vigilant Natalie Taylor had brought enough mugs, but the programming seemed to have been resolved by lunchtime, and the screams of panic/delight from those lucky enough to pick a winner and 'let off steam' was reduced to a much more manageable level.
Overall, this was a very brave effort. Personally, I think this was the wrong show for this 'contraption'. Put this into the 100% Detail exhibition staged later that week and targeted at architects and designers, or even at Interbuild with its project managers and gadget-obsessed tradesmen, and you would have to queue to get anywhere near it, but Glee is a touchy-feely show aimed at the garden centre and retail trades, and those buyers need to see product, to touch product, to feel it, smell it and even taste it. There was almost no product on show here, but the sheer wackiness of the concept as a whole was sufficient to ensure the Marshalls' stand was the main topic of conservation over all three open days. Mission accomplished, as far as Tina and her crew are concerned!
It wasn't said, but I suspected that the lack of product on the stand was partly a political gesture to Marshalls' specialist retail/garden centre brand, Stonemarket . It's been a year of transition for Stonemarket. Just 12 months ago, at this same exhibition, the man that had made the Stonemarket brand his own announced his decision to plough a different furrow, but even the delights and challenges of the house-building industry couldn't keep him away from this show, although he claimed he had to pay for a ticket this year! I suspect we'll see him again, before too long.
But it's not just personnel that's changed, the Paver Systems block paving products, snapped-up roughly 12 months or so ago, have been fully integrated into the brand, and it has to be said that the brand is significantly stronger for it.
Over recent years, we've come to expect a plethora of new paving from Stonemarket at Glee, and to be brutally honest, I think we've been spoiled. This year, there didn't seem to be quite as much that was strikingly new, but when you allow for all the CBP products from Paver Systems, there was probably more new-to-Stonemarket products on show than ever before. The block paving has been lauded in Scotland for many a year, but remained unknown in Lower Britain. I can confidently re-assure those contractors not familiar with the range that you are in for a pleasant surprise and you'll definitely not be disappointed. The blocks (and kerbs) are crisp and sharp, with strong vibrant colours and a superbly close texture. Better still, they also manufacture the special fittings that can make such a difference on the well-planned jobs – bishop's hats, half-blocks, corner units – look out for them at a stockist near you, because you can be sure your competitors will be!
Stonemarket made their name with wet-cast, but there was little new in that department this year. The Concept paving that was such a wow last year has been a runaway success, so I had expected to see new members of the family, but with the exception of the "Ammonite" flavour that has been knocking around for a while, there didn't seem to be anything that wasn't seen on last year's stand. I could make a good argument for the cobble-effect "Star Mosaiuc" feature being a cousin, or possibly a brother-in-law, to the products that stole the show last year. The only other wet-cast of any significance was the intriguing "Mulberry", a Penrhyn purple slate-like rectangular set of flagstones that comes in four esoteric sizes. Stonemarket leader Geoff Moulton told me this product had been exceptionally popular during the show, but for me, they are one of those products that will attract the DIYer and may possibly be used as a contrast detail for other paving, but I can't see it being a big favourite for the contractors.
The Rio Cascade paving was another 'newbie' at Glee 2005, and although there's no new paving, the range has been expanded by providing a custom light unit that will add a much-needed degree of versatility to a product that is in danger of being a one-trick pony. I'd like to see a polished version of this product. I've never been a big fan of the shot-textured flags: they're too accommodating to algae and too damned awkward to clean; but I reckon a smooth-ground version could make it attractive to a much wider audience.
The 'show stealers' on this year's stand were, without doubt, the butterfly and dragonfly motif circles, cut from imported stone. They're a clever variation on a standard circle, and they are undeniably attractive, but they also contain a lot of small, fragile pieces that will not endear them to contractors, and I suspect that pricing will determine just how popular they prove to be. Assuming they do 'take off' (excuse the pun), there's no limit as to what we might see next year – Birds? Bees? Flowers? Pets? This is one of those ideas that could suffocate in its own cheesiness if not handled properly.
The other notable stone paving was the ""Horizon" sawn-six-sides rectangular elements shown in a crispy white-grey marble-like sandstone along with a soft buff yorkstone-like stone. I'm not sure what the plan is for these items. As they stand, the single size, single colour offering is too simplistic. They are lovely stone, but they need partnering with a contrast to force them to reveal their character.
I did feel slightly underwhelmed by Stonemarket's stand this year. For a few days, I did wonder whether it was because they had such a strong showing last year but having had time to reflect, I keep coming back to the fact that the stand, with the exception of the tea-making and brochure-storing gazebo, was "flat"; no height, no elevation, nothing to break up the expanse of paving, nothing to accentuate the distinct products. Sometimes, good products are not enough on their own, they need a bit of showmanship.
And no stand exemplified this better than that of Bradstone . Once again, they called upon the undisputed talents of Leighton Powell of the Ability Garden Company in Northwich. Leighton, who used to create and construct the stands for the much-missed Westminster Stone Company, was primarily responsible for last year's stunning display over which I waxed lyrical for months after the event.
This year, he's had more time to develop his ideas and has moved away from the idea of re-creating the corporate brochure. Instead, it's a more open stand, featuring an inviting central seating area with subsidiary seating and perching opportunities at three of the four corners. Last year, walls and false buildings created a sense of defined space and height, but this year it is far more open and inviting, with pathways that draw you in and entice you into the lair of the sales rep. In place of walls, natural screens of airy bamboo and cordylines break up the sight-lines without breaking the sense of unity that pervades the whole display.
Bradstone have an eclectic selection of new concrete (oops! I mean reconstituted stone) products for 2007 but nothing new in the un-reconstituted (ie: real) stone range. This may have something to do with the final stages of re-alignment that has been taking place amongst the various Aggregate Industry brands, or it could be a consequence of the supply problems the group has endured over recent months: whatever, the outcome is that there are no new stone products for 2007.
For me, the stand-out new product is the Old Town Chelsea Cobble. This is a good interpretation of the traditional cobble paving that has not been seen in Chelsea for many a year (if it was ever used there at all!). However, instead of being a slavishly faithful reproduction, the cobbles have a flat top surface, making them much easier (and safer) to walk upon. The 'cobbles' are grouped together into 450x450mm units, with interlocking edges that help disguise the modularity of the product. Side and corner units are also available to help create rectangular or orthogonal areas without needing to cut the main units. Two colours were on show: the phenomenally popular Grey-Green and a more appealing "Weathered Limestone", which is quite reminiscent of the increasingly scarce limestone setts that can be found in a few of the villages around Bradstone's HQ in deepest, darkest Derbyshire.
The Old Town Chelsea Cobbles had been used to form one of the main paths leading into the Bradstone stand, and they fully deserved such a prominent position. The contrast between the Grey-Green and the Limestone Grey was most effective, even under the awful sodium lights that still blight this venue. While there is no doubt this is an attractive, appealing product, there is some contention regarding its design: that wavy interlocking edge is, according to some, simply a scaled-up version of the Stonemarket Concept product mentioned previously. It would be a shame if a product with such potential was to be hamstrung by legal argy-bargying, but there is a sense of an irresistible force coming up against the immovable object about all this.
Moving on to less contentious new offerings, there's a range of riven effect paving in three new colours – Old Ivory, Golden Sand and Antique Chestnut – and six sizes that has been dubbed, at least for the meantime, Milldale. I quite liked the Old Ivory, which had been used to create the central "chat area" within the stand, but I'm less sure about the other colours. There's also a possibility that the much-admired and well-established Wetherdale name may be nearing the end of its days and it could be the upstart Milldale that takes its place. It seems that Milldale will be touted as a "competitively priced" range, whereas Wetherdale has always been regarded as a mid-price product. Although the commercial arguments for the re-branding might make sense to some, I can't see why a name as strong as Wetherdale needs to be replaced. If it's not broke, don't fix it!
Meanwhile, the mid-to-high price riven-effect range of Old Town flagstones will be expanded by the introduction of a bull-nosed unit that is ideal for steps, copings and pool surrounds, and a "Drainage Gulley" that is actually a dished channel unit in 450mm lengths with corner (90°) units. Both new features will be available in Grey-Green and Weathered Limestone.
A brief mention for two other flag products: firstly, a new "Blue-Black" colour in the textured paving range which also benefits from having the buff option available in two new sizes (600x300 and 300x300) as well as a circle feature. Secondly, there's to be a "Gemini Circle Kit" which essentially consists of a bluey-black sett-effect centre-stone to replace the usual riven-effect flagstone, and a double band course of bluey-black sett-effect radial units that can be fitted to the external circumference of a circle kit. Try as I might (and I admit that I really didn't try too hard) I couldn't work up any enthusiasm for these products.
The new block paving offering, though, is actually quite attractive. I saw it laid in large areas at EJ Stone's Paving World centre a couple of weeks ago, and it is distinctively different. It hints at being a tumbled product, but it's actually moulded with a deckle-edged upper face. Four colours (Autumn, Weathered Limestone, Grey-Green and Antique Chestnut) with all three sizes (200/134/100x134mm) coming in a mixed-size pack. This is a 'logical' product for the Bradstone family: it's different to anything available from any of the other AggInd brands, and it draws from the Bradstone colour palette, giving it a unique look and feel that should see it do well in the garden centre/retail sales sector.
Last year, as good as it was, there was a sense that it was easier to step off the Bradstone stand and walk around the perimeter to access another part, than to try and walk across it, especially when it was busy (which is most of the time), but this year, the display is much more open and accessible. The range of new products might not be as extensive as 2005, but there are at least of couple of sure-fire winners in the Chelsea Cobbles and the Old Town bull-nosed units. The near total absence of stone paving did not go unnoticed, and while AggInd can argue that StoneFlair is its dedicated brand for the imported flags, setts and features, Bradstone is diminished by their omission.