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Glee 2007 - A Review - Page 2 of 4
Here's a perfect example of how the success of Bradstone's stands over recent years has pushed other exhibitors to new heights. The Global Stone display this year was, by quite some way, the best they've ever put together. Looking first at the stand itself, it was a coherent and visually stimulating design. The “sales shed” was discreetly tucked into one corner, while the central water feature provided both a focal point and a baffle that prevents the whole display being seen in one glance. It was open, but not exposed, inviting but not pushy, and the decision to do away with the 'stone-on-a-board' panels of recent years gave it a far more professional look.
As for the stone, it's fair to say that Global Stone never fail to please. Their range evolves and they have an uncanny knack of being 6-12 months ahead of the rest with niche premium products. There was nothing “run-of-the-mill” on this stand. Every item was added-value, distinctive, and when you tot up the 'likes' and 'don't likes', Global Stone have a success rate higher than almost anyone else at the show.
However, for me the one “stand out” product was not actually stone, but in a radical departure for the company, it's a concrete product. A couple of years ago I got all excited when Forticrete announced they were going to bring Marlux flags from the continent and make them available on the British market. Superb quality, with stylish designs, but something went awry with the marketing and despite a lot of interest from designers, specifiers and contractors, the products were withdrawn after only 12 months, and Forticrete went back to the retaining wall systems. To say I was disappointed is something of an understatement. So, imagine my joy when I see the very same flagstones on display on the Global Stone stand.
At first, the situation refused to register in my befuddled brain. I saw them; I recognised them; but what were they doing on the display of a company devoted to stone paving? I looked again: definitely Marlux. Rather than take up hectares of space here extolling their manifold delights, have a read of what I wrote back in January 2006. The distribution might have changed, but the products are as good as ever and deserve to find a market on this side of the channel.
Looking at the sort of thing for which Global Stone are best known, the "Ocean" antiqued slate setts (they mistakenly refer to them as cobbles - naughty!!) was the most mouthwatering with its subtle hues of green in a soft, distressed format that will look stunning with pale coloured walling or brickwork. Granite is still incredibly (and rightly) popular, so Global have put together a very stylish patio feature they've named the "Arctic Flower" and with the inset lighting, it's an ideal paving for smaller courtyards or summer evening patio areas. There was still some travertine (I suppose someone had to have it at the show) but with a bit of luck, this will be its last year of trying to con the patio-buying public of its value in a damp climate. The Carbon Slate is the logical answer to all the problems with the Kotah black limestone. If you like those funeral tones, go for a type of stone that won't fade to grey over the winter!
There's a lot of literature handed out at these shows. Some of it can only be described as lavish and fulsome, while some is full of its own importance, and the sound-to-noise ratio can be disturbingly high, especially when there's a bit of trumpet-blowing involved. Global Stone had a simple A3 sheet, folded into four, with a simple sketch plan of their display, with every product labelled and picture. It's not a new idea, but it's a bloody good one, and for those exhibitors with lots of product covering the ground, I've yet to see a better aide-memoire. When I'm at home and trying to recall whether the setts I liked were the Old Rectory or Polar, a quick scan of the handout makes it perfectly clear.
No doubt spurred on by their big brother, Bradstone, StoneFlair had similarly upped the standard of their display, and had reached the sort of standard we might have seen from their sibling 4 or 5 years ago. An attractive, well laid out stand, with a slightly raised dais on which sat an extremely welcome patio set and the sales shed, from where weary feet could be rested whilst surveying the view from an elevated position.
While the overall layout and design was better than ever, the build quality left something to be desired. I know I'm a picky sod, but the sight of surplus mortar oozing out from beneath a flagstone, no nosing on the steps and handprints in the GeoFix make me cringe. While I can appreciate that laying a temporary display over a timber base, indoors, in a limited time-frame, is less than ideal, it's a firm belief that good products deserve good installation. Many of the other exhibitors managed a reasonable standard of construction, so there's no excuse for some of the sloppy workmanship on show here.
StoneFlair aims itself at the independent Builders' Merchants, and by incorporating products from recent-ish acquisitions such as Durapave and EJ Stone, they are able to offer and exceptionally eclectic range, from innovative CBPs to very attractive honed sandstone circle features, which were just two of the more attractive items on show. The spinning circle is visually captivating, and was attracting quite a bit of attention, but there was plenty more to see if you took the time.
Here was another example of the Carbon Black slate being used as a viable alternative to Kotah Black limestone, this time in a 2.46m diameter circle format. There was brushed limestone, which is becoming the most over-shown stone at the show, and tumbled sandstone walling. The foot-stone between the two gate pillars was a delicious dark granite with what looked like a hammered finish.
New concrete products, too, including circle and octagon kits for the mid-range Yorkvale flags, and an attractive circle having rings of different widths in the dark Bamburgh Slate product. There's also a very interesting new CBP from the Durapave laboratory. Combining an embossed surface texture with gloriously warm and vibrant colours has produced a paver that has more than a hint of a clay paver, but will be targetted at the mid-price market, between the standard 200x100 pavers at a tenner per metre and the 16-17 quid per metre tumbled products.
And yet another lip-smacking display, light-minutes ahead of previous years in both concept and implementation. Building on the 'enclosed' design of last year, Pavestone pushed the idea much, much further by having two metre high decorative walls surrounding much of their plot, with three entrances leading to a central courtyard featuring one of those ridiculous big balls of stone as a focal point, and a very relaxed and informal chat area.
After years of telling me that concrete flagstones were passé and their time was done, and that stone paving was the future, Kevin Fowler was worryingly excited, almost giddy, in his new-found enthusiasm for all things concrete. Concrete walling, concrete paving blocks, concrete flagstones…and then the penny drops. He's bought a concrete company! Yes, he's acquired Bek-Stone, manufacturers of a popular walling block in the Cotswolds area, from its previous owners, Ennstone, and it's something akin to Paul's conversion on the road to Damascus. All of a sudden, Mr. Importer is singing the praises of British products, manufactured in Britain using British aggregates. Bloody hell, Kevin! Calm down – you'll pop an artery if you carry on like this!
Actually, there's an undeniable marketing logic in all this. Pavestone's team have an enviable track record with various concrete manufacturers, and when the uncertainty dogging the import business is taken into account, it makes commercial sense to place some of your eggs in other baskets. The Chinese have slapped a tax on their exports, so it can only be a matter of time before the Indians do something similar. Shipping costs have doubled or tripled over the past 12 months, lead times have grown even longer, and there's a general acceptance that a reckoning is coming, that the price of imported stone will have to rise and there'll be a new balance between concrete and stone.
This new-found (or re-discovered) enthusiasm for concrete has not, thankfully, resulted in Pavestone dropping their expansive range of imported stone items, and there were quite a few new products worthy of closer inspection. I particularly liked a couple of geometric patio features inspired by celebrated garden designers, but try as I might, the conversation repeatedly swung around to the potential for concrete products.
To be fair about the concrete thing, Pavestone have always had concrete pavings in their range, particularly the imported tumbled pavers from their partners in Holland, and these were still on show, fastened to panels and banished to the outer walls. However, a couple of concrete pavers did make it into the main display area, and I'm glad they did. Firstly, the exposed aggregate paver is a product I've been talking up for years, but it's never really taken off in Britain. The great thing about this type of paver is that the colour comes from the high-quality aggregate used in the face mix, so it's natural, and cannot fade. Combine that with an exceptionally hard-wearing, algae-defying, gritty surface trexture and you'd think people would be falling overthemselves to get hold of it. So why don't they? I've never worked that one out, but I hope Pavestone have some success with it because it genuinely is a concept whose tuime is long overdue.
The "Burford Courtyard" paver is a product from the new acquisition and is a basic paver manufactured using the creamy Oxford limestone. I'm less certain about this. In particular, I suspect this might be a bit of a 'mare when it comes to the algae, and its light colour will make it unsuitable for driveways (tyre marking), but as ever, I shall watch with interest.
This is getting ridiculous – here's another display that is at least two leagues above last year's effort. Natural Paving have had a incredible impact on the market since launching their natural stone block paving (NSBP) at this very show just two years ago. Their core product is a very simple idea: instead of having block pavers cast from coloured concrete, the relatively low cost of imported stone now makes it feasible to have pavers cut from natural stone for only a small price premium. And from nothing they've generated an impressive level of demand, supplying other manufacturers/distributors, and bringing in a whole host of variations in terms of sizes and types of stone. There is now a quantifiable market for what is termed Natural Stone Block Paving (NSBP). However, a one-trick pony wouldn't last very long in this trade, and so they've a much wider range of products, a range that now stretches to flagstones, kerbs, walling and even patio furniture.
As already mentioned, the stand was bigger than ever and a noticeable improvement on last year's two-dimensional effort. This display incorporated height, in the form of steps leading to a raised central dais, and walling to several edges. This created a far more luxurious effect, and there was a clever balance between being open and inviting but simultaneously intriguing and provocative.
Sadly, the gremlins got to the couple of images I had of the Natural Paving stand. I;m not sure if it's a dodgy memory card or summat more serious, but a whole batch of photies taken on that first Sunday have gone all psychedelic and not even PhotoShop can save them. So we have a picture of the dinosaur instead! I can only apologise to Paul and Julie and Gino and the rest of the team. You were all very hsopitable to me over the course of the three days, and we had a great night out at the Glee dinner. You think I'd be able to organise a few photies in return, wouldn't you!
Two commodities that are never in short supply with Natural Paving are new products and enthusiasm, and, to be fair, there is much to be enthusiastic about. If you tried to contain Paul Shephard's enthusiasm and get him to talk about a single product, the one he picked out was the flamed granite blocks. Shown in two colours, he reckoned the reddish toned was attracting most attention, but for me, the darker grey offering was much more interesting.
In fact, there's too much of interest on show here. Everywhere you look, there's something to pique the taste buds, and if I were to list all the products that I'd love to be able to use, we'd be here until Bonfire Night. The polished limestone radial kerbs are delicious, and I don't know how they can sell them for the price quoted. The ring-radius granite flagstones are delectable, and even the cheesy 3m high dinosaur couldn't put me off the s-shaped Chinese granite walling.
A decade ago, almost every product on this stand would have been well beyond the budget of 98% of clients, but almost without exception, every item on show here is realistically priced and within the reach of anyone building a decent patio or driveway. Obviously, a large part of that affordability results from the ridiculously low prices charged by the exporters and quarry owners, but a fair wedge of the credit has to go to the team at Natural Paving for their knack of identifying a winner and bringing it to us in Britain.
Last of the more traditional displays, Longborough Concrete and their Lonstone brand are probably the smallest paving manufacturer to exhibit at the show, and represent a direct link back to an earlier, more innocent time, when Glee was dominated by wet-cast manufacturers and imported stone was just a glimmer on the distant horizon. Where are Westminster Stone, Bowland, and all the others? They've fallen victim to the realities of an aggressive market that is now heavily influenced by fashion rather than quality.
In the face of all these plush and elaborate displays, it would be easy to forget that a sizable chunk of the domestic market for patio and driveway paving is still satisfied by companies just like Longborough. Simple technology, elementary products, an intimate knowledge of their own market both locally and further afield enables them to offer a level of service that is sometimes forgotten by their larger competitors.
I'm not sure how companies of this size justify the expense of Glee, but I'm immensely glad that they do, because without them, the whole event would degenerate into a circus of the oligarchs.
I suppose it's the tight budgets that prevent Ivor, Ian and the rest of the team creating a radically new display each year. 2007's stand is almost identical to that of 2006, even the location right beside the main entrance is the same, but there are new products, if you care to ask. In particular, a light-hued replica of French limestone that they've named “Tuscany” which I'm sure won't struggle to find admirers, but the replica decking flagstone is really not my taste at all. I don't like decking when it's the real thing: when it's emulated in concrete it scares me, but then, I know there are customers out there for exactly this type of product, and just because I'm not a fan doesn't mean it's wrong.
As we draw towards the end of this stratum of the pyramid, we come to company that is just about straddling the blurry interface between manufacturer and supermarketeer. You've got to admire Living Stone – they're not ones to let the grass grow in the joints. The business model adopted by Phil and Andrew Moss seems to evolve on a yearly basis, and they are not afraid to explore new ways of reaching the market.
When I first arrived at the show on Sunday morning, Living Stone were my first port of call, mainly because I like to start at the edges and work my way in. As it turned out, the location of their stand was such that they were detached from the main hub of paving exhibitors, who were clustered around the centre of the hall, and Phil tried to convince me this suited them just fine. I've still not decided whether I believed him or not, but I don't think they suffered to any noticeable extent because every time I tried to get a word, the stand was teeming with visitors.
My first impression was that they'd edged closer to the Supermarketeer model, with pallets of decorative aggregates piled high, 4 for the price of 3 offers, and much of the paving consigned to vertical display panels nailed on to the back wall. I couldn't spot anything radically new, and Phil's spiel about making life easier for the stockists by re-designing their packaging and offering revised pack quantities had me worried. I don't like it when companies lose sight of the end-user and start to focus too much of their efforts on the middle men. Having a business plan that makes life easier for the stockist is all well and good, but you must be sure you have products that will actually appeal to the real customer.
It's a cut-throat market and if Living Stone have decided that their route to success lies in prostrating themselves before their distributors, then who am I to say differently? They must be doing summat right because they are the only component of the once-impressive Bowland confederacy that is visible any longer, and that longevity has to be attributed to insightful marketing.
The next route to market they're trying is direct sales via t'internet. The idea is that customers can view the Living Stone products at their local stockist, return home for a cup of tea and a bit of umming and ahhing, and then place their order online, via the Stone To Home website. Their order is delivered direct from Living Stone, but the original stockist, who is nominated by the customer when filing their online order, gets a commission for the sale. I had a longish chat with Phil and Andrew about this concept. It has potential, but it requires very careful handling, and Phil readily admits that a small number of stockists are struggling to see the possible benefits to them. There are ways and means of making it successful, and I'll be watching with interest because this is one of those ideas that will be emulated by every other manufacturer if there is even a whiff of profitability in it.
Here's a strange one: huge company, small stand. I'm not sure about the intention in Hanson exhibiting here. It struck me as a showcase for the group's undoubted breadth, from pre-packed cement-based products to roofing, from facing bricks to the Formpave paving, but it was all squeezed onto a relatively small, but impressively located, display area. I wonder if the sheer scale of the company's portfolio was what confused? There was a snippet of lots of things, but almost nothing in any detail.
I say almost nothing because it was good to see that the Formpave products, particularly the permeable paving systems, were given a sizable portion of the available area, and a very, very good cross-section model that showed exactly how a permeable block pavement would be constructed. Formpave's sparkly Cornish granite blocks also formed the bulk of the main floor display.
I've pencilled-in a review of Formpave's latest brochure and products for later this month, so in view of the fact that there wasn't much (if anything) new or overly-exciting to see on this stand, I'll save what comments I have for that later date.