For the best part of a decade, many in the paving and hard-landscaping supply trade have been diligently scanning the horizon, searching for the next trade exhibition that can really do the industry proud. Since Glee disappeared up its own fundament in an orgy of pots, pets and pettiness, there has been no single event at which the massed hordes of paving manufacturers, stone importers, drainage stockists, and all the ancillary suppliers are given the opportunity to display their wares to those of us on the purchasing and design side of the business.
We've had countless false dawns. For a while, CityScape at EcoBuild created more buzz than a hive full of giant bees, and then World of Paving was so inept, crass and corrupt that it never really got off the ground. One manufacturer will tell me that they had a fantastic response at such-and-such a show, only to then cancel their hastily booked reservation for the following year. Landscape this and Landscape that – I've been to so many of these events, sometimes willingly, more often at the behest of some manufacturer or supplier who wants me to experience the event for myself.
It's said that the definition of madness is to continually repeat the same procedure, yet expect a different result. Does that make me mad for traipsing to event after event after event in the vain hope of lighting upon one that actually delivers that spark, that glint of possibility, that El Dorado of Paving?
For the last couple of three years, a growing number of suppliers I respect have been telling me about just how good is FutureScape . Held on the fringes of south-west London in the middle of autumn, it's always happened at an inconvenient time for me. Many of the more interesting manufacturers offer a sneak preview of next season's goodies at this time of year, and it's always seemed a safer bet to trip along to a personally tailored exposition of all that's new and possibly exciting from a proven winner, rather than to forsake all that in the hope of stumbling across something, anything, of genuine interest at yet another temple of hope over expectation.
In 2016, the stars aligned in such a way that it was actually possible to haul my sorry arse all the way down to Esher for a day but not miss any of the big-name unveilings scheduled for the weeks before or after. Given all the prompting from certain parties about the value of the event, the time had finally come to get out my most comfortable shoes, swallow extra painkillers, and crawl along the nation's comedy motorway network, southbound again.
Having the Sat-Nag direct me to the wrong entrance of Sandown Park Racetrack wasn't the best start. I'm on a road running parallel to the track, there are two, big, underpopulated car parks here, and I can see vans galore with the liveries of well-known names just 50 metres across that semi-hallowed turf, but how the bloody hell do I get there? It's not obvious, and not just to me, but to at least two other visitors that stop, wind down their windows and ask me if I've any idea how to get there.
Handy tip for 2017 – a few signs, posters, A-boards or whatever directing would-be visitors to the stadium entrance on the other side of the town might be a good idea!
The show itself feels very cramped. Narrow aisles, stands crushed tight against one another, jams of scurrying people trying to force their way past others who have decided to stop for a natter, mid-aisle, and bollocks to anyone inconvenienced.
Ah! There's a name I know, but the stand is crammed to capacity, so I'll call back later. Move on. Oh, wotsisname is the same, stuffed to the gunwales with visitors. Make a mental note to nip back. Maybe if I can get a cup of tea somewhere…..aaaah! My saviour! CED have a refreshment bar and there's the bottomless mine of information known as Ruan, unpestered by visitors for a couple of seconds, so I'll grab him before he spots me and legs it!
As always seems to be the case, show headline sponsor CED put on an impressive and professionally staffed display. Due to the limitations of this particular venue, there's not much paving on the floor, but the walls and desks and display plinths more than make up for it.
One thing I always appreciate from CED is the breadth of their materials on show. There is always something that grabs my attention, make me ask "what's that?" and this time, it's a couple of monoliths, big standing stones that are intended to be head-turners. They are certainly that!
Over recent years, CED, and many others, have expanded their usual remit of natural stone paving to include porcelain. Now, whether this is because they see porcelain as a natural product and therefore within their purview, or as an existential threat to natural stone paving, only they can say, but there is no doubt that porcelain (or ceramic or vitrified, depending on your preferred terminology) is the biggest news in the trade for at least a couple of decades.
Which helps explain why almost everyone showing any form of modular paving at this show, had porcelain to the fore.
Ceramiche Caesar is a name new to me, but, apparently, they are responsible for the porcelain put out by fellow exhibitors, London Stone. Rather than rattle on with the all-too-familiar spiel about why their porcelain is better than anyone else's, we had an intriguing conversation about laying methods, initially prompted by their decision to show porcelain times/flags/slabs (delete as suits personal taste) perched on pedestals.
Global Stone are, rightly, proud of their own porcelain import, and back up their belief in the product by offering a good range of installation kit to help the more professional contractor to make an even better job of putting it down.
The aforementioned London Stone , like all the others, gave due prominence to porcelain, but what they really wanted to talk about was a new line in resin composite cladding, which, as soon as you see it, starts to send the mind spinning with possibilities.
Essentially, it's a thin (6mm-ish) resin composite sheet, roughly 1m by 2.4m, with a surface that is virtually indistinguishable from summat else, whether that summat else is Corten Steel (particularly impressive), honed sandstone walling, or flamed black basalt. Use it to clad simple CMU walls and create an incredibly stylish effect; create posh planters; hide unsightly fences….the potential is limited only by your imagination. London Stone have never been backward at coming forward with innovative products, but this is as cleaver as anything I've seen in a good while.
Alfresco Floors , too, were going big on the porcelain paving, but their main thrust seemed to be there distribution deal for the too-bloody-versatile-by-half Buzon pedestals. For at least a decade, I've been intending to an a page to the website covering the uses and benefits of pedestals for paving, but a series of discussions over the last 12 months, and at this very exhibition, has possibly prompted me to promote its preparation to the top of the list, or near the top at least.
Other news from Alfresco is that they are planning on bringing the much-admired Ebema Stone & Style Paving back to Britain. Let's keep our fingers crossed that, this time, the Flemish overlords will actually listen to advice on how to sell to this market, rather than trying to bend the reluctant Brits to their own bewildering and befuddling Belgian ways.
Two other highly popular themes (other than bloody vegetation and other greenery) were also evident at FutureScape: a preponderance of artificial grass , and some of it from companies I've actually heard of (such as NamGrass )! There does seem to be a lot of - let's be generous and call them "fledgling"- suppliers in this sector of the market, but how many will still be here for FutureScape 2017?
The other persistent theme would be resin surfacing, of both the bonded and bound varieties, and over recent years, a couple or so of the more respected aggregate suppliers ( Derbyshire Specialist Aggregates , and Long Rake Spar ) have thrown their respective hats into the resin-based ring hoping to attract new customers.
Some of the names are tried, trusted and extremely well known – yes: I'm thinking of SureSet and AddaGrip , and a few are less well known yet always there or thereabouts (Bituchem, Meon, etc.), but there always seems to be someone new, some johnny-come-lately that has decided to get involved. As with the Placky Grass boyoes, will they still be around in 12 months?
So, who else of note was in attendance? Resin mortars specialist supplier NCC StreetScape is becoming a regular at these trade shows, but talking with Dave and Gary, they are acutely aware of the returns from each exhibition they attend, and now have a pretty clear picture of which work and which don't.
This strikes me as being a sensible approach: too many of these trade shows have become little more than an identikit parade of the same faces, with some exhibitors freely admitting (in confidence, naturally) that the only reason they attend is because their nearest and dearest competitor does – only for that very same competitor to tell me exactly the same thing!
NCC StreetScape have a proven product which has earned (the hard way) genuine respect within the paving industry, but is a show aimed less at highways/civils, and more at gardens/softscapes the right place for the VDW mortars?
Kebur Garden Materials , meanwhile, seem eminently suited to precisely this show, and not just because of their highly convenient location in nearby Farnborough. Given their eclectic range of hard-landscaping products, they should be the ideal match for many of the relatively local designers and contractors that seemed to make up at least of the visitors.
EverEdge , best known for their ever-expanding line of steel edgings (expanding in terms of product range, not in length of edging!), are another exhibition regular, and it always amazes me at just how many ways they find to improve and enhance their seemingly simple core idea: a steel edging.
The latest wheeze seems to be a steel version of the L-shaped, flexible edge support system that's ridiculously popular in the US and Canada but, even in its original plastic form, never does well over here. Will this, too, still be around in a year or two?
A couple of clay pavers on show. We're well familiar with Vande Moortel , who now distribute their expansive range of Dutch clay pavers through all sorts of intermediaries, large and small, but Urman are new and distinctively different. They offer clay pavers from a wide range of Dutch, Belgian and German manufacturers, tailoring their offer to suit the project in hand. It's an idea that works on the continent, but the equivalent in Britain have always learned that clay pavers alone is not enough to sustain business and, at some point, you have to add concrete and stone and, dare I say it, porcelain to the offer to be sure of attracting attention.
Landscape Plus , the last time I saw them, were primarily outdoor lighting suppliers, but now they seem to have expanded their remit to include linear channels (well-known brand), pedestals(!), and so much more. The one-stop hard-landscape accessory supplier? It's not a bad idea, is it?
Finally, Lateral Design . What John Harte can't do with a grating isn't worth considering. I first met him at Chelsea Flower Show some years ago (before I was deemed persona non grata), and every time I've seen him since, he has some stunning latest project which leave my jaw agape.
Usually, these are incredibly artistic gratings for linear channels in stainless or bronzed steel, etched and cut to all sorts of intricate design, but this time he showed me a very traditional looking but subtly stylish cast iron grating he's developed for one of the wealthier London boroughs. This is more than production: it's genuine artisanship!
Yes, I've missed some exhibitors, either because I didn't have the time or they didn't have anything of interest, but what struck me was the non-shows. Three reasonably biggish names were slated to be in attendance but no trace could be found. Obviously, there could be perfectly good reasons why, having presumably paid a hefty fee to be on the list, they each decided to stay at home making concrete pavers, but three of them? And all CBP manufacturers? Have I missed summat here?
So: given that I've questioned the likely participation of various brands and products at FutureScape 2017, will I be there?
I'm not sure, is the short answer. No disrespect to any of the exhibitors, who all do the best they can, but I've seen most of you umpteen times already at other shows over the last two years, and the journey all the way to Surrey is a bit of a drag. The seminars/discussions at these events can sometimes be a saving grace, but just the one talk on hard-landscaping, even if it is the God-like genius that is Michael Heap, is not enough to warrant 440 miles return trip of motorway madness. There just wasn't enough of either worthwhile exhibitors or compelling seminars to warrant a special trip, but I sincerely wish there was.
Our industry desperately needs a show that not only provides a route to market for the supply side, but offers a great day out for the purchasers, designers, specifiers, contractors and the vaguely interested. It has to give exhibitors space enough to really show off, plenty of informal seating and chat areas for relaxed discussions, a seminar line-up that is genuinely interesting and stimulating, a location that's reasonably convenient for the whole nation and not just those sorry, benighted sods that live in South East En-ger-land and, possibly of most importance, an agenda that's tailored to draw in everyone from one-man-band installers to multinational merchants.
FutureScape, as it stands in 2016, isn't quite it. Close, but no cigar.