Typical, innit? You wait almost two years for a relevant hard-landscape trade exhibition and then two come along in as many weeks. The Landscape Show/Event/Happening/Thing at the piratical NEC just two weeks’ ago, and now the re-imagined Futurescape, translocated to the cavernous, cash-removal halls of ExCel in far flung East London Town. And, for an industry that’s relatively small and incestuous, there was precious little overlap between the two. Both events have their supporters, and both events seem to have clung on to most of them, but are one lot less miffed than the other?
A quick recap regarding how we got to where we are: Futurescape has grown in success and relevance over a number of years but was always hamstrung by its preferred venue – beneath Sandown racecourse grandstand in leafy Surrey, with no room to grow. It crammed in as many exhibitors as was legal, mostly by repeatedly reducing aisle width, and then by adding a Spring event to counter the traditional Autumn staging. However, it was more stuffed than a granny’s knicker drawer, and so, just before the covid fun and games started, plans were announced to move everything over to the Saturn V Rocket storage bins at ExCel. We all know what happened next, but, two or three jabs later, with far too many innocent souls lost to incompetence and greed, and Futurescape is, indeed, here at ExCel, as promised.
How has it turned out?
As you should expect, the whole set-up is very professional, with the traditional trade show layout of stands of mixed sizes and, a novelty for Futurescape, amply wide aisles, all clad with the familiar exhibition-grade thin-as-a-rizla-paper, landscape green or primrose yellow corded carpet. Immediately, it’s possible to see that there are some real ‘impact’ stands that demand one’s attention set amid the mid-sized stands, and the peripheral booths, kiosks, and the we-might-as-well-have-a-go micro-displays.
Those familiar with this Dragon’s Lair will know that the exhibition space straddles the north and south side of an immensely long and 20-odd metre wide central atrium lined with eateries with varying levels of repugnancy, and that while individual halls are often directly connected for larger events, there is the facility to take a single hall of around 2,000m2, which is what Futurescape did, but failed to fill. Plenty of empty space at the edges, all cordoned-off and supposedly unseen behind 2m high screens, but obvious to anyone with even basic spatial awareness. I may be doing them an injustice, but I’d estimate around two-thirds of the hall was in use (including the central coffee bar) so that’s a lot of wasted space.
So: what to see? After an underwhelming effort at the aforementioned Landscape Thing a fortnight back, it was such a relief to see that London Stone had really pushed out the boat here, with a display that could hardly be further away from that of the NEC. Obviously designed and constructed to deliver a genuinely professional impression, it had everything that was absent from Birmingham…or maybe the Birmingham stand was just the offcuts and leftovers from here?
Impressive as it was, I could see nothing new, nor anyone I recognised, so passed by maybe half-a-dozen times, and was pleased to see it was generally busy, which is always a good sign – nowt worse than stand staff mooching about looking bored and listless – but no-one seemed all that keen to engage, so I left them to it.
And it’s a similar tale at the far end of the hall where industry behemoth, Marshalls had more or less recreated the same stand from earlier in the month, on a slightly larger scale. Again, phenomenally well-designed and perfectly crafted to exude the air of professionalism we expect from a name such as Marshalls.
Intercepted on approaching the stand for a second or third investigatory pass, “You’ll have seen all this before”, said the unfamiliar Marshallette, and so I felt almost encouraged to keep walking. But it turns out that I hadn’t actually seen a huge element of the Marshalls presentation: the Virtual Sample app/gizmo/contraption.
It was only on getting back to civilisation and responding to a thread on Twitter that Commercial Head Honcho, Chris Churm asked if I’d liked the yoke, that its existence became known to me. Oh, I’ve accessed it on t’interweb, and sort of got the hang of it, I think, but it’s not the same as having someone lead you through it, revealing its secrets and idiosyncrasies. When left to explore alone, there’s always that suspicion that you’ve missed a secret door or a hidden bonus level, so there could well be features I’ve missed or wandered past unknowingly, but, from what I have seen, it strikes me as being the sort of approach we will increasingly rely on for designing and purchasing our paths, patios and driveways, and beyond that, public realm hardscapes and so much more.
Two, big, lavish stands from two, big, lavish names, and more to come, but very often, the real jewels of these shows are the tucked-away smaller suppliers, the innovators, the explorers, the risk-takers. Nothing gives me greater pleasure than being able to say, “Hey! Have you seen this…..???”, but there was precious little of that here, and is was sorely missed. Maybe the costs; maybe covid; maybe the market or maybe the supply chains…whatever the reason, these small fry are an essential part of any worthwhile show, and their absence severely detracts from the overall experience. Is there really nothing new, nothing original, nothing to inspire and reinvigorate after a two-year hiatus?
A little bit of something new-ish from accessorisers par excellence, Core Landscape Products, with their multi-use aluminium edging strip, ideally suited to resin surfacing but eminently adaptable for other types of work.
In essence, a simple aluminium rail edging reinforced by its perforated base plate which keeps it straight and true, but a few simple snips at those perforations and voila! The rail becomes completely flexible, allowing it to be turned and twisted at will to form arcs and curves of almost any size. No need for separate straights and flexi-sections: it’s all in the one bit of kit, and it’s one of those damned good ideas that we will see emulated by countless others in the very near future, but such is the nature of this business. If you don’t adapt, expand and innovate, some other bugger will steal your market, you can be sure!
That notion of expanding and innovating applies to perennial purveyors of simple but effective jointing compounds, Joint-It. They have a popular product, one they can barely churn out fast enough to meet demand, not just in Britain and Ireland, but in Europe, and in North America, too. They could easily focus their energies on meeting that demand and pushing the product into new markets, but no! Expand and innovate: so they now provide a supporting range of pre-sealers, cleaners, protectors, algae removers and, almost inevitably, sealants.
Joint-It are a great example of that notion of the smaller, less-well-known supplier/distributor starting out on the periphery of just this type of show, attracting attention, making an impact, and now taking a prominent, but not overly lavish or ostentatious stand, and, almost more importantly, visitors positively expecting to see them at such events. They needed that initial break, tucked-away, almost overlooked, but the power of the product propelled them forward, and now enables them to expand their portfolio.
Other jointing compound suppliers were in attendance. I was looking for a particular person at Azpects, but always seemed to miss him, so never got a chance to talk about their ‘product for every problem’ portfolio, and the several products for which the problem has not yet been identified. And then there was Nexus, who focus on a smaller product range, but one that is…..let’s say slightly more engineered towards professional pavement construction and less focussed on the basic patio/garden makeover projects.
The absence of stand after stand of paving suppliers came as something of a surprise. The surge in demand for porcelain and its ilk suggested we’d see dozens of suppliers with all sorts of offers, most of which will never be seen again, but no! A light sprinkling at best, and many of them ‘Known Quantities’. Again, this raises the question about why: why so few? Supply problems? Excessive competition? Show costs? Who knows! Those that did show will reap the benefit, we hope, and maybe it will provide encouragement for others to follow suit. We do need to see more actual paving at these shows, as that keeps it real and grounded.
Of the ‘Known Quantities’, it was good to see the effort being made. Allgreen have some lovely materials and all beautifully presented. Rather than being purely manufacturers or distributors, I regard the Allgreen offer as being curated, of being a carefully considered, deliberately selected range of stone, porcelain, timber and other quality materials that sit together comfortably and look like they should be combined, rather than a rag-tag random assortment featuring a bit of nearly everything.
And those delicious wooden setts are still wickedly underused!
Brett are a big name in hard-landscaping, but opted for an understated, tucked-in-a-corner, inconspicuous booth to make their first appearance (as far as I know) at Futurescape. That question again: why? They have a new product, an important new product to launch: Invicta, an exposed aggregate block and a whole new direction for Brett….but talk about understated! Four samples – one of each colour option. Oh! And some photies of a couple of jobs completed. The chance to win a bottle of beer took up more space on the stand!
Developing a new product costs hundreds of thousands of pounds, millions, even, particularly when it comes to block pavers with secondary processing. I’d be screaming from the bloody rooftops if I’d spent all that dosh and launched a new product. Maybe that’s why I’m not in marketing: who knows?
The block itself is interesting. I’ve a long-held interest in washed-to-expose aggregate blocks pavers, and even introduced just such a product to Brett almost 20 years ago, only to be told it was a bit much for British tastes. Since then, this very type of block has attracted a huge amount of attention from those with very British tastes, but most of those installed come from Europe and there’s questions about consistency and quality. It’s not an easy block to make.
Brett are offering four colours and, as yet, very limited size options, but due to be expanded any day now allegedly, whereas the brand I took to them all those years ago offered 20+ colours in over 30 formats - isn’t hindsight a wonderful gift?
It will be worth looking out for. I doubt we’ll see it much, if any at all, up here in the northern wastes, which is a real pity, as its main competitor is currently being badly installed in dozens of towns and city centres. I’d say there is a little work to do with the arisses, but once they get that right, they could, and should, be on to a winner.
On that theme of block paving, Tobermore return to the exhibition fray with a host of new and unfamiliar faces, and yet more refinements to their eclectic range of concrete pavings.
Most of these products are achingly familiar, but the development never seems to cease. Improvements to colours, tweaks to efflorescence control, further reductions in energy consumption…. It’s an approach that very much chimes with my own philosophy. There’s no need to continually bombard what is a well-established and mature market with new products when you have a proven stable of performers, but then it’s fatal to rest on past successes. Continual development and improvement of winners will often pay greater dividends than a temporary fillip from a novelty block or flag that will fall out of fashion in a couple of seasons.
The next Known Quantity would be Talasey, the hat-stand on which hang a whole host of landscaping brands such as Natural Paving, Vitripiazza and PaveTuf, amongst others. There have been several changes in personnel since I last chatted with the Talasians (and no sign of the expert Tea Maker, which is a shocking loss!), so I’ve lost track of where we are up to, other than recollecting the last topic of discussion, immediately pre-covid, was the Training Academy which had established itself to some degree but was keen to make The Great Leap Forward.
That Academy was one of the ‘items’ being pushed on the stand, so that’s the one I pursued and…well, no-one is quite sure. It will definitely re-commence, but just when and how or even where (having found new premises despite spending a bloody fortune on the building at Sandtoft!) no-one can say with any certainty. As soon as they know what’s happening, they’ve promised to let me know, and, in turn, I will pass on the word.
I can only assume that, if there was anything else of import, any new products, new brands, new initiatives, they would have been mentioned, but they weren’t so maybe it’s a matter of “Steady as She Goes”, at Talasey, at least for now.
The final Known Quantity worthy of mention would be Westminster Stone, another of the carry-overs from that other show a couple of weeks’ back. I know they were there. I spoke to Tom Clifford outside the hall. I promised to visit. I trudged across every row and traipsed up every column in turn, but no Westminster Stone did I see. How can that be? How did I manage to miss them? Where did they hide? Do they have a portal to a parallel landscaping universe?
On the train home, gawping at my twitter feed, I saw photies posted of their stand – very similar to that of the NEC previously, but where the buggery was it? Even now, I want to go back and figure out how I managed to miss such a sizable, and important, exhibitor. That is so damned annoying!
Anyway, it can’t be fixed now, so on we must go. Two types of hard-scaping I had expected to see pushing and shoving for attention would be resin surfacing and composite decking. The reality was very little from the former, but plenty of the latter.
To be fair, SudWell (The Resin Bonded Slab Company) did have a strong presence, taking a prime position at the entrance with free samples being doled out, and two stands, diagonally opposite within the fenced-off hall, all promoting the clever range of pre-formed resin-bound tiles that are completely self-explanatory when seen. All the benefits of a resin bound surface, with none of the need to mix on site and wait for it to cure.
A huge range of options in terms of aggregates, colourways, textures and stylings, and eminently suited to roofscapes thanks to the option to have pre-fitted pedestals attached to the tiles, this should have been attracting far more attention, but the chaotic nature of both stands probably undermined the central message.
Sometimes, at this sort of exhibition, less is more. It’s all too easy to bedazzle a potential customer with choice. Sometimes, a glimpse of stocking is more appealing than the full garter belt display. The Sudwell concept is sound; it has genuine appeal; it deserves wider appreciation, but perhaps just a couple of well portrayed examples of the product in use would attract more attention than piles of options and alternatives.
The only other resin supplier I noticed was the One Stop Resin Shop crowd – a mini-stand, obviously designed to appeal to contractors (many of whom were absent at this venue, although they usually attend the racecourse version) – and a simple message: if you install resin surfacing, we can provide everything you need. No great hills of product; no being over-faced with choice – just a simple premise; we support installers.
Turning to the composite decking displays, the usual names (Arbordeck, Grono, EcoScape, Trex, etc.) engaged in the traditional arms race to construct the most elaborate stand using their own products. I freely admit this really isn’t my area of expertise – decking was, back in the days when I served my time, an offshoot of carpentry, and therefore not something we were taught. In the aeons since then, decking and its ancillaries have become very much a part of the hard-landscaping milieu, but that early omission carries with me, and I just don’t have a natural empathy for it.
What I do know is that it is a whole world away from the rough pine structures of my youth. It’s a viable and attractive alternative to the stone, concrete and even porcelain, with which I’m more at ease, but I still don’t know enough to say what is good or what is bad. I know most, if not all, of the names on show here, and I’m told by saw-wielding, timber-tongued colleagues that these are exceptional products, but I still feel I should leave judgement, and pontification, to others more familiar with that particular market.
As always, there was a supporting cast of the specialist hard-landscape suppliers, many of whom I just did not have the time (nor the stamina, thanks to recent medical procedures) to engage with as fully as I would have liked.
I did manage a few minutes with an old, old acquaintance, Simon Arrowsmith, stalwart of EverEdge, the original steel edging system manufacturer. A constant at shows for as long as I can recall, EverEdge has been elevated to that enviable position of becoming the default name for the product category, not just the product itself. So, we find designers and specifiers indicating EverEdge on their documents when they are actually thinking ‘metal edging system’.
Still, they are the strongest name in the sector, the default choice for many, and that didn’t happen by chance. They produce a quality product, designed and manufactured in Britain using, as far as possible, British steels and other metals. And, returning to what has become something of a theme in this review, they innovate. A new range of planters was being shown with plans for more to come.
Rite-edge from Rainbow Professional plough a similar furrow albeit one more focussed on non-ferrous edgings, particularly aluminium, and that engenders interest from the resin surfacing crowd.
It must be….oooh…. at least 7 years ago that a huge pack of Rite-edge edgings arrived, completely unannounced at my front door. Maybe 20 lengths, each 3m or more, different depths, shrink-wrapped, complete with fixings, I was a little shocked, to say the least. My initial thought was that it was a mis-addressed delivery, so I contacted someone at the company, and, after a couple of days, I received an email saying no: they’re for you.
What would I do with 60-odd metres of aluminium edging? Well, the same as most people: I got a couple of mates to lift them onto the garage roof out of the way. Now, all those years later, the shrink-wrapping has long since rotted away, but those lengths of aluminium are still there, completely intact and barely tarnished despite everything the weather could throw at them.
One day, I will find a project for them!
Kebur are one of an emerging trend: not quite Builders’ Merchant, but not a civils or Heavyside merchant. They are a niche supplier, a landscape centre, focussed on hard-landscaping materials, from the basic aggregates through pavings, specialist mortars, tools, and everything else the modern patio and driveway installer would need. They are based in the south, but a good friend of mine has been running a similar model (Landscape World) up here in the civilised part of the country for many years, and, when done properly, it’s a fantastic resource for both contractors and clients.
A neat and tidy little stand, simply explaining what it is they do, without overburdening the visitor. Rarely quiet, I strongly suspect they had a rewarding experience at this show.
Van De Moortel have been fluttering around the British landscape market for a decade or longer with their distinctively Dutch clay pavers. They moved in just as the home-grown clay paver industry disappeared up the Rhine on a German-owned coaster, and while they have had some success, they’ve never quite struck the right deal that would make them a more widely known, and more widely-used, option for the British and Irish installers.
Not for the lack of trying, mind. They used to be highly communicative and amazingly cooperative, always keeping me abreast of new ideas, new developments, new projects, and new collaborations, but under a new captain, it seems they have decided to steer their own course.
The difference now is that there are umpteen other importers (Baksteen, Chelmer Valley, etc.) bringing Dutch and Belgian, and even German pavers over to this market, so a distinctive brand backed by sound technical knowledge is more important than ever.
I’m sure I will have upset someone by omitting them from this review, but we’re over 3,500 words in, way past the point where most people fall asleep, and I need to draw proceedings to a close.
A quick word about the seminar program. Yet again, a curriculum heavily skewed towards soft-landscaping and gardening, which is fair enough if that’s what the audience demands, but time and again, I walked past seminar “theatres” featuring a full miked-up presenter, backed up by jazzy lighting and super-duper-power-point, talking to two or three people. How dispiriting must that be for presenter and for the attendees? It did seem that the desire to pack the timetable with so-called seminars had been achieved by lowering the level-of-interest threshold. I’d happily see fewer seminars that are better attended, and which address a more balanced range of topics.
So, the burning question is whether this was a successful exhibition. I’m sure, for some, it was, probably, but then, for a notable number, it was worrying. The themes that repeatedly came up were: too costly; too inconvenient a location; too much too soon.
The subject of cost came up time and time again, particularly from the smaller stands where the poor sod on the stand is likely to be the one paying the bill. Many felt they ought to be there, some even *wanted* to be there as a show of support for the event, but it had cost them dearly and it was unlikely they could recoup those costs based on the visitor numbers experienced.
The next most common complaint was just how inconvenient ExCel is as a venue. As someone from inside the M25 pointed out to me, it had taken them almost 2 hrs to do the thirty miles from their home in West London. They could get to, say, the NEC or the Swindon Centre in less time. A four-hour journey from Warrington was bad enough, and it does seem from feedback received that, once again, this was a very London-centric event with precious little interest coming from anywhere beyond the M25 and the Home Counties. Better is expected when you are exhibiting at ExCel.
And that led on to footfall. “Ticking over but never busy”, was probably the fairest summation I heard. And the quality of visitor was often damned with faint praise – too many folk taking a jolly away from the office, skivers, the bored-and-restless, and not the key decision makers. Again, more is expected of this venue and at these prices. Would condensing the show to a single day improve visitor numbers? I doubt it, as there is ample to see in a single day, but when you draw in the bigger names, you need to provide the footfall and the quality leads, so something has to be tweaked.
Then look at the names on the pre-show exhibitor list who were nowhere to be seen come curtain up. Several established, well-respected names who, for reasons not made public, but discussed privately with a select few, decided this was not the right event for them. Those that did disclose their thinking usually cited the same reasoning: too pricey and bad location.
This transition to ExCel was probably not a wise move, and not solely because it’s a huge leap from a cramped cellar to a cavernous chamber that is convenient for practically no-one. As many of those encountered during my visit will attest, “Big Fish in Little Pond to teeny, tiny minnow in wide Pacific Ocean” became the mantra. It is simply too big a move. A transfer from Sandown was (and is) needed, but something more realistic, please!
No-one would be more delighted than I if we could fill ExCel (even just one hall) for a couple of days with genuinely exciting hard-landscape content (titivated with a bit of greenery, if we must!). Our industry deserves and needs precisely that to showcase its worth and its talent and its creativity. For now, we are padded out by soft-scapery, and even with that, there isn’t enough to generate authentic excitement and a sense of this being *the* must-attend show for our industry.
Whispers suggested ExCel would not be used again, but is that true? There is work to be done to regain the ground gained in previous good but over-cramped years at Sandown, and then it needs to move on to a sustainable and sensible staging post which can help this invaluable trade show grow to its next phase.
We await developments with bated breath.....