In January, the trade was told that its principal UK sourcing platform was changing – deciding that the long-running Interiors UK exhibition format was no longer feasible, organiser UBM announced the launch of The Furniture Show at May Design Series, based in London’s ExCeL. The organiser has since faced the not inconsiderable challenge of encouraging suppliers both established and estranged to embrace its new offer. Next month’s debut will begin to reveal the wisdom of UBM’s decision – in the meantime, Suzie Ager, brand director of The Furniture Show at May Design Series, speaks candidly to Paul Farley about just why the move was the right thing to do …

The Furniture Show at May Design Series has confirmed close to 125 exhibitors, the majority exhibiting in London for the first time in a long time. Since the new iteration of Interiors UK was announced (and another fair, the January Furniture Show, immediately launched in its place) the trade has been forced to consider its UK buying options – London, Birmingham, both, or neither?

“The long-term plan was to try to revitalise Interiors UK as it was,” says Suzie. “Personally, I believed it was a reflection of the industry, and the hope was always that when the industry picked up, so would the event.

“But the show just wasn’t working. According to stats from the last six years, from 2008, the peak, that’s when we were at our biggest and strongest, and we’ve seen a decline of 50% – there were 1100 exhibitors in 2008 and around 520 this year, and the visitor count dropped from 40,000 to just over 20,000. [Independent researcher] Fusion told us that if we carry on down the same trajectory, any organiser in their right mind would have to cancel the event in two to three years’ time – it just couldn’t sustain itself.”

The most shocking revelation is that Interiors UK has seen a churn of 75% in visiting companies over the last three years – according to Suzie, just 25% have returned to Interiors UK year after year.

“There is a core group of visitors (around 3500) and exhibitors (around 100) for whom the show works very well,” Suzie admits. “But, at the end of the day, exhibitors don’t spend thousands of pounds to meet the same people year after year. It’s our job to provide new business contacts for visitors and exhibitors – but this just wasn’t viable with the proposition we had.

“Exhibitors don’t spend thousands of pounds to meet the same people year after year”

“Of course, getting buyers to our events is key – so we want to deliver an event that truly meets their needs and drives the industry forward. They want to be able to see the best of British and international, and that was becoming increasingly difficult to deliver in January in Birmingham.”

Based on a 2013 survey of 400 leading independent retailers selected by the BFM and AIS, UBM identified three key flaws in the established model: January is the busiest time of year, making it difficult for small businesses to leave their showrooms; professional buyers arrive off the back of attending the Cologne and Paris fairs, and find nothing new or inspiring; and, despite UBM’s best efforts to attract them, international buyers and exhibitors tend to perceive Birmingham as a regional venue, and are put off for the same reasons.

UBM has been weighing up its options for some time. In terms of location, it already had a strong foothold in London, where its furniture and design events (Decorex, Sleep, etc) – as well as those organised by other parties (100% Design, DesignJunction, etc) – have, says Suzie, seen substantial visitor growth over the last three years.

Of course, there was also May Design Series, an umbrella interiors event launched last year, which, although geared more towards the contract specifying market than retail, attracted around 10,000 visitors, “who came to see 180 exhibitors last year, against 20,000 who came to Birmingham to see 520 exhibitors – that’s quite compelling support for a London-based event”, notes Suzie. “Our research showed that 77% of respondents either lived in London or do business there already – it’s a strong base, but I find it really surprising that 23% don’t do business in London at all. I am sure that will change!”

When it came to the timeline, the decision was driven by market research. A survey of 4000 database contacts – comprising retailers, specifiers and interior designers, 50% visitors, 25% pre-registered newcomers and 25% long-term non-attendants – offered the choice of rescheduling to January, March, May and September, in line with preferences expressed in the previous independent retailer survey, and avoiding key European exhibitions, holidays, etc.

Of those four, 63% opted for May. “We’d never been able to get a majority vote on any of our questions before, which is why we’ve never made any decisions as drastic as this one,” says Suzie. The later date would give visitors more time on site, and longer to study and consider their purchases to assess what was and wasn’t selling.

And so the new plan was unveiled – The Furniture Show at May Design Series, an event representative of every side of Interiors UK, on a scale – to begin with, at least – to match that of the combined existing May Design Series ‘design districts’. While 2013’s Interiors LDN was a high-end, edited version of the Birmingham event, the new offering would be comprehensive of every sector and price point – “it’s not just about this high-end London bubble”, confirms Suzie …

The Furniture Show at May Design Series, covering furniture, lighting, kitchens and bathrooms, will debut at ExCeL, London, between 18-20th May. This article is featured in the April issue of Furniture News magazine – click here to access the full interview.