Saturday, 28 March 2009

Taking the outdoors inside

I made a brief visit to the Ordnance Survey Outdoors Show last Friday. Every year, I find it faintly ironic that the biggest UK consumer event dedicated to the outdoors is held at the distinctly indoor National Exhibition Centre near Birmingham. The show has been around for eight or nine years now and I’ve been to every one. In fact, I remember attending the meeting at the NEC when plans for the first event were announced. I was representing Berghaus and I’m pretty sure we were the first major outdoor brand to commit to backing the show, which has had the unwavering and substantial support of Ordnance Survey since day one.

The first show was pretty exciting. It was a new departure for the industry and no-one really knew what to expect. How many people would turn up? Would the various features work? Could the show become a regular fixture on the calendar? In short, the answers to those questions were; loads (too many as it turned out), yes and yes.

That year, the event was held in a pretty small hall with limited facilities, but it was a huge success. The organisers (a company called Brand Events) actually had to turn potential visitors away, which was unfortunate, but demonstrated clearly that there was an appetite for a show of this type.

Berghaus built a fairly ambitious stand just inside the entrance. Essentially, it was a square tower, on one side of which the Avon and Somerset Cliff Rescue Team put on live shows each day, demonstrating how they lowered stretchers down from treacherous heights in rescue situations. The Cliff guys were born entertainers and also very resourceful. Hidden underneath the tower, which was decorated with huge canvasses on each side, they conjured up a mini kitchen, complete with kettle, refrigerator and all sorts of goodies. I’m sure that the facilities team at the NEC didn’t have a clue what was going on under there and am equally sure that they would have vigorously waved a few health and safety papers at us if they had discovered it all.

Elsewhere on the Berghaus stand, we had a Gore-Tex testing tent which was a walk through area equipped with a shower. Visitors could use that to test jackets and footwear and experience Gore-Tex fabrics in action. The shower was, alas, a little short on pressure (okay I confess, it was more like a moderate dribble), but it was still a popular feature. And we also hosted an information and fundraising area for legendary mountaineer Doug Scott’s charity, Community Action Nepal.

That first show was quite a ride and the many ways in which visitors could interact with the various exhibitors (and outdoor celebrities such as Sir Chris Bonington) was the foundation of its success that year and for the next few. The Outdoors Show grew and grew and over time extended its footprint across three of the major NEC halls, but I have certainly felt that its lustre has been fading a little over the last three years. It’s a very different beast to the monster that was originally created and although that’s fine, I don’t think it’s as interesting an event as it used to be.

However, I still go every year, as do thousands of other members of the public, and there’s always something or someone there to hold my attention. The 2009 Outdoors Show was, significantly, held in one hall, so was much more compact than in recent years. Partly for that reason, it felt busier than it did in 2007 or 2008. I managed to bump into various friends, colleagues and contacts, including mountaineer Alan Hinkes, Country Walking editor Jonathan Manning, Michelle Daniel (also from Country Walking), Matt Swaine and Graham Thompson from Trail, Gill Wootton from Greenshires Publishing, and Angela Turley and Terry Stephenson from Berghaus.

I’m glad that I went, but I do miss the relative chaos and pioneering spirit of that very first Outdoors Show and I feel that back then, the event did a better job of bringing the true spirit of the outdoors inside.

Below, from left to right: one of many climbing walls at the show that were popular with youngsters; Graham Thompson, gear editor of Trail, dispenses product advice to visitors.
Bottom: Jonathan Manning, editor of Country Walking.

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