NEXT summer’s Olympia fair is reverting to British management and organisation, with owners Clarion Events taking the reins back from US entrepreneur David Lester.
The complete rethink is reflected in the fair, which will run from June 9 to 19, reverting to a more traditional name, the Olympia International Fine Art & Antiques Fair, after Lester this year rebranded it the London International Fine Art Fair.
David Lester and his wife Lee Ann made their name by founding and successfully nurturing the Palm Beach fair, which they sold to DMG World Media but bought back two years ago.
For some years June Olympia had struggled for an identity so a frustrated Clarion turned to the flamboyant Florida organiser to rejuvenate and galvanise the London fair with his own particular brand of showmanship.
Early on there were signs that the Lester style was at odds with the English trade and Olympia traditions, and there was widespread scepticism of his attempt to make this broadly-based showcase of the British trade an international, upmarket extravaganza. Lester found it difficult to sell stands and ended up with 165, far short of his initial target.
Everyone agreed the fair looked very good, but the combination of massively hiked stand rents, a marketing levy which did not result in productive marketing, and the last-minute distribution of cut-price stands to Palm Beach regulars, incensed the dealers who had paid in full, some of them forced into three-year contracts.
After the success of other June fairs, exhibitors who had lost up to £60,000 at Olympia - and there were a considerable number - swore never to look at Olympia again under Lester.
Clarion are still looking after details but quickly decided to take control of the fair and put it again firmly under British management.
In a letter to exhibitors on July 8, David Lester did not allude to the shortcomings of June Olympia, but buried away in his characteristic assessment of marketing and strategies for the future he did say the management was restructured, that he would be active in the United States and not the UK, and that he and Lee Ann would serve in an advisory capacity.
He had lost control of the fair.
Last week ATG spoke to Chris Gallon, portfolio director at Clarion and the man who is in charge of the winter Olympia in November.
He barely referred to Lester but emphasised the future role of Clarion. He also said he was not assuming the title or trappings of show director for summer Olympia, although he does run Clarion's antiques interests.
The first move is to create a dealer advisory committee "to define the parameters of the summer fair in the future". He promised to listen to dealers over the next months and put together a plan based on their requests and create a Clarion-organised show which delivers.
Commenting on the position of Olympia following the developments in the June fairs scene, Mr Gallon said: "We are focused on defining the position of the fair in the marketplace." This indicates that with the success of Masterpiece at the top end, Olympia will revert to its once-strong position as a marketplace for largely the middle ranges.
He also said: ''I will establish a committee, seek counsel and then formulate what the fair will do." On the vexed subject of stand prices, Chris Gallon said he would look at prices and then be informed by the committee. Which surely means stand rates will go down.
Speaking of his personal role, the Clarion man said: "There is no director as such. I take advice, but I do not relinquish control." It was clear in the conversation though, that if there was a leader then it was him.
Mr Gallon did not criticise David Lester and said there was still a relationship with the Lesters. He was aware of and respected the American organiser's long experience.
A year ago David Lester stated he was in sole control of summer Olympia, but now admits he has no role in day-to-day management. But at the time Mr Lester also said he was co-owner of the fair.
When we asked Chris Gallon if this was still the case, he replied: "He never has been co-owner. Clarion own the fair, and now organise the fair."
By David Moss