Despite challenges such as a train strike and Black Friday luring money elsewhere, organisers of the winter 2019 edition of AAfE were happy with attendance.
Authors and TV presenters Mark Hill and Judith Miller also packed them in each afternoon on the four days of the fair, which coincided with the 40th birthday of Miller’s antiques price guide.
A change of ownership can breathe new life into an established fair, which seems to be the case with Art & Antiques for Everyone, the thrice-yearly show acquired earlier this year from Clarion Events by former staffers Dan Leyland and Marisa Beckman.
The pair formed their own cavalry riding to revive the Birmingham event, the largest vetted fair outside London. With an established niche in the calendar and geographically – “there are buyers here who won’t travel down south,” says AAfE regular exhibitor Richard Price – the 33-year-old brand needed fresh impetus.
The winter edition, which ran from November 28-December 1 in Hall 12 at the vast NEC Birmingham exhibition centre, was the second AAfE run by MaD Events.
Of the fair’s 180 exhibitors, selling objects ranging from £20-100,000 in price, the opinion of those dealers returning after a gap was pivotal to the event’s new owners (14 in total).
“I’m glad we came back,” said Ben Cooper, of dealership Cooper & Castell, BBC TV’s Bargain Hunt and an event organiser himself through Two Cs Antiques Fairs. “The opening Thursday was very good and I sold some furniture on Friday.”
Consensus among exhibitors ATG encountered on Saturday, November 30, was that day one of winter AAfE had been the strongest so far, with queues outside at opening time, and trade and private buyers vying for objects.
After that, things quietened down – a train strike by West Midland Trains on the Saturday was one challenge – with sales across various disciplines and price points.
Did exhibitors expect much to have changed for the second AAfE fair under new ownership? John Shepherd, of folk art dealers Hiscock & Shepherd, noted subtle but significant differences.
“Dan and his team have tweaked this edition positively to what exhibitors want, while introducing decorative touches in a fair that has always been for collectors, to widen the audience to interior buyers and younger people,” he said.
For this edition, Leyland and co introduced a lower stand rate for larger pitches in Section 1 and a cheaper rate for small stands in the fair’s Section 2.
The cut-price deal on larger stands was to “encourage the furniture dealers in particular, who have been coming to the NEC for years, and have only taken a one or two-metre-deep stand,” Leyland said. “You can’t show anything on that space. These dealers have warehouses full of stuff and we want them to really show how a room set can look, so visitors will notice the volume of stock on offer.”
And in 2020, these stand rates will be frozen in recognition of “a tough trading year” in 2019 and to aid MaD’s “long term goal …to grow the fairs,” the firm told exhibitors as rebooking for April’s event began in earnest.
By way of example, the cost of a 25 sq metre stand in Section 1 will stay at £2800 plus VAT, which Leyland told ATG is half the normal price.
“I can’t think of any other show in the UK that has the same stand prices as six years ago,” he said.
Leyland is refreshingly honest about the challenges faced by fairs such as AAfE as costs rise and tastes change. He is very aware that AAfE once boasted 600 exhibitors and talked of needing “to turn the fair around from the ground up”.
However, he is pleased to report that exhibitor numbers of 180 for the winter edition represented a 25% increase on the July event.
Is the cut-price stand rate sustainable in the long term?
“It’s not,” Leyland said, “but the more dealers we get in, there’s more revenue for us and with that ability to show more stock, visitor numbers should rise.”
Room to grow
The cost of hiring the NEC’s Hall 12 across four days is £45,000, he revealed, and there is physical room to open the event up to other disciplines, such as garden statuary and vintage.
One “basic move” Leyland is keen to make is to develop wider advertising and local leafleting about the fair in the affluent suburbs of Birmingham, “showing the smorgasbord of what’s on offer. This event has a reputation for being traditional, but we need to show that AAfE also sells contemporary.”
The November 2020 fair will move a week earlier, avoiding the congestion around Black Friday.
Back in Hall 12, several exhibitors observed a more relaxed atmosphere. Dealer and TV presenter Mark Stacey had last exhibited at Antiques for Everyone seven years ago.
“We found it too formal,” Stacey told ATG. “Dan asked us to try it out again and we’ve had a lovely fair, with visitors and organisers so friendly.”
Leyland is happy to hear this, saying the shift in tone is deliberate. “I said to the vetters, ‘we’re not the Third Reich – we need to do vetting as an advisory activity and if you’re unsure of something, tell the dealer with a smile’.”
The fair’s vibe may now be more informal but it’s clear that AAfE’s new owners are deadly serious about rejuvenating the brand as it heads into middle age.
“They have refreshed it for sure,” said Adrian Holt of Levels Antiques. “Thankfully the attitude to succeed is there.”