From cuddly companions to spiky sidekicks, EN explores how UK pet shows are on the rise by tapping into the human psyche.
Curiouser and curiouser, Alice pondered, as she unwittingly followed that cute fluffy little white rabbit tail into the rabbit-hole of Wonderland.
Whether he was wearing a fancy waistcoat and pocket watch or not, she would have followed him anywhere. I know, because I would have too.
Was it the irresistible urge to want to stroke his fluffy ears or the human instinct to want to give him a little cuddle? It’s crazy when you think about it; the effect animals can have on a person. Whether you like running your fingers along the scaly skin of a reptile or find it therapeutic to watch a tropical fish swim along the seabed, everyone has a favourite animal, and it’ll make you feel something you can’t describe.
That gooey feeling that you can’t put into words incredibly amounts to UK pet owners spending more than £10.6bn on their nearest and dearest a year. And that number only continues to rise.
It is also this human emotion that events dedicated to pets and pet owners have tapped into, bringing humans and animals together for the ultimate feel good experience.
“I don’t know whether or not we’ve just hit an incredibly good time but people are loving their pets,” Nicole Cooper, managing director of events at FitzAllMedia, tells EN. “The market has just grown substantially. If you see the growth of the big retailers like Pets At Home and see how successful they’ve been, and I think that market has just got better and better.
“Even through the recession, you’d think industries would be affected but people turned inwards to their families and their homes. It’s sort of grown from there,” she adds. “We have tapped into regular people who love their animals as a family, it’s very inclusive.”
The question is, why do we love our pets so much? Scientists have discovered that humans love dogs, for example, in the same way as they do their children, and the feeling is mutual. Researchers found that the same hormone, oxytocin, spikes in both human and canine brains when a dog is gazing at its owner.
The findings, published in Science magazine, suggest that this ‘oxytocin-gaze’ may have been acquired during the domestication of dogs from wolves.
Take our pooch friend on the front cover, or the one on this feature’s opening spread – just look at their puppy dog eyes. Tell me you don’t want to hug those dogs. You only need to look at my Instagram feed to see how many memes I’ve posted along the lines of, ‘It takes me a while to warm up to new people but I will kiss a dog I just met on the mouth’.
Even less animated pets like goldfish and reptiles are being pampered in British households, helped by the rise of shows like Cooper’s.
“I started looking at the pet market, which is huge, and launched the National Pet Show London in 2010,” she says. Cooper is also one of the minds behind DogFest, which launched in 2014 as a one-day event with 6,000 visitors and now welcomes more than 50,000 to two separate weekend-long events.
“We’re not trying to be anything very serious like all of the competition-sides with Crufts and The Kennel Club,” Cooper explains. “We’re a bit more about the lifestyle of the pet. With DogFest, for example, if you love your dog, come along and have fun. We have approached everything a different way and I think that has hit a note with people."
A key driver of the success of the shows is their settings, and the festival atmosphere they provide for visitors.
“If you look at any other dog or animal event in the past, they focus on the animals but not on making it look like a festival,” continues Cooper. “They’ll have little dog shows around the place, but what we’ve done is actually packaged something to create a proper festival. When you talk about a festival, you talk about festival food, live music, lots of bunting and hay. With DogFest we have taken that formula and created an environment where you can do everything at DogFest with your dog.
“You don’t have to go and sit and watch demonstrations all day – you can if you want – you can participate in all the different activities in a fun way. The idea is that it’s all very interactive, so when you arrive there is lovely signage everywhere making it feel like a festival, the food is great. It has a proper festival vibe to it.”
Swimming over to the trade side of the pet market, PATS, organised by Impact Exhibitions, runs two shows a year which attract just under 2,000 visitors each, one at Sandown Park and the other at the International Centre, Telford.
“The UK pet market is brought together under one roof, one spring, one autumn when they’re launching new products,”
Neil Pope, press officer for PATS, tells EN. “A pet buyer has the chance to go to one particular show and see all the new launches at the same. So one day out of their business they can buy, see all the latest products. The only trade exhibition in the UK that presents that facility really.”
Impact Exhibitions also organises AQUA at Telford every other year, for fish keeping, ponds and water gardening.
“The shows differ from the consumer shows because they’re mainly aimed at the pet trade so it would be pet shop owners and staff, garden centres that have pet departments and also overseas buying groups so anybody that is interested abroad comes over because it’s a concentration of the UK pet manufacturers, and they would see everything that’s new in the UK pet market.”
For lots of people, owning a pet goes even further than showering them with cuddles and buying them toys. They are part of the family, which means they involve their pets in every aspect of their lives.
If you think birthdays and Valentine’s Day are occasions only to be celebrated among humans, think again. According to a survey by research firm Euromonitor, 54 per cent of respondents say they consider it common to celebrate holidays with their pets.
“Pet owners are increasingly treating their cats, dogs and even small mammals like members of their family,” Gina Westbrook, director of strategy briefings at Euromonitor says.
“The opportunity to commercialise this trend into a vast range of goods and services – from dog beer to cat counselling, pet weddings to ‘social petworking’ – is staggering for the company that can position itself to gain credibility among this growing demographic.”
Have you treated your pet to a luxury gift recently? How much is too much to spend on your animals?
It’s not just in the UK where people have gone pet crazy; world pet markets are growing at a dramatic rate, with countries across the globe reporting higher than ever pet ownership and spending. Americans, for example, are spending more on their pets than ever before, and expenditure continues to rise.
By 2020, the US pet industry is expected to reach US$96bn (£75bn) in sales, according to Packaged Facts, a market research firm.
A number of other countries are emerging as global pet forces with to be reckoned with. Worldwide sales of pet-related products and services reached US$81bn in 2010, despite the global recession.
“I think the last year there was a bit of worry, especially with the referendum at the Telford show, but things settled down,” adds Pope. “I think with pets it seems that the market is able to withstand periods of economic uncertainty.
“Owners seem to keep buying products for their pets. Obviously they’ll still be buying pet food on a regular basis but clothing they’re buying as well, and beds and fashion accessories and toys. The pet trade seems to withstand recession quite well and that’s why I think exhibitions like PATS seem to work and attract visitor numbers.”
When it comes to attracting visitors, a big pull for DogFest is its atmosphere, Cooper tells EN, and it helps that you’re tapping into a market where it’s all about responsible pet ownership.
“People are incredibly good at things like making sure their dogs are on leads at all times, that they always pick up after their pets,” she says. “Believe it or not, it’s the cleanest site that you could ever see. The venues are always amazed because they think it’s going to be trashed at the end of the event, but not at all.
“I think our message with DogFest is all about the animal being part of your family and you being responsible. I think if you weren’t that way inclined you probably wouldn’t go to the event in the first place. I think we have just tapped into an audience of people who love that idea and love their dogs, so they’re going to act responsibly.”
The idea of DogFest originally came about, says Cooper, when she approached Channel 4’s Supervet Noel Fitzpatrick to be a judge on the National Pet Show.
“At the time, I also told him that I wanted to do a Great Dog Walk, which turned into DogFest, and at that stage, he said he wanted to be a part of it. And that’s how it formed. Right from the start it was a joint venture between Brand Events and FitzAllMedia, and from there, it’s been very successful.”
FitzAllMedia acquired the National Pet Show and DogFest events from Brand Events in September 2016. Cooper also moved to the company, taking up the role of managing director of events.
The popularity of DogFest (which promises ‘the paw-fect day out for dog lovers’) was partly due to Fitzpatrick’s involvement, even before he acquired the show.
“Having Noel has added another dimension, because he is so passionate and he’s a big personality at the event,” says Cooper. “He’s very involved; talking on stage, leading the dog walk, he’s all over the place and I think that separates us from other pet or dog shows. We have something quite special there.”
The relationship between TV programmes such as Supervet, Countryfile and Pet Rescue with audiences are increasingly close, and could be another key factor in raising awareness of these successful pet shows.
“TV has definitely helped with the rise of pet show awareness, especially working with the talent,” explains Cooper. “As long as it’s the right talent and they have the depth, then it really does make a difference. You can see that in any of the major shows in this country; some might not need them depending on their industry, but for those who use talent, and use them well, it makes a huge difference. They’re an ambassador, they’ve got a platform of followers, so it helps.”
In 2015, the National Pet Show London even featured in an episode of The Apprentice, when candidates tried to tap into one of the UK’s biggest markets of products.
“We zone the shows, so we have cats, dogs, small furry animals all separately. You can’t have cats and dogs right next to each other. We have a plan that works well,” Cooper assures EN. “The difference between the National Pet Show and DogFest is that you can’t take animals to the National Pet Show. You come to get information and advice, and to watch displays and look at breeds. If you’re looking to get a new dog that’s where you would come and find out about different dog breeds. At DogFest it’s the opposite; you take your dog there and do activities. There’s a nice distinction between the shows.
“Our events are very content-driven, so even though we do have a lot of stands it’s very much about the content. Everything there is displays and advice and information. It’s different to most shopping events, which makes it fun and challenging,” Cooper adds.
“I think people haven’t had something like DogFest before, where they can just go and have fun with their dogs. You can go on a dog walk, but there isn’t one where you could come and do lots of different activities in a fun way. It’s all about the content and all the things you can do there. I think people are attracted by that inclusivity; it doesn’t matter if it’s pure bred or mixed breed. I think we’ve tapped into a community that are quite like-minded and who enjoy a day out with their dog and their family.”
New for the shows is the camping element, adding to the festival vibe.
“At any festival you’re going to have camping, so we have introduced that this year. People can now camp with their dogs," enthuses Cooper. We’re going to have live music, an outdoor cinema and BBQ and a fun evening. We’re also introducing something for the first time this year called a Great Dog Run, where you can run with your dog.
“People are really doing it as serious runners, so it’ll be interesting to see if it appeals to our audience.”
Even if it doesn’t, then it’ll still be a new audience the organisers can tap into, and something EN looks forward to watching develop in the future. Sadly, outside of attending pet shows, EN will have to remain tragically pet-less, at least until we get an office dog (hint hint).