From nightclubs to church crypts, through to disused prisons, EN investigates how organisers are unlocking the potential of cities and looking beyond the traditional exhibition space.
Fashion is fleeting; style is forever. And when it comes to media, exhibitions and events are truly style over fashion. Our industry is getting bigger. There are more organisers putting on shows than ever before and despite the tech revolution, the exhibition and events platform has never been more in vogue.
What does this mean for the industry? Big bucks, for both organisers and venues. But, while venues are being booked out, space is at a premium and prices are going up – two aspects that don’t sound like ingredients to continued growth in our industry.
From catching a train at a station to going to a nightclub...has the answer been staring at us in the face every day? Should we be building new exhibition halls? Is it ever likely that councils and town planners will pump for an exhibition hall over lucrative and much needed new homes? Probably not.
Looking back over recent years, some of the UK’s best loved venues have suffered the fate of closure, including iconic exhibition centre Earls Court, London Astoria and Glow at Bluewater.
While some think that there is this great race for space, organisers around the world are looking beyond the traditional exhibition space and seeking the creativity and sensory experience found in alternative venues, bringing the power of live events to your front door.
EVOLUTION, NOT REVOLUTION
Exhibition spaces are all around us; just ask the Media 10 team working on Clerkenwell Design Week.
From the Old Vic Tunnels underneath Waterloo station, which held brand experiences including Wahaca’s Day of the Dead festival, to Tunstall Pool, disused and drained Victorian swimming baths in Stoke-on-Trent that hold installations and exhibitions; the unique architecture and spaces within these buildings are what attracts both the organising companies and visitors alike.
“This rather sensory experience is key to the success of any event,” Will Knight, show director of Clerkenwell Design Week tells EN. “When you have the venue, and put high quality content in, it’s completely multi-layered and not just one thing or type of experience.
“That variety and size of space adds to your offering. It’s all about an accumulation of experiences.”
Fabric nightclub, which was built as an early Victorian cold store, is one of the many event spaces the Media 10 trade show uses in Clerkenwell Design Week (CDW), that creates this sensory experience and “allows the visitor to almost feel the weight of the building”.
Clerkenwell, which used to be a part of London’s industrial heartland, is now a thriving community where the warehouses are home to design agencies and magazine publishers with former factories converted into exclusive bars and restaurants. And in part, CDW has had a part to play in the rise of the area.
“The good thing about Clerkenwell is that there is a lot of context to CDW industrially speaking. Clerkenwell has been a significant part of London’s industrious history for so many years and following our seventh show, it’s a celebration of the place for manufacturers and what you’d now group together as creative industries,” says Knight. "A lot of what has happened in that space has been evolutionary.
"Smithfields for example has long been a meat market and as a by-product, attracted other industries including the publishing industry, as the animal fats were used to stick their books together.
“So then the paper industry moved in, it was obviously useful to the architects because they used to do large scale plans for buildings and needed the resources. Clerkenwell had a succession of industrial buildings used with different purposes and of course subsequently the manufacturers of interior design companies wanted to be near the architects and realised that actually, these buildings give rise to a lot of good showrooms.”
Working with local authorities, local cafes, businesses and of course, the local residents, Knight believes CDW is a natural part of celebrating these industries that clustered together in one part of town.
“If you were to look at Clerkenwell eight years ago, CDW itself has really helped expand the number of relevant business in the area. We very much carry a community with us and that’s quite an important part of its success,” he adds.
FINDING THE LOCALS
To celebrate this rich and diverse community, CDW showcases leading UK and international design brands and companies, through a series of exhibitions, installations and live events across spaces ranging from the Crypt of St James, the House of Detention, Brewhouse Yard, Goldsmiths’ Centre, Spa Fields, the Garden of St James, the Order of St John and Fabric nightclub to name but a few.
The seventh edition of the commercial design festival, held on 24-26 May this year, welcomed more than 34,970 visitors, 90 local showrooms and over 300 exhibiting brands.
Delivered through a distinct format, the creative sector clustered across eight exhibition venues, more than 150 local business, 400 events and a series of original site-specific installations.
“I think what’s really unique about CDW is the ability to access spaces that otherwise would be quite empty or quite frankly difficult to access,” says Knight. "We know Clerkenwell is a dynamic and significant part of London’s design economy – our ambition is for CDW to reflect this and express this in new and original ways. The layout for the show has created a unique experience, and one which we believe will allow for sustained growth in the future."
The principal thing the organiser tries to maintain, says Knight, is the ethical stance on the event.
“The number one thing is the duty of care. We don’t take what we do lightly, it’s not like we just plonk something in a field and say: ’Well there you go, look it’s a tent, we’ll be out of here in a few days’. We have to rationalise everything we do, and think about what the consequences are for the likes of the dog walkers, people with kids and every other resident.
“And then there’s the fabric of the place; we want to leave nothing damaged or broken. We do our best, listen to and communicate with as many stakeholders as possible.”
That’s the nature of Clerkenwell, he explains. It is a very special place in London. One of the things that the team have been able to trade on – without being too cynical – is that there are a lot of people who are very fond of and very committed to Clerkenwell.
“These Clerkenwell-ites if you like, love the history of the place and have lived there for a very long time. It’s one of those places where you have a reason to be in Clerkenwell, you either live there or work there, there’s not a lot of transitory people there and not a lot of tourists there.”
DOING THINGS DIFFERENTLY
When Knight came on board the event in 2014, one of his roles was, to some extent, to make it a touch more mature. “There were some bits of media that took the event not so seriously, as they thought it was just bits of pop-up and grand designers on the street and a bit of a fun moment, but actually the purpose of CDW is quite focused as a trade show.”
A point underlined by the show being a finalist for Best Trade Show Marketing Campaign in this year’s EN Awards, and also winner of the AEO’s 2016 Best UK Tradeshow (>2,000sqm).
Starting out working in politics and then at the Design Council, one of Knight’s key strengths is his ability to communicate design to a large number of different people and different stakeholder groups, a clear talent he showed during his work on the London Design Festival.
“We are here to evolve this show and the creative industry, while enabling CDW to become more mature and let people come at it from a slightly more experienced perspective.”
Visitor experience is at the heart of CDW, and the organiser implemented key changes to the show this year in an aim to provide a richer and more varied exploration of design, for the expert and newcomer alike.
Part of this visitor experience was a map around Clerkenwell. Walking out of Farringdon station, it was hard not to miss the huge pink route, mapped out on the street floor in front of the station – a first for the event, providing a central spine running the length of Clerkenwell, reaching Exmouth Market to the north and Smithfield to the south.
Diving into this pink world (the colour of the show’s logo and theme), visitors could follow the route directions or lead their own way around the area, just by noticing pink flecks, arrows or maps on the floors and walls of local businesses – with no need for an app or phone.
“It was the first time we’ve ever introduced that as a very particular route. It’s important to treat all of your clients as equally as possible so there’s always been a slight reluctance to give people a very specific route. But this year we had a look at how all of the exhibitions lined up and we thought: ’Actually, let’s help people navigate their way through’.
“Someone said to me that you could just hook on to the route, which is just great – almost exactly what we were looking for visitors to do. One of the best things about it was that they could follow it or go off by themselves and see all the showrooms. Actually we noticed that the showrooms had a significant increase in their footfall this year – so that was really pleasing.”
A couple of years ago, Media 10 decided to lose the event app and invested in a responsive website.
“The mobile side of it is important for us; if you look at the website when you’re in Clerkenwell, it just helps people navigate their way around as well as the pink-painted route,” explains Knight. “This helps create layers of the experience as different people will want different things. Some people will go straight to a map and route it, other people know Clerkenwell and just follow the roads.”
The new mapping system and a strong set of installations all contributed to a memorable and transitional edition of the show, all part of the new campaign, called ‘covered’ by Parallel.
“Rather than it be about the outdoor experience and the people and skylines, which has all been quite successful in previous campaigns, we thought: ’Let’s look at what the subject matter is. Let’s look at design.’ We took different design disciplines: furniture, handmade, objects and design process and made ‘covered’ the tag.
“This enabled us to use four or five different applications – all of which were quite visually consistent but when I was walking around Clerkenwell, it was nice to see different iterations of that same idea. They were strong and cohesive.”
A CITY GRID
When combining the history and architecture with the semantics of an event, it’s about marrying together so many things.
Your hometown could be home to more creative businesses per square mile than anywhere else on the planet. In this race for space, can we look a bit further and create in our industry?
The Clerkenwell Design Week town-planned platform could open up new parts of the country to organisers that have been practically off the exhibition map or radar.
Is there potential for this Clerkenwell blueprint to open doors to affluent areas such as Bath, Durham and Norwich, who don’t currently have standalone exhibition centres?
We are a country of Roman cities built on grids and lines with fantastic unique spaces of all sizes, built through the ages, all primed for exhibitions and events.
Does a city grid on a map remind anyone of a grand scale exciting floorplan? It is not time to rewrite the exhibition or venue rulebook but perhaps, a slight broadening of horizons and a relook at spaces around us would be beneficial. The opportunities are endless.