Pot Pourri

© Bob Denton 2019
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I started up a new period of trading as my holding company Agenda, the four cards showing me doing this from Bedford, Fulham, Redland Bristol and East Harptree Somerset, over the ensuing years.

Business card gestation

Activity Breaks Show

 Activity Breaks Show brochure (Jan-1992)

While at Granada I had been charged with looking at what we might do with some surplus shops following the Rediffusion takeover. I had come up with a retail concept I had called Activity Packs, travel shops where you were presented with perhaps 50 different topics. You could buy into these at three levels – a study pack, a taster pack and the full activity. The study pack was a book/video combination that would let you consider the activity (hang-gliding, scuba diving, cordon bleu cooking…). The cost of this pack was rebated if you subsequently went on to book either of the other more expensive packs. The taster pack was a long weekend giving a valuable introduction to the activity. While the full pack would be ten days to a fortnight or more, and being fully immersed in the activity.

When I looked for a third event in my annual show cycle (PropBus, Top PA and ?), I worked up something I called the Activity Breaks Show.

It was great fun gathering together the various activity organisers, many of whom offered great services but were working at <50% capacity.  Exhibitors ranged from operators like Cox & Kings, Moswin Tours, Trek America and Wild Africa Safaris, to venues from Plymouth Sailing School to south-coast Broadlands, and Scottish-borders Kielder Water and specialist operators like the mid-Wales Forest Experience Rally School and New Forest Lasersport.

Not all show concepts work out, though if you do commit thoroughly to the research you can minimise the chance of failure. But, occasionally there are outside effects that can come up and bite you – acts of God, strikes, riots, wars…

It was all looking promising, until the First Gulf War and Operation Desert Shield brought long-haul and mid-haul flights to a shuddering halt, travel companies that were our potential exhibitors quickly drew back on their marketing. The show lost its momentum as a result, we refunded deposits and saved our energies for other concepts.

Senior Lifestyles

Neville Buch at Blenheim had been briefed on a 50+ event and had come in one morning with the idea of Quality Time as the name for the event. However, at that time the term was most often used in connection with cancer and so it was not a completely positive term. But we had difficulty agreeing on anything else, and he was CEO, so we made it so.

We did a great deal of useful research and evolved a strong database of potential exhibitors. There was one awful conclusion, an equation that emerged from our research. Most people die as net savers, because they know how much money they have, but not how much time, so they keep squirreling away money, in case life continues for longer than expected.

Quality Time mailer (developed while at Blenheim) (Jul-1996)

I negotiated as part of my exit from Blenheim to take the event and the research material with me. I realised that the trick of the name was to make clear what the show was about without turning off the audience by stressing age. I played with the notion of Health, Wealth and Holidays, as this makes clear the topics, and those topics in the round pre-selects a particular age group.

A seniors’ level of sport was expanding rapidly and the term was less threatening, appeared less ageist. So, we eventually went with Senior Lifestyles

At this stage the financial organisations were keen to be involved, but who wants to turn up at an event where the main exhibitors are insurance companies, health schemes, pension advisors, funeral advisors and asset release arrangements.

We worked to make it more about home and garden, crafts and hobbies, leisure and holidays, backed by governmental service information. We did get The Times to agree to support the event with a feature and the market-leader Choice magazine was on-board.

However, it never quite reached orbital velocity in terms of space booked and I let it slip into the mists of time.

REDLAND – 1997

With nothing particularly gelling, we moved out of London and back to Bristol, our home-town, to Redland.

11 Cranbrook Road, Redland, Bristol BS6 7BJ

When we moved back I found I kept arriving everywhere far too early.  Locals complained about the traffic, and it was not great, but my London experiences meant I was over-compensating and arriving everywhere early.

We had been away from Bristol for almost thirty years and it was strange moving back to somewhere you know so well, yet have played no part in for so long.  We soon connected back with some of our extended family again. I tried to find things to do locally but initially spent most of my time working back in London – and Cheshire!

Four female generations on one sofa

National Skills Festival 2000

Richard Hease called and asked if I was free the next weekend to complete a tender for a new event. Manpower, the recruitment and workforce management organisation, had allocated some of its millennium-event funding to a show that would feature skills-training and apprenticeships. It was to have links with the World Skills Olympics.

The World Skills Olympics, now WorldSkills, is a biennial event developed originally by Spain and Portugal to showcase and challenge those under 23 in a raft of different industries. Today some 79 countries are involved, my memory is it was around 40 countries back then.

The UK had once run the ‘Olympics’ at the NEC in Birmingham and Margaret Thatcher had attended to hand out the prizes. Her speech stressed that the awards would serve to illustrate those countries fully invested in the skills of their youth, then had to preside over the fact that Britain had won only one award, a bronze in hairdressing! She was reputedly ‘spitting blood’ on the long car journey back to No 10.

The eventual outcome of her fury, was a body called UK Skills, which had at this point established its base nestled within the secretariat and offices of The Princes Trust. There were half-a-dozen pitches being made to the Prince’s Trust for this business. Richard had gathered four players for our bid and it just happened we were all in our 50s. Their decision maker was a retired army general and he confessed to us that we proved successful mostly because he understood us and was not terribly comfortable with the strident young men and women who presented the other bids. Regrettably he died shortly after making this decision and was replaced by a strident young woman.

National Skills Festival business card

Manpower had evolved a whole series of initiatives that included a series of checklist questionnaires that would assess a youngster’s interests and conclude on suitable careers. This was a time when Tony Blair’s government was suggesting every student should get a university place. The notion of the show was that there was an alternative, to pursue an apprenticeship and develop a skill. Of course, had we known then that students would soon incur £9,000 pa fees and leave their courses with debts of tens of thousands then we would have had even more evidence for this alternative approach.

The MoD was quick to commit to a large amount of exhibition space to showcase skilled careers in the armed services. But perhaps most interesting was BAe that had organised a whole series of initiatives in engineering. They arranged to have a Red Arrows’ pilot, a submariner and other inspirational characters who were engineers and ‘living the dream’. They had analysed the FTSE250 to establish that 40% of all main board directors were engineers. Their message was for students to consider an engineering career.

ASIDE: BAe did one exercise that rather back-fired. They asked school students a series of questions, one was to ‘Name a famous engineer’. Pause and think who you would assume would be on their lists – Isambard Kingdom Brunel, George and Robert Stephenson, Barnes Wallis, John Logie Baird, Thomas Telford, Alec Issigonis, Trevor Bayliss, James Dyson? However, the students’ number one engineer was the fictional Kevin Webster from Coronation Street! Clearly engineering needed rebranding.

As we were developing momentum for the show, the 1999 World Youth Skills Olympics were held in the Olympic Stadium at Montreal Canada – aka, the 35th WorldSkills Competition. We took a group to see it. This was a remarkable event, it was great to see the youth of forty countries competing from IT to dress-making, panel-beating to tiling, plumbing to hairdressing.

But the new strident young woman and I did not see eye to eye and I moved on.

MILLENNIUM MESSAGE

I still had a residual interest in the Millennium, because we had worked up a whole raft of notions that we would run alongside our MM! – one that I pursued despite not getting the short listing was the Millennium Message.

This was a CD-ROM that posed over a thousand questions about yourself, things that do define you, but have usually never before been recorded anywhere. The notion was that you recorded these and then we printed it out as a keepsake book.

Millennium Message CD-ROM

The background idea was that we cannot know what our antecedents did in the year 1000, but using the CD-ROM we could ensure our descendants in the year 3000 would now be able to know something of us.

Cover artwork of the Millennium Message CD-ROM

I see I must have been worrying about IPO rights as that front cover montage features our wedding photo, Dan as a toddler and Sarah with baby Chloe.

The CD-ROM set all those pressing questions that you will never have recorded – do you wear jockeys or Y-fronts; do you sleep in PJs, a T-shirt or in the nude; do you prefer tomato or brown sauce, white or brown bread, white or red wine; plus all the physiological, political, social, religious, cultural and economic data you cared to record.

We sold hundreds of these in the run up to the big night, and by happenstance selling one took on a religious significance for me. It was quite tough back then to acquire the right to take credit card details via the website and automated software was still in its infancy. So, I printed out orders from the site and, because I had installed the credit card machine in the dining room fireplace, I had to kneel down to enter the credit card details I had printed from our website. Credit card machines back then would pause like a quiz-show host, I remained on my knees until the chunter told me we had successfully sold another CD-ROM.

But the Millennium became as interesting as yesterday’s chip papers (when they were old newspapers!) and faded from the perception within weeks. All those software guys who had consultancies to avoid the Millennium Bug did a wonderful job, or it was never an issue.

ASIDE: My next-door neighbour in Redland was a teacher at Fairfield School (today a High School). Its catchment area was the locality of my childhood – Horfield, Lockleaze and Eastville. She asked if I would do a Millennium presentation to her students and I agreed. I arrived at the school and was queued with the pupils outside in the corridor while they prepped the lecture-theatre style room for my session. They were naturally rowdy, and one teacher laid into them verbally. When we filed in he introduced me by saying that I had given up a busy day to come and present to them. Talk about setting me up to fail! As it was there was an artful-dodger type in the front row who was quick to heckle me, and I could trigger my put-downs and responses on him. I enjoyed the interactions but made a mental note that teaching was not a career path for me.

FITNESS/SPORTS SHOW

I presented a paper at an industry event and one of my audience approached me after to ask that I meet up with he and his partner and consider grooming their events for onward sale. The two guys had created and developed a specialist magazine Sports Industry that focussed on all aspects of sporting venue facilities – sports surfaces, exercise equipment, changing room facilities, membership systems… Based upon the magazine they had launched an exhibition European Fitness Convention which was growing in size and they hoped it might be of interest for acquisition by a larger organising company.

Visitor Ticket
Fitness and Sports business cards

I spent some time with their accounts and budgeting system to draw it in line with the normal approach for shows and we talked through how to proceed. The big event in their sector was Leisure Industry Week owned by a major competitive publisher. But as is often the case in these trade sectors the inter-relationship was good with both advertising with the other, and both getting contra stands from the other.

We discussed with LIW their acquiring ‘Fitness’ but we ended up getting more interest from Montgomery Exhibitions, who were on one of their acquisition quests, and they bought the event.

ASIDE: There was an interesting nexus when I became involved with their next event at Earls Court (Level Two Brompton Hall). They asked me to become their event director, my wife Jane ran the organiser office, our son Matt was, somewhat coincidentally, in charge of the security contractor and an unrelated Steve Denton worked with the registration contractor – it must have felt like something of a Denton takeover.

Gerald Ratner turned up at the show. He had, early in the 1990s, made an unfortunate speech at the Institute of Directors when he called his products ‘total crap’ adding they were ‘cheaper than an M&S prawn sandwich but probably wouldn’t last as long’. Perhaps unsurprisingly he had shifted his attention more recently, and opened a health club in Henley-on-Thames.

Ratner turned up at our entrance to Earls Court with his car and essentially demanded a car-park slot to attend the show – the arrogance of the man was almost impressive if it was not so offensive.

OTHER CONSULTANCIES

While in the South West I came across another small team, Rapid in Chester. It was running a magazine and becoming involved in small exhibitions too. They focused on a fast-growing subject, that of designing and making both tools, prototypes and products digitally.

Their major focus was on rapid prototyping, and they had gathered an editorial panel of key academics from Warwick and Bath Uni’s, while working closely with leading companies in this emerging market. Like the Fitness team they had launched a related exhibition that was growing in size and they were looking for help on organising and perhaps later sale.

They asked me to be their Chairman, to perform several roles, preparing them for growth, expanding their exhibitions and perhaps look for an onward sale. Once again, I pitched in with redefining their business plan to reflect their ambitions and got involved in day-to-day business decisions that would move us forward. They had an issue that I had experienced many times, they were early, the sector was growing, but did not yet have much girth.

The exhibition proved to be more about a strong conference with an associated exhibition filling the breaks. The first I became involved with was in good shape and had a really strong line-up of speakers for their seminars, the keynote was by Sterling Moss. Jane and I sat with Sterling Moss for the formal dinner – he was such a gentleman, and reminded us so much of Jane’s father in looks and character.

The Sun, p.9, July 7, 2007 – Matt and Lewis

ASIDE: It was around this time that my son, Matt, describes an incident as him out-braking Lewis Hamilton on the M25. Lewis had just won the GP2 championship and been awarded his F1 seat. He was driving a loan Smart car, when the M25 did its inevitable shudder to a halt, and Lewis ran into the back of Matt’s car. They were both towed off the motorway and the two chatted in the pick-up truck. It would have ended there, except that there were delays in Matt being paid out on his car, presumably based on the circumstances of the Smart loaner. So eventually in despair Matt did sell the story to The Sun who had been pursuing him for it, but he insisted that they must be positive about Lewis, because he and Matt had got on so well. 

In retrospect I can’t recall why or when I started seeking out representative work, I know I attended several Institute of Directors sessions and began to present papers on various subjects and this did bring me in touch with a whole raft of opportunities, some I pursued.

For example, I met a guy at the IoD who had patented a new valve for use in multiple applications. Essentially his USP was that most valves put some part of themself into the pipe’s flow and increase pumping requirements to overcome the obstruction, adding to energy consumed and so on. His design used the geometric shapes of a cylinder so that the valve mechanism, when on, fully blocked the flow, but when off, the gate disappeared into the dimension of the pipe without creating any obstruction. I helped clean up his documentation and researched applications and potential buyers for a small fee and helped sell the idea on to others.

EAST HARPTREE – 2001

Now seemingly based in the Wes Country, we decided to trade Redland in for two homes. A lower cost English home out in the Chew Valley of Somerset and a villa in Spain.

Sunnyside Cottage, Townsend, East Harptree, BS40 6BH

Sunnyside was close to the Chew Valley lakes and placed us closer to the Royal Bath & West Showground. A visible sign of us going ‘country’ was when we went out and bought some serious walking shoes. But the week we moved in, there was an outbreak of Foot & Mouth Disease and even the footpath that crossed in front of our cottage was closed with notes threatening prosecution for those who transgressed – or trespassed. 

In the end we stayed only ten months. I painted the outside, put in a good patio and sold the house for a £50k+ profit – to the couple that we had beaten to the house earlier.

ASIDE: Matt was involved in the Ideal Home and I visited to collect grandson Dan, to take him to the Natural History Museum and then back to Somerset. The attraction was that like most children of his age he was besotted by dinosaurs and I took him to see the Animatronic T-Rex at the museum. As you enter the display the museum had placed two small raptors. They made a noise that completely freaked toddler Dan out, I had to carry him wriggling in fear past them and the T-Rex, so it was not much of a success.

On the train heading westward, opposite Dan was a young woman, heavily pregnant with her first child. She appeared to seek some useful experience by talking with Dan. He explained he had seen the T-Rex, though nothing of his reaction now he was safely away from the environment. The woman asked, ‘Could it eat you?’, Dan pondered this and said ‘Oh yes – in one gob’ – the carriage around us dissolved into giggles.

BATH & WEST

Living in the South West I had looked around for appropriate local work and landed the role as Commercial Director of the Royal Bath & West. My role was not to focus on its annual four-day agricultural show, but instead to use the 240-acre Shepton Mallet showground and its buildings across the other 361 days.

Royal Bath & West business card

It was not quite the rural idyll I had imagined. Our biggest income of the year was during the Glastonbury Festival that was held five miles away at Pilton. We became the cells for the Avon & Somerset Constabulary serving that festival. There was a real manpower issue, in that if they arrested someone the paperwork would take the PCs off site as they processed the arrestee. The solution was to helicopter individuals to our site, arrest them here and pop them into cells built in our cowsheds and process them later. The hire charge we levied was our biggest invoice of the year (outside of the Royal Show).

The police were rather less keen on our three Raves each year. There were several drug deaths on the way to or from us, fortunately none actually at site. One thing I learned from these was to be the contractor who supplied bottled water, those taking drugs needed lots.

We had an annual Hells Angel event which raised some interesting issues. The Metropolitan Police called me and said I should cancel it because their intelligence unit had learned that a rival group, was threatening to mete out revenge for a death at another event. I met with the event team, they were all professional men who liked bikes. They knew of the threat and explained that they would have outriders along all the major routes to the show ground (A303, A36, A37, A39…) and if they detected this other group, they would intercept and deal with them well away from our showground. They believed it was merely a threat and they were quite convincing, so I permitted it to go ahead – without a problem.

Royal Bath & West Showground

My wife Jane came to see the Hells Angel event and was struck by the difference between the clean shiny bikes and the ‘disgusting’ jeans (her word). Typical of Jane, her summary comment was that she had never seen so many jeans she wanted to get into the washing machine. The other incident is recounted above under ‘Religious Persuasion’ the incident of the Hells Angel, his ‘bird’s tits’ and the Bishop of Bath & Wells.

I bought myself a little Toyota RAV and darted around the site, becoming involved in building berms, arguing water-drawing rights, negotiating for brown directional signs, redecorating sheds, planting trees and managing woods. I helped to wrangle cattle, officially moved a badger sett, designed and built car park kiosks, planned for a pre-built modular hotel – it was engrossing, and a complete departure for me.

But, sadly, the overall feeling was of a place that time had forgotten. It was very ethnically cleansed, completely untouched by immigration. When people came down from Town the grass-keep guys would snigger at their clothes (just like at Granada Bedford, above).

There was class gulf with the Society run by a Brigadier and driven by the local ‘Great & Good’ and the grafters on the showground. There was even a pecking order within the categories of beast being displayed – Horses came top, Cattle was next, Sheep, Goats and Pigs were lesser, and the nice lady who worried about the badgers was somewhere close to the bottom, and of course despised by ‘Cattle’.

The local toffs fought to maintain their privileges while on site. Principal among these was the right to sleep on site in a set of damp garden sheds. They had sleeping bags laid on big blocks of foam, which sat in the none-too-waterproofed shed the whole year round and needed a bit of airing before they arrived. The real appeal was that they could get pissed in one of the bars, have dinner, roll back to their hut where a batman would help them into bed and polish their shoes while they slept. All it lacked was a Matron or Nanny!

ASIDE: One of these toffs had a driving accident on the showground. The Society, and others around the country, believed that these were private roads. As a result of this accident the police promptly disabused them of this, saying that, as many thousands of the public entered the grounds, they were public areas. To say the ordure hit the fan would be an understatement. For a start many of the Society vehicles never left the showground so they had been insured but never taxed or MoT-ed. It then emerged that many of the maintenance team had no driving licence or insurance, some had lost these through an offence, others had never had them – yet they drove around the site freely (flashback to me doing the same at the M4/N5 interchange site, above). Worse, we had a number of car parks sited around the showground and if these were public territory then we needed to install lighting, for the security of unaccompanied ladies, late in the evening walking back to their vehicles. To achieve all of this levied a heavy cost on all the agricultural societies in the UK.

For my events (outside the Main Show) there were other issues. For example, we had a good high-end antiques show that opened within ten days of the Main Event. Despite moving the cattle out promptly, and steam cleaning it several times every day, there was still a distinct lingering tang of Eau de Vache in the hall – where was my Texas BS Repellent now? This was not really conducive to browsing high-end antiques, but we did our very best to mask it.

© Bob Denton 2019
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