After three years with no show of its kind in the UK, extra pressure was mounted on the debut of Nineteen Group’s Retail Technology Show at Olympia London. Event director Matt Bradley tells EN how he wanted to “rip up convention” by creating a festival vibe at the event, aided by stars such as Tinie Tempah and Deliciously Ella.
Despite working in the industry for 20 years, Matt Bradley does not consider himself an exhibition organiser – and he would like the launch of the Retail Technology Show (RTS) to reflect that. In those two decades he says the show is the most exciting he has ever worked on.
“I hate conforming to what people think events or exhibitions should look like,” says RTS event director Bradley. “I have never considered myself an exhibition director. I don’t run exhibitions, I run events, extravaganzas, happenings.
“This is an extravaganza – this is enormous – it’s bringing retail back together.
“The people that run trade shows are really successful and very good at what they do, it just doesn’t excite me necessarily. I’ve always wanted to do something that’s a little bit different. I like to rip up convention.”
With the April sunshine beaming through Olympia London’s windows, the show, which took place from 25-26 April, hosted 6,850 attendees and 200 vendor stands, alongside a conference programme that featured more than 90 speakers. Along with young entrepreneurs such as Ella Mills, founder of food blog Deliciously Ella and rapper Tinie Tempah, the event also hosted leading industry figures such as New Look chairman and former Sainsburys CEO Mike Coupe.
“There was this feeling of unity and joy and delight to be back at a show that was sold out 6/7 weeks before we opened the doors,” says Bradley.
“Whenever I announce the doors are open, no one really takes notice, but this time the whole floor started cheering and applauding.
“That is an energy that I’ve never felt before. I felt completely overwhelmed and quite emotional about it all. It was a special moment.”
Last minute change
A major pull of RTS had been its original headliner, Dragon’s Den investor and CEO of Social Chain Steven Bartlett, who had to pull out due to personal issues but promised to attend’s next year’s event.
“I’m honestly gutted to be missing out on this,” said Bartlett in a heartfelt apology video. “When I was told about the people that would be there and the context of the event, I was tremendously excited,” he said, adding that “events like this have changed my life over the years.”
In Bartlett’s absence the headline spot was taken on by Tinie Tempah – or ‘Tinie’ as he is now known – and Sam Jones, founder of Elev8, a man widely regarded as greatest ever pitcher on Dragons’ Den.
Described by the session’s host Andrew Busby as “two of the coolest men around”, the pair discussed NFTs, the metaverse and changes in the digital landscape, in front of a largely young, packed-out crowd in Olympia’s Headline Theatre.
The show’s main event added to the ‘festival feel’ that Bradley emphasises, with what felt like half the venue queuing up to grab their seats.
Bradley received the bad news of Bartlett’s cancellation early on a Monday morning, but adds that it “caused more issues in my head” as the event’s speaker agency swiftly found a strong replacement. The show’s addition of Tinie came via Jones as the rapper turned entrepreneur is one of his main investors.
“Within a day we moved on. That’s the only way to survive in the exhibitions industry – to be resilient, to improvise and to overcome.”
Show floor buzz
The buzz at the venue was also created by live music, flash mobs and a champagne bar that gathered members of the retail industry together at the end of the first day.
“There were headline acts, not just trade show people who you expect to do the circuit. I’ve always wanted to run a show that doesn’t have that feeling of an everyday exhibition.”
Bradley says bringing in big names is a model that other exhibition organisers will now look to emulate off the back of the show.
“I wouldn’t be surprised to see A-list celebrities appearing in other trade shows in the next few years.”
He adds that small details such as using imagery of the main speakers as if they were headline Glastonbury performers were key marketing tools for implementing his vision.
“I stole a lot from live events, rather than other trade shows. I don’t want to necessarily run a trade show, I want to run an event.”
Bradley says RTS’ marketing campaign was different to other shows. His team pushed out a promo video “like it was a summer blockbuster movie” while not using “standard, stock exhibition video music”, as well as posting images of Bradley as Mystig Meg and the Greatest Showman.
“Our social media campaign was based upon reunion and bringing people together and it got away from all the corporate stuff.”
As for why the RTS was the most exciting event he had worked on in his career, he says: “There’s a lot of factors around that – the fact there hadn’t been a show for three years and the fact there wasn’t going to be a show in this industry.
“There was no organisation or exhibition company that would support a retail technology show. The industry needed it and felt absolutely devastated and abandoned that it wasn’t going
Bradley is certainly no stranger to the world of retail technology, having launched Retail Business Technology Expo in 2011, organised by Reed (now RX), which was later rebranded to Retail Expo.
Following the cancellation of Retail Expo 2020, RX took the decision to not run the event a year later, but Bradley felt the industry needed and deserved another show.
“When I spoke to the industry, there was a real feeling of disappointment and sadness. As a show over the previous 10 years, it had served really well to bring the industry together.
“There was a feeling from the exhibitors and retailers of ‘what
“When Nineteen approached me to run it with them, it was a no brainer.”
Bradley says building a database from a highly disruptive retail sector proved a major challenge for the event, not to mention launching while Covid restrictions where still in place.
He says the combination of his strong team, an excitable market and support from the retail technology media industry made the job of launching the show far easier.
“Walking into the show I felt like the whole industry was behind me. Everyone wanted it to succeed. You don’t get those feelings very often – I felt very proud to be involved in it.”
Bradley says 85% of the booth for next year’s event was booked on site and it’s looking likely that the event will expand into Olympia’s National Hall, meaning the size of the show will double.
“It’s a real success story. It’s only going in one direction and that’s bigger. Maybe that will be the theme for next year – ‘bigger, better, brighter’.”