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FutureScape doubles size of business despite pandemic

by Emily Wallin

From the buds of a small family-run show Eljays44 have nourished the green shoots of the landscaping world to blossom into a hardy perennial. EN deputy editor Emily Wallin spoke to managing director Jim Wilkinson and director Jamie Wilkinson for the cover feature of this month’s magazine.

 

The flourishing FutureScape show is one of the best examples of growth in a tough climate over the past two years.
While many exhibitions wilted during the pandemic, Eljays44, a small family-run independent business based in Littlehampton, West Sussex, has blossomed – more than doubling the size of their pre-pandemic shows.
Originally a print publisher, Eljays44 launched FutureScape as a small show in 2014.

By 2019 the show had been selling out Sandown Racecourse for several years and was ready to move to ExCeL. But with just hours before the doors opened to their spring show in March 2020 the country was plunged into lockdown.
Finally back on the show floor, the November 2021 edition of FutureScape was more than double the size of any of their previous events – with 180 exhibitors and 5,000 visitors.
As the nation looked to their outdoor spaces during lockdown the landscaping business has been booming, and the green shoots continue to grow.

Dead money


Eljays44 director Jamie Wilkinson describes the moment they had to cancel their show just hours before the doors opened as “crazy panic”. He says: “The spring event was due to run on 15 March 2020 and the pre-lockdown rules came in on 14 March. We had done all the work. Everything was in the van. We had to call it off at the very last minute. We had two choices: either run it with nobody there or can it. It was dead money.”


They had been preparing to move their main autumn FutureScape show to ExCeL since 2019. The bigger event was set to double anything they had done before at Sandown – but as an independent business they struggled to survive. MD Jim Wilkinson says: “In 2019 we went out and sold to all our top exhibitors, telling them that we were moving to ExCeL in 2020. “By March 2020 we had already doubled the size we ere expecting at ExCeL, but then we had to cancel.
“When we couldn’t do it, as independent business relying on exhibitions as the source of its revenue and profit it was quite a struggle for us. “Luckily 2021 was a massive success.”
Whereas bigger companies were shielded from the losses, independent organisers struggled to stay afloat. By building on the market-leading trust of their brand and magazines in the landscaping sector Eljays44 was able to weather the storm.
Jim says: “We tend to be a lot closer to the market. We own the awards, the magazine, the show. Because we know them and can talk to them it allowed us to move people along with us.
“As an independent you’re a lot closer. That can work for and against us,” Jamie adds. “As a big organisation you can cancel a show and tell people that’s the way it is. For us, it feels more personal.”
Jim says: “In hindsight it was really good to do some virtual stuff. It kept the brand alive. From the visitors’ point of view they were getting some first class interaction. Our exhibitors who stuck with us were appreciative of us doing the virtual stuff. There was quite a lot of good will.”
After an initial dip, the landscaping sector came back with a vengeance – and the opportunities keep on growing. Even the publishing arm of their business has had its best ever year.
“There is so much going on in this sector and FutureScape is the only place they can have that interaction. There’s lots of live debates, there’s lots of Q&A sessions. Because of the strength of the brand we are able to bring in top speakers.
“Our magazine ProLandscaper is 100% at the heart of the sector.”

Priority sector
Throughout the pandemic the landscaping sector was seen as a priority service and able to carry on working.
“The domestic market is absolutely booming,” Jim says and after months of looking at our forlorn outside spaces demand for gardening services has gone wild. “Since lockdown if you wanted to find a contractor to come and do your garden you might have to wait six months. The commercial side, doing gardens in big residential new builds were slowed down slightly, but in the whole the landscaping sector was still working.”
Jamie says: “That’s where we have been very fortunate. It was bad for the events industry as a whole, but in our sector it didn’t have such a negative effect because they were busier.
“The fact that we have been able to grow the event is amazing. We have doubled in size. The audience grew. That’s the exception from the norm. A lot of other events I went to shrank in numbers of exhibitors and many had a hit on visitor numbers depending on how close they were to winter. We have now gone into this year with really high rebook rate, we have already got the same floorplan sold with another 30% or 40% extra inside. So the next event in November will be even bigger.
“It may have been luck that our show was November, just when things were getting back to normal. But now we have gone into this year well ahead of where we were two years previously.
“In Germany and France their landscaping events are mammoth. They are ten times the size of our events where their landscaping sectors are smaller or similar size to ours. We’ve obviously delivered good growth, but we’re really just touching the surface.”
Jim adds: “We’re in a fantastic position and our core business has allowed us to grow as we want to.
“FutureScape does extremely well from the people we’ve always done well from, but there are so many peripheral sectors we can now expand into as well. By going to ExCeL we now have much more opportunity to go into those peripheral markets. Our strength comes from our core, but we can also do so much more.”

Sustainable growth
As gardeners, developers and public bodies look to improve sustainability, landscaping is often the answer to their climate-friendly prayers. Huge growth has come from the drive towards net zero. Green elements are now a requirement of all developments and carbon offsetting means more trees.
Jim says: “The more people compete about sustainability, the more it helps the landscaping sector, because what the solution tends to be is landscaping and green spaces.
“It’s plant some trees. Have open spaces and parks. Most of the solutions are beneficial to our audience.
“The market is booming. It’s worth £11.6bn. They reckon by 2030 it’ll be worth £42bn. There isn’t any other market increasing and growing at that speed and when we first came into the market in 2007 it was worth half what it is now. Whether it was good timing for us or luck that we got in at the right time and the whole sector is increasing its profile.”
Despite their good fortunes there are some downsides to being smaller fish in the pond and their lack of size means they are not always able seize the opportunities coming their way.
Jim explains: “One of the big companies might have the resources and finance to chuck behind it and grow as big as possible especially if they can see the potential is there and is massive. For us being a smaller, independent family run business we have to be quite selective about how we do it and at what speed. That can be a negative of not being part of a big corporate money funded business.”
But the barriers are not insurmountable. Their spring show will go ahead at Sandown this March but they will be considering their options to expand in 2023.
“We have to look at when we’re too big to stay there,” says Jim. “We need to look at opportunities to grow.”
Jamie adds: “Sandown were really supportive of businesses when Covid-19 happened. Same as bigger organisers being more faceless, where bigger venues may have had a more brutal approach, Sandown was amazing.
“Now we have got this opportunity to grow our spring event and we need the facility that will allow us to do that and we have to get that balance right. We have some big decisions to make because spring will sell out this year and going into FutureScape in the autumn we have ExCeL. But for the 2023 spring event we have to look at how to maximise that opportunity.”

This article is the cover feature of the  February edition of EN

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