EN talks sustainability, associations and changing the face of stand-building with the EN Elite Awards ‘Outstanding Contribution to the Industry’ winner.
There are numerous family businesses in the world of exhibitions, with generations of the same family working to improve our industry.
Richard Armitage, the recipient of the Outstanding Contribution to the Industry award at the EN Elite Awards and MD of Octanorm UK for over four decades, can lay claim to two exhibition industry dynasties.
“I was in the industry from birth,” he tells EN. “My mother was a Perton and my father had a company called Springvale Exhibitions & Electrics.”
Perton Signs was established in 1864 and, says Armitage, was bigger back then than it is today.
“Not because it’s going backwards, because they’re going onwards and upwards,” he adds. “Before computers and digitisation every sign was hand-painted, so there were more than 100 sign writers round the back of Olympia London and Earl’s Court at the Fort.”
Their mutual connection to the industry was how Armitage’s parents met, when his father used to go to Perton Signs to get signs for stands that Springvale was producing.
Armitage recalls Bertram Mills Circus coming to Olympia for the Christmas season during his childhood in the 1940s.
“I fed elephants,” he recalls. “I took a lion cub for a walk on Blythe Road. I knew Coco the Clown – very nice man. To my knowledge all the animals were treated very well, and it was a good way of letting children see the real thing.”
As the Second World War approached, Armitage’s grandfather on his father’s side was tasked with creating blackout blinds and ultimately sold his business to Beck & Pollitzer, which became Beck Exhibitions before eventually forming part of another well-known company today: GES.
Despite his exhibition industry pedigree, Armitage never wanted to enter the business himself.
“It was totally driven by unions, which were a nightmare,” he explains. “It was a lot of late night working – ‘ghosters’ as they were called – weekend working, and it wasn’t very sociable as a business. I never really saw my father; he’d come in after I’d gone to bed and leave before I got up in the morning.”
Armitage instead entered the world of advertising in sixties London, working in various agencies and focussing on television and international advertising.
“It was immense fun,” he tells EN. “You could pack up on Friday and have another job on Monday in those days, it was different to how it is today.”
A successful stint advertising baby food for Glaxo resulted in a job offer with Nestle in Vevey, Switzerland, targeting Africa and the Middle East, skiing at the weekends.
It was during this time that Armitage first came into contact with Hans Staeger, a German who was at that time running an exhibition contracting division of an advertising agency. Staeger had been involved in the design of a plastic clip system to hold sheets of glass together for shop displays, and Armitage had an interest in using the system for his own promotions.
When Armitage’s time in Switzerland came to end, in 1968, he returned to the UK and was visiting his uncle Bill Perton (father of Perton Signs MD Mark Perton) when he came across the same plastic clip system.
“A businessman down the road had gone bust and owed him money for sign work and so he had just cleared out his office,” explains Armitage. He immediately got on the phone to Staeger and went out to visit him in person.
“He didn’t know that my family connection was exhibitions, so we had a lot to talk about. Here was I at a German exhibition contractor’s company understanding everything that he was doing because I was familiar with it back home in England,” he continues. “We’re talking 1968, and the Germans still very much remembered the war, but we got on very well. We didn’t dwell on the past, we just liked each other.
“We talked about the way stands were built in the old days, with stock panels, wallpaper and paint and how laborious it was, how it took ages to do and how there must be a better way. We developed with others an aluminium system, the first aluminium system designed to build exhibition stands, and it was launched to the press on 6 December 1968.”
The system, which was reusable and easily recyclable, became the first system used at the NEC and ExCeL London, and enabled organisers to rapidly reduce build-up and breakdown times.
“There’s still nothing better or quicker,” adds Armitage. “We got rid of a whole trade in the industry – painters and decorators. We cut tenancy times enormously and reduced the cost of shell scheme. The price that it is today is a fraction of what it was. Venues have done very well out of it because they have more shows and organisers have shorter tenancies and shorter builds.”
Armitage was present in South Africa to celebrate the 50th birthday of Octanorm at the Octanorm Service Partner International event in December 2018.
A changing industry
Throughout the course of Armitage’s 50-plus years working in exhibitions, innovations like inkjet printing, changes in badging and registration and an increased focus on sustainability and health & safety have all made their mark on the industry.
One of the most noticeable changes has been the evolution of the industry’s associations, a change Armitage doesn’t see as a wholly positive one. His grandfathers were actively involved in the formation of the National Association of Exhibition Contractors, which subsequently became BECA (the British Exhibition Contractors’ Association). Nowadays the three exhibition industry associations – ESSA, the AEV and the AEO – share an office and often work cooperatively on various industry projects and working groups, which is where Armitage believes the issue lies.
“It’s vital to have an association, but they should be independent. I don’t think the poacher should be in cahoots with the gamekeeper,” he explains. “They have different priorities, although they rely on each other. Venues don’t like organisers; I know they are their lifeblood and their customers, but organisers are trying to screw down on tenancy costs, they’re trying to nick days when they can for nothing and they’re trying to get exclusivity. It’s a battle of wits between the hall owner and the organiser. And all of this with the contractor at the end of the food chain picking up the scraps.
“I don’t think they should be in the same club. But one should never forget the exhibitor and the visitor, without them we are lost. It’s five-legged stool.” EN