Does the hospitality industry need its own catering equipment-only trade show?
That question kind of became redundant this week because on Tuesday and Wednesday it finally got one. Birmingham was the place to be for those in the business of either supplying or buying professional kitchens as the two-day Commercial Kitchen show opened its doors to much fanfare.
The sprawling NEC exhibition complex has a reputation for being devoid of any sort of soul, but visitors that navigated their way to Hall 8 in search of stainless steel utopia were treated to a pretty compelling couple of days.
Around 80 manufacturers and suppliers put their money where their mouth was to take part in the inaugural show, but many more were in attendance on reconnaissance missions to judge whether it’s something they should think about getting involved with in future.
Although most visitors would have been to the NEC before for other events, and there is a tendency for exhibitions there to all feel rather the same, I felt Commercial Kitchen instantly had its own vibe upon entering the show. The green and black colour scheme proved a branding masterstroke, while touches such as the live band and central Chiller Lounge and VIP Area helped to add to what was a refreshingly relaxed mood.
Commercial Kitchen’s partnership with CEDA also benefited the show. The CEDA Design Gallery was striking, while more than half of the trade body’s membership was in attendance on day one and helped to swell what was a strong turnout from the distributor community throughout the show.
I would have thought manufacturers would have been very pleased at seeing so many distributors given their essential role in the supply chain, although distributors that exhibited themselves, such as ACME, Bournville and Space Catering, might understandably have a different view as they would have been measuring the fruitfulness of the show by the end-users that came their way.
In my opinion the second day felt even busier than the first, with a real peak in footfall between 11am and 2pm. Exhibitors will inevitably want as many visitors as possible through the doors whatever show they are at – and the aim of any trade show organiser will be to grow that number year on year – but the emphasis with this particular show was always on quality and relevance.
Most brands that I talked to acknowledged this and were encouraged by the calibre of buyers and operators on their stands. Even some of those I bumped into that didn’t have booths spoke highly of the faces that they’d seen in the aisles. Multi-site operators such as Whitbread, Hilton, Mitchells & Butlers, Pizza Hut, Punch Taverns, Starbucks, Sainsbury’s and Tesco, as well as many of the big contract caterers and casual dining and pub chains, were all there in search of inspiration and innovation.
Organisers had made a big point of the fact that the show was only open to those involved in buying and specifying catering equipment, and this policy certainly got a ringing endorsement from exhibitors. “This show doesn’t have any tyre kickers” was a phrase I heard on several occasions.
As I’ve said before, the success of a trade show in the eyes of those exhibiting tends to boil down to expectation. For some brands it is primarily about promoting new products and reinforcing relationships, for others it’s an exercise to generate completely new business.
Others, meanwhile, are there because they don’t want to miss out on not being there. But the old adage that conversations make transactions remains true, and you never know when something that someone has seen firsthand will spark an order next time a kitchen is being planned or a replacement is needed. One manufacturer who got through to the final of the show’s Innovation Awards (in which manufacturers had 90 seconds to convince a panel of judges about the USPs of their equipment) was approached by a large supermarket’s café buying team purely off the back of the pitch he made.
The Keynote Theatre was the location for a number of interesting and highly topical debates throughout the two days, with issues such as value engineering and the FCSI provoking discussion.
Industry stalwarts such as Theo Randall, Peter Woods of Corinthia London and Dirk Wissmann from Pret A Manger also provided focused and rarely-heard-before insight into the way in which catering equipment trends are affecting their daily lives and businesses. The keynote speaker sessions that take place at Casual Dining, another show that organisers Diversified Communication runs, are notoriously packed affairs and I am sure the same will come to be true of Commercial Kitchen given the marker it laid down with this year’s schedule.
Ultimately, though, Commercial Kitchen promised a show that was solely about back-of-house equipment for those solely involved in developing and operating commercial kitchens. On that basis you have to say they succeeded. The next challenge is whether they can grow the show and garner greater market support to the point where it becomes a fixture in the industry calendar that nobody feels they can afford to miss.