Barlow Nurseries

Growers of trees, shrubs and hardy herbaceous perennial garden plants near Newport, Shropshire

So farewell then, Newport Show

We can’t actually remember when we did our first Newport Show, but it must be about 12 years since our late neighbour John Byrd (who just happened to be show president that year) knocked on our door, and cajoled us into taking a stand.

At the time it seemed like a huge leap into the unknown, and THE BIG LEAGUE, because we’d never done a show so large, or laid out so much cash for a single event.

A strange twist of fate ensued a few weeks later when the horticultural secretary ‘phoned and explained that one of the show’s long standing exhibitors had pulled out, and asked if we’d put on an extra large display to try and fill what would otherwise have been a bit of a void on the show ground.

And so began an annual routine that would see us fronting the horticulture marquee for something like the next dozen years.   It was a mutually beneficial arrangement – we got local publicity and sold some plants, and the show ground got a special bit of plant-based animation and colour.  In truth, it was an arrangement and a feature on the nursery calendar that we thought would continue until we became too infirm to carry on (which is a few years off yet, hopefully).

Newport Show holds a special place in the hearts of thousands of Novaportans; we’ve met people who’ve been to every show in their lives, and stewards who’ve volunteered at the show, year in year out, for decades.   It’s a local institution, and generates a fierce pride amongst many of the townsfolk.   And it’s a lovely community to be part of – there is real magic in the air on show day, and being part of it is genuinely exciting.  The sense of anticipation as the sun rises over the showground is electric (yes, we’ve been there before dawn some days!).

And so it surprised nobody more than us to find that this year we spent show day serving customers on the nursery, and not on a showground stand.

It’s always been part of the Barlow Nurseries business plan that we’d do fewer and fewer shows each year, and skew the business more and more towards sales from home.   Shows are phenomenally hard work, and it’s not a lifestyle that you can continue into your dotage.

The plan has been going well – in our early days Louise was selling at shows on about 35 days each year;  this year we’re down to just 4 show days.   But we always assumed that Newport Show wouldn’t be part of the wind-down;  it’s extreme proximity (the show ground is about 3 miles from the nursery) made the logistics pretty straightforward, and it was fun – we’d see huge numbers of friends and customers there, and it was as much a  social occasion as a sales opportunity.

But in the end, the economics defeated us.   The grim reality is that agricultural shows tend to be too expensive for horticulture exhibitors.   We’ve tried all the nearby shows (and some not so nearby ones!) over the years (Nantwich, Stafford, Oswestry, Burwarton, West Mids (RIP!) Bakewell) and found them all too expensive.   We hung in with Newport for sentimental reasons as much as anything.   Then, about 4 years ago the committee decided that they were out of step with what they perceived to be the going rate for agricultural show fees, and that they would wind their fees up (in “manageable” steps), until they achieved market rate.   This, combined with a less relaxed attitude to the amount of space we could consume, meant that our 2009 fees were about 3 times what we’d paid in our first year.

This is all dead normal stuff of course;  we have no problem with the show getting as much as they can from their exhibitors.   And no problem with the rules of supply and demand which inevitably apply – just a bit sad that we find ourselves low down on the curve, so our demand is going to drop off quickest!

In reality then, the writing has been on the wall for a few years.   We could see the fees escalating beyond reach.   We tried to put a case forward for special horticutural rates, but our pleas fell on deaf ears.   We tried to cost the show in a way that would make our attendance worthwhile, but even with our most creative accounting hats on, we couldn’t make it work.  Economically, the show doesn’t make sense anymore.   And the grim reality is that we’re here to make a living, so if it isn’t working we can’t do it, no matter how much we’d like to.

And so, we’re not!

We were expecting our Saturday at home to be very quiet, but someone somewhere must be looking out for us because we had one of our best Saturdays of the year.   In July, in a business which peaks in spring.   Completely inexplicable, but wonderfully reassuring.  If we’d been at the show we’d have missed that custom entirely, and left those customers disgruntled that we’d been closed when they came.

So a decision reluctantly reached, but happily concluded.   As one of our visitors said – “you don’t need to go to the show – you’ve got your own show right here!”

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