BLE 19: “I know people have been waiting to see if we could pull the venue change off”

BLE Show Director Anna Knight on a successful first day, why next year’s theme is fashion, and the future of the show in London’s east end

Written by Rhys Thomas

Posted 02.10.2019 | Events

BLE 19: “I know people have been waiting to see if we could pull the venue change off” thumbnail

We’re here for the first BLE at ExCel – how are the exhibitors feeling about their new home?

Speaking to exhibitors, no one can deny how amazing it looks, how it suits the venue, how there’s space to breathe – it’s much more experiential and the buzz is there. Olympia, as a venue, was more twisty and compact, and that was always a good thing numbers-wise, honestly, because it feels really busy and you might bump into someone in the aisles.

Last year we had the two central, wider aisles. But moving here we wanted to ensure every exhibitor had better positioning and line of sight. We’ve modelled it roughly on the New York grid system, and that’s fairer to all exhibitors. A lot of people are happy with that.

One of the other big changes in the layout is how the various sectors are zoned – they feel less isolated than previously over in west London. Was that your plan from the start?

For a number of years at Olympia, Brand and Lifestyle and Art and Design were upstairs. Last year we got it all on one floor, but it was still more sectioned off than we ideally wanted. It’s very important that zones are maintained, because these are different sorts of brands with different sorts types of licensing, but I like the fact that here you move between them seamlessly.

There’s innovation everywhere in licensing. Character and entertainment brands by their nature are often louder, and bolder and flashier – and they can tend to dominate a show floor. Actually, there’s so much going on. There are some amazing brands in Brand and Lifestyle and Art and Design that retailers and licensees really want to work with, whether that’s because there’s heritage behind the brand, or it’s a safe bet but the licensor has refreshed in such a way it almost feels brand new.

We hear a lot of people say, ‘I want to be a lifestyle brand’, and it can sound cliché. But they mean it and they’re doing it. Being a lifestyle brand means being embedded in people’s lives and that’s utopia for so many different brands. Right now brands matter – it’s all about brand trust and brand equity, and there are so many exhibitors on the floor who absolutely nail that.

Anna Knight

How did you decide on this year’s various showcases – The Arcade activation and the publishing Beyond the Book area?

Everything is cyclical. Publishing is about this cross-generational appeal. Some of the brands are 40 years old, some 25, others 80, and it’s all about bringing them back for a new generation, in a way that they’ll love the same way their parents or grandparents did. Live experiences is something publishing really works with and we wanted to dedicate space to show that off.

Esports is interesting because it’s going to be so significant – and we’re right on the cusp of it – but unlike books, a lot of people don’t fully understand it yet. That’s why we wanted to spotlight it here in the The Arcade. But I do think esports is just sport – it’s just sport and gaming uniting, which is one of the most powerful combinations I think there could ever be.

The industry has gone through a shift to consolidation, collabs, co-production and all the co-operative verbs in the dictionary. How has that impacted the show in terms of the exhibitors and visitors you attract?

For me it’s all about the surprise of what brands can work together. Look at our fashion activations in the entrance. The Sanrio x Diffuzed x Jimmy Paul is a triple collaboration, and it’s so well done. It’s clever, and complicated and simple in equal measures, and that is what modern licensing is. People are just thinking differently about how to stay relevant. If you have a brand that’s been around for a while, collabs are the way to keep it fresh. Of course, collabs are the new thing now and the novelty, and I’m sure there will be something new along in the near future. But everyone is going to ride that wave while it’s still hot.

And that’s why next year fashion is going to be the theme of the whole show. This year we wanted multiple themes, because we’ve moved venue and we wanted to make it the biggest, most multi-dimensional show we could – and I think that’s worked well.

So a focus on fashion? What’s the thinking behind that?

Six months ago, we began thinking about what we wanted to do in 2020. For me fashion is inclusive. Everyone can get behind it. It allows us to showcase every exhibitor in many different ways, but it also enables us to showcase what this venue can do as well. We’ll be using every digital screen, creating a catwalk, focusing on experiential.

Lots of brands now are using fashion to break through. That’s ratcheted up dramatically in the past six to 12 months. You still have a really robust toy market – which is going through its own changes – but now fashion has stepped in alongside that as the entry point. That’s a really interesting shift, and a reason we wanted to spotlight fashion from all angles.

With day one coming to a close, are you pleased with how the show kicked off and the reality of it all?

I’ve gone on record saying this so many times, but I think it’s worth reiterating. Change is hard, and we’ve written cards to every exhibitor to thank them for their patience and support. I know people have been waiting to see if we could pull the venue change off, and I think it would be quite hard to say now that we didn’t.

But we also know, this is more than a venue. There was a community at Olympia, and the show doesn’t end when the doors close each evening. We don’t know yet which bar everyone will go to for a few drinks. And we won’t until a couple of years down the line. It will take a little while until east feels like home. We know that, and we’ve put after show events on to give everyone somewhere to congregate around. But I do know that we have an opportunity to do something special here and I think we’ve taken the first big step towards that.

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