Cottage Industries

Country Shows and Christmas Fairs – shop for something different

When you think of Country Fairs and Agricultural shows, long gone are the days of only being able to buy designer wellies, a waxed jacket and shooting sticks. Shopping is big business and Cottage Industries is considered to be one of the best providers of giftware retail in the marketplace.

Paul Leonard is the founder of Cottage Industries, he has always had a passion for the outdoor event and being a ‘proud Brit’, was a keen country show-goer. He realised the need for several brands ‘all under one roof’ at these events and decided to partner that passion with his shopping marquee business idea.

Since launching Cottage Industries Association over 15 years ago, his ‘Shop For Something Different’ marquees have become one of the biggest players on the gift fair scene and continue to grow. Whilst providing excellent trading opportunities at some of the UK’s best country shows, Paul also includes electricity as he thinks it is important that each trader’s goods are well presented and clearly visible to shoppers.

This year Paul and his team will be in attendance at approximately 30 country shows, agricultural fairs and Christmas shows. I visited the recent Lincolnshire Show to experience his shopping experience for myself.

Lincolnshire Show

The Lincolnshire Show coincided with another of Paul’s fairs, The Royal Highland Show so I didn’t get to meet Paul on this occasion, but I was very well looked after by Stephen Preston, The Marquee Manager.

Based at Lincoln Showground, over some 270 acres, I wondered how on earth people would find their way around. The show has guide boards dotted around and of course there is the obligatory programme, but there is no missing the Shop For Something Different marquee with it’s large, bright yellow ‘Shopping Marquee’ banner, mounted on top of the roof.

The marquee is 30x12m and will generally house 30-35 stalls. They had a ‘T’ section, allowing more space for 37 traders. Stephen, who is also a trader, became a manager last year. He is responsible for the set-up, marking up of pitches and the all-important tea room, whilst ensuring that everything runs smoothly during the event. Stephen’s business is ‘Oh so pretty’, selling a colourful selection of aluminium kitchenware. He has worked with Paul for four years and he explained to me that Paul works hard to make sure that there is a good selection of goods on sale and no repetition. There may, for example, be more than one jewellery stall, but the types of products that they sell vary.

With the two shows competing, there was availability for some new traders. I spoke to a number of them, old and new, to gauge their thoughts.

Helen of Tangled Vine has been ‘tapping up’ her local restaurants and bars for interesting bottles to file down and fill with her homemade lime, basil and mango soy candles. She explained that if they get thrown into skips, they get badly scratched. She’s been trading with Paul for a number of years and this was her second Lincolnshire Show. She said: “The atmosphere is always really friendly.”

Steve and Jan are the people behind Crystals and Things – jewellery handmade by Steve. He started making it five years ago and has supplemented his range with a few bought-in pieces, simply because of the time taken to make the jewellery.  They exhibit at a number of shows but Steve told me: “Paul’s is the best set-up on the circuit, other companies just aren’t as good. He limits repeats and is really fair to traders. He’s very professional.”

Marge and Mabel are two Labradors belonging to Graham and Julie and it was for them that Julie started baking her dog treats. They are made from all natural ingredients, fit for human consumption and DEFRA approved. They were beautifully presented, drawing a lot of attention and quite a few people were surprised when they realised they were dog treats – they did look delicious. Graham also trades at Farmer’s Markets and markets close to their home in Chesterfield. He told me: “This is very well organised.”

Trendy Alphabet Art pretty much explains what is available. Lisa and Jan (the photographer) are behind the idea. They have been around the country photographing things that look like letters. Customers then pick their favourites and spell out words, such as names, love etc and they are made-up there and then. They started the concept in 2012 and exhibit at all sort of craft fairs. They told me: “We like it here and there’s a big footfall.”

Bee Loved is a mother/daughter duo but mother Kim was on her own selling her Yorkshire Honey. This was her first time trading with Cottage Industries but despite only setting up a year ago, she has exhibited all over; from Farmer’s Markets to Taste of London and even the BBC Good Food Show. Normally she has a hive on the stand but the bee’s activities didn’t make that possible this time. Despite there being competition at the show, outside of the shopping marquee, she was really pleased with Cottage Industries telling me: “I’ve been impressed by how this has been organised, everything has gone smoothly and there’s even a tea room!”

It was difficult to photograph the animal figurines that were hand made by Stephen Ward of Wards Glass because the stall was constantly busy and I think that their competitive pricing helped and the fact that Stephen was sat in a glass fronted booth, busily melting glass rods to make into his animal creations. Fascinating to watch and a bit of theatre always makes people linger.

There was plenty of sampling and demonstrations going on in the food section of the marquee, whether it was nibbling at cheese or fudge or watching knives cut through swedes like they were butter, a hand-held crumb buster or garlic being grated on a plate!

It’s always reassuring to see the younger generation coming up through the ranks and Callum from the Fudge Factory was enticing shoppers with samples of some of his 32 fudges – flavours including big brands like Irn Bru, Skittles, Baileys, Vimto and Creme Egg. Fudge Factory is a family owned business, started by Callum’s grandad, Brian and is based in Whitworth near Rochdale. Callum told me: “We do quite a few shows with Paul and they are always good for us.”

The demonstrators at the Magic Knife stand were busy cutting their way through numerous hard root vegetables to demonstrate the knives’ capabilities. They told me: “We love trading with Paul/Cottage Industries. You know it’s always going to be good.”

Graham, the owner of Deli Vignette, couldn’t praise Paul highly enough when he was taken ill. He’s had his business for ten years, having traded with Paul for around eight and attends approximately 40 shows a year. He told me: “Paul is a genuine man and he was very supportive when I was taken ill. You wouldn’t get that anywhere else.”

Vicky Fazelli of Names in frames has over 1000 names and their meanings framed. She commented: “We have had a good show and it’s well organised here”

Meanwhile, Corrine of Candles@Miss Soy who had some lovely gift candles told me: “I’ve been doing this for six years and do lots of shows, mainly handmade shows. Paul’s are always very good. They are well organised and in good positions, we do well.”

My favourite stall, despite having no interest in the subject at all was David Shiels’ Football Stadium Photography. He travels the length and breadth of the country photographing different features of football stadiums which he puts together in a framed montage. They are unique, a great gift for any football fan, and he even found me one of Welford Road, which pleased me immensely. He has traded at several of Paul’s shows and commented: “You know what you are going to get.”

Cindy and partner Paul of McDonald China have traded for many years, originally selling china 30 years ago. They have moved into the plaques and signs business and Paul prints, presses and makes the signs. Cindy estimates they have traded with Cottage Industries for seven years and said: “The shows are always very good, there’s never any problem, they are well run and we have a good position.”