Visitors to this year's Royal Show may have been sweltering in the soaring temperatures, but for the traders, it was not just the weather that was getting them hot under the collar. Visitor numbers were down by 7,000 this year to 141,308, according to organiser Haymarket Land Events (HLE), and stall holders and traders branded the event, held from 2-5 July at Stoneleigh, Warwickshire, as one of the worst shows ever.
Raymond Congreve, who ran the Crusty Pie stall, said: "The show has been disgustingly terrible." He blamed both the searingly hot temperatures and poor management by the organiser for putting people off attending. "We've been coming here for the last 11 years and there is a totally confusing layout this year. We're down by 50% on last year," he added.
Congreve was not alone in his frustration. The food hall was not in a prominent enough position, some said, and the major supermarkets all had large exhibits lining the route to the food hall, tempting people away. Others complained that the clothing stalls and other shopping attractions were on the other side of the showground, which meant shoppers had to go out of their way to find the food hall.
Roger Alsop was manning the water buffalo burger stall, selling meat from his farm in Napton, near Leamington Spa, Warwickshire. "This food hall is meant to be one of the premier attractions of the Royal Show," said Alsop, "but the people just haven't been in. We paid £2,000 for this stall, and the small, interesting producers are not here because they can't afford it."
Last year, HLE formed a 50/50 partnership with the Royal Agricultural Society of England
(RASE) to organise the show, a move that has proved unpopular with stall holders. "It's not the weather," said Tracey Smedley of Supreme Sausages when asked why trade was down. "We paid £800 for the stand and we haven't even taken that much from customers. The layout has changed dramatically since Haymarket took over, and our loyal customers said they couldn't find us."
Jimmy Birchmore, events presenter for HLE, explained the layout had to change because the National Farmers Union (NFU) relocated to Stoneleigh Park in 2005. Its headquarters are now on the site of the showground and 20-30 acres of land has been lost as a result.
Birchmore accepted there was unease about the new layout, which the stall holders blamed for their loss of earnings, but said everyone would have to get used to it. "The Royal Show went fundamentally unchanged for 20-30 years. When the layout changed, it disrupted the habits and patterns people had formed and it will take more than one year for them to accept the changes. The vast majority of exhibitors and visitors are happy though. There are always going to be people who want it to be like it was four years ago.
"The atmosphere was very good," added Birchmore. "The staff, stewards, exhibitors and RASE members all gave good feedback. We are expecting a slight reduction in numbers this year, but we attribute that to the extreme temperatures on the first three days, which may have put off a sector of the audience."
Birchmore acknowledged that "some changes to the layout are responsible" for loss of income, but noted "there is evidence that high street spending also dropped by 11% in the temperatures". He also defended the cost of hiring a stall for the four-day event. "The prices of stands in the food hall reflect its popularity. Eighty per cent of visitors pass through and there's been no major hike in rates, just small inflationary increases. We also give people a discount if they re-book at the same time; usually it's the same rate as that year."
However, among the independent producers, the discontent was evident. With the change of layout came a change of atmosphere that has nothing to do with how busy the show was, said some. "It doesn't feel right", said butcher Philip David, working behind the Gerald David
Family butchers counter. It had only sold three-quarters of the meat it brought. "Three years ago it was phenomenal, but last year it was a total disaster. They said they would improve it but it's not the show it once was."
It is clear the future of the food hall lies not in the hands of the
organisers, but the stall holders that feed the visitors and fill the showground with the smells and sounds of quality produce. "If they're not prepared to listen, it's going to die away," said David. He won't be back next year and, if things don't change, nor will many others.