HE HAS BEEN TO THEM ALL. FROM HUMBLE BEGINNINGS AT HIGHCLERE CASTLE, TO THE WONDERS OF WESTONBIRT, WHERE MORE THAN 8,500 PEOPLE FLOODED THROUGH THE GATES IN 2018, HE IS AN EVER PRESENT AT THE ARB SHOW. YET SIMON RICHMOND WILL NOT BE THERE THIS YEAR. IN THAT, AT LEAST, HE IS FAR FROM ALONE.
THERE WILL, OF COURSE, be no Arb Show in 2020, the event’s 22nd instalment having fallen victim to COVID-19 in mid-March – the cancellation inevitable as the Government clamped down on large gatherings, and the decision to abandon correct. Still though, there was considerable hand-wringing at the Arboricultural Association, where Simon, the Senior Technical Officer, and his team debated the matter over and again, considering contingencies and outlining options before at last accepting defeat and agreeing to pull the plug. “Like everyone, we were in denial for a period of time, but as things got more and more serious, the penny started to drop,” explains a man who, for the first time since 1998, when the show first launched in Newbury, is not readying himself for the industry’s showpiece event this month. “We realised that cancelling was the only decision that we could make, and I think we were quite timely in doing that. When we started to tell people, they were all understanding, grateful even, but still, it was a tense period for us.
It’s a huge disappointment, of course, the first time that we’ve had to cancel but there was no alternative. You do plan for certain situations and as an association, we were prepared for something like this. You do think, ‘What if the Arb Show wasn’t able to go ahead?’ But then you also think, ‘What could possibly happen to stop it?” There is deep disappointment on a personal level, but the financial cost must not be underestimated either.
The Arb Show is, after all, the Association’s main money-spinner. Had it not been for prudence and some careful planning, the implications for all involved could have been considerable. “A few years ago, this would have been a disaster for the Association,” admits Stephen Hodsman, the body’s Marketing and Communications Manager. “The board, and our current Chief Executive (Stewart Wardrop) have put a strategy in place over the last few years, building up our reserves in case something like this ever happened. We’re going to be okay; it isn’t as bad as it could have been, but it isn’t just ourselves affected.
Our exhibitors are going to take a big financial hit from not going to the show, we’re talking about tens, hundreds of thousands of pounds. It’s important that we support them and do anything and everything that we can do to help.” That the financial implications threaten to ripple through the entire industry is, without question, a major issue and a coronavirus consequence that must be taken seriously. Yet it also underlines the Arb Show’s remarkable success, its importance to the sector, and the laudable growth that has been achieved since those humble beginnings back at Highclere in the late 1990s. “It started as a small, quite niche event,” says Simon, who, prior to joining the Association in 2007, had always worked in the industry, the Arb Show a key date to be ringed on the calendar each year. “It became bigger and bigger when we moved to Bathurst and, when we went to Westonbirt, it was transformed absolutely, there’s no question about it.” On this, Stephen is in full agreement, describing the move to The National Arboretum as a ‘game-changer’, and a chance to build a closer relationship with the Forestry Commission ‘that has been fantastic for us’. That move in 2014, from Bathurst’s privately-owned parks and woodlands, where the event had found, it seemed, the perfect home, represented, Simon admits, a considerable risk – changing the event from one that was ‘run by arborists for arborists’ to an occasion opened up to public scrutiny. Yet it has been, with hindsight, the Arb Show’s making
“We were nervous about opening it up to the public because arboriculture is quite a niche interest, but it has been a great success and has proved to be the way forward,” says Simon, who remains the driving force behind the UK’s largest and longestrunning such trade show. “It was a big step for us to take at the time and there has been an obvious shift in that a lot of the people who attend are not in the industry, they’re members of the public, albeit those who love trees. This gives us a chance to speak to the public, to tell them about the Association, about arboriculture and about the professionalism of the industry.
Some things haven’t changed, though. The Arb Show has always had a fantastic atmosphere and that continues today, as we go from strength to strength.” Planned for this year’s aborted event were new innovations, as well the usual forums, workshops and demonstrations, opportunities to undertake face-to-face training and to learn from expert speakers – these, Simon says, being ‘the things that stick the industry together Ours can be quite an isolated occupation,” he adds.
“You’re out there working, often not speaking to others, and the chance to come together and to join thousands of like-minded people makes for a special atmosphere that has always characterised the event.” Then there are the fabled trade stands – the chance to see the latest technological developments at first hand, to put all the latest kit to the test, to try and to buy, with enthusiastic arborists flocking to the stalls like excited children in a sweet shop. “It has always been seen as the arborists’ annual shopping spree,” says Simon, although for a time, the advent of online shopping did cause consternation amongst the organising panel. “It’s not that long ago that, if you wanted a new chainsaw or a chipper, unless you were willing to spend some considerable time travelling to a specialist retailer, the Arb Show was the only chance you had to get your hands on this stuff.
The landscape has changed, online shopping is the norm nowadays and the number of retailers operating online has proliferated. This did cause us some concerns and, for a time, we did wonder whether people would continue to come to the Arb Show to stock up on the latest equipment.” He needn’t have worried. “Our retailers and exhibitors still turn over massive amounts of money,” he says. “You can purchase equipment online, but there’s nothing like seeing it, holding it, trying it out. There’s the noise, the touch and the feel, the vibrations, and people still want that, to talk to retailers and to other arborists and that doesn’t happen online. It’s like working at home during COVID-19.
Yes, we can do it, we can have video calls and meetings. It’s fantastic, but it’s not quite the same.” Not quite the same, perhaps, but for those who find themselves unable to negotiate 2020 without their annual Arb Show fix – Simon among them – there will be an online alternative this month, with the first ever Virtual Arb Show due to take place on the same scheduled weekend, featuring as much of the original event as possible, and its ambitious organisers hoping it’ll provide some consolation. “It’s still in the early stages, but we do think that it’s worth doing,” adds Stephen. “We’re looking at activities, seminars, forums and training, as well as inviting our exhibitors to be involved, to reward their loyalty. This is so important to us, as we know that they’ve been hard hit and, without them, there would be no Arb Show.” That there will be no physical Arb Show in 2020 is unfortunate indeed, but the setback is temporary.
Thoughts have turned to the future already, with the Association looking forward to playing a key role at September’s APF Exhibition at Ragley, before attentions switch to 2021, with the main event set to return from exile next May – the Arb Show still in rude health, and bigger and better than ever.
Between now and then, there is much work to do and, in arboriculture and beyond, the COVID-19 situation means a great deal is uncertain. When it comes to the 2021 Arb Show, however, one thing is quite clear: Having been to them all, Simon Richmond will be there.