Five Years at Wakefield
The history of the Wakefield Acorn/RISC OS Show
After the fifth annual Wakefield Show, it seems like a good time to look back over how the show initially came to exist, and how it has changed and expanded over five years. It all started in February 1996 when Acorn's Chris Cox came to talk to the group to outline what Acorn was planning for the future.
During the ensuing discussion, Chris was asked why the long-established Harrogate Acorn Spring Show had just been cancelled. He replied that this was a commercially organized exhibition, not controlled by Acorn, and that the decision to abandon it was taken because of the costs involved in staging a show in Harrogate. This gave some of our members the idea that we might think about running some kind of small replacement show or open day ourselves.
After the meeting, a couple of us asked Chris Cox if Acorn might support such a venture, and after receiving his enthusiastic acceptance, we decided to press forward and see if such a venture might be a practical possibility. At this time the WROCC was a typical user group with a simple organisation based around monthly meetings for local members, charging a subscription just to cover the costs of room hire and simple administration.
The following morning Mike Wilson, an OAP committee member who had just given up full-time work, went to see Chris Hughes, our secretary, who had not been able to get to the meeting as he had fallen on some ice and was confined to his home for a few weeks and unable to drive.
Looking at the calendar, any new show could not be later than the middle of May, and we were already seven days into February. Our committee would have to approve any plans at their next meeting which was due to be held in another seven days!
The first StrongARM show
One week to find a venue, draw up a business plan, find exhibitors and sponsors: it was a daunting prospect. We knew nothing about the problems, costs and pitfalls of running a computer show, but one thing was incontrovertible: the show would have to be self-supporting, as the group funds were far too low for anything other than a financial success. Mike immediately set out to visit all the possible venues whilst Chris started to plan the possibilities and pitfalls.
A week later, Acorn had confirmed their involvement and support, whilst Steve Turnbull had promised sponsorship and publicity from Acorn User. There was a provisional booking for the main function suite at a leading local hotel, Cedar Court, costings had been worked out and a whole host of other details had been addressed.
To say that the committee was gobsmacked when the plan was revealed is something of an understatement but, to their eternal credit, they quickly embraced the idea. The scheme was for a simple open day format with tables rather than stands, whilst costs to exhibitors were to be kept as low as possible to encourage bookings. Above all, the venture had to be self-supporting as there was no way that the WROCC finances could support any losses.
In the event, the committee agreed that if we could get ten firm bookings within two weeks, the venture was on despite there only being twelve weeks to show-time. Chris and Mike spent the next two days checking and re-checking their figures, and at ten past six on the Friday evening sent out some 35 emails to prospective exhibitors.
The response was amazing. By 8:30 that evening we had our first email booking, from The Datafile. 10:30 on Saturday morning brought telephone reservations for stands for Ant, Aleph One and Atomwide, and by lunch-time on Monday the target of ten bookings was history.
During the next frantic weeks the show grew and grew until we had taken over every possible bit of space within the hotel for three exhibition rooms, a show theatre and even a few stalls in corridors.
Unfortunately, as the scope of the show grew, costs increased and our careful calculations were shattered by the essential provision of additional facilities. Open tables had to give way to shell stands, security services had to be arranged and a host of other enhancements were required. Although we resorted to D.I.Y. and other cost-cutting solutions, we were forced to go cap-in-hand to stand-holders seeking help to balance the budget. To their credit, exhibitors supported us with good heart in these crises.
Perhaps our luckiest break of all was when it emerged that Acorn was going to be able to give the very first public airing of the StrongARM at our show. The rest is history: the show was an incredible success, both visitors and exhibitors went away happy, and there was no doubt that the Acorn world wanted, and could support, a Northern show.
From the Wakefield Group's point of view, we were left with some big questions. We had accepted a challenge, met it, succeeded and were enjoying the plaudits. At the same time, we were painfully aware that Lady Luck had smiled on us, justifying the superhuman efforts of our organisers and committee aided by wonderful support from our membership. One of the most praised aspects had been the band of 'Helpers' who cheerfully accepted all kinds of not very glamorous supporting tasks.
The main questions were: did we want to do it again, could we do it again, and, if so, where would we do it? It was obvious that the facilities and staff of a major hotel had given the show a unique ambience. At the same time, it was obvious that Cedar Court was a non-starter for any larger future show. Not only had the logistics of using four rooms on the first and second floors and at opposite ends of the hotel been a nightmare, there was no scope for increasing the number of stands to cover the costs of a more ambitious show.
Discussions with exhibitors and sponsors, plus comments from visitors, gave a clear indication that the Acorn community was expecting a bigger and better repeat performance. We were not so sure, particularly as we knew of no other suitable venue in the Wakefield area.
Time slipped by whilst we looked at possible alternative venues in Sheffield, Doncaster, Barnsley and Leeds, but nothing seemed even remotely viable until, in late Summer, someone had an inspiration and suggested that we look at an Athletics stadium right on our doorsteps in our home city.
Right from the start, the council-owned Thornes Park Athletics Stadium looked good. The manager and his staff were incredibly helpful, the location was only half a mile from the city centre, with good accessibility by public transport, and yet it was situated in pleasant parkland with plenty of car parking space. Above all, the main hall contained an indoor running track which would allow ample room for the extra exhibitors we hoped to attract.
A major plus point was that hire charges were low enough that we should still be able to keep costs to exhibitors down. Against this was the fact that the hall had been built to a tight budget and was rather lacking in facilities. The walls were bare breeze-blocks, there were no kitchen facilities for catering, and provision of electrical supply points in the hall were minimal.
A second show and a second venue
At the end of August we decided that we would grasp the challenge and organize a second show using the Thornes Park stadium, even though there was going to be a great deal of work involved in providing the necessary temporary facilities.
One of the unplanned benefits of our first venture had been that, by keeping the costs of exhibiting low, we had been able to attract a number of small developers who would not normally have been able to afford to attend a major show. This intermixing of large and small companies had been particularly welcomed by visitors, and became one of our aims in planning the new show.
From the very start of organising our first show, we had been impressed by the friendly spirit which exists throughout the Acorn community. As news of our second venture spread, this was confirmed with offers of assistance and good will from all sides.
Acorn User came on board as sponsors whilst Acorn and Xemplar agreed to give support. In no particular order, Dave Clare of Clares offered to sponsor the printing of a colour cover for the show guide, Dr Majid Anwar of Alternative Publishing offered to design advertising layouts, Mike Williams of Akalat again agreed to produce the show guide at cost, and several other developers agreed to circulate flyers to their customers.
The whole Acorn press was most supportive, and full-page adverts appeared in Acorn User and Archimedes World, whilst all three main subscription magazines, RISC User, Acorn Publisher and Archive, provided similar facilities. Stuart Halliday also kindly donated space on the Acorn Cybervillage for Web pages originated by members.
Very quickly it became obvious that our original plan to have both the exhibitors and show theatre all in the main hall would have to be amended. As a result, the theatre was moved upstairs to make way for extra stands.
Of course there were snags. One concerned the provisional of temporary telephone and ISDN line connections to enable exhibitors to demonstrate Internet connections and validate credit cards. BT, having confirmed that they could provide the necessary cables, came along with a silly quote which they were unwilling to reduce. We got around this by getting the local cable company to provide the necessary connections at a more realistic cost.
Because of the more ambitious nature of the show, the open plan of the hall and the limited time available for setting things up, we had decided that we would have to employ a professional stand contractor firm to supply and erect stand shells. Happily, we discovered a man whose business was organising antiques fairs at premium locations and who had tired of paying inflated prices for stands. He had designed his own system which was available so long as our event did not clash with one of his exhibitions. As an aside, the stands used at our show had been displaying priceless antiques at Goodwood House in Sussex the previous weekend!
In the meantime, stand bookings were coming in thick and fast, and some weeks before the show we were effectively sold out. Much head-scratching ensued to see if and where we could shoehorn extra exhibitors into the space available!
After reading of people who were unable to get into the presentations at Olympia, we were determined to have a larger show theatre area. Happily the staff of the hall agreed to clear all their assorted instruments of torture out of the upstairs gym for the occasion. On top of this we arranged for a video camera to relay proceedings to monitors in the adjoining bar-lounge to cope with any overflow.
We were very fortunate that the local authority in charge of the hall was seeking to attract more exhibition trade and willingly installed additional industrial electrical sockets to provide ample power connections for all the stands. We were helped by a team of four members who are qualified electrical engineers and who worked tirelessly throughout the show.
Apart from the initial installation, they were kept busy eliminating problems caused by the now obligatory earth leakage circuit-breakers. As other exhibition organisers have discovered to their cost, even one slightly faulty capacitor in the mains filter of a computer can trip out a whole section of stands.
When we ran our first show, the exhibition rooms had no PA system, so we appointed a member with a loud voice as Town Crier to make the necessary announcements. In the event, this proved to be a very popular feature which we repeated this time. Our original plan to dress him in full regalia went by the board, as he was also acting as the leader of our team of electricians!
Another detail is that a number of exhibitors were showing TV or FM Radio cards, and required aerial facilities. We have provided the hall with a permanent installation, complete with distribution amplifier, enabling TV and teletext to be enjoyed by visitors to the appropriate stands.
Up to now, this has been a tale of steady progress. Of course, in real life the doctrines of Dr. Sodde come into play and we had our fair share of last-minute panics and dramas.
One of the first was when the original caterer gave back-word just a few weeks before the show. Fortunately we found a replacement who provided a good service at reasonable prices. Unusually, for his profession, he also proved very flexible and, when there were difficulties in getting quick service for exhibitors and helpers on the Saturday, he agreed to operate a priority counter on the Sunday.
Another potential disaster was narrowly averted when the cable company discovered that their wayleave (planning) application to install the cable ducting had been basking in a town hall in-basket for some weeks, leaving insufficient time to complete the legal processes before they could dig in their cables. The ensuing machinations proved the truth of the old adage that it is not what you know, but rather who you know, that matters. We arrived at a typically British compromise allowing for a 'temporary' installation which, provided that no objections were forthcoming, could magically become permanent after the show!
And, most visibly, the last-minute drama occurred when the hired furniture did not arrive at the promised time of 10:00 on Friday morning. We had told the exhibitors that they could set up their stands from noon, but it was not until 1:30pm that the chairs and tables arrived, provoking near-panic and not a little confusion. Fortunately, goodwill and co-operation triumphed and, when the hall closed for the night at 7:00pm, everything was virtually ready.
One popular innovation was the provision of a rest area, close to the exhibition hall, for the use of exhibitors and helpers. Constant supplies of free tea and coffee made this a welcome spot for a little relaxation. At the same time we cannot help but wonder what was the motive of the person who walked off with an unopened four pint milk container!
Before and after Black Thursday
Whilst lacking the excitement provoked by the StrongARM, our second show had been a solid success and it was inevitable that we would organize a third show in 1998. For this show Acorn planned to introduce its Risc PC 2, and a large demonstration pavilion was set aside. Unfortunately the machines on display were still incomplete, but there was an air of optimism that Phœbe was the beginning of a new era.
Sadly, as we all remember, it was not to be. The demise of Acorn desktop computers on Black Thursday (17th September 1998) cast a doubt over any future shows. Happily, though, just before the turn of the year to 1999, the RISC OS community had been able to salvage something from the disaster and we felt able to run another show in the coming months. Whilst this was a modest success, it was a rather sad occasion. No new RISC OS hardware was released, software developers had not been inspired to bring out new and better versions of their products, and the proceedings lacked the heady optimism of the first three shows. However, there was at least the first public showing of the RISC OS 4 upgrade from the newly-formed RISCOS Ltd and a number of new computers in development by third parties.
Since that time it has been slow progress. RISC OS 4 is now with us, Castle is manufacturing the Risc PC and A7000+ machines, whilst new computers are coming on-stream from RiscStation, MicroDigital and, in the professional field, Millipede.
At our Wakefield 2000 show we were able to fill the hall with exhibitors, but sadly many of the well known firms who have supported Acorn right from the original BBC Model B days are no longer involved with RISC OS. Fortunately we were able to stage another good show and, whilst future development is obviously going to be long and fairly difficult, we can now see a brighter future for our favourite platform.
The manufacturers with hardware actually on shelves to sell reported good sales, indeed Castle Technology said it was their most profitable exhibition since Olympia in 1997. Similarly developers with new, or updated software such as Softease, Icon Technology, Warm Silence and R-Comp reported robust business. Particularly encouraging, the small developers in the RiscStation Village reported very good takings. Chris Morison (Organiser) and David Buck (RiscCad) were particularly pleased with the outcome.
If we take stock, our members and voluntary helpers have been magnificent, the exhibitors and developers have been loyal in their support, and show visitors, who have flocked to Wakefield from all over the UK and NE Europe, have helped us establish the Wakefield Show as a major item in the RISC OS programme.
As a non-profit-making organisation we have been happy to donate a good share of the proceeds from our shows to charity. In particular, the Wakefield Hospice has benefited over the years by around £5,000, whilst we were happy to donate £200 to the Wakefield Girls Gymnastic Team towards the costs of their travelling to an international competion in Florida.
So, what have we in WROCC we got out of it all? Well, apart from the pleasure of a mission accomplished, the sense of satisfaction and pride amongst our members has been reinforced in a way that just attending monthly meetings could never have achieved. The profile of our group has risen in the RISC OS world, making it much easier to attract quality speakers to our meetings.
And what of the future? Well at the time of writing the progress, or lack of progress, in the RISC OS market is somewhat uncertain. Nothing has been settled about any further show, but it might not be a bad idea to put May 19/20 2001 in your diaries.
Note: This article first appeared in the 'Foundation Risc User' CD-ROM Magazine issue 2, and has been updated and republished here with their kind permission.