Houlden Jewellers, a group of 31 UK and Ireland jewellery retailers, recently revealed that it will be holding its very first in-person event on 22 June – one day after all lockdown measures will be lifted in England.
The group’s autumn event, meanwhile, will take place 2-3 September this year.
Professional Jeweller spoke with Houlden Group CEO, Helen Haddow, to find out more about the highly anticipated return of physical events to the jewellery calendar.
How long has it been since you were last able to have an in person meeting?
Our last meeting was February 2020. At the end of February we had a meeting in London. It was all about that we were coming off a really successful Christmas, and the energy and enthusiasm for what 2020 was going to throw at us was very, very high. But we did have inklings – one of our Italian suppliers had to pull out because of what was happening in Italy with the virus.
Houlden Group has its first two in-person events since the pandemic coming up. What should attendees expect those to look like?
We’re staying optimistic, but we don’t know what’s going to happen with vaccines and variants and so forth, so we are confident that we’re going to be able to run these two events, but we have to be ready and we need to be ready to pivot if required.
Trying to nail down dates was very challenging. The autumn one is a new date for us. We made the decision to introduce that when we heard that IJL was not going to run, so thought we would slot in an autumn event.
The meetings will be 2-3 September. At the end of the day we took the decision that we had to have an event that was tailored to our members’ needs and wants, so we put it at the end of that week so as not to clash with other industry events. We’re trying to be accommodating and not force people into having to make difficult decisions.
The summer event is very much an informal gathering of members for those that can travel – because not all of them will be able to travel. We don’t believe our members from the Republic of Ireland will be able to travel. So it’s going to be a low-key, informal meeting, people getting together and sharing war stories. We’ll focus on what the lay of the land is looking like, what trends should be expected, what we need to be prepared for.
Did you gauge interest from members and suppliers about whether they would be interested in in-person events?
Yes, we’ve actually done two surveys with the members. We did the first one before the turn of the year, and then we did a second one in January. Added to that we did a lot of phone calls to suppliers, talking to them to see what their appetite was.
I think the suppliers have been so badly hit by all of this. The retailers – they’ve had their online sales and the support of the government and its various financial support mechanisms. I think that the people that I really feel for have been the suppliers, so that’s another reason why we’re so keen to have our event, to try and do what we could to give them an opportunity to have a safe environment in which to meet with our retailers.
Will you have to make a lot of compromises in order to make the events Covid-safe?
There will have to be some compromises. We’ve chosen a venue that’s bigger than we would ordinarily need in normal times. We’re cutting down the number of potential suppliers that you could have at the event because safety and working within the government regulations is absolutely paramount to us.
Will people be able to attend both events virtually?
Not for the summer event. Summer is just an informal meeting because we feel that everyone is starved of that face-to-face contact. So that summer meeting will just be impersonal.
Then for the autumn one, when we’re looking at what digital options we can do, it must complement what the whole purpose of the event is, and it must reward people for and taking part, because I’m sure everybody feels that there’s so many virtual events at the moment, so what would be special about it?
How has business been since March of last year?
We did a poll of our members at the beginning of lockdown quite early on and we asked what impact it was going to have, and what people’s predictions were. The predictions varied but a lot of people thought we were going to be down 30% maybe, but at the end of it all there were a good number that were breaking even or better. And I’m talking about the end result, the bottom line, because the bottom line, that’s what’s really important.
We’re all quite pleasantly surprised at the impact of the lack of travel had on consumer spending. In a normal year a lot of customers would have definitely invested money going on holiday. This year, instead of that, they’ve been treating themselves on watches and jewellery, and so we have benefited from that. Overall our members were delighted with the end result.
How have you been supporting retailers throughout the pandemic?
The key is with Houlden, we are a small group – we’ve only got 31 members, equating to about 60 to 70 stores. Our job is to connect them and bring in external people that can come along and inspire them, so we’ve been offering virtual events, lots of virtual meetings that are either just within the group or involving external brands and external service providers.
What support are they demanding now as we as we move forward?
They’re looking to connect with the independents, the other retailers. Houlden is just the facilitator for that. They’re always looking for a leveraging group purchasing power, and asking, “We’re 31 people buying something – can we get a better price?”
You mentioned that suppliers have been hit particularly hard. Do you have any advice for them?
It’s all about partnering with the retailers. It’s also understanding what the retailers have had to do – the retailers have had to get into the heads of their customers. They have to understand the shifting mindset of their customers and they have to adapt their business model to cope with that. With a supplier it’s exactly the same – they need to understand and get close with retailers, understanding the problems that retailers are going through, and then pivot their businesses to support.
Moving forward, does Houlden Group have anything else in the pipeline you can discuss?
What we’ve been developing over the last 18 months or two years is an online training platform that all the retailers can tap into. The content ranges from brand content to content on things such as a mental health, leadership skills and lots to do with understanding and selling diamonds. It’s just a plethora of courses. We’ve been working on updating that.
And the other thing is, we’re not going to go away from these virtual meetings. We’ll continue to have those at least monthly. They’re all about tapping into the knowledge of everybody that’s out there. People are isolated at the moment, but if you’ve got a question somebody in the group can answer it.
Read more about Houlden Group’s upcoming summer and autumn events below: