Interview - Four Oaks director Pat Coutts

As the Four Oaks Trade Show celebrates its 40th year, we talk to its much-loved show director Pat Coutts.

Four Oaks Trade Show director Pat Coutts - image: HW
Four Oaks Trade Show director Pat Coutts - image: HW

Four Oaks celebrates 40 years this year and, as a consequence of its age, has seen many horticulture trade shows come and go. The show started in 1971 in bedding glasshouses and has since become an example to the industry.

Show director Pat Coutts, 66, has been at the centre of the Cheshire event for many of those years and says the secret to its success is to "have someone in total control, who doesn't mind sitting here until 2am and has no ties. I'm a geriatric workaholic."

She explains: "We have the whole package. The venue is right, it's easy access with the right people at the right time - the right everything. It all fits. You couldn't pick it up and move it somewhere else. People don't care about cracks in the concrete. We have the right footfall and everyone is on a high because it is a happy ship. We can do things for people because it is our own site. People drop in because I'm always here. And we give a lot of marketing support."

A solitary sort of existence

"People say to me it must be a lovely job." But she says the reality is a "solitary sort of existence. You have to have someone here in control. If you lose control, it's a disaster waiting to happen."

At a time when other shows in the industry are reinventing themselves or ceasing operations, Four Oaks continues to go from strength to strength. "I've seen a lot come and go. Hortex is finished, Southern Growers moved last year, Scotgro has gone and Kildare didn't happen this year," she notes.

She says she liked the new HTA National Plant Show but it will have "no influence on us - the only influence is that Four Oaks has got bigger. I don't think there is anything to pick off at this stage. They are in a learning curve."

In the early days, local electricity board Norweb backed the show. It even organised the first Four Oaks Open Day in 1971 to promote the use of growing rooms in commercial horticulture.

By 1974, the year after Coutts joined, ADAS, the NFU and the electricity supply industry were all backers. Vitax, Gardeners Chronicle (the forerunner to HW), Shoesmith Seeds and Fisons were among the 43 stand holders. Demonstrations were on lighting, ventilation and mist for plant production, cold storage of seedling nutrient treatments, pricking out, cropping and rooting techniques.

"The main change over the years has been the increase in overseas exhibitors," she says. "The show was initially just for the bedding plant industry. The Coutts brothers were pioneers in the industry. They tried a lot of things and others growers liked to see what people were doing." She jokes that Stuart Coutts married her because of her speed at pricking out seedlings - 60 Lobelia a minute.

In 1979, Pat took over the running of the show and exhibitor numbers carried on rising, peaking at 500 when there were more small companies in the industry. The show became a two-day event in 1992 and hardy stock came in as well as overseas exhibitors - Italian specimen growers and Dutch lorries from 1997.

By then, more garden centre and landscaper visitors attended than growers. Pat, who admits to disliking bedding and preferring easy-care hardy shrubs, says: "There are so few commercial growers now. It's a completely different industry."

Focus shifts from seminars to show

She says visitors now also attend for the show itself and less for the seminars. "There's not time to do everything. Independent garden centre people come to get marketing ideas. The exhibitors are experts at that." This year, garden centre consultant Eve Tigwell, Fargro's Paul Sopp and food retail consultant Rob Ward will speak.

In 1997, when Pat and Stuart parted, Pat went to run shows for Nexus Publishing for four years. Nexus then closed its Manchester office and Pat called in at Four Oaks for a reference and was given her old job back. This was the biggest challenge - to reinvent the show, retake control, strip it back and start again.

In 2002, Four Oaks linked with Haymarket as its media partner and in the same year businessman Richard Harding bought the whole business from receivers (Four Oaks Horticulture - the trade show company, Four Oaks Nurseries, and Channel Island Plants, Guernsey) with the exhibition still doing well but the rest of the business struggling.

The growing cash and carry and exhibition arms are separate companies, with Harding owning both and Pat a shareholder in the exhibition business. The Coutts brothers are now well over 70 and retired. Harding leaves Pat to run her side.

A Jack of all trades

She says: "One of the good things about small businesses is that you have to be a jack of all trades and expand your knowledge as you go along. It's good for my brain cells." She runs huge databases of visitors and exhibitors, for instance. She also started the Four Oaks website in 2003.

"I see the role of show organiser as the link between the exhibitor and his customer - to take care of all the practicalities and anticipate his every need so that the exhibitor can concentrate on the job in hand, the sales function," she explains.

Her role covers budgeting, accounts, event sales, marketing, print and publishing, database management, all secretarial work, visitor and exhibitor liaison, technical operations and site management.

There will be around 100 new exhibitors among the 450 stands this year, with 30 per cent coming from overseas, the same proportion as for the past five years.

She says the poor exchange rate and harsh winter has not scared off any of the continentals. Names such as Laak, Laurica, AllPlant, Dummen, Dalina and Kolff will be at the 2010 show.

Four Oaks continues concentrating on plant-related products because "the site suits plants". She adds: "We don't worry about exhibitors drilling holes. We just say: 'Here's some space, make it look nice.' It's the exhibitors' show. They have squatters' rights. My job is to set the scene so they can take over."

Prices are £788 for 8.5m with free forklift, services, storage, catering and more - "once you're on site its open house". She prints signs for exhibitors who don't have any. She also produces newsletter Four Oaks Forever, translates websites and produces copy for exhibitors who may not have time to create their own.

The exhibitors bring more than £200,000 into the local economy and take over a caravan park across the road from the Lower Withington venue. They also party at farmhouse home stays. Four Oaks even used to have a creche. It has shuttle coaches from Manchester Airport with members of its 60-strong show staff meeting and greeting.

Pat's plans are to keep the show stable. "In the end it services people who come to it and it's where new plant varieties are launched. They don't use Glee for promoting new varieties - they never have," she says. "The major breeders are here, such as PAC Elsner, Eagle Plant perennials from the USA, Vitroflora form Poland - they all come here."

She says the visitor breakdown is currently 60 per cent from garden centres, retailers and farm shops, 20 per cent landscapers and local authorities, and the remainder is a mix. She adds that the show has "naturally evolved" and does not see any big changes ahead. "It almost drives itself."

Pat loves what she does, despite the demanding nature of the position. "I've had a hell of a lot of fun, met some lovely people and we've been able to help some businesses along the way," she says. "But the main thing you have to do is give up your personal life. You can't have a life and do this job. I'm virtually married to it. I couldn't do this and consider anyone else."

FOUR OAKS TRADE SHOW: POTTED HISTORY

Four Oaks Nurseries was set up on a 0.8ha greenfield site by brothers Stuart and Arthur Coutts in 1964 for the production of bedding plants. The vicar of Chelford had the foresight to help them source land because he could see potential employment for local people - particularly married women in the rural area.

The brothers pioneered the use of supplementary lighting in seedling production, working closely with Manchester University's botany department at Jodrell Bank and local electricity board Norweb.

The first Four Oaks Open Day was organised in 1971 by Norweb to promote the use of growing rooms in commercial horticulture. More than 400 local growers visited and four trade exhibitors had a presence - one of which, Henry Alty, is still there 40 years on.

By 1979, there were around 80 exhibitors, and at this stage Four Oaks took over the organisation and it became the Four Oaks Trade Show, with Pat Coutts at the helm.

The 1980s were the boom years. Huge numbers of small growers and grower retailers were the backbone of the industry and at this stage the show was a one-day event.

Two years of preview evenings proved the need for an extra day and in 1991 the show became a two-day event. This was a turning point, bringing in the European exhibitors with masses of hardy stock, mature trees and Mediterranean plants, and changing the profile of the show.

The business was bought by Richard Harding in 2002, which secured the future of the site, and the show has continued to prosper with his support.

WHAT MAKES THE SHOW DIFFERENT

- Customer care - exhibitor and visitor.

- It is a relaxed event in a working environment - a mixture of business and social activity.

- The show is perceived as a "package", which involves the whole community, and the spin-off for local businesses is massive.

- A substantial catalogue is mailed out free of charge to previous visitors and HW readers in advance of the show. "I don't know of another show that does this," says Coutts.


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