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Premier Programme Fair

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Joined: 02 Mar 2014
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PostPosted: Thu Jan 27, 2022 6:01 pm 
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I submitted an article concerning the Premier Programme Fair to the editor of Programme Monthly for publication in the February edition. It was printed in a drastically abbreviated version as a Letter. Here is the full text of the article as submitted.

The demise of National Programme Fairs
by John Litster

December’s PM (488) announced the demise of the Great New Year Programme Fair, and expressed the hope that the Premier Programme Fair in June would not follow in its wake.

Martin Corrie’s first-Sunday-in-January Fair started in 1978 and ran uninterrupted until Covid in 2021. The first-Saturday-in-June Premier Fair started in 2005 at the Russell Hotel, we moved across the road to the Royal National in 2010 and enjoyed ten successful years there, replacing the International Fair which started in 1975. Covid caused the cancellation of the 2020 and 2021 events, but it is not just the pandemic which has brought about the demise of these large Central London gatherings of collectors and traders.

Nor is the lack of customers; the attendances at both Fairs held up remarkably well despite the unbeatable competition of eBay, although at half the level of the halcyon years. What hasn’t helped has been the increased costs of hiring facilities at Central London hotels in general and the Royal National Hotel in particular. The Royal National was in many respects the perfect venue for both fairs in that it has good transport connections by tube, bus and national rail, and (crucially) easy step-free access for the progressively aged dealers to load and unload their stock.

The rising cost was just about tolerable while the stallholders’ fees came close to meeting the room hire, but when more, and more, dropped out, the venue became unviable. In addition, we are now faced with the extension of the congestion zone charge to weekends as well as the introduction of the ULEZ charge.

The decent attendances of recent years suggest that there is still a demand amongst collectors for large, national, programme fairs; a once- or twice-in a year opportunity for collectors to top up their collections in person, and it is hoped that enough stall-holders can be attracted to a new venue in the future. One suggestion is the Olympic Park area at Stratford, which has excellent transport links, including to the motorway network; it is outwith the Congestion charge zone and, for the January event at least, offers free street parking on a Sunday. Another is the Holloway Road which is just outside the congestion zone and is just a short tube ride from Kings Cross and Euston stations.

Not only will stallholders need to come forward, but for the June event at least there will have to be new organisers, as David Allen and myself have independently come to the conclusion that our days as programme fair organisers are over. Both of us would be more than happy to make ourselves available for any assistance and advice for anyone interested in taking over the organisation of this event and we may also be interested in taking stalls.

This ends a 44 year span for myself, starting with the first Scottish Programme Fair in 1976. More than a thousand attended the McLellan Galleries in Glasgow’s Sauchiehall Street – twice as many the following year. It is fair (no pun intended) to suggest that the hobby massively expanded, and then significantly declined, over the ensuing five decades.
In common with most sectors of the economy, the major change was the advent of the internet, and specifically eBay, although even that behemoth cannot disguise the simple fact that there are far fewer collectors than in the peak years of the 1990s. The bulky, homogenous programmes of the past thirty years are not as collectable as their more diverse antecedents of the 80s, 70s, 60s and before, which took up much less storage space, and were – and are – much cheaper to post. What’s more, the improved programmes of the 70s onwards allowed football fans the rare treat of being able to read, in some depth, about their favourite team. Much better printed- and digital-coverage of all levels of the game have, in many respects, rendered the match programme if not redundant, then certainly a non-essential item for the football fan.
I will never forget a tube journey to a West Ham match one evening in the 1980s, and the hundreds of boxes of that night’s programmes stacked high at the exit to East Ham station. On the journey back that evening, the vast majority of football fans in the packed train were reading that programme. Contrast that to the match-day commute today, and you will measure the comparative interest in our hobby.
There have been other challenges to organizing fairs since their great days. Accessibility is increasingly a problem, and not just the “Elfin safety” strictures now imposed at every venue. The extension of the Congestion charges to the weekend is another impediment (another memory, of coming out of the International Fair at the Connaught Rooms with a car-load of collectors who had driven down overnight from Edinburgh; and parked their car right outside the door of the hotel.) Rarely is the full transport network working over a weekend, and there always seems to be a protest march in Central London on the day of a fair.
Equally important as a large number of diverse stallholders, is a large body of collectors, and that requires publicity. That was a lot more straightforward in the past, as it was done by letter – to programme editors, newspaper and magazine sports editors, and with judiciously placed adverts in football magazines. It was a time-consuming exercise, involving several hundreds of letters, envelopes, address-labels and stamps, but you were pushing at an open door when it came to getting the message across to football fans; and it could all be done while watching the television. Now, it’s a tortuous process involving repetitive emails – against a barrier of anti-spam software – and social media posts with no such guarantee of the message getting home.
The key to a successful fair is to attract newcomers. “Preaching to the converted” might have got a bedrock of established collectors through the door, but if they couldn’t find that County Cup match from the 1940s, they didn’t spend much money with the stallholders. Fifty newcomers, each with £100 to spend, would virtually guarantee a satisfactory afternoon for all of the stallholders, but grabbing their attention online is a lot more difficult than it was when they read their matchday programmes, local newspapers, or the advert in Match Weekly, Shoot! or FourFourTwo.
The time-consuming and mind-numbingly boring modern publicity campaign is one thing I will not miss about programme fair organising. Nor is the persistence of a minority of “collectors” who tried to avoid paying the £1 admission charge; and there was always someone who took the opportunity of getting rid of a no-longer-in-circulation £1 or 50p coin, or old banknote.
What I will miss, and have done over the last two years, is the opportunity to meet old acquaintances, to catch up on their lives and the fortunes of their clubs, and to swap news of mutual friends. Perhaps that is what we should be concentrating on, organising an annual Collectors Convention with the buying and selling of football memorabilia a secondary consideration.
Until that happy day, to all of you who have queued outside the Galleon Room before 11 o’clock on the first Saturday of June, David and I thank you for your custom and friendship over all these years.
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Joined: 15 May 2012
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PostPosted: Thu Jan 27, 2022 6:43 pm 
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Thank you for posting in full, John. I fondly remember helping on Ian Hands stall for many years and catching up with dealers and collectors. I very rarely obtained anything for my collection but it was always a great social event for me.
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Joined: 26 Nov 2009
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PostPosted: Fri Jan 28, 2022 5:16 pm 
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Thanks John for yours and David's unmeasurable efforts over the decades.

A Sports Collectors Convention, keep beating that drum, it's the way forward.
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