Rock-climbing! Fake body parts! Bellowing men! Anyone expecting the Safety and Health Expo to be just another dull trade show was in for a rude awakening when they turned up at Birmingham's NEC this week.
The show, which ran from 9 - 11 May, brought together not just workwear and footwear companies, but also safety consultants, medical companies and specialist agencies, most of whom seemed determined to outdo each other.
That's why anyone entering into the main body of the hall found themselves surrounded by frighteningly realistic CPR training dummies, soundproof booths for hearing protection and a 30-foot climbing wall erected as a (tenuous and slightly worrying) metaphor for the difficulties of ensuring indoor safety.
One company even hired the tallest town crier in the world to warn of the dangers of loud noise at work, while another turned a section of the floor into a massage parlour for stressed-out visitors to unwind in.
Bubbling over with enthusiasm
Compared to these exhibitionists, the workwear industry seemed positively reserved. That is, with the exception of DuPont, who joined in the fun by organising a champagne breakfast to promote their new Proshield Comfort 60 overalls.
No sooner had visitors and press started drinking than Elvis Presley's 'Burning Love' began to play, signalling the arrival of a troupe of performers whose dancing was supposed to show off the increased freedom of movement offered by the overalls.
Nobody expects their workers to breakdance on the shop floor, of course, but the performance succeeded in drawing in dozens of interested visitors, heralding the start of a successful weekend for the company.
Ian Sampson of DuPont's stand team said that they had enjoyed a very productive first day. He explained: "It's gone very well; it's been a busy day and we've seen plenty of existing customers as well as receiving some very promising enquiries.
"We've had to work non-stop to see everyone, and that's despite having a lot of our people on the stand to field questions. It was very busy in the morning, although it quietened down in the afternoon. Overall, trade has been even better than previous years."
But aside from DuPont, most workwear and footwear exhibitors just quietly got on with business, relying on good quality products to attract visitors. For most of them, it was a success.
Michael Armstrong, sales and marketing director at Tilsatec, said: "I think we did pretty well, actually - we had some very good enquiries.
"This is the first time we've done this exhibition. We didn't know what to expect, but I think don't we've been disappointed - it's definitely paid dividends. I am sure we will be back next year."
Simon Lubacz, a Gore associate, echoed Michael's sentiments and added that this year's show was an improvement on his previous experiences. He said: "It's a lot better than it was eight years ago, which was the last time we exhibited here.
"Back then it died on its feet, so we decided to exhibit in a smaller way this year, to see if we wanted to go ahead with more in the future. But we've had a number of very significant enquiries and I think we will be back again next time."
Opportunities and disappointments
The show proved successful for smaller companies, too; Michael Doal, managing director of Dharma International, said: "You get some customers who aren't willing to look at the possibility of going with a new company or range, because of the effort involved in organising meetings and samples, or because they want to stick with what they know.
"But having a stand here has allowed us to meet those people and let them understand the quality of our Durawear brand."
But not everyone was happy with the show. John Doyle, of healthcare supply company Gandon Enterprises, said: "I thought it was a bit poor this year. There are no major manufacturers apart from DuPont and there's nothing that jumps out at you that's new or exciting.
"It's been getting smaller and smaller in general over the last couple of years. We'll be back next year if DuPont are here, but we're not worried about anyone else."
Others raised concerns about the lack of workwear suppliers at the show. While the whole event took up two massive halls at the NEC, it was obvious that the majority of the companies were involved in areas such as safety testing, scaffolding, health equipment and other non-garment market sectors.
But Ian Sampson of DuPont believes that this caters better for the visitors' needs. He explained: "I think this year's been much more about ergonomics and safe practice than workwear, which annoys some people.
"They think that safety at work is just about clothing, but they're wrong - it's also about educating people to be safe, knowing how to deal with risks and making sure that the equipment that is used is safe.
"It also has the knock-on effect that the workwear companies here will get a much higher amount of people coming to their stands than they would expect, since they're not being diluted by higher competition."
Peter Turner, managing director of Leo Textiles, agreed on this last point. He said: "We've certainly had a lot of people coming to our stand so far. On the first morning, all three of us worked solidly and it was half past two before anyone could go for a break. Usually, people are able to go at about 12:30, so we are getting more trade than usual.
"As for the amount of workwear companies, it's been going this way for a year or two now. I think the thing is that in our business it's a big commitment to do an exhibition, so some companies can only do one or two a year and sometimes that means Safety and Health has to miss out."
Kurt Masden, export director of Mascot International, also thought that this might be the case. He said: "Many of our competitors went to the InterBuild show in April, so they probably decided not to come here. It's interesting to note that there are only a few of our direct competitors at Safety and Health, and the main one that is here wasn't at InterBuild."
However, Evelyn Redmond, area sales manager for the company, was quick to point out that despite - or perhaps because of - this, they had enjoyed a large and varied number of visitors.
She said: "We've had a lot of distributors visit our stand and we've made some very promising contacts. Although there weren't as many people from Ireland as we were expecting, we have had visitors from Malta and South Africa."
Footwear: a shoo-in
Oddly, the reduced number of workwear companies was not reflected in the footwear sector, which enjoyed a number of high-profile stalls.
Abigail Steele, marketing executive of Goliath Footwear, said: "The number of new leads we're generating is very encouraging, probably because there are lots of visitors interested in footwear. There are plenty of other footwear stands, so it feels as if we're in the midst of it, not out on a limb."
Nollette Callinan, marketing manager for Shoes for Crews, had an equally successful time. She explained: "We've been very busy and I think that's partly because we've got an interactive dimension to our stand - visitors can try our new non-slip soles on an oiled tile to see just how good they are. We've definitely had a lot of enquiries after people have tried it."
But footwear aside, perhaps the happiest person in the entire NEC was Chris Fountain, event director of the Safety and Health Expo itself. He said: "People often refer to the 'buzz' of a show, but never has it been more evident than here.
"The format of the show is obviously working well, with the many interactive features on the show floor proving very popular with visitors. Exhibitors are telling us that they're meeting a huge quantity of high quality visitors - and we couldn't be happier."
On the whole, then, this year's show was a success - and while the organisers would do well to court more garment and accessory companies in the future, it's hard to deny that it the expo is in good health and safe hands.