Potfest organiser Matt Cox explains how he and the team coped with last year’s restrictions, and what this year holds for the Potfest series of shows

 

Just like every other year, in late autumn 2019, the applications for the 2020 Potfest shows went live on the website. By January, the selections for each show had been made, the exhibitors informed and work on the website updates for 2020 commenced. Two months later, when Covid19 started to look like it might cause major disruption, we sent out an email to gauge the feelings of those who had booked to participate in the shows.

By early April, we’d decided to postpone all three events until the end of the summer. Potfest in the Park would be held at the start of September, Potfest Scotland would be held at the end of September (this was as late in the year as we dare hold an outdoor, marquee event so far north), and being an (almost) indoor event we decided to chance our arm with Potfest in the Pens at the very end of October.

One of the difficulties when organising shows in such uncertain times is that infrastructure and marketing often have to be booked and put in place several months before the events. By April, several thousand pounds had already been spent, venues and infrastructure booked and deposits paid. The website had been renewed for that year’s events, and saddest of all, over 50,000 flyers for the Scottish Potfest had just been delivered, all with a now incorrect date on them.

 

The decision was made that should anyone decide to cancel at that point, rather than losing the usual £50 booking fee, we would split the liability, refunding them all but £30 of their original booking. We decided that we’d hold off making all other major expenditures until the latest possible moment, which would enable us to refund as much as possible to those who had chosen to “stick with us” should we have to cancel the events. With a greatly reduced number of exhibitors, though, by July, each of the shows stood on a knife-edge as to whether they would go ahead or not. At this point, without the trust and support of those that had chosen to hold fast and take part in last year’s events, Potfest would have had to cancel and quite possibly taken a financial hit large enough to sink it for good.

As the summer progressed, the country began to open up again, but without any degree of certainty, most other ceramic and craft shows opted to run virtual ‘online’ events. With fingers firmly crossed, we ploughed on; a few more exhibitors dropped out along the way as concerns grew and the virus affected people’s nearest and dearest, many considering 2020 simply a total write-off and opted to simply try and survive from online sales.

Plans were made to run the shows with Covid19 measures in place, meetings were held with local authorities and environmental health officers, changes and options discussed with the venues, infrastructure suppliers and the exhibitors.

The reduction in exhibitor numbers allowed us to facilitate easier social distancing measures with a spacing between each stand and a slightly different layout in the marquees. Online ticket sales were introduced, interaction and sales advice were sent out to the exhibitors, restrictions and measures signs and sanitising stations were made up. Visit Britain’s ‘Good to Go’ accreditation was achieved, and all too soon, the show dates rolled around.

 

Potfest in the Park ran over the weekend of September 4th, 5th and 6th. This was the first major ceramics event of 2020, and six months’-worth of stress and worry reached its pinnacle at 9am on the Friday morning as we began to open up. With a month’s worth of rain over the preceding week and a rather mixed forecast for the weekend, myself, and I suspect all of the exhibitors, waited to see what the first day of the show would bring.

We had limited the number of daily tickets to ensure that the event wouldn’t be crowded, although not even all of those had sold. As the gates opened, a steady stream of excited visitors arrived. Those in the know had brought wellies and umbrellas, but even the occasional heavy downpour didn’t seem to dampen people’s spirits.

By lunchtime, a palpable wave of relief seemed to have washed over the show, people were coming, they were adhering to the Covid19 guidelines, but most importantly, they seemed overjoyed to be outside, enjoying a little bit of a return to normality, and they were supporting the exhibitors by buying work.

At the end of that first day, I had driven into Penrith to collect a takeaway meal for all of my helpers. As I was stood waiting to be served, I looked through the Potfest Facebook feed. The wonderful comments and thanks that had poured in throughout the day (probably combined with a degree of sleep deprivation) reduced me to tears. A slightly concerned takeaway employee asked me if I’d like a seat and a glass of water. I was having a Keith Brymer Jones moment, but I really didn’t mind. As the weekend progressed, so did the list of good wishes, thanks and positive comments.

Potfest Scotland went very much the same way as Potfest in the Park, although we were blessed with surprisingly wonderful sunny weather rather than the Cumbrian rain. Visitors came and bought work while the exhibitors met with customers, friends and colleagues for the first time in almost a year. The weekend drew to a close, and everyone seemed over the moon to have had such a successful show so late in an otherwise terrible year.

Both Potfest Scotland and Potfest in the Park saw a lot of new visitors; people had travelled from as far afield as Cornwall and London to get their ceramics fix, as more local shows hadn’t managed to run. I hope that these new visitors will continue to support the Potfest events and that we’ll see a lot of our regulars return this year, having opted to isolate throughout 2020.

Potfest in the Pens was again greeted with Cumbrian downpours. By lunchtime on the first day, the word started to circulate amongst the stalls that there would be a government announcement at 5pm that evening about another impending lockdown. Would we have to pack up and travel home after just one day of the show? Boris dutifully announced that evening that the country would once again be entering a full lockdown early the following week. Although most exhibitors reported good sales over the weekend, the visitor numbers were sadly disappointing.

Building from our experiences of 2020, we are again hoping to hold the regular shows this year, with Potfest Scotland celebrating its 25th anniversary in early June, Potfest in the Park and Potfest in the Pens both being held in the second half of July. All of the shows will run with the exact same Covid19 measures in place as at last year’s events, with tickets for each already available online.

We have also added a new show to this year’s rostrum; Potfest by the Lake will be held on the lawns in front of the house at Compton Verney. The show will be run very much like Potfest in the Park, with just over 80 of the UK’s finest ceramics artists and artisan potters selling their work from six open-sided marquees, the beautiful surroundings being just as large a part of the show as the work of the exhibitors.

I have organised Potfest events up and down the country for almost 20 years. Last year was probably the hardest, and certainly not the greatest, with respect to profitability, but it was undoubtedly the most rewarding.

I’m fortunate to play a small part in a community of makers, creatives, followers and pottery fans that is made up of a lot of wonderful people. For that, I’m eternally grateful to everyone involved. I hope to see you all at a Potfest event or any of the other UK ceramics events.

Potfest Scotland – Scone Palace (Perth) – June 11th, 12th & 13th
Potfest by the Lake – Compton Verney (Warwickshire) – June 25th, 26th & 27th
Potfest in the Park – Hutton-in-the-Forest (Cumbria) – July 23rd, 24th & 25th
Potfest in the Pens – Penrith – July 30th, 31st & August 1st

You can find out more about each show, preview the work of those taking part and buy tickets at www.potfest.co.uk

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Below is just a tiny selection of work that will be available at various Potfest events this summer.