Putting the fun into funerals

Posted on Mon 30th Sep 2019 at 8:48pm

The National Association of Funeral Directors (NAFD) holds its trade exhibition, the National Funeral Exhibition (NFE) at NAEC Stoneleigh every two years, and you might be forgiven for thinking, if you hadn't had the pleasure of attending already, that it is a sombre and quiet affair. And you might also wonder why it has been shortlisted for four awards, including best long-standing association event, in the 2019 Association Excellence Awards.

We caught up with NAFD's Deborah Smith and Georgina Pettit, Account Manager at Showlite who is responsible for the delivery of NFE who explain why.

Showlite has been delivering the NFE since 2007 as the full-service provider, and each year we're reminded why it's such a pleasure, both personally and professionally, to be involved with this three-day show. The warm, vibrant atmosphere is at odds with the common cliches that surround the funeral industry, and the exhibitors are more varied than perhaps any other show I can think of.

99% of NAFD members are small companies, and the show attracts 4500 funeral professionals from all over the world to this corner of Warwickshire making it a truly global event. Visitors to the show are mainly funeral directors companies, and with the exception of two or three national organisations, most are small, family-owned firms that have been trading for generations.

This creates an atmosphere I've not experienced at any other show. There's a tremendous sense of camaraderie and fun amongst the visitors and exhibitors, and this colours the whole experience. Funeral directors and their staff are amongst the most empathetic, caring and passionate people in business and, in years of coming to the show, they have built firm and lasting friendships with each other, so the show has become a truly social event as well.

Exhibitors love the show too. The quotes and testimonials on the NFE website consistently point to a show with a difference:

"As usual, the show had a very positive vibe with both visitors and exhibitors taking the opportunity to mix and network with each other"; 

"We have exhibited at many trade shows in the care sector but it was refreshing to enter the funeral sector, meet with such a great response and have such an enjoyable three days.";

"NFE was both a very successful and really enjoyable event for everyone at Homeland International. We had great conversations with friends from across the funeral sector and made valuable new connections from the UK and across the world";

"This has been our single most successful marketing activity in eight years."

But funeral directors are pragmatic too, and understand that their industry is changing quickly. Just as the vogue for alternative weddings became a full-blown industry, funeral directors are becoming event organisers in their own right, and are facing some interesting and unusual requests.

As the BBC notes, "Funerals are big business. In order to keep up with the latest trends and suppliers, all funeral directors visit the National Funeral Exhibition every two years."

Not that long ago, most funerals followed a reasonably similar formula, involving the same organisations and institutions in a well-rehearsed and familiar civil or religious ceremony. Today, people have other plans for what happens after their death - and there is a definite trend towards funeral becoming a celebration as much as a farewell. Now funeral plans can include elaborate AV installations, greenfield sites, extravagant floral displays, and horse-drawn carriages. But other changes have made their impression on the show too. 

Coffins, which used to come in a few basic varieties and finishes, now fill a range of shapes, sizes, and materials which would have been hard to comprehend thirty years ago. From coffins shaped like cars and animals to biodegradable wicker and cardboard caskets, to eye-wateringly expensive coffins such as the hand-polished to a mirror-finish, solid bronze "Promethean" casket, with its "plush velvet interior and 24-carat gold plated fittings".

Limousines and hearses, of course, aren't immune to change so coachbuilders and manufacturers bring their latest models to the show for its own motorshow. And in a salutary development, the mortuary equipment show features more weighing, lifting and materials handling equipment, as funeral professionals are faced with a population that is growing in both size and weight.

At Showlite, we build our client relationships carefully because trust is central to our success in delivering their events. The NFE is not only the NAFD's flagship but a vital nexus for funeral professionals, and to be entrusted with the show is a tremendous privilege, as Georgina Pettit at Showlite explained, "Although the NFE is one of the most enjoyable shows to work on, we never lose sight of NAFD's goals for growing the scope and scale of the event. Close collaboration means we're able to suggest new features and improvements which are always carefully considered, and we're always tuned in and anticipating the show's needs for the immediate future and beyond."

Kate Varvedo, NAEC Stoneleigh's head of marketing and comms, added, "The NFE at Stoneleigh has built up a superb reputation amongst its visitors, and it's easy to see why: when a venue, an organiser and a supplier have worked together for 12 years on the same show, collaborative, coordinated delivery becomes much easier. The depth of our shared commitment to the show and the people who attend is what makes it such a success."

The National Funeral Exhibition's reason for existence isn't the cheeriest topic in the world, but if you needed people to put the fun back into funerals, you will find them at the NFE.


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