With the Celtic marketplace in flux due to COVID-19, one man has taken the lead on bringing buyers and sellers together. Jack Baber of Scotland-based Bill Baber Knitwear is busy putting the final touches on the first-ever Virtual Celtic Trade Show, which runs September 14 – 16. Recently we spoke with him about the online event.

What inspired you to put this show together?
We have been lucky to travel freely around the US and Canada over the years and hugely value meeting up with people throughout the industry. When it became clear that was not going to happen in 2020, and now maybe not even early 2021, we wanted a Plan B. A virtual meet up seemed like the next best thing and we have been bowled over by the uptake and enthusiasm to join in.

What is the show’s core mandate?
To host an easy-to-use online Celtic industry event where buyers and exhibitors can meet.

Who can get involved, and how?
This is a trade only event and draws together participants from both sides of the Atlantic. The best way to get involved is to follow us on social media. Access during the live sessions is only available to those who have pre-registered. We are setting a final submission date of 9th September for exhibitors. Buyers can register right up the last minute, but they will miss all the excitement if they leave it too late.

Is the general public invited to attend as well?
I am afraid not, the event is designed to bring your local Celtic stores together with businesses based throughout Europe, USA and Canada and to ensure they can source the best Celtic products on offer for their own local customers.

What has the response been like from those who have signed on?
Overwhelming. We had a very short run up to the launch as the events were postponed and then cancelled very late in the year. We are expecting over 200 attendees to take part over the three days and are delighted to see so many new faces signing up alongside exhibition regulars.

What kinds of challenges are involved?
There is a learning curve for all of us in the transition to virtual wholesaling, so many of the things we take for granted about meeting in person a few times each year have been taken away from us. We are all having to learn with new tools like online video calling and messenger apps. Ours is not the most digital of marketplaces and we are being thrust five years into the future in a matter of weeks. But the sooner we start, the sooner we can all learn how to thrive in these new conditions.

What are the risks and rewards?
I try not to focus on the risks, I am looking for the opportunities, and then hopefully the rewards take care of themselves. We have to develop new skills in a new economy, and we are certainly looking at a new economy. Many employees in many industries are now working from home and travel plans are off the calendar for the foreseeable future, so we have to look for the silver linings not just the clouds. Physical trade shows require relatively large costs in terms of hotel bills, air travel, sample shipping and in the Celtic market the bar bills can be frightening! By attending a virtual show this year we can take those savings and invest them back into the new tools and new processes that the industry will need in the year ahead.

Will this be a one-off event, or an annual happening?
We are replacing a series of cancelled shows with a one-off event this year, hopefully next year there will be opportunities to meet up face-to-face or other solutions will present themselves

How has COVID-19 impacted the Celtic marketplace and, specifically, your business?
It is challenging on so many levels. I think the primary consideration for the whole marketplace has been the health and well-being of staff, friends and family and customers. The whole industry has pivoted to redress the home/life balance and that is a good thing. We are an incredibly hard-working industry with wonderfully talented folk and as it is becoming safe to do so we are all transitioning back to work as best we can. The consumer mood is lifting but it is still patchy, and we are certainly not out of the woods, but we can at least see the clearing ahead!

What are your thoughts on the state of the Celtic marketplace in general?
I love it and have really missed the personal connections this year. We have a thriving industry and it is chomping at the bit to get back to work. Yes, we have new challenges to overcome as we have had before but maybe the focus on digital trading and the requirement to engage remotely is long overdue. There will always be a place for meeting up in person and we can’t wait to be able to do so again. From a young age my sister and I were taken to Celtic shows across the world and I feel honoured to have been part of the industry for almost 40 years. This was due to be the first year that I brought my own daughter to the shows to meet up with all the friends we as a family have made down the years.  I’m really excited to introduce everyone to the third generation of Baber in the business as soon as possible.

What’s on your own agenda for the rest of 2020 and going into 2021?
Right now, it is hard to consider anything beyond September 14th and the launch of the Virtual Celtic Trade Show. I hope it is a chance to start with a fresh outlook going into a traditionally busy time of year with St Andrews Day, fall trading, the festive season, Hogmanay, Burns Night, St Davids & St Patrick’s Day! It’s a busy six months for Celtic businesses all over the globe. Time to get started, I think.