No one can accuse Unilet Sound and Vision of resting on its laurels. Chris Frankland talks to show organiser Vernon Hamblin (pictured) about how it rebranded its Custom Cable business and launched two major new London shows
As with electrical retailing, hi-fi retailing has reached a turning point of its own – that steady footfall of hi-fi enthusiasts is slowly dwindling and the lower end of the market has gone.
But one traditional hi-fi retailer, Unilet Sound and Vision, established in New Malden in 1969, has over the past three years struck out with three daring new ventures that have significantly boosted its business, raised its profile and brought in a new demographic of consumer that it would never otherwise have got through its doors.
In 2015, Unilet launched the Headroom show at London’s legendary Metropolis recording studio, dedicated to the burgeoning market for portable audio and headphones. The same year, the company rebranded its Custom Cables business as Audio Sanctuary to reflect the fact that it was now selling all manner of accessories, from vinyl LPs to headphones and DACs.
Not content with that, and buoyed by the success of the second Headroom show in January 2016, Unilet then launched a new event, the Indulgence Show, which was held at the Novotel hotel in Hammersmith in October. This new event incorporated Headroom but added to the mix a hi-fi show, a significant music element with live performances and seminars from famous producers and cutting engineers, plus what show organiser Vernon Hamblin calls a ‘lifestyle’ element, with car manufacturers Tesla and Porsche taking part.
Q: What led you to launch the Headroom show for portable audio and headphones?
Vernon Hamblin: It was clear to us four years ago that the headphone market was growing. We were selling more and more. It was a developing market with lots of new designs and people wanted it. Not necessarily the hi-fi enthusiast, but the millennials, the ones still living at home with mum and dad. They still wanted good audio but couldn’t do the full-blown hi-fi system. We started to invest in a few of the new models and makes, and before we knew it, one end of the shop was devoted to quite an interesting range of headphones.
Alongside that, the portable electronics market was developing. We were getting better and better music players. People were developing good quality headphone amps and DACs and so clearly there was a window here in the UK for someone to organise a show dedicated to those products. The next thing was to find a suitable venue.
At the end of the day, all of this is about music, and we always had a good relationship with Metropolis Studios in London. They thought it was a cool idea. We organised it. The first one was in 2015. Everybody else thought it was a cool idea. The first one was a bit stressful, but we got to the end of it and we said ‘that went well’. All the exhibitors said ‘that went well’, so we thought ‘right, we’ll organise a second one’. We did. That was bigger, more exhibitors, more people through the door, so we went ahead with number three. Now we are enveloping Headroom into the Indulgence Show concept.
Q: Is that the way Headroom will go?
VH: It is part of Indulgence anyway. To develop that, and a different demographic from the hi-fi enthusiast, it would have been silly not to use it as part of Indulgence. But Headroom at Metropolis does appear to have a life of its own. It’s a great venue and there are many people who have never had the opportunity to go into a big recording and mastering studio. We are exhibiting in the live recording and mastering rooms, in the vinyl cutting room – so there is lots to see as well.
Q: So has attendance been increasing and has it attracted a different demographic?
VH: Yes. Year on year it has been up 20 per cent. And in terms of people, they are slightly younger. Twenty to thirty-somethings, families, a lot of couples and people bringing their kids, because they all have headphones too. We’d find dad would have the big headphones and a nice DAC, and treat the kids to some headphones too – because it is a selling event, too. It has been a very positive experience for us and our business.
The general plan is to keep it as a separate show, as it is, so we can have that at one end of the year and Indulgence later on.
Q: But the Indulgence show was a different kettle of fish – quite a daring concept…
VH: Yes, I think I have only had the two heart attacks [joking] over the past two years trying to get this together.
I was a director of retailers association Bada [now Clarity], and there were many meetings where audio shows cropped up. There was always the same conclusion – that for the past 15 years there hadn’t been an audio show for London and the Home Counties. Every time it cropped up, everybody said ‘great idea, let’s do it’. Then everybody went off to the pub.
The London hi-fi show has a great history. The last one was run by What Hi-Fi? at the Novotel (originally the Cunard hotel) in the early Noughties [although there was Stylus at Heathrow last year, but that has now moved to Manchester].
When we’d completed the second Headroom, my colleague Amit [Patel] and I said ‘You know what, if we can do that, we can do an audio show, can’t we?’ But we had to find the right venue. We spent almost a year looking at venues in London to find something like Metropolis that would be big enough. We went to the Royal College of Music, the Royal Institute of British Architects, the Albert Hall, and some fabulous West End hotels. Eventually the awful truth dawned on us that it needed to be something like a hotel. So we went to the Novotel in Hammersmith and saw that a few bob had been spent on improving it by the Accor group. They showed us round and we realised that it was probably the best place.
Q: If that was happening after the second Headroom , that didn’t leave a lot of time to get Indulgence organised…
VH: No, it was a bit mad. Then we went out to some of our key suppliers that we’d dealt with for years and said to them, ‘Please tell us that either we are barking, or it’s a great idea and we’ll support you’. Luckily the lion’s share of people were for it.
We developed that because the overarching thing we are all interested in is the music. We thought we can do the audio show and incorporate Headroom into it, to bring in that demographic. But we also wanted to bring in a music aspect – live music, seminars and presentations. Record producer Chris Kimsey had been a customer at Unilet since 1969. I asked him if he wanted to give a talk about recording the Rolling Stones and Led Zeppelin and it blossomed into a chat about all the great albums he’d done since the mid-Sixties.
Another customer was rock photographer Ross Halfin. He put on an exhibition at the show. That brought in people who weren’t into hi-fi.
But what we wanted to attract was the demographic that wasn’t into headphones and hi-fi. We had Yamaha Music there. They brought loads of instruments people could play. So we opened it up again and thought maybe we can attract more lifestyle tech into the show – such as cars. We had Tesla and Porsche at the first show. This year, we have those two again and are hoping for Bentley and we are talking to Toyota.
Many exhibitors reported that they ended up chatting to people who said that they have never been to an audio show of any description.
Bookings for 2017 are already ahead of last year.
Q: Tell us about Audio Sanctuary…
VH: Custom Cable was started by Amit to cash in on the boom of the cable market. It was a bespoke cable company, which started in 1986.
Slowly it dawned on us that the name Custom Cables didn’t convey what the business is. We sold headphones, vinyl records and related accessories and it was blossoming into so much more than an online cable shop. Audio Sanctuary launched in 2015 and it has gone from strength to strength. These past couple of years have been a whirlwind.
This raises our profile and it does bring people into the store. And for those who might be afraid of going down that route, I can attest that it does bring people into the store. And these are people that we wouldn’t have got in the store otherwise.
So, in the face of the dwindling footfall of hi-fi enthusiasts, it’s a good thing.
- The Indulgence Show will be at the Novotel hotel in Hammersmith, September 29 to October 1