What could possibly turn a Civil Servant into a successful exhibitionist? Sue Denham meets the man behind the ZX Microfairs ... Mike Johnston.
ALL THE FUN
OF THE FAIR
ZX Microfairs have become
almost as much a part of the
Sinclair Research success story
as has the Spectrum itself. But
these micro exhibitions aren't
the product of a large company
hoping to cash in on users'
enthusiasm, they're more of a
tribute to one man's dedication
to his hobby ...|
It's just 24 hours away from the Christmas Microfair and the organiser Mike Johnston can be found right in the thick of the action, directing exhibitors to their respective stands in much the same way as a host welcomes guests to a family get-together. But then, after four years of putting on shows, what else would you expect?
Keeping one eye out for any crisis that might arise in the hall, Mike talked of how he first became involved in exhibition work. "Well, I suppose it all began after I'd joined up as a member of the National ZX8O/81 Users' Club. I was always annoying Tim Hartnell to arrange a meeting between members and eventually he did. Expecting about half a dozen people to turn up, he suggested that everyone meet in a West London pub - and to our surprise, over 70 members turned up. It was great, everyone was chatting about which RAM pack was the best value and so on.
"After our first meet, I badgered Tim Hartnell to arrange another, but he was too involved with book publishing by this time to offer me anything other than moral support and the suggestion that I do it myself! Tentatively, I got in touch with a few people like David Heelas, Mike Lord and Nick Lambert and tested their reaction to exhibiting in a small show ... and it was good! I scouted around for a hall and, after a brief period contemplating a hall in Camden Town, I settled for
Central Hall in Westminster."|
What are your memories of the first show - did anything go wrong? "Hah! Did anything go right, you mean. I'd only booked half the hall, as I wasn't convinced that we'd have more than a couple of hundred people to see the show at most; there'd been no mentions in the press except for a small piece in PCW - advertising was out of the question with me financing the whole shebang. I can remember opening the doors and a flood of people gushing into the hall!
"Anyway, there we were watching thousands of people running into the hall until it was at bursting point! Everyone just stood around wondering what to do next. I rushed out of the hall and grabbed the nearest policeman. He stood on a chair and asked everyone to file out again - of course, human nature being what it is, no-one moved ... they didn't want to lose their place in the queue. A few people started laughing and that was it - pretty soon the whole place was just falling about with tears rolling down their cheeks. In all, we had around 5,000 people at that first show - it was amazing."
Although Mike Johnston spends a lot of time organising the fairs, in 'real' life he's a Civil Servant. Has the Microfair brought him fame and success? "I don't know about fame. I do have a lot of people I've never seen before come up and say 'Hullo, Mike', but it's not quite as I'd imagined. it. Success is a funny sort of word. I do make some money out of the fairs, but then if I didn't I'd never be able to put the next one on! The Microfairs have the cheapest admission around for this sort of show, and we do try to keep the exhibitors fees low just so that we attract everyone."
Now that the market has
expanded and the retail outlets
include shops like WH Smiths
and Woolies, do you think
there's a future for a show like
this? "Yes, the market's a bit
flat at the moment - the
number of new products here
this year will be less than at this
time last year, but that's no
reason why the ZX Microfair
won't carry on. We're still
attracting a lot of people over
the two-day period, and they're
the keen enthusiasts. When
you buy a product in a shop,
you take it home and that's it.
But here, you can meet the
people behind the product and
chat to them. It's so much more
friendly than your average
chain store - and these people
are experts in computing,
which is a lot more than can be
said for the high street shops.|
"As long as the punters are interested, I'll be putting on shows. I've thought of organising shows for other types of computers, but I like Sinclair Research computers best ... I think they give the best value. Sir Clive's innovative and takes risks - there's a lot of excitement in doing that. A lot of professionals have moved into the market now, but it's still innovative. As long as something's new and different, you'll find it somewhere at the ZX Microfair."
Any regrets about having to organise all these shows on your own? "My one regret is that I don't have the time to fiddle about with computers any more. Of course, I own at least one of each of Sinclair Research's computers, and who knows how many add-ons. But I seem to spend most of my time with spreadsheets and databases on all sorts of computers planning for the next fair ... But I'm still one of Sir Clive's biggest fans!"