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Hear all about their time on Holiday Gingerbread Showdown to get the lowdown on what it’s like being on a televised competition. The show and notes can be found here.
The 2019 Cake International coverage is up! Head over to the show page to listen and see tons of photos of demos and amazing sugar art.
Come listen to Mary Carmen Gonzalez Abrams and I chatting, and enter to win Mary Carmen’s giveaway of three buckets of Satin Ice fondant! Listen for free and check the show notes here.
Over the years I’ve had a lot of questions about the logistics of getting entries actually into the hall at Cake International, so I decided to do a blog post about it, and I’ve given permission to the show to use any of the below text/images to help spread this information in any way they wish.
I will update this whenever I have new information as needed. [Last update: September 25, 2019]
Also be sure to visit the NEC’s website for further information on facilities.
This is just about how to get your entry into the NEC building itself. This is not about how to register, how to fly with an entry, how to pack an entry, etc. I do have information on some of those topics in other posts (such as my posts about flying to Austin with entries for the cake show there, including this one on using an upside-down container and this one about custom making a foam core box), but this will focus solely on getting to and through the NEC to get your entry on the table.
You’re obviously looking up information on how to do this, so you’re already a step ahead. Good job!
Think about your entry and what will be required to lift it, move it, unbox it, and if any assembly is required. Write it down. Make a list. You will be exhausted and stressed once you start doing it and if you have a checklist to remind you to attach that bit or check that other wonky bit for cracks, you will have a better time on the day.
Is your entry lightweight? Could you carry it in your hands for a good long while? That will give you more options for travel. Is your entry too heavy to lift? You will need to ensure you have someone to help you with that because the show doesn’t provide that. If you can’t bring anyone with you, team up with a friend who is competing.
Do you need a cart? The year I got myself a basic cart I wished I’d had it much sooner! I have one of these which aren’t available now but there are similar ones out there. Carts can be a bit tricky in the parking lot where there’s uneven pavement, and they rattle a lot, but for a heavy piece or many boxes it really helps save your arms.
PRINT YOUR PARKING FORM AND HAVE IT WITH YOU. Some years it comes with the registration confirmation, some years you’re directed to a website to download it, some years it comes a few weeks before the show (for 2019 it will be emailed to you two weeks before the show). Even if you don’t think you need to park, if someone offers you a ride last-minute it’s better to have it than not! It looks something like this:
GET THERE EARLY. Entries are usually allowed in at 7 am (although double check the General Rules in case this changes in future years), so plan to be there right about 7 am. In my experience in arriving between 7 am and 7:10, there’s an initial small queue of other earlybirds, but it’s relatively calm. By the time I’ve exited around 7:30, there’s usually an enormous queue of people standing just to get their registration done, let alone deal with their entry. And some years there’s a traffic queue as well. The later you wait, the more stress you will have! But if you get it done as close to 7 am as possible, you can then go find refreshments and relax.
Ways To Get to the National Exhibition Centre (NEC)
Here is a Google map link to the closest official pin to where you need to go (I have submitted a request for a public pin right by the loading door and will update this if that request is fulfilled). You will not be going into that parking lot – more on that below – but that’s good enough for getting directions to the general venue.
This is the easiest by far as you can control the transport as much as possible. Set your GPS/satnav to Marston Green, Birmingham B40 1QA. That’s going to point you into the middle, and depending on how old your car’s satnav is, it might not know about some roads that were changed a couple of years ago. Don’t panic. Whatever way you drive in, just follow the regular road signs towards the North car parks, and in particular pay attention to the digital signs that will list Cake International.
Update: a reader says they have taken a taxi into the dropoff area twice successfully in the past. They said just have the vehicle pass ready and ask the driver to show it to the venue staff. I’ll leave the paragraph below pending official confirmation but it looks like you can probably do this.
I am still waiting on confirmation if taxis are allowed into the dropoff area. At the moment I’m going with “maybe” and advising that people print their vehicle pass off because if taxis are allowed in, the venue staff will still insist on seeing your vehicle pass. The official venue map shows taxi ranks and private vehicle hire drop off points a bit away from the hall, so it’s possible a taxi can only get you that close, and that would be what the information on taxis on the NEC’s Getting Here page suggests. I would suggest assuming that the taxis can’t go into the dropoff area for CI until someone from CI confirms otherwise.
There is a major, international train station at the west end of the NEC and it has a completely covered walkway into the NEC. You can 360 view the inside of the walkway here on Google Maps. So once you’re in the station, you can walk inside all through the NEC to get to Cake International, although once you get to the far end you’ll have to go outside and around to the loading door (more on that below). I believe those corridors are open 24 hours and they are definitely open very early before shows because people are coming to set up. NEC staff may ask you where you’re going and packages may be inspected by security at any time, but you should be able to arrive on an early train and walk through the NEC corridors to hall 17. Be aware that it’s a long walk with a lot of stairs/escalators or hunting down lifts. You will not want to do that long walk with a heavy entry unless you have it on a cart.
Trains in the UK are very reliable until they’re not. If the weather is good and all is running smoothly, you will be fine. But trains in the UK are notorious for stopping runs during bad weather or for other issues. I have had friends take the train to the NEC for competition just fine and others be stuck with no trains running. If you plan to take the train, be sure to have a backup plan just in case, and leave early!
Buses and coaches that go to NEC drop off at the airport, and the NEC operates a free air-rail link which their website says “takes just 90 seconds and runs every two minutes.” I have not been through the airport at all nor taken a city bus anywhere within Birmingham and I haven’t heard of any friends using the bus to get to Cake International. It is theoretically possible but you should expect a long journey with possibly many connections, and then once you arrive you’ll still have to walk through the NEC as mentioned above under Trains.
There are shuttle buses that run around the NEC grounds between halls and parking lots. I’ve been on them for other shows at the NEC and they move quickly and are bumpy/tippy. I wouldn’t want to take a precarious entry on them! Also they only start running an hour before the various events open, so they won’t be running in time for early entry dropoff.
It’s not particularly easy to walk from outside the NEC grounds into it because it is surrounded by train tracks and busy roads. If you are in a hotel that is connected to the NEC, there is usually a footpath/sidewalk from your hotel to the NEC building itself, with the exception of the Premier Inn to the north. That is infamous for not having a connecting footpath (unless they’ve installed one recently), and I’ve had friends who talk about “hopping the fence” to get across. Obviously, you don’t want to do that with an entry!
I usually stay at the Hilton on the south end, and it and all of the Resort World hotels all have nice, smooth paths that lead to the P1 Entrance (more on that below). As with the information about Trains above, if you come in through that south entrance it’s a fairly long walk through the entire NEC. That’s what makes the Premier Inn tempting to people, because it’s closer to the CI end of the whole facility, but you cannot easily take an entry on foot from the Premier Inn to the hall. You will have to walk outdoors the entire way and much of it on the road.
Where To Go When You Get To NEC
Cake International takes place in halls 17 and 18 of the NEC.
The NEC website also has a map of the interior to give you an idea of where you’ll be walking.
Where to Park To Unload Your Entry/Cake Loading Entrance
Here’s a screenshot of Google maps showing where you park and load your entry:
You drive past the N3 Parking gate to that next roundabout and take the second exit from the roundabout. You then arrive at another gate where venue staff will ask to see your CI vehicle pass. If there’s a queue they often come up along the queue to pre-check passes, so have it ready and available long before you get to the NEC (I always keep mine on the passenger seat). You then go through that gate and will be directed where to park in that blue-circled area on the screenshot above. You will NOT get to choose your parking space, you will be directed to the next available spot. Even disabled spots are not guaranteed although you can talk to venue staff to assist you if you have a disabled parking badge. Again, if you arrive early there’s a better chance you’ll be able to get very close to the entrance.
Be careful when walking in the parking area, especially crossing that through-street. NEC shuttle buses come along there and there are a lot of stressed, tired people doing a poor job of watching out for pedestrians.
If You Came By Train/Bus/Foot
While you can walk through most of the NEC sheltered from weather, you will have to walk the last bit out and around to get to the loading doors. You will not be allowed to enter the hall from the interior entrance with your entry.
If you want to see a 360 view just outside the walkway doors, Google Maps has one here. You need to go out and around, then through the busy parking area. It will be VERY busy as mentioned above, so stay safe!
Getting Your Entry Inside
Once you park, DO NOT GET YOUR ENTRY OUT RIGHT AWAY unless you’re running so late that you risk not getting in at all. Go get your registration stuff at the check-in desks inside and then come back out to bring your entry in. Then you take your entry to the white tables for unboxing/assembly/repairs. Don’t carry your entry any longer than necessary, and don’t risk it in the queue for check-in unless you have no other choice.
Extra tip: I always go find where my entry will go inside before I even bring it in. That way when I unbox it at the white tables, I know exactly where I’m going after and how far I’ll have to carry/cart it. If you have time and came by car, do the full walk of where you need to carry your entry before you bring it in from your car.
Be aware that the unboxing tables get very full, and the area around them is very chaotic with stressed people. Again, the earlier you come, the less frenetic this area will be. You may have to wait for a table and there’s no official queue for tables, so you’ll just have to be patient and vigilant. You are only allowed one helper in this area and nobody under the age of 16 is allowed unless they are a registered competitor, so don’t bring extra friends or your kids unless they’re all competing.
You must bring all of your own tools for assembly/repairs and it must all be done on the white tables before actually placing your entry on the entry tables. There are no tools provided, but if you leave your tools lying around, someone will think they’re available for use and use/take them. So many friends of mine have had their stuff used/taken while they’ve gone off to place their entry. Plus if you leave your things on a white table, someone else can’t use that space, so please get your entry ready, then move all of your things well off to the side, then pick up your entry and take it to the actual entry table inside.
Where to Park Afterwards
Once you’ve finished, first of all…YAY YOU!!!!! But then you need to go move your car. Do not linger in the hall, do not look at other entries. Please remember someone else is likely waiting for your parking space. So go get your car and then drive out and park in one of the other North lots (unless you’re going to go park at your hotel). N3 is usually still closed after I drop off my entry, so I usually go around to N4 or N2. N2 seems to open the earliest and provides a direct pedestrian path back down the hill to the public entrance to the show.
In recent years I’ve found it helpful to prepay for parking via the NEC’s website. You save £4 per day doing so. It doesn’t guarantee a spot, but it’s a lot easier than messing around with your wallet on the day. I prepay for parking at NEC on the Friday, then I head over to the Hilton at the end of the Friday part of the show and park there, pay for parking at the Hilton for Saturday, then prepay for Sunday at the NEC so I can check out, park closer, and at the end of Sunday get back out easily and quickly.
For the record if your entry is small and easily portable, you can just park in the open North lots from the start and walk down with your entry, if you don’t want to wait for a space in the dropoff zone. But those lots are all paid, so only do that if you’re going to park there for the day.
Public Entrance to the Show
Whether you’ve walked or parked or whatever, once you’re done setting up your entry, you have to wait until the show actually opens. The public show entrance is inside through Hall 18. You can see the area here in a 360 view. There are pubs, restaurants, and cafes inside, some open quite early and some later. There are more food options inside the halls as well once the show opens. The public queue to get in will be enormous, so if you’re in a rush to get in I recommend going straight to the entrance and waiting, but the queue itself has no seating (there are benches around in the area but they are not in the queue).
Remember Above All Else
You’re stressed. Everyone there is stressed. Everyone is tired and trying to get their own thing done. People don’t always watch where they’re walking, so try to watch where you’re walking. Be careful of drivers not paying good attention and don’t take risks crossing in front of cars. It’s a high-stress time with lots of busy people.
So remember to take deep breaths. Remember to relax. You’re almost done. It’s going to be okay. Just get that entry on the table as calmly as you can and then walk away. It’s okay to walk away and let it be what it’s going to be.
And good job getting an entry done and on that table. You rock!
If anyone has any further questions, tips, or photos they’d like to contribute to this, please do so in comments or contact me directly and I’ll update the post as necessary.
Do you need some easy, fast, inexpensive moon cookies for an event, party, or school bake sale? No time to go shopping for moulds or spend hours doing multiple layers of piping? Well I’ve got you covered!
Step 1: bake some round cookies. Use whatever recipe you like and make whatever sizes you need. In the photos here I’ve used my regular go-to sugar cookie recipe by The Pink Whisk because it’s written for UK flour and butter (US flour and butter are different than UK stuff so recipes tailored to your local ingredients will get you better results), and because no chilling is required so I can get a batch of these mixed and baked very quickly with consistent and delicious results.
Step 2: make some homemade sanding sugar. Store-bought sanding sugars are more evenly-coloured and sometimes fancier, but in this case making your own is cheaper, faster (unless you already have grey sanding sugar on hand and I bet you don’t!), and the variations in colour will make these cookies look more rocky.
I used to make my homemade sanding sugar in a plastic baggie using Sweet Sugarbelle’s method but I’m working to reduce single-use plastics, so now I do it in a washable tub with my fingertips. You can use granulated sugar for big sparkles or caster sugar for a finer texture. In this case I used caster. US folks: you can make caster sugar by putting regular granulated sugar in your food processor for a bit of a whiz until it’s ground as fine as you’d like.
Put about a half cup of sugar in a tub and add a drop of Americolor Super Black (or other highly concentrated black food gel). Then quickly massage that drop into the sugar, constantly bringing in more sugar so the initial goopy stuff gets distributed and dries out over the whole amount.
Step 3: make some grey royal icing. The photo at the top of this post shows three different tones of grey plus some white ones as well. The white ones just have plain caster sugar on them and are sparkly but less moon-ish. So you can make multiple tones of grey if you want, or pick a shade you like and go with that.
Step 4: decorate!
You will do this in a bit of an assembly line so have everything ready to go.
Flood a cookie with the grey royal icing.
Then either dip the cookie into the sanding sugar or if you feel too fumble-fingered or worry your royal is too runny to do that, sprinkle the sanding sugar over top. Both methods work. Dipping will give you a nice, flat surface but you’re going to deliberately mess with that in the next step anyway so the only benefit to dipping versus sprinkling is a bit less mess. Go with whatever works for you.
Wait about 5-10 minutes, depending on your icing consistency and room humidity, for the royal icing to start to set up. You don’t want it fully set, but just enough that you can push the sanding sugar through a drying surface to make craters. So really, just keep flooding and dipping/sprinkling a bunch of cookies and then come back for the next step when the first ones are setting up.
Then take any rounded tool you have (I used the back end of my cheap needle tool because it was right there but probably if I had to do a lot of these I’d use a ball tool or Sugar Shaper) and simply go around making dents in the icing.
Here’s a video of mediocre quality because I came up with this whole technique while decorating cookies with other people in the room and decided to take a video on the spur of the moment:
Then just let them dry hard like any other royal iced cookie.
Voila, easy peasy lunar surfaces!
If you make some, post them in the comments below. This is also a fun activity to do with kids as part of a science module or just for space-loving lulz on a rainy day.