County Show organisers chat to Stand Out about balancing tradition with innovation and keeping the county and agricultural show sector thriving
More than 120 county show organisers and administrators came together in November to discuss the future of county shows, bringing to light some challenging and at times, controversial subjects. Subjects discussed at The Association of Show and Agricultural Organisation’s (ASAO) annual conference included the relevance of agricultural societies and shows in modern times, increasingly stiff competition for public interest, the impact of show activities on visitor health and safety and the commercial input required for county shows to survive in the current economical climate.
Increasingly stiff competition for public interest is arguably the biggest issue organisers of county shows are having to face. The events industry is positively booming, with a new event or festival cropping up on an almost daily basis. Organisers are pulling out all the stops to create events that are bigger and better than ever before, demanding much of the public’s time and money.
Fight for survival
The fight for survival among a calendar packed full of events prompted a lively discussion at the conference, which has ricocheted throughout the world of county shows. With the crux of the issue being how organisers of county shows can ensure what they are offering is fresh, fun and exciting without compromising on a show’s identity. This complex issue has no clear answer, but Tony Asson, president of the Newport Show, believes county shows simply must meet the needs of a changing audience to survive.
“While we have worked hard to retain our core agricultural activities, we recognise the need to evolve with a changing audience,” he explained. “Although a large proportion of our audience is still deeply rooted in the countryside, we attract people with no links to this lifestyle. So it is important that we have developed an offer that appeals to everyone, hence us recently developing sections of the show such as the Festival of Food and live music in the main arena.”
The Newport Show is a one-day event held annually in July, and 2018 will see the Newport and District Agricultural Society produce the 109th show. Asson believes that although it can be challenging, layout and content changes year on year are essential. He continued further: “Each year we look at opportunities to change the layout and freshen the show’s offering; this year our Education Hub will have a larger and amended layout and the growing interest in street food has led us to increase our range of food providers.
“Some changes are financially led from tenders and others are done to keep the show relevant. Changing the layout can be challenging due to the physical limitations of the showground, including things like the physical boundaries of the park as well as the site’s power and water infrastructure.
“We only have one day to get this right for the whole year, county show organisers need to engage and listen to the people who don’t traditionally turn up at such events and ask ‘why not?’ We need to persuade those people to visit on show day and watch out for trends and changes in customer behaviour and react to them.”
Change is key
It is obvious that organisers cannot rest on their laurels if they want their county show to not only survive in this ever-competitive climate, but also thrive.Sometimes however, it is the small changes that can make just as much of an impact as the big ones. The Balmoral Show is celebrating its 150th anniversary this year, a milestone that Rhonda Geary, operations director at the Royal Ulster Agricultural Society, says the team is all extremely proud of.
Having made the biggest change of all, a site move back in 2013 (The Balmoral Show moved from a 32-acre site in Belfast to a 65-acre showground on the outskirts of Lisburn City), the show is reaping the rewards. Since the move, attendance has grown from more than 70,000 visitors to a record 115,000 in 2017.But Geary isn’t just stopping there;2018 will see a further increase of the site footprint. “We have increased the footprintof the show by about 10 per cent by relocating some car parking and extending the perimeter of the show,” she said.
“We have relocated our plant machinery section to an area where it can grow, this was done in response to a number of exhibitors requesting more space and new plant machinery exhibitors applying to take stands at the show.” Geary advised other county show organisers to “mix things up” and not just stick to the “same old, same old”. She also warned that organisers need to give certain displays “a rest for a year or two”,and take inspiration from other events,and not just other county shows.
Location, location, location
The Balmoral Show isn’t the only event to feel the benefits of breaking tradition and moving the location of the show – the bigger the showground, the more visitors organisers can get through the gate. Despite being the smallest county in the UK, Rutland County Show relocated to a 150-acre showground on the edge of Oakham in 2014, and the show has expanded ever since.
“After the move to our own permanent showground, the show has grown by more than 50 per cent,” revealed Emma Dodds, show director of the Rutland County Show.“Gate sales have increased by 25 per cent and trade has increased by 45 per cent. With this our sponsorship and advertising has nearly trebled. “It has taken us a few years to work out the best layout for the site but I think we are nearly there. Our favourite compliment of all time is ‘it feels like a traditional countyshow’.
“We have recently introduced food courts with local and artisan producers, a second ring with more local or smaller acts and a strong local military presence. It is important to keep the show fresh, but also relevant and traditional.”
Keeping everyone happy
Producing a county show of any kind is no mean feat, with many having a different opinion of exactly what a great county show should look like. The Blaston Show is steeped in tradition, with extensive livestock entries, sheep shearing displays and equestrian classes. The show celebrated its 60th anniversary last year and Oli Lee, chairman of the Blaston and District Agricultural Society, believes that a show’s success is all down to teamwork.
“The organising team is very important,” elaborated Lee. “Their approach and enthusiasm is key to the atmosphere and success of the show. The traders exhibiting at the show also need to not only be reliable but also have a desire to interact with the public and educate and inform in a friendly manner.
“It is also important to keep the locals happy – we include all passengers in the price for a car to encourage people to park at the show and not abandon their vehicle in the closest village or layby, blocking narrow country lanes. Since doing this not only has the traffic flow improved but locals are much happier!”
Teamwork is unsurprisingly a common answer when county show organisers are asked about the key to show success. The organising team, suppliers, traders,exhibitors and volunteers all need to be “singing from the same hymn sheet”. Hertfordshire County Show is making some changes for 2018, including the addition of Happy’s Circus and a new look for its Village Green.
Lucy Chambers, equine and communications secretary at Hertfordshire County Show, agreed that teamwork makes the dream work, and believes that everyone involved in a county show should have their say. “We try to listen to all of the public’s feedback,” she explained. “The best way to stay fresh is to follow current trends and make sure you visit as many other shows as possible. But we also listen to all of our society members and stewards who know the show better than anyone.”
Lucy Hegarty, show manager at the Kent County Show, concurred that good teamwork is essential, highlighting the need for trusted relationships with suppliers.“Suppliers need to understand county shows, they are diverse events with numerous different sections each with their own requirements.It is important for us to be able to trust our main suppliers, we have worked with a number of our suppliers for more than five years and the experience and knowledge of the site and the show that has been gained in that time is fundamental to the efficient running of the event.”
Hegarty said her relationship with suppliers is essential to the show’s success, with the marquees supplied by Attwoolls, LH Woodhouse and Four Jays taking centre stage. 2018 will see a move in position for the Garden Life marquee, which will now have its own tarmac avenue, better access for trade vehicles,closer proximity to the main car park and the ability to grow in future years.
The right approach
For many, a county show is not just a day out for the locals, it is a representation of a certain way of life and has been described as a “shop window to the world of agriculture and farming”. Despite all of the challenges facing event organisers at the moment, the heart of putting on a county show remains the same – serving the needs of the community in which it sits.
This is a sentiment that Graham Biss,chairman of the Royal Isle of Wight County Show, agreed with. He explained: “The show is affectionately known as the ‘AgShow’. Putting on the show is a major commitment of time and effort and is down to the dedicated and growing team of volunteers. It is important to the society that we showcase everything that is good about the island’s rural way of life.
“Obviously we are also keen to entertain and make a visit to the Royal Isle of Wight Show a thoroughly enjoyable experience. While visitors know what to expect from a county show it is important that the show does not become stale. We will always try to surprise, inspire and excite,” he concluded.