By Cheryl Muir, Manager, Paris Agricultural Society
The Paris Agricultural Society in Ontario held their annual fair from September 2-6. Find out what they learned through the experience. Please note: this is a perspective article, and you likely will have different health authorities and/or conditions to pay attention to.
New this year – we split the grounds into 5 zones. Our directors signed up for 4 hour shifts to cover the zones throughout the operating hours of Fair. This was a HUGE win for us. When our Safety or Gates teams needed assistance, a director in a bright yellow and black shirt was available instantly. We will continue with this practice in the future.
Student volunteers sat at entrances to buildings to track occupancy. This was not consistent, but I now have documentation to show any officials that we did our best to control those indoors.
Contact tracing QR codes were at each gate for walk ups plus online tickets recorded this information. Many used this; however, we did end up with several thousand paper slips from those who did not use the technology. This slowed the entrance process considerably.
We decided that everything was included in your ticket price (small family entertainment stages, etc.) except for our two biggest draws – the 2 demolition derbies. To control occupancy of our normally crowded bleachers and grandstand, we had a free “add on” to choose when purchasing online. If you wanted to attend one of those events, you choose an add on then exchanged that at the gate for a coloured wrist band. Only those with the wristband were allowed into the seated areas. Of course, we had to hold back approx. ¼ for those who came in as walkups so that we did not loose the support of those loyal people who “have been coming here for years and never had to do this”. This worked but again, caused a delay in the entry process and was an additional step that overwhelmed our volunteers at the gates.
We attracted thousands of first-time attendees (not from advertising but from community growth since 2019 and just the need of the public to have somewhere to go on Labour Day weekend). This overwhelmed our phones and social media with questions. We felt like we were putting new FAQ out every day trying to stay ahead of the questions. I would recommend doubling your office/info booth staff if possible.
Less than 2 weeks before the event our local Health Unit reviewed our Safety Plan that was submitted 4 weeks before that. They imposed a requirement that masks be worn outside as well as inside. We tried to get this message out to patrons but of course many had already purchased tickets and stopped looking at our posts! This was compounded by the fact that the County and Health Unit did not have this rule for anywhere except for during our Fair. This lead to confusion, negative feedback, accusations of “making our own rules” and in general, non-compliance. Our signage and staff did our best, but this was impossible to enforce. We made announcements every half hour reminding of the need for masks
and social distancing but only about 30% listened and complied. Bylaw officers sent for the final 2 days to enforce the need for masks even gave up after a while. I can’t give you any advise on how to enforce this. The Medical Officer for the area visited the site and agreed we had done all that we could short of shutting the event down.
Our midway provider had a record setting year! People are eager to spend their money – I would encourage as many food vendors as possible and spread your midway out to allow for lineups. We had seven fewer rides and still had crowding at some of the more popular rides as we did not allow sufficient room for lineups.
We did not sell tickets for individual days. We continued with “the way it’s always been” and sold tickets good for any one day. We did this in deference to tradition and this was a mistake. We had to close the gates twice on Saturday as we reached our maximum capacity but there were people in line who had purchased advance tickets. We refunded anyone who asked but in hindsight, could have avoided this with dedicated days of tickets.
Most of us in the Fair industry use the average of 5.5 hour turnover of patrons. I used this when calculating our max. capacity for previous years and to forecast attendance for 2021. Using preliminary data, and my own firsthand experience, I would estimate the turnover this year was every 4 hours. The increased turnover time worked well with reduced entertainment areas and max. capacity and our parking; however, it did mean that parking and gates committees never had a break. It was a constant stream of patrons. We are hoping to build on this for next year. Rather than change the turnover, we will adapt our processes to allow for this.
Livestock and Barrel Racing Shows had great attendance as well. A few of the shows even went with reduced or no prize money and still had participation. They went very smoothly.
Were we happy with the outcome, absolutely. It was such an honour to give the community something to return to. Seeing smiling faces on the grounds once again was heart warming. Of course, the financial success was much needed to keep our grounds operational after the past 18 months of little to no income. Did we have some things that didn’t work – YES. We relied on people making wise decisions regarding wearing of masks in the crowds and not forming large groups in the midway. This was an unrealistic forecast and has opened our eyes for the future.
My basic advice is to make sure the Board of Directors support every aspect of the Fair and are active in the event. Their support and assistance during challenging times is an absolute necessity if you are to be successful. A united front is needed this year more than ever.
To those managers out there – breath and get as much rest and water as possible. We have a difficult job in any year but triple the amount of pressure this year for those of us opening our Fairs to the public. Take care of yourself, rely on your good judgement and your peers – we are here for you.