CANADIAN FARM SHOWS TUNE IN
A PLATEAU IN ATTENDANCE MEANS ORGANIZERS MUST ENSURE ATTENDEES RETURN
by Hans Ongsansoy
Agricultural trade shows are great networking venues and produce a valuable marketplace for exhibitors and attendees. But in these tough times for agriculture, are people beginning to stay away from trade shows? Are trade shows hurting?
Craig Fendrick says "no" on the first count, with some explanation, and "it depends" on the second. Fendrick is the executive coordinator of the North American Farm Show Council, an association that represents a total of 30 shows, with five member shows from Canada. He says his members, on average, have actually enjoyed a slight increase in attendance over the last few years - not a drop. However, this is a far cry from the leaps and bounds in attendance that farm shows have enjoyed over, say, the last 40 years.
"What we're seeing is there is not that nice little comfort zone of an increased attendance of two to three percent per year, which we'd seen in Canada and the U.S. since the '60s," Fendrick says. "Most shows have hit, or are close to hitting, the 150-mile radius that they're going to draw the bulk of their folks from."
There are a few reasons for this. One is that the number of farms in that radius has decreased dramatically since most shows started. However, this has not resulted in a direct attendance drop, because shows are getting better penetration within that number. Fendrick says while 20 years ago shows might have attracted 25 percent of the area's residents, now it's closer to 60 percent. So, if agricultural trade shows are attracting the bulk of their geographic target audience already, Fendrick says the answer to slowly building up attendance again will be to "cast the net a little further." That said, the most successful show organizers are also going to have to focus more on maintaining numbers, rather than attracting new ones.
For her show, Roxanne Carr has done both. The manager for the Western Canada Farm Progress Show, Regina, Saskatchewan, now draws visitors from the northwestern U.S. As well, the event is one of the few in Canada to feature an International Business Centre. The Centre has become an integral component of the show, and works to give the show a global market - first attracting foreign buyers to attend, and then helping them connect with key new contacts. Drawing on international visitors has always been a priority, says Carr. "When we first began, we started working with the export divisions of three provinces," she says. "They helped us develop a very sophisticated program working with trade officials throughout the world."
Now in its 24th year, the show's attendance has hovered around 40,000 visitors in each of the last five years - an example of Fendrick's plateau theory. To break this cycle and boost attendance, Carr adds that another of her goals is to increase each attendee's number of visits. As they weigh their options, farmers may be willing to make multiple trips. "If it's a high-ticket item the producer is looking to buy, he will also cast his net a little further as he looks for the best deal," agrees Fendrick. This means a producer may visit two to three shows a year, possibly in different provinces.
The problem for show managers is weighing the risk of promoting to those producers outside of their area - even the ones who want to travel - against what kind of return they hope to get on their investment. "If you have to spend $10,000 to get two percent of your attendees, can you financially benefit from that draw?" asks Fendrick.
Part of this marketing mix is also keeping a show "fresh." Agri-Trade, Red Deer, Alberta, has routinely attracted 70,000 visitors for the past three or four Novembers. Pat Kennedy, event manager, says he moves exhibitors around every year, whether they're big or small. "When you're a show manager, that's suicide," says Kennedy, explaining that exhibitors who have success in a given year prefer to have that same spot for the next show. "But our policy is: I'm going to move you because we want people walking through our doors next year saying 'wow, does this really look different.'"
In Saint-Hyacinthe, Quebec, the Salon de l'Agriculteur proved to be such a popular winter show that it added a summer program four years ago. Since then, attendance at the summer event has been increasing about 25 percent every year, says general manager Donald Cote, who hopes to eventually attract 7,000 visitors annually. Next year, there are plans to move the show to a site double the size of the current location.
The winter salon, meanwhile, draws about 12,000 visitors over its three days in January. This is impressive, considering Cote says there are only 20,000 active farmers in Quebec. However, he admits they are a captive audience. Many are reluctant to venture to other shows because of the language barrier (Quebec farmers are primarily French speaking). Nevertheless, the Quebec show provides several awards, which differentiate it from others and let visitors know their attendance is appreciated. The two most prominent are the Concours Innovation Award for companies, and the Concours Ceres Award for producers. "We're exclusive in Canada for the recognition we pay to farmers and innovation. We do that accompanied with a lot of pizzazz," says Cote.
TRACES OF TROUBLE
Despite these successes, it's not all sunshine for ag shows. The fact remains that there are decreasing numbers of farmers all across North America. As would be expected from such a development, there are indeed shows in Canada having a tough time dealing with their smaller slice of the pie, and these shows fall into one or more of several categories.
The first are shows that may have started out as specialty shows, but have morphed into rural expositions, or agricultural fairs. Cote says in Quebec, like other provinces, these are increasingly targeted at attracting "city slickers," in order to "educate" them about agriculture. This major shift in focus has led to farmers and ag companies pulling out of these types of shows.
Another kind of show is a mid-level show that may have been created as a flagship event for a medium-sized community. Since it was not created out of demand, but from a desire for the community to be known, chances are it wasn't managed properly and didn't grow. Fendrick says some of these types of shows have already closed.
Finally, shows that overlap are also doing poorly. If there are two events 50 miles away from each other, and two weeks apart, visitors will choose one or the other.
According to Fendrick, this is not a cause for alarm. He has predicted for years there would be a decrease in the number of farm shows. It's classic supply and demand. Only those shows able to cater to a waning number of visitors wanting highly specifi" information will survive. The result will be more specialized shows, and an increase in the quality of the events overall. Simply put, "there's a future for quality shows that meet the agricultural needs of their areas," says Fendrick. AM
Hans Ongsansoy is associate editor at Issues Ink, Winnipeg, Canada, which publishes Germination and other magazines.