Doing business at Agribition

How do major livestock exhibitions facilitate commerce? Canadian Western Agribition provides a case study

For those who know it, stepping into the show barns feels like coming home. The sound of blowers competes with speakers blasting everything from classic country to AC/DC. Clipping chutes are pulled into the aisles, with capable teams of fitters putting on the finishing touches in time for the next class. In this atmosphere, there’s a sense of anticipation — maybe this is the year your wildest show ring dreams will come true.

At the heart of every livestock exhibition lies a common goal: to market your best genetics and do business with other beef producers. It brings breeders to cattle shows across North America throughout the year, and Canada’s major fall exhibitions strive to create a setting that allows the agriculture sector to conduct business.

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What exactly does it take to facilitate commerce through an agricultural exhibition? At the last stop of the year on Canada’s beef show circuit, this question is at the forefront of its programming. For almost five decades, producers have made the trek to Regina each November to highlight their breeding programs at Canadian Western Agribition. Agribition has established itself as a place for those in agriculture to do business; here’s how the people behind the show are doing it.

Listen to the industry

In order to create a place of business for Agribition’s exhibitors and guests, it’s crucial to tune into the needs of the Canadian agriculture sector. Agribition’s committee is made up of individuals who make their living in different areas of agriculture, and they drive the show’s direction.

“I think you can never underestimate having people who understand agriculture being as close to making the decisions about the show as possible,” says Chris Lane, Agribition’s CEO. “We ask people who are intimately involved in Agribition at all levels to help guide the show. So if you’re going to ask for the expert’s opinion, it’s pretty good to listen to it.”

It’s also important to consider how such an event can stay relevant to the industry through its programming.

“Rather than Agribition producing events or conferences, for example, that we think are important, we really want to listen to what’s happening in agriculture,” says Lane. If people are asking about topics such as mental health or entrepreneurship, for example, he wants Agribition to play a role in those conversations.

“We feel it’s our responsibility to create a place to have those discussions. Agribition is all about connecting buyers and sellers, but that doesn’t have to be genetics or live animals or tractors. That can be an exchange of ideas or conversations.”

Exhibitors wait outside the show ring at Agribition in 2018.
photo: Piper Whelan

Operate from a market-driven values system

The CEO’s role at Agribition is a year-round, full-time position due to the show’s market-driven focus, and this ties into all of its programming.

“Our sponsorship portfolio and our trade show sales portfolio and the rodeo events, they really do help us be able to not just maintain it but grow Agribition,” says Lane. “We’re always in the business of business development, and that’s a fun job. If we’re successful in gaining partnerships, that means we’ve done a good job of selling the importance of the industry to outside corporate partners.”

Ninety per cent of the show’s revenue model is market driven, which is vital to its future, Lane says. It’s in the show’s best interest to learn what is valuable to all its exhibitors, as well as corporate and programming partners.

“When we talk to our corporate partners, for example, it’s not just about sponsorship,” he says. “It’s about, ‘is there something we can be doing at Agribition that helps you talk to the people you want to talk to?’ That’s a different conversation than selling sponsorship.”

Offer marketing opportunities through a prestigious cattle show

With around 1,500 head exhibited annually and 11 breeds represented, Agribition is the largest beef exhibition in Canada and an annual destination for many in the industry. Despite technology that allows offsite viewing and purchases, seeing quality livestock in person remains important for buying decisions.

“As much as there’s online systems, people still want to see the live animal,” says Shawna Fuchs, Agribition’s livestock and rodeo manager.

The marketing value of showing cattle also lies in being able to claim top honours in breed shows. It’s no great revelation that bringing home a banner from a major show can be a useful marketing tool for any breeding program. Concluding an exhibition with a highly sought-after supreme show only adds to the marketing opportunities for those who earn a place in the ring.

Agribition’s Beef Supreme Show caps off a busy week of breed shows, sales and other programming while also acting as the finale of the year’s seedstock shows. First held in 1998, this supreme show invites the grand champions of each breed from the major fall exhibitions to compete against Agribition’s breed champions. Today, there are 17 qualifying shows, including the supreme champions from a number of summer cattle shows.

As with many supreme shows, a panel of judges evaluates these top animals, and before the Supreme Champion Bull and Female are announced, the field is narrowed down to the Top Ten Bulls and Females.

“The Top Ten has given more people the marketing opportunity,” says Fuchs, who recognizes that the chance to compete in this supreme show draws exhibitors who may not otherwise plan to bring cattle to Agribition.

“We had an American that changed his route this fall,” she says. “His female qualified at (Toronto’s Royal Agricultural Winter Fair), so he called me last-minute and decided he was coming up.”

Attract buyers from around the world

The Canadian Prairies in winter may not seem a likely destination, yet guests from 80 countries attended Agribition last year to see Canadian genetics, among other agricultural products, and meet with producers and exporters. Co-ordinating the show’s international program is another year-round effort. The program works with the Canadian Trade Commissioner Service, the federal government and the Saskatchewan government to bring international buyers to Agribition. For visitors from countries that require visas to enter Canada, they will send personalized letters of invitation.

However, this program is selective.

“We want to make sure that we have the best of the best attending the show because we want to make sure that the buyers who are coming here are ready, willing and able to do business with our qualified exporters,” says Cheryl Ellis, Agribition’s international program co-ordinator. “So we actually vet each and every one of those requests that come through our various contacts throughout the globe to make sure that whomever we invite are legitimate businesses.”

In order to assist international guests in attending the show, the Incoming Buyers Program allows qualified buyers to receive up to 50 per cent of their travel costs, up to $1,500. Ellis says that in the last few years this program has been oversubscribed. They also help co-ordinate travel logistics for visitors and connect them to specific markets, as well as preparing those who have never experienced a Canadian winter.

While at Agribition, international guests can make themselves at home in the International Business Centre, which features meeting rooms, full business services and a stellar view of the main show ring. Ellis and her team go the extra mile to ensure Agribition’s international guests have a positive experience. Some guests have been returning for upwards of 30 years.

“If they’re happy and feel like we care about them and we appreciate them being here and were able to make good contacts and they’re happy with the genetics or the equipment or whatever else it is they’re looking for here, then they’re going to come back,” she says.

“I think it’s really important that all of our international guests go home and they talk about the show — they talk about the Canadian genetics, they talk about Canadian equipment, they talk about their experiences, they talk about the hospitality of Canadians.”

On the flipside, this program offers Canadian producers and exporters the chance to connect with many foreign buyers in one place. The International Partner program helps Canadian businesses who want to market internationally connect with Canadian trade commissioners from different embassies, many of whom bring buyer delegations to the show.

“If you’re interested in a particular market we also have experts who are available through the International Business Centre that you can ask for help in learning more about the country that you’re interested in exporting to,” says Ellis.

Create a good experience

It’s not just international guests who keep coming back to Agribition. Whether it’s to exhibit their own cattle or to enjoy the shows and sales, Canadian beef producers return year after year for the show’s business value. Even after what was a difficult fall for many, the barns were filled with cattle, and people crowded around the show ring each day to see which breeders would rise to the top.

Providing value to all of Agribition’s partners, from its livestock and trade show exhibitors to its corporate partners, is rooted in ensuring they have a positive experience.

“We like to say that we’re as much about people as we are about cattle. If you take care of the people, they’ll take care of you, so we try to make the exhibitor experience as good as it can be,” says Lane. “If we can always be considered a place of commerce, a place to do the business of your business, I think that’s a success.”

In its now-five decades, Agribition has become known as “a gathering place for the community of agriculture,” Lane says. “Your neighbours or your friends in the industry, there’s a pretty good chance they’re going to be at Agribition no matter what kind of year it’s been.”

“That’s something that we really have to make sure we give the credit that it deserves, the fact that good year, bad year, mediocre year, people still want to come spend their time with us at Agribition, probably because they get to spend time with the people that they want to spend time with, too.”

About the author

Field editor

Piper Whelan

Piper Whelan is a field editor with Canadian Cattlemen. She grew up on a purebred, Maine-Anjou ranch near Irricana, Alta., and previously wrote for Top Stock, Western Horse Review, and various beef breed publications.

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