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Livestock shows pivot to survive hard times

Several Canadian exhibitions adapt their programming to deal with the COVID-19, pandemic, though the future of the agriculture events sector remains uncertain

In its almost century-long history, the Royal Agricultural Winter Fair had only been cancelled once before in a moment of adversity.

Toronto’s famed exhibition was put on hold during the Second World War as army barracks were created in the Royal Horse Palace. Canadian soldiers about to ship out to Europe readied themselves in stables that previously housed some of the country’s finest horses before competition.

In June 2020, while Canadians faced hardships not seen on a widespread scale in decades, the cancellation of the Royal Winter Fair was announced for the second time in its existence. When it became clear a physical show wasn’t an option, the Royal’s team began exploring methods for delivering valuable programming.

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“We started to realize that the idea of trying to execute a Royal Fair online wouldn’t work,” says Charlie Johnstone, CEO of the Royal. “We made the conscious decision to actually call it the Royal Agricultural Virtual Experience, to note that it wasn’t going to be the same as the fair, but it was going to be a different type of an experience where we thought we could add some real value to all of our constituents.”

They originally thought about hosting an online livestock show, with producers submitting videos of animals to be judged, but decided against it. Instead, the Royal created five days of live virtual programming on Canadian agriculture and food. The show was hosted on a user-friendly platform, with programming geared towards the agricultural, culinary and equestrian communities, and urban visitors alike. For agricultural audiences, the Royal Agricultural Virtual Experience offered seminars and presentations on topics such as careers in the agri-food industry, business management, succession planning and building consumer trust.

Normally the Royal Agricultural Winter Fair is held at Exhibition Place in Toronto, but the pandemic meant an entirely virtual show for 2020.
photo: Getty Images

Given the Royal’s location in Canada’s largest city and its number of urban visitors, agricultural education has always played a major role in the show’s mandate. “It really is about bringing the country to the city and celebrating all of that, but for a large component of our on-site attendees, this would be the first time a lot of them have access to farm animals and that lifestyle,” says Johnstone.

To reach more students and teachers, the Virtual Experience platform will be accessible until November 2021, including the curriculum-aligned resources developed for the event.

Johnstone stated that while this was a different approach, the encouraging response from participants highlights the value they received. “I think there was some hesitation on what a virtual experience could be, and we’ve got a great team at the Royal that spent a lot of time, a lot of resources and effort to pull this together,” he says.

Participants across Canada and around the world took in the virtual experience, many of whom noted they wouldn’t normally have access to this kind of programming and now hope to attend the Royal.

“At the end of the day, content is king, and when you have so many great custom features that we provided — lots of video, lots of live seminars, lots of topics with industry experts that are relevant to people — the feedback has been overwhelmingly positive,” Johnstone says.

After the success of the online experience, Johnstone anticipates this will shape upcoming programming efforts throughout the year. “To be able to have a virtual experience as a hybrid version or a component of the Royal Agricultural Winter Fair every year could very well be part of our future,” he says.

“It keeps our audience engaged throughout the year; we become a hub for curated, reliable content. We’re very much analyzing it to see if this makes sense moving forward because there are a lot of positive aspects to it, including the reach that we can have virtually that we simply can’t do in a physical sense.”

Building an experience beyond the show

Last year was supposed to be a special year for Canadian Western Agribition, celebrating its 50th anniversary. This added a layer of emotion to the already difficult decision to postpone the show until 2021, says Chris Lane, Agribition’s CEO.

The decision to cancel a livestock show with the size and impact of Agribition is not made lightly, Lane explains, given the many aspects involved in hosting this event.

“We at Agribition sure understand that the decisions that we make affect a lot of other people,” he says. “When we were talking about what our options were earlier this year, we certainly considered what the impact would be. So it’s not lost on us.”

Lane and his team knew they had to announce their plans early enough to allow exhibitors to adapt their fall marketing plans if they had counted on doing business at Agribition. As well, they needed “enough time to pivot and create some new programming and do it well,” he says, and “most importantly make sure that we were financially sound and in a position to come out of this and get back to what I think the industry has come to expect Agribition to do in 2021.”

Like the Royal, the Agribition team focused on creating programming for the show’s main audiences — livestock exhibitors, junior exhibitors, the rodeo community, and the students and teachers who visit the show. They also wanted to provide valuable content without trying to replicate the live version of the show.

Agribition’s alternate programming included online cattle shows in the form of the Evolution Series, an open breed show, and the Junior Spotlight. As well, it offered a virtual junior livestock judging contest, rodeo-related content and educational resources for classrooms.

Exhibitors wait outside the show ring at Canadian Western Agribition in 2018. Part of the show’s 2020 lineup included online cattle shows.
photo: File

New initiatives that go beyond the scope of the actual show were also introduced, such as the Top 50 in Canadian Agriculture campaign and a virtual business matching program for exhibitors and international buyers. At the time of writing, there were new components still to be launched to celebrate the Canadian agriculture industry.

This timeline extended “the Agribition experience” past the six days originally scheduled for the live show, allowing each program its own time in the spotlight, says Lane, and to ensure it was done well.

“We’re doing a lot of this for the first time, so we wanted to make sure we gave ourselves enough time and space to be confident and proud of the product we’ve put out.”

Lane reported that exhibitors responded very well to the online programming, sharing that it succeeded in providing value while maintaining a connection to the Agribition they know.

“Nothing replaces a live Agribition, but in a year where we could have easily found ourselves in a position where we couldn’t do anything, people who have participated in what we’ve come up with have really let us know that it’s something that has been useful and fun for them, too.”

Learning they can create something of value in a difficult time was valuable for their team, and Lane reiterated the importance of making decisions that allow the show to survive, no matter how tough they may be.

“It was a massive undertaking and a massive alignment of a series of decisions in a very tough circumstance,” he says. “It gives me a lot of faith that this organization, Agribition, can make difficult choices in tough times and still come out ready to fight another year.”

Communication key to pandemic event-planning

At a time of year when many Canadian beef producers are usually on the road, travelling from show to show, only one larger exhibition remained on the calendar. However, the Lloydminster Stockade Roundup in early November looked somewhat different from years past.

“Our committee met back in the spring, when all the other shows were announcing that they wouldn’t be proceeding with the live event, and we talked about the logistics, and we found ourselves in a unique situation,” says Sydney Lake, agriculture manager of the Lloydminster Agricultural Exhibition Association.

While other major fall shows feature components such as trade shows and rodeos, Roundup is solely a cattle show. “We just don’t draw the spectators because we don’t have those extra elements to our show. So we thought that was in our favour, as well as just our geographical location. Being in a smaller centre, the COVID cases were moderate or minimal at that time,” says Lake.

The show committee began planning for a number of scenarios and presented their ideas to the provincial health authority and business response team for approval. As the health and safety guidelines changed many times prior to November, they had to stay in close contact to ensure the show met current restrictions.

The excitement of the community was evident when entries opened to the general public after an early entry period for past exhibitors, which provided extra time needed for planning.

“In the first 27 minutes we reached 500 head,” says Lake, adding that numbers were up. “The response was crazy, and we had a waiting list of about 40 people.”

Several new exhibitors who hadn’t had the opportunity to attend in the past, due to the show’s usual timing between Farmfair International and Manitoba Ag Ex, were able to show at Lloydminster for the first time.

Hosting a cattle show in the midst of a pandemic showed the importance of planning and being adaptable, Lake says.

“Communication with the health authority and the business response team is also crucial. You need to have a great relationship with those governing bodies because they’re really the ones that can provide you with guidance and the resources to make that all happen.”

To meet these guidelines, the barn layouts were changed to accommodate spacing requirements and decrease the flow of traffic. Exhibitors were made aware up front of what was expected of them, such as masks being worn in the show ring area at all times.

“We had to hire additional security and additional staff and volunteers to ensure that we were meeting all of our COVID guidelines and keeping everybody safe,” says Lake.

However, the association did see some challenges in ensuring all exhibitors and spectators complied with the mandatory mask requirement, says Jackie Tomayer, assistant general manager at the Lloyd Exhibition, adding that “99 per cent of guests were compliant.”

The extra effort to host this show was worth it to see how much the exhibitors appreciated having a place to market their livestock in person.

“The morale and the vibe in the barn was like none other,” Lake says. “People were so excited to see each other, to bring their cattle to town that they’ve been working on so diligently.”

The Lloydminster team was proud to provide an opportunity for producers to market their cattle in a year that made doing so challenging at times.

“We felt that for people’s mental health and for the sake of the industry, it was so important that we do everything in our power to make a show happen,” says Lake. “The sky, I guess, is now the limit, now that we’ve done an event in a pandemic.”

Future of exhibitions uncertain

“I think this is quite a big game changer,” says Lake, who adds that social distancing restrictions kicked in just as the Lloydminster Exhibition, like many other associations, was gearing up for its busiest season. That led to the cancelation of “4-H events and equine events, our summer fair and chuckwagons, and all of those signature, key events that we have in the summertime that draw our biggest crowds.”

While Lane can only attest to how Agribition will meet these challenges, he adds that this shows how fragile the agriculture event sector can be.

“We’re all event-based, we’re largely volunteer-driven, I would say the margins in doing what we do aren’t very high, so it doesn’t take a lot, I think, to have a significant impact on our industry,” he says. “Whether we all come out of this or not, I wouldn’t hazard a guess on that right now.”

However, he also believes this shows how much these events need each other to survive.

“This is a community of ag shows that depend on the exhibitors making a circuit, that depend on all of us also promoting what we’re doing as an industry so that each one of these individual shows remains healthy,” he says. “That’s been really disruptive, and I think maybe that’s reshaping the way that we all work together in 2021 — at least I hope so.”

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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