The State of Our Fairs: A Pivotal Moment in the History of Fairgrounds

By Kathryn Willms

On September 28, 2017, Markham Fair will throw open its gates once again for four days of magic and mayhem. There will be bands, tractors, magicians, and monster trucks. Cows will be roped, cars smashed to smithereens. Prizes will be awarded for the best waterfowl, the largest squash, and the tastiest pie. People will eat funnel cakes and then spin violently on their favourite ride. For a moment, time will stand still, and the world will seem simpler and wilder and free. It’s the fair. As it is. As it was. As it will always be.

Fairgrounds article photo1This is the fantasy we as fairgoers cling to. The reality can be something quite different. Fairs today exist at a crossroads. They harken back to an earlier time, connecting us with our agricultural roots, and yet they must remain viable as businesses in today’s modern world. Uniquely impacted by some of the factors that are transforming society at large – shifts in demographics, the mass exodus to city centres, the consolidation of farming and agriculture, the rise of genetic engineering, the price of real estate, the digital revolution, and the proliferation of entertainment – today’s fairs and exhibitions find themselves facing a raft of challenges that must be made into opportunities if they are to survive. It’s a pivotal moment in their long history, and for the people that run them, it represents the culmination of a sea of change that has been rocking the industry for years.

Financial concerns are an issue for fairs of all sizes. Fairs used to be supported financially by provincial and federal governments, as were the agricultural societies that ran most of them. Over the past 100 years, this support has slowly been withdrawn. Today, there are some small grants available to fairs, but on the whole, they must be self-sustaining. This challenge is exacerbated for medium and large-scale fairs that have full-time staff to support (most small fairs are run entirely by volunteers), as well as costs that used to be covered by their municipality, such as policing and traffic control. Doug van Wolde, who has volunteered with the Markham Fair for over 30 years and is currently its vice-president, points out it is virtually impossible to generate the revenue necessary at the gate of a four-day fair. He puts it simply: “Fairs are not a profit-making venture.”

Fairgrounds article photo3To make up the shortfall, fairs are becoming more aggressive in leveraging their main asset: their grounds. Renting out their facilities to festivals and commercial events like trade shows allows fairs to bring in income all year. Of course, this generates its own set of costs – property management and maintenance – but done correctly, it creates enough profit to subsidize the fair. “If it wasn’t for our rental business,” says van Wolde, “we’d be losing money.”

John Peco, vice-president of the Canadian Association of Fairgrounds and Exhibitions (CAFE), says that municipal government support is key to making fairs, and their rental businesses, a success. This kind of support was once almost guaranteed. For a long time, local politicians were either farmers or closely connected to the agricultural community. Up until recently, in places like Markham, city councillors would likely have had friends, siblings, or parents on the farm. Today, fairs have to go out of their way to bridge the gap between the agricultural community and their local governments, and Peco says that making those connections is a major topic of discussion among members at association meetings. “I would say that one of the strategies is to ensure that the politicians see the relevancy of fairs, not just as a quaint, rural tradition,” he says, “more as a gathering place in the community, where all forms of celebrations and other kinds of activities can be held. They can support the needs of a very diverse and changing urban audience.”

Fairgrounds article photo2Fairs must prove their relevance not just to local government, but also to the people they want to walk through their gates. “Back in the day, when the fair was running, it was the only game in town,” says Peco. Today, there is a wealth of entertainment options on any given weekend, many of them more geared to an increasingly urban and diverse population. Fairs like Markham face the challenge of celebrating their rich history and heritage of rural needs, while providing a product that urban populations want to see. “To increase gates in the future, fairs will need to reach those communities that don’t know anything about farming and maybe don’t even want to know about farming, but can still enjoy the experience,” says Peco. To make those connections, van Wolde says fairs are being forced to join the digital world and market online. Markham is five times the size it was 20 years ago, and one of the Markham Fair’s major hurdles is simply visibility. “Trying to reach out to them and let them know we’re here and what we offer is a challenge,” says van Wolde.

The problems that fairs face may be universal – “the story is the same everywhere,” says van Wolde – but the solutions are not. Where a fair is located, how large it is, how much support it gets from the community: every situation is different and has an effect on the strategy needed to not just stay afloat but grow and prosper in an uncertain future. For example, the Canadian National Exhibition is one of the largest fairs in the country, but still it is looking to expand its reach. One strategy is welcoming and establishing a long-term relationship with new immigrants to Canada, something that the Calgary Stampede has done very successfully over the years. It also has a broader mandate than many fairs, encompassing industry, arts, and agriculture, and as such, is embracing other industries and activities to attract its largely urban audience, such as the Innovation Garage featuring entrepreneurs. Peco, who recently came on board in the new position of chief officer, innovation and business development, also sees its urban location as a unique opportunity: the 20,000 residents of Liberty Village live right next door.

Fairgrounds article photo5For smaller fairs, the opportunities and the challenges are very different. Run by volunteers and increasingly swallowed up by suburbia, small fairs find themselves facing the effects of rising real estate costs and shrinking agricultural societies, leaving fewer people to take on the majority of the work. It can be difficult in such circumstances to focus on long-term planning and development. As a result, some small fairs are closing.

The Markham Fair faces challenges common to other midsize fairs – paying full-time staff, running a year-round business, operating in a semi-urban environment. The Markham Fair is also, however, something unique, even special. “We’re in the middle of it, so we don’t understand it really well,” says van Wolde, who is set to take over as chair next year, “but people love it. If we could pass along that formula to other fairs, we would.” The Fair, for example, has no shortage of volunteers – 850 at the moment. For many people, volunteering at the fair is a way to stay connected to the farm they left behind years ago. For others, including van Wolde himself who grew up in Markham and got turned on to the fair when he entered a photography competition, it is the sense of community that keeps them coming back. On the other hand, Markham Fair also faces unique challenges, including increasing urbanization and changing demographics. The agricultural community is still at the heart of the fair, but it is a much smaller community these days. In the 1970s, Markham had 200+ dairy farmers; today it has 22. The fair continues to host competitions to judge livestock, vegetables, and crafts (not to mention the best Christmas collection!), but in the age of genetic engineering, a blue ribbon is hardly necessary to validate the quality of a farmer’s herd, making these competitions less important than they once were. The Markham community has also become far more diverse. This is not a challenge according to van Wolde who says that marketing to any particular demographic would undermine the very purpose of the fair. The focus is families and the things we all have in common. “We all share common ground,” he says, “and that is food. It doesn’t matter what your background is, everyone needs to have access to the same information. Kids need to understand what their place in the world is and what place animals have and what agriculture has to do with that. We try to make those connections.”

With that, van Wolde touches upon what will surely be the focus of fairs as they continue to evolve: educating the public about their food supply. It’s a universal theme that connects Canada’s rich agricultural heritage with its growing and diverse population today. “We strongly believe that fairs are the gaps, the bridge, the link between farmers and the people,” says van Wolde. It’s a lofty purpose that keeps volunteers, including van Wolde, passionate about running fairs and committed to making them relevant to future generations. But it might not be top of mind as you walk through the gates of the Markham Fair this fall. After all, what are fairs really about? Fun, of course.

“Every family has the same need,” says van Wolde. “We want to be entertained.”

And for all the complexities fairs and exhibitions face today, it might just be that simple.