County shows

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“County shows are a unique type of event,” the secretary of Devon County Show tells me. According to Ollie Allen, county shows are an advertising tool, the big “shop window” that promotes an area, linking the rural and the urban through food and farming.

And it appears that county shows are having a revival… in recent years, visitor numbers have dropped but the recession has led families to consider how they spend their time and money.

“Over six million people visit shows throughout the UK in a year… so we must be doing something that appeals to the customer,” continues Allen, who suggests that county shows link the traditional way of life with the future.

Devon County Show is a three-day event that attracts over 90,000 people and encourages families to visit with the promise of free child tickets. Savvy organisers it seems are simply promoting “traditional” methods using “modern” mediums, turning to the Internet and Twitter to engage audiences. Devon County Show, Northumberland County Show and Kent County Show have all recognised the need for an informative and stylised web presence that defies the “boring” image that is perceived, and yet they still successfully combine these progressive elements with “traditional” billboards in their local areas.

Richard Limb, president of National Outdoor Events Association (NOEA), comments further: “The role of county shows in the event calendar should not be underestimated. Many of these shows are very well attended and give the public a real connection with the countryside and its traditions. More and more people appreciate their local environment and have a keen interest in where their food comes from and who produces it and county shows fulfill this need admirably.”

This is a view shared by Andrew White, managing director of Triggerfish Communications, who recognises the huge value such events have to play.

“County Shows are an important part of the events sector; with many shows engrained in society and most importantly serving a part of the rural community. The CLA Game Fair, held recently at Ragley Hall, drew significant numbers from both the local Warwickshire area and further afield from its target audience. Smaller shows such as the Moreton in Marsh Show, held at the start of September, too pull in the visitor numbers and are attracting sponsors such as upscale estate agent Strutt & Parker, which see the show as an ideal place to connect with their public.

“Shows have taken on a far more ‘family outing’ stance with lifestyle brands sponsoring or exhibiting; Joules and Hunter now are as likely to be found exhibiting as Massey Fergusson and NFU Insurance. The county show is still very much part of the summer’s calendar, however, shows are driving footfall through are appealing to a wider audience rather than their traditional agricultural community.

In recent years BEcause has worked with both Rohan and the RAF at county shows. The agency created an experiential campaign for Rohan to showcase the brand’s clothing’s technical abilities and broaden Rohan’s appeal amongst outdoor leisure fans. A Rohan-branded tent included a UV ray machine that showed visitors how Rohan clothing protects from UV rays, a water repellency machine that showered Rohan clothing with water to demonstrate its waterproof capabilities. Brand Ambassadors in Rohan-branded outdoor wear also challenged visitors to find items hidden in the security pockets of Rohan clothing displayed on a mannequin whilst an experiential campaign for the RAF formed part of a nationwide recruitment drive.

Build, and they will come

In 2006, the Great Yorkshire Show attracted a staggering 135,111 visitors. This figure dropped to 130,731 in 2009 but the 2010 show saw 131,382 visitors make their way to the Great Yorkshire Showground in Harrogate.

 

Show director, Bill Cowling argues that it’s the events responsibility to foster growing confidence in farming and to support the industry year-round and David Carr, chairman of Northumberland County Show emphasizes that the show’s committee is not simply organising a good day out. County shows have more depth.

“Collectively as a committee we know what’s good, how to make it work, where we are going and what we want to achieve,” he comments. “We are committed to encouraging all our young farmers to show and get involved and for our visitors we want to stress how important local farming is to the stability of our future food supply.

“Our event is the biggest in the region, attracting more than 26,000 in recent years, and we’re aware of our responsibilities to tradition.”

Built on the ashes of a former show known as The Tyneside Show, with an almost 125-year-old history but sadly bankrupted by 1970, the Tyneside was reported in the 1950’s as a “Mecca for agriculturalists, country folk and townsmen alike”, with Corbridge itself being described as the “agricultural capital” of the county for one day only.

Record entries of 4,000 were reported in 1956 with 437 cattle, 200 sheep, 65 Clydesdales and 110 wrestlers amongst them trying their luck with 70 trade stands, mostly agricultural machinery; stock was reported as being worth over £100,000 at the 1954 show and a crowd of 40,000 was reported at the 1955 show. Ten-thousand visitors arrived by train and almost 1,500 per hour by car in the afternoon.

A 1953 report stated: “They will come, the farmers and the factory workers, the shepherds and the shipbuilders and the men and women from many walks of life to cast their amateur and professional eyes over the 3,000 entries, which represent the agricultural wealth of the county, the industry of its farmers, the skill of its craftsmen, the patience of its needlewomen and the diligence of its gardeners.”

And according to its organisers, very little has changed. Crowds of today’s Northumberland County Show, begun on the same site in 1981 are upwards of 25,000 and may seem small in comparison to those Fifties shows yet are “at capacity” within the 35 acre site because of the more varied range of displays and attractions on offer. Equestrian classes these days account for more than 400 entries and take up more acreage than cattle and sheep combined. Today’s alpacas would have seemed alien and the thought of a food festival like the Taste of the County food event would have seemed gluttonous to a nation just recovering from the war and ration books.

Appetite for learning

County shows have been a main stay for communities for over 200 years and the Kent County Show has been part of the Kentish calendar since 1923.

The purpose is to educate visitors about farming and the countryside, and the Kent County Show fulfilled this brief for many decades until it became obvious that farming in Kent was declining.  It was Lord Falmouth in 1970 that realised such a decline must herald a new vision for the county show and so the event opened its doors to a wider demographic of trade stands that were not all necessarily agricultural as well as holding the show for the first time on the Thursday, Friday and Saturday.

This wider audience craved not only all things farming but wanted a more general family day out, and this format remains. But in 2010, the Kent County Agricultural Society recognised that visitors once more have an appetite for learning about how food is produced, the implications of food miles, supporting a more local economy and embracing the idea of greener living.

So says Gill Collins, press officer at Kent County Show: “A county show is able to showcase the best the county has to offer and has a strong emphasis on the countryside including equine and leisure pursuits. The farming side of any county show is the highlight for many visitors followed a close second by the food tent and local produce. There had been a decline in visitor numbers over the past few years but 2010 Kent saw a return to bigger crowds and a more dynamic show.  The positive feedback from visitors this year has encouraged the society to continue to grow and expand the show and to ensure that this family event provides an informative and highly enjoyable day out for thousands of visitors.”