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Proceeding as Planned

Gene Cassidy

Even if the fair goes on as scheduled, Gene Cassidy says, crowd counts could be way down.

Gene Cassidy likes to say those at the Big E ‘manufacture’ the 17-day annual fair that is by far the biggest single event on the region’s calendar.

“It’s like putting an automobile together,” he told BusinessWest. “You really can’t cut components out and expect the vehicle to run; it costs ‘X’ number of dollars to produce the fair, and we’re still going to spend that — we have to produce a fair that people are going to want to come to.”

And so, those planning the 2020 edition of the Big E are proceeding with the mindset of including all the parts that typically go into the Big E, despite the COVID-19 pandemic that is currently decimating the local economy and wiping events off the calendar in wholesale fashion.

But while Cassidy is currently certain there will be a Big E — that’s currently — he’s less certain about a great many other things. Perhaps most importantly, he doesn’t know how many people will come to the fairgrounds this September. He quoted at least one poll showing that 50% of respondents said they would not let the pandemic impact their decision to attend an event like the Big E, but another 40% said they wouldn’t attend such an event unless there was a vaccine for the virus.

And if attendance is down 20%, 30%, or even 40%? “It’s going to be a heavy lift to overcome that, but we can’t afford not to go forward.”

And if the fair should have to be canceled? That has happened a few times during the history of the fair — during World Wars I and II, to be specific — but Cassidy isn’t thinking in those terms, because the economic hit would be extremely difficult to absorb.

“I don’t want to say we’d close, but it would be a difficult, heavy lift to figure out how we would sustain ourselves so we could reopen in the future,” he told BusinessWest, adding that such a decision won’t have to be made for some time, and he is obviously hoping, and projecting, that enough progress can be made that he won’t have to take that course.

“I have confidence that we’re going to learn from this bug faster than we’ve learned from anything in the past,” he said. “And I have confidence that, by the time we get to the summer, things are going to start to loosen up; we’ve learned a lot, and we’re going to learn a great deal more — and we will open.”

As he talked about this fall’s Big E and the prospects for it, Cassidy joked that, for a change, the ongoing reconstruction of the Morgan-Sullivan Bridge, which links West and Agawam and abuts the Big E property, will not be the main topic of conversation this summer and fall.

It will still be a topic — two lanes will be closed until late summer 2021, according to the current schedule — but certainly not the topic.

“I don’t want to say we’d close, but it would be a difficult, heavy lift to figure out how we would sustain ourselves so we could reopen in the future.”

Indeed, the bridge is now largely an afterthought as the Big E and the region cope with the global pandemic and questions about both the short term and the long term that simply cannot be answered.

Already, the virus has had a huge impact on the Big E, as it has on any venue that hosts large gatherings. Searching his memory banks — and it was hard to remember back that far because so much has happened, or not happened, as the case may be — Cassidy said the last event event staged at the Big E was an antique and crafts show on March 7 and 8.

Everything since has been wiped off the calendar, including the huge home show scheduled for late in March and the planned Hooplandia, a 3-on-3 basketball festival slated to make its much-awaited debut in June.

Everything is cancelled or postponed through June, he went on, adding that he was not aware of any cancellations for July at this time. Aside from the basketball tournament, this summer was to be dominated by a number of horse shows and a few other gatherings.

But most of the attention has now shifted to the fair, which annually attracts more than 1 million people to the region and contributes more than a quarter-billion dollars to the local economy. At this point in time, the expectation is that the show will go on, said Cassidy, adding that adjustments can and will be made to help maintain the safety of visitors and employees alike.

These will come in such realms as ticketing and accessing the property, he said, adding quickly that, given the nature of fairs — putting a lot of people in very close proximity to one another as they do everything from ride on rides to eat fried dough to watch concerts — there isn’t much more that can be done to facilitate social distancing.

“The fact is … a fair is not the place where you can enforce social distancing,” he said. “We can be suggestive, but that’s not what a fair is. It’s uniquely the American way of life, and it just doesn’t lend itself to social distancing.”

These sentiments explain why there are questions — and concerns — about just how many people will make that pilgrimage to West Springfield this fall, and how many times they’ll make it.

“Citizens are going to decide how close they want to be to other people,” said Cassidy. “And I suspect that there’s a segment of society that may never return to a fair again.”

For now, those planning the fair are proceeding to ‘manufacture’ a fair like those that have come before it — but with some adjustments for the pandemic, obviously.

“We’re building a comprehensive plan for cleaning and disinfecting,” he told BusinessWest, adding that, given the fact that the Big E is an agricultural fair, it has rigorous policies in place for disinfecting the various facilities on the grounds.

Other changes will come with ticketing — there will be print-at-home ticketing, for example — as well as with access to the grounds in an effort to create some distance between people. Employees will wear masks and gloves, and visitors will be wearing masks as well, he said.

As for planning for the fair, it is, in most all respects, right on schedule.

“We’re going at the same speed as we always do,” Cassidy noted. “All the entertainment is booked; the concessionaires are lined up, although many of them are not working currently, and and I hope they can make to September. We’re going full-speed ahead — at this point, the fair is more than 90% ready to go.”

And, as noted earlier, it has all the components that the fairs have had in recent years.

“It costs us about $20 million to run the fair, and we hope to gross about $23 million or $24 million from the fair’s operation,” Cassidy noted. “We can’t produce an event that’s compromised, because people won’t come back.”

That said, one of his biggest concerns moving forward is the massive workforce needed to put on the fair, and the generational nature of that workforce.

“We have grandparents, parents, and grandchildren, all of whom participate in the workforce,” he explained. “And we have hundreds of people who volunteer at the Eastern States, many of whom are over age 65. My job is to protect my 65-year-old as well as any patrons who are in that demographic. That’s what our plan is focused on — how do we protect people who are most vulnerable?”

—George O’Brien

Tourism & Hospitality

Gene Cassidy stands in front of what will soon be the midway sign that Big E visitors know very well.

Production of the Big E Takes a Village, and We’re Not Talking About Storrowton

As the clock ticks down the start of another Big E, an elaborate and well-choreographed effort is underway to get everything set for opening night. As it turns out, this is just one of the myriad traditions synonymous with this annual celebration of New England.

Eugene Cassidy likens the process of getting the Big E ready for opening day to choreographing a dance number. In short, a large number of people have to work in sync and in cooperation with one another to get the desired result.

Preparations for the 17-day long fair, which starts Sept. 13, begin 18 months before it happens, and there are countless moving parts that need to come together — properly and on time — to not only have the fair ready for prime time, but to ensure that each day of The Big E is a success.

“Even though we’re now just a month away from the 2019 fair, we’re well into planning for 2020,” said Cassidy, president and CEO of the Eastern States Exposition, while explaining how the jig-saw puzzle that is the 2019 fair comes together.

“Everybody is probably on pins and needles as we get ready,” he went on. “Coordinating the fairgrounds is really like being a dance instructor. There are so many little things that need to be considered, like what gets placed first. The choreography that’s required is very important.”

And this year, there is more to be choreographed than merely the tents, displays, rides, and flower gardens.

Indeed, while managing the traffic to and from the fair has always been a matter of import (and a stern test) this year there is a much higher degree of difficulty to those maneuvers.

That’s because the Morgan-Sullivan Bridge, which connects Agawam with West Springfield and borders the western end of the fairgrounds, is roughly one third of the way through a three-year renovation project.
The four-lane bridge is down to two, and as anyone who has ever tried to cross the bridge during Big E time knows, four lanes are not nearly enough.

Strategies are being developed to address the matter, said Agawam Mayor William Sapelli, adding that he is working with both the Big E and the town of West Springfield to devise ways to mitigate tieups.

“We discussed the traffic concerns and how we’re going to mitigate some of those issues,” he said. “The Big E has been very, very cooperative. There’s going to be a lot of coordination between the two police departments… it’s kind of like an orchestrated dance; we have our side and they have theirs.”

So it seems there will be a lot of dancing going on, figuratively, before and during this edition of the Big E, which will look to top last year’s record attendance mark of 1,543,470 people.

Organizers believe they have the lineup to do just that, as we’ll see, and, as always, are keeping their fingers crossed on the weather, which is one puzzle piece that can’t be choreographed.

For this issue and its focus on tourism and hospitality, BusinessWest talked at length with Cassidy and others at the fair to gain some perspective on this year’s edition and also how these fairs come to life.

Gene Cassidy says the carnival rides and games, brought in by the North American Midway Entertainment right after Labor Day, all go up in a matter of days.

Parts of the Whole

Cassidy has been coming to the Big E since his youth, and he has many vivid memories from his visits. Among them is his first view of an elephant when he was 7.

Today, it’s his job — and his mission — to make lasting memories for others. He’s been doing this for eight years as president and CEO, and 26 years of working for the exposition in various capacities.

These memory-making duties are rewarding, but also quite challenging at this time, said Cassidy, listing everything from new and different hurdles being faced by agriculture fairs, especially from animal-rights groups, to mounting competition for the time and attention of families — competition that certainly didn’t exist when the fair was launched, to the aging infrastructure of the Big E itself, with many buildings approaching 100 years in age.

These facilities are “capital intensive,” according to Cassidy, who said donations to the fair are modest because some people do not recognize the Eastern States as something that is worthy of making charitable contributions to.

“Because the fair is so successful, we’re sort of a victim of our own success,” he said. “We produce tremendous agricultural events that draw interest across North America, and we make enough income in order to support those events, but we do not have enough income to recapitalize the facility.”

This makes things difficult when updating the older buildings that hold some of the fair’s most beloved traditions. Over the past seven years, Cassidy said, the corporation has spent about $30 million fixing up the buildings.

“My goal is to raise awareness of the importance of the Eastern States in order to stimulate the interest of our region’s businesses in order to raise money to help recapitalize the facilities,” he said, adding that this awareness-raising process comes down to many factors, including the task of putting on a good show each year.

Brynn Cartelli, Longmeadow native and winner of season 14 of The Voice, is set to perform at The Big E on Sept. 13-15 on the Court of Honor stage.

 

And this involves choreography, but also a blending of the traditional and the new in ways that will draw audiences of all ages. And Noreen Tassinari, director of marketing at the Eastern States Exposition, believes this has been accomplished with the 2019 edition of the fair.

“The Big E is, across generations, a tradition here in Western Mass., Connecticut, and throughout New England — people come for many reasons, and some of the reasons are their favorite family traditions,” she said, adding that for many, the fair is a yearly stop in their calendar, which is why it’s so important to keep adding new items to the extensive list of things to do at the fair.

“We like to have a fresh approach each year, so we like to introduce new entertainment and features and certainly new foods so people are buzzing about what’s going on at the Big E this year,” she said. “We want people thinking ‘we can’t miss the fair.’”

Among the new additions for 2019 are a star-studded entertainment lineup with three stages featuring big-name stars like Loverboy, Carly Rae Jepsen, and Brynn Cartelli, as well as other local artists. Other entertainment includes everything from Ireland’s Dingle Peninsula Showcase, a cultural, educational, trade and tourism showcase featuring products from the Emerald Isle, to the Avenue of States, a unique display of buildings representing each New England state.

John Lebeaux Commissioner of the Mass. Department of Agricultural Resources, believes that The Big E might not have as significant of an impact as it does today without the unique representation from all New England states.

“It’s one of the top 10 biggest agricultural fairs in the United States,” he said. “I don’t think we would have been able to achieve that were it not for this regional aspect.”

This extended reach and regional flavor makes the Big E more than a fair and a tradition, said Cassidy, adding that it also a force within the local economy.

“A lot of our mission is to create and build a local economy,” he said, adding that the lastest economic-impact study, conducted in 2014, showed that the annual impact regionally totaled $479 million.

In Cassidy’s seven years as CEO, five have set new records for attendance. If the record is broken again, that will be a good problem to have, in most respects, because of what promises to be a trying year traffic-wise.

As a result of the bridge-construction work, left turns from River Road onto Memorial Ave. are “no longer allowed,” according to The Big E website, and fair-goers are being asked to use Baldwin Street to get to the Eastern States instead.

This will no doubt create lengthier travel times for many people traveling to and from the area, but both Agawam and West Springfield are doing what they can to minimize the inconvenience.

Sapelli said The Big E is making sure that any larger vehicles, including horse trailers and delivery trucks, are using a specific route with better access rather than coming through Agawam and having to make a tight turn onto the bridge. In addition, the fair partnered with King Ward Coach Lines, which will be shuttling people from various locations, including the Enfield Mall, to cut down on the number of vehicles that need to come in for parking.

With realistically only two ways to get to Memorial Avenue, and one of them under serious construction, West Springfield Mayor William Reichelt says delays are, unfortunately, inevitable.

“We’re working with each other and then the state to make sure there are enough resources,” he said. “I think, unfortunately, there’s just going to be traffic going that way because we went from four down to two lanes.”

Sapelli agrees and asks that people be patient while waiting to get into the fair.

“We’ll all get through this, it’s a wonderful fair,” he said. “They do a lot for the economy and the surrounding communities.”

Fair Game

Despite the likely traffic jams, the fair is likely to draw record-breaking crowds. Again, that has been the trend. For now, it’s crunch-time for the Big E staff who have to choreograph another major production.

Between the entertainment artists, the Avenue of States, the seemingly-endless food vendors, and everything in between, it’s easy to see why this fair has become a tradition for families across the Northeast and even beyond.

“You almost need more than one visit to do it justice,” said Tassinari. “We really have the New England flavor and feel, and that’s part of our mission.”

Meetings & Conventions

Horse Sense

President and CEO Gene Cassidy

President and CEO Gene Cassidy.

When people think of the Eastern States Exposition, they often think immediately of the Big E, the 17-day fair that dominates the tourism landscape at the start of each fall. But Eastern States is much more than that, as reflected by its diverse array of events, both large and small, and the resulting economic impact on the region — not to mention its important mission of keeping its agricultural heritage alive for future generations.

Fifty-two years ago, notes Greg Chiecko, a local camping group set up shop at the Eastern States Exposition — and have come back every year since.

“That was our first non-fair event. They took the building for the whole month — it took that long to set up, do their show, and move out.”

How things have changed, said Chiecko, director of Sales. The Big E, the 17-day fair that has taken place each fall for more than a century, remains the ESE’s most famous calling card. But outside the fair, the grounds hosts more than 100 events annually, some small-scale, some much larger, like the camping and outdoor show that now crams hundreds of vehicles into three large buildings each February.

One of the many horse shows at the ESE.

One of the many horse shows at the ESE.

“The dynamics have changed substantially over the past 50 years,” Chiecko said. “They’ve been doing it so long, it’s amazing. They still take a little while to move in, but they do it with such accuracy, and they literally move out of all the buildings in a day.”

A quick look at the coming month’s schedule demonstrates the range of groups that present events here. February alone offers the Amherst Railway Society’s Railroad Hobby Show, the aforementioned Springfield RV Camping and Outdoor Show, the Springfield Sportsmen’s Show, and two dog shows. March brings the Old Deerfield Spring Sampler Craft Fair, Mark’s Northeast Motorsports Expo, the Antique & Modern Firearms Show, the Maple Harvest Day & Pancake Breakfast, the AMMO Fight League, a Massachusetts 4-H Blue Ribbon Calf Sale, and the large Western Mass. Home and Garden Show — not to mention two more dog shows.

“We call ourselves the flexible facility in the heart of New England, and we truly are,” said Chiecko, who will leave the ESE next month to become president and CEO of the Outdoor Amusement Business Assoc. “And every show is different. The Big E and the Fiber Festival are the only events we produce. We’re a landlord the rest of the year. Some of these are volunteer groups, some are professional promoters, some are associations … it runs the gamut. They produce the shows, and we offer services, like ticket takers, ticket sellers, security, and more. They can use our services or use their own.”

Greg Chiecko calls the ESE “the flexible facility in the heart of New England.”

Greg Chiecko calls the ESE “the flexible facility in the heart of New England.”

Gene Cassidy, president and CEO of the Eastern States Exposition, noted that the facility also offers services like advertising, sign manufacturing, banking, and other amenities that many venues don’t have in their portfolio. The result of this flexibility and roster of services results in a high retention rate, with groups that return year after year. In addition, he noted, “some staff people have been here for 40 years. So there’s a lot of institutional memory.”

The ESE’s consumer shows — home shows, gun shows, camp shows, sport shows, and the like — tend to be among its most popular offerings, Chiecko said. “We’re also the dog-show capital of the Northeast. In 2017, we had 36,000 AKC-registered dogs on our property, just from the AKC shows, not counting other groups. Dog shows are a big deal. And we love dog shows because they come on holidays: Easter, Thanksgiving weekend, Fourth of July weekend, times of the year when it would be difficult to fill our spaces.”

“In 2017, we had 36,000 AKC-registered dogs on our property, just from the AKC shows, not counting other groups. Dog shows are a big deal.”

EASTEC, the largest manufacturing event east of the Mississippi, returns to the fairgrounds this May for its biannual visit. “Exhibitors love it, and the area restaurants and hotels do great,” Chiecko said, adding that local trade shows, from the likes of J. Polep Distribution Services and Performance Food Group, also regularly host events. Meanwhile, clients book parties and weddings at Storrowton Tavern and the Carriage House, which managed by a private firm but owned by the ESE.

That’s far from an exhaustive list, but it does lend credence to Chiecko’s “flexible facility” motto.

“I’ve been here 24 years, and I’ve never heard a “can we do it?” inquiry that I’ve had to say ‘no’ to,” he said. “The facility is so flexible, and our crew is so flexible, we can do anything.”

Animal Attraction

Despite the myriad events the ESE presents each year, its heritage remains firmly rooted in animals and agriculture.

“We do 13 horse shows outside the three we do for the fair,” Chiecko said. “We do a sheep show, youth cattle shows, and we have a big poultry show coming up next month. And this past year, we had the National Rabbit Association. We had 18,000 rabbits here.”

“The joke,” Cassidy quickly added, “was that 18,000 rabbits came, and 36,000 left.”

The attendance level varies among these events, Chiecko noted. “A lot of the horse shows tend to watch themselves rather than anything else. But the rabbit show attracted a huge population from the general public.”

The annual Western Mass. Home and Garden show

The annual Western Mass. Home and Garden show brings attendees face to face with hundreds of local businesses.

However, when it comes to most animal events, Cassidy said, “I wish there were more people engaged. It’s our job to promote the breed or species, put it out there for the public to consume, and they’re free events. The fact is, if the Big E had more days or we had more acreage, more of those shows would take place during the course of the fair so we could get as many people from the public exposed to that. But we do our best to try to promote interest in it; we believe it’s important for agriculture. It’s mission-driven; we’re not making any money on that. That’s all stuff we promote and invest heavily in.”

Still, “the more shows we can put in during the fair, the more it helps us fund our agriculture program, most of which happens outside of the fair, in the other 49 weeks of the year,” he went on. “We make it available to the public so they can have the exposure. It’s tough in this day and age, when the youth in the general population are so disassociated from agriculture, and we deal with the hardcore animal activists, the people who have serious agendas against consumption of animals, and they influence public policy to the detriment of the greater good of society.”

That has affected the national 4-H program, which gets federal funding and is being influenced by people outside of agriculture, which results in regulation making it harder for children to be involved. Meanwhile, Future Farmers of America, a private nonprofit not under federal control, is going strong, Cassidy explained, noting that, no matter the vehicle, it’s important to keep engaging young people in agriculture and animal rearing. “Those are the kids that going to feed the world in the next generation.”

It’s one of the reasons why the Big E, which continues to set attendance records, is so critical, in that it helps fund the other 49 weeks of events while driving interest in animal shows; people are more likely to check out such shows once they’ve bought a ticket and are at the fairgrounds.

“At one time, we had four or five antique shows here. The Internet has almost eliminated antique shows because people can shop from the comfort of their own living room.”

“The fair is just a fundraiser. It’s like your church bazaar, except we just happen to run 17 days and are one of the biggest in the world,” Cassidy said. “It’s a fundraiser for us to drive stewardship into our mission. I wish more people were as excited about that mission as we are. I look down the road a generation, and we’ve got a lot of work to do.”

On the other hand, Chiecko said, the consumer shows are still strong because people enjoy events that reflect their hobbies and interests. But even there, the Internet has impacted certain shows.

“At one time, we had four or five antique shows here. The Internet has almost eliminated antique shows because people can shop from the comfort of their own living room, which is really too bad, because the quality of what people get isn’t nearly the same. It’s the same with craft shows. That’s the nature of the business cycle — we’re no different than a brick-and-mortar store dealing with Amazon.”

Living the Mission

Cassidy emphasized more than once during BusinessWest’s visit that the Eastern States Exposition makes a priority of its agricultural mission. “Not everyone relates to that mission. But if we can’t support agriculture, we can’t support everything else we support – and we support a lot.”

He’s not just talking about planned events. The fairgrounds has been a staging center for emergency situations as well. Northeast Utilities set up camp and fed its crews there during the famous October 2011 snowstorm. A few months before that, the ESE’s dorms housed hundreds of people suddenly made homeless by the tornado that struck the region. “We’ve hosted large RV rallies here,” Chiecko said. “If a cattle guy breaks down on 91, they might come here.”

So there’s a community impact in addition to the economic impact to the region — more than a half-billion dollars a year, he noted, with only part of that generated by the 17-day Big E. “Year-round operations play a big role.”

He believes its impact will only grow now that MGM Springfield has opened across the river.

“I think we have a good partnership,” he said, one that extends beyond parking cars for MGM during its first week of operation last summer. “They bring large conventions to town, which utilize rooms and banquet spaces downtown — well, we have 355,000 square feet of exhibit space. We’re hoping to see more city-wide conventions. It’s a tight-knit community here.”

Dog shows have become a surprisingly robust source of bookings for the ESE.

Dog shows have become a surprisingly robust source of bookings for the ESE.

For convention goers and people who attend events at Eastern States, MGM is another activity to take in while visiting Springfield, he added, while people who come to Springfield mainly for the casino might also take in an event at the fairgrounds — and everyone benefits.

“Because of the advertising campaign MGM launched, it put Springfield on the map in a bigger way, and I think our fair benefited from that,” Cassidy said of last year’s record attendance at the Big E, which took place a few weeks after MGM opened. “My hope is that, with the synergies we’ve developed in partnership with MGM, we can help bring more commerce to the city of Springfield in the form of non-fair events: trade shows, professional shows, manufacturing shows.”

With that in mind, he keeps plugging away at that year-round mission — because, simply put, the Eastern States Exposition is more than a center for events of all kinds. It’s a critical piece of the region’s tourism and economic picture.

“If this place ever went away, the impact on our economy would be devastating,” he said.

Which is why he doesn’t intend to let the ESE go to the dogs — well, except on those weekends when it does.

Joseph Bednar can be reached at [email protected]