Coping with a Lost Year
As he talked with BusinessWest about the cancellation of this year’s Big E and how the Eastern States Exposition (ESE) will respond to that huge loss of revenue, Gene Cassidy stopped and pointed to a picture at the opposite end of the company’s large conference room.
“That’s J. Loring Brooks, son of Joshua L. Brooks, founder of the Eastern States Exposition,” said Cassidy, president and CEO of ESE. “He was the Big E’s chief development officer. When the Eastern States had rainy fairs or fairs where, for one reason or another, we didn’t make any money, he would get on the phone and fundraise; when we had difficult times, he would find the funding to make ends meet.”
J. Loring Brooks died in 1984, Cassidy went on, and it’s been a long time since the fair has needed to try to raise money in that fashion — and it would be difficult do it that way now. “That’s not an aircraft carrier you can turn on a dime,” he noted, adding quickly that he did hire a development officer last year, and is looking into various strategies to perhaps do some fundraising.
Action of various kinds — from a development campaign to borrowing to discovering new revenue streams — is needed because 2020 has been the rainiest of years — figuratively, if not literally — in the fair’s 102-year history, and the assignment of making ends meet, as he put, is going to be a very stern challenge.
“We’re not unlike the farmer — if he loses a season, he can go broke,” said Cassidy, who quickly went from that analogy to another one. “I cavalierly refer to the Big E as the church bazaar for this nonprofit; if you don’t have your annual fundraiser, how can you execute on your mission?”
The Big E, he noted — originally known as the Eastern States Industrial and Agricultural Exposition — was created to be that church bazaar, the method for raising money needed to support a mission of promoting agriculture.
Thus, the COVID-19 pandemic has done more than close the fair for the first time since World War II. It has put the Eastern States Exposition on precarious financial ground; put plans for rehabbing and modernizing some of the buildings on the grounds, especially the obsolete Coliseum, on ice; left large questions marks about how the ESE is going to respond to the agricultural community’s ongoing need for a platform; and even raised some doubts about the fate of the fair in 2021.
“We’re not unlike the farmer — if he loses a season, he can go broke. I cavalierly refer to the Big E as the church bazaar for this nonprofit; if you don’t have your annual fundraiser, how can you execute on your mission?’”
But while those at the Big E are certainly moving full steam ahead with planning for next year’s fair, they must also contend with a massive hole in the budget — the Big E accounts for 85% of the yearly revenue, and much of the remaining 15% (all the many types of shows on the books after mid-March) has been wiped off the calendar as well.
Grounds for Change
That makes this year decidedly different, said Cassidy, noting that, in a typical year, his staff would be on what amounts to cruise control as it enters the final six or seven weeks of lead-up to the Big E. This year, these employees are searching imaginatively for ways to generate revenue and close the budget gap.
“We’re in a phase now of trying to discover how we can do smaller types of events that can generate some resources in order for us to sustain ourselves through to next season,” he explained, noting that the fair, despite its wealth of space, buildings, parking, and amenities, is still limited in what it can do. Put another way, it’s limited by what it can’t do, according the governor’s reopening plan — bring large numbers of people together in close proximity to one another.
Options, most of which involve keeping visitors in their cars and taking full advantage of the Big E’s sprawling, 59-acre main parking lot, include everything from a drive-in theater — a cost-benefit analysis is currently underway — to concerts to events like the recent ‘Taste of the Big E,’ a gathering that was eye-opening in a number of ways.
Indeed, the Taste, which involved visitors driving onto the Big E property and then staying in their cars to sample some of the food that would have been offered at this year’s fair, drew far more people than organizers were expecting, said Cassidy, adding that traffic was backed up the full length of Memorial Avenue. “People drove for hours to get here, and then they spent hours waiting in line to get in.”
Ultimately, the Taste helped convince Big E organizers that they simply couldn’t control the turnout for this year’s fair, said Cassidy, adding that the event showed that, if you open for the doors for something people want, they will come.
“When we saw the response to the food show, we knew there was no way to control the number of people on the fairgrounds for the Big E,” he explained. “And knowing that really helped make the decision that staging the fair would not in the best interests of the people who came.”
But the Taste also provided ample evidence that different types of revenue-generating events can possibly be staged at the fairgrounds during the pandemic. These won’t generate anything approaching the income the fair did, but they may help limit the flow of red ink in a year no one could have comprehended just five months ago.
“We’re in a phase now of trying to discover how we can do smaller types of events that can generate some resources in order for us to sustain ourselves through to next season.”
A drive-in theater is among them, said Cassidy, noting that, decades ago, there was one just a half-mile or so down Memorial Avenue, and other one on Riverdale Street. Drive-ins have staged something approaching a comeback during the pandemic, but the startup costs are considerable — $90,000 to buy the camera to project the movies, for example.
“We’ve done a lot of due diligence to discover if there’s a way we could actually turn a profit,” he noted. “That’s one of many things that are on the table.”
Another is the possibility of bringing carnival rides — which are not discussed anywhere in the reopening plan, according to Cassidy — to the fairgrounds. Others include finding new uses for the state buildings (or the grounds outside them), and staging concerts where attendees stay in their cars.
“There are some challenges to putting these on, and some limitations, but they’re a viable option for us,” he noted. “People want to get out to events like this, and a lot of entertainers are dying to work; they’ve lost a lot of opportunities, and they need to work.”
While optimistic that some revenue streams can be created in the midst of the pandemic, Cassidy is also realistic and knows that, collectively, these efforts will generate only a fraction of what a solid Big E would.
“My goal is to get this organization through this very difficult time and run a Big E in 2021 that brings people together again,” said Cassidy, adding, again, that this will be a stern challenge not unlike that faced by a farmer who loses a year’s worth of crops.
Or a small fundraiser that loses its annual bazaar.
Those analogies might not seem appropriate for an organization, and an event, that brings 1.5 million people to the region every year. But for Cassidy, they work, and they illustrate just what he and his staff are up against.