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Coping with a Lost Year

Gene Cassidy

Gene Cassidy says the Eastern States Exposition is much like the farmers it helps promote; one lost season can spell disaster.

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.

J. Loring Brooks

When he was the Big E’s chief development officer, J. Loring Brooks would get on the phone and raise money when the fair had bad years, usually as a result of weather.

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.”

Daunting Challenge

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.

—George O’Brien

Daily News

WEST SPRINGFIELD — The Eastern States Exposition (ESE) is introducing “A Taste of the Big E,” a drive-thru event that previews 11 of the fair’s favorite food vendors and their offerings, including the iconic Big E Cream Puff and more, on Saturday, June 27 from 10 a.m. to 7 p.m. and Sunday, June 28 from 10 a.m. to 6 p.m.

“It brings me great pleasure to welcome guests to our grounds and provide a sample of their favorite Big E foods at this unique event,” ESE President and CEO Gene Cassidy said. “It is our hope that people will come from far and wide to get a taste of what’s to come in September at the fair.”

There is no entry fee, and drivers will enter the grounds at Gate 9 and be directed by parking staff to follow a designated path to New England Avenue. Food stands will be set up on each side of the road, and vehicles will enter single file.

Guests will be able to order, pay, and pick up their food before moving forward to the next two stands. Vendors will work quickly to take orders, process cash and credit-card payments, and deliver food to the vehicles. Guests will be asked to remain in their vehicles at all times and wear face masks or coverings when ordering and accepting food from vendors.

The final stop will be the Big E Cream Puff Mobile Bakery, situated on the Court of Honor. This marks the first time in the bakery’s history that Big E Cream Puffs and Big Eclairs will be available outside of the fair. Guests will then be directed to exit the grounds via Gate 2 onto Memorial Avenue.

Menus and more information can be found at www.thebige.com/tasteofthebige.

A portion of the proceeds will be donated to the West Springfield Parish Cupboard. Through financial contributions and food donations, the Parish Cupboard has been able to help thousands of citizens in West Springfield and Agawam for more than 30 years.

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]