Fair Amount of Intrigue
As the calendar turns to late summer, all eyes in the region turn to the Big E in West Springfield and the much-anticipated 2021 edition of the fair. The show did not go on in 2020 due to COVID-19, a decision that impacted businesses across a number of sectors. There will be a fair this year, and the goal is to make it as normal — there’s that word again — as possible. But it will be different in some respects. Meanwhile, as COVID cases surge in other parts of the country and uncertainty about the fall grows with each passing day, the anticipation for the fair comes with a healthy dose of anxiety.
In a normal year — and this isn’t one, to be sure — what keeps Gene Cassidy up most at night is the weather.
Cassidy, president and CEO of the Big E, has been quoted many, many times over the years saying that just a few days of steady rain — especially if they come on weekends — can turn a great fair, attendance- and revenue-wise, into an average one, or worse, just like that. So even though there’s nothing he can do about the weather, he frets about it. A lot.
This year … while ‘afterthought’ might be too strong a word when it comes to the weather, it might not be, either.
Indeed, Cassidy has other matters to keep him up at night, including a pandemic that is entering a dangerous and unpredictable stage, a workforce crisis that has already forced the cancellation of a giant Ferris wheel that was scheduled for this year’s fair and may pose a real challenge for vendors and other participating businesses during the fair’s 17 days, and even concerns about whether one of the organizers of his massive car show can get into this country (he’s been given the AstraZeneca vaccine, which isn’t recognized in the U.S.).
“I have a fear … that the long arm of the government can suddenly change our lives — we lived through that in 2020, to be sure,” he noted. “And the Eastern States Exposition is surviving on a very thin thread; we cannot withstand being shuttered for another fair because the vacuum that would occur in our economy is nearly three quarters of a billion dollars, and there’s no way that anyone is going to able to replace that.”
“I have a fear … that the long arm of the government can suddenly change our lives — we lived through that in 2020, to be sure. And the Eastern States Exposition is surviving on a very thin thread; we cannot withstand being shuttered for another fair.”
As the Big E enters the final countdown before it kicks off on Sept. 17, there are equal amounts of anticipation and anxiety. The former is natural given the fact that the region hasn’t gone without a fair, as it did in 2020, since World War II; Cassidy noted that advance ticket sales are “off the charts,” and running 80% higher than in 2019, which was a record-setting year for the Big E.
The fair will offer a welcome escape for all those who have spent much of the past 18 months cooped up and not doing the things they would traditionally be doing. And it will provide a much-needed boost for businesses in several sectors, from hotels and restaurants to tent-renting enterprises, for those homeowners in the area who turn their backyards into parking lots, and for countless vendors who had a big hole in their schedule (actually, lots of holes) last year.
People like Sharon Berthiaume.
The Chicopee resident has been coming to the Big E with her booth, A Shopper’s Dream — which features animal-themed merchandise (mugs, ornaments, floormats, metal signs, etc.) — for 30 years now. She said the Big E is by far the biggest show on her annual slate, and one she and others sorely missed last year.
“It was a major loss, a huge disappointment last year,” she said. “We’ve been coming back for so many years, and we have a lot of regulars who come back year after year looking to see if we have anything new. I’m looking forward to being back.”
But the anxiety comes naturally as well. Indeed, the tents, ticket booths, and other facilities are going up — more slowly, in some cases, because of a lack of workers — as COVID-19 cases are spiking and as states and individual communities are pondering mask mandates, vaccination passports, and other steps.
While there are dozens, if not hundreds, of other area events and gatherings that might be impacted in some way by the changing tide of the pandemic, from weddings to the Basketball Hall of Fame enshrinement ceremonies early next month, none will be watched more closely than the Big E.
Cassidy told BusinessWest he watches and reads the news every day. He’s concerned by the trends regarding the virus, but buoyed by the fact that fairs of this type have been going off, mostly without hitches, across the country. And the turnouts have certainly verified a high level of pent-up demand for such events.
Overall, the sentiment within the region, and the business community, concerning the Big E and the fate of this year’s fair was perhaps best summed up Stacey Gravanis, general manager of the Sheraton Springfield.
“It’s huge … and it’s not just the business side, it’s the emotional side as well,” she said of the Big E and losing it for 2020, “because it’s been around for so many years. It’s something we’ve looked forward to every year for as long as I can remember. So we’re super happy to have it back this year, and we all have our fingers crossed right now.”
And their toes as well. That’s how important the Big E is to the region and its business community.
The Ride Stuff
As he talked with BusinessWest about the upcoming fair and ongoing planning for it, Cassidy joked about how much he and his staff had to tap their memory banks after their forced and certainly unwanted hiatus.
“It’s been two years since we’ve produced a fair, and even though you’ve done this 30 times before, it’s surprising how much you forget,” he said, noting quickly that institutional memory has certainly kicked in for the staff of 26, down from 31 — a nod to one of the many ways the pandemic has impacted the Big E.
“It’s been two years since we’ve produced a fair, and even though you’ve done this 30 times before, it’s surprising how much you forget.”
And while getting the show ready for primetime, Cassidy, who also chairs the International Assoc. of Fairs and Expositions, a worldwide trade association, has been on the phone and in Zoom meetings with others from his industry. Such conversations have gone on with those in this time zone and others with institutions on the other side of the world. And the reports cover a broad spectrum.
“Australia has shut itself down again — after only nine deaths from this Delta variant,” he said. “And that’s a scary development; I think there are 24 million people in Australia, and to have that country impacted like that … it’s been devastating to their economy, and people are quite anxious there.”
Closer to home, and as noted earlier, the news has been much better.
“At the fairs that have been produced, the crowds have not been diminished,” he said, listing successful events in Indiana, Wisconsin, and California as evidence. “At those fairs that have run, people have really returned — and in a large way; there have been a lot of attendance records set.”
At home, those off-the-charts advance ticket sales tell Cassidy that some people are interested in eliminating some contact points and avoiding the crowds at the ticket booths. But mostly, they tell him there is certainly pent-up demand for the fair.
“People are ready to get back to normal,” he said, adding, again, that the overriding goal for the staff was, and is, to make the fair as normal — as much like previous years — as possible.
But more important than normal is the safety of attendees and employees, said Cassidy, noting that a wide range of cleaning and sanitizing protocols are being put in place, and steps are being taken to try to thin crowding in some areas.
“We’ve have intentionally thinned out the grounds a little bit,” he explained. “There’s going to be roughly 10% more space on the fairgrounds as we have tried to space things out a little bit.”
Elaborating, he said there has been some attrition when it comes to food and other types of vendors, and some of the “lower performers,” as he called them, have been eliminated.
“We thought that space was more important than that commercial activity,” he explained, adding quickly, though, that the science is inexact regarding whether creating more space reduces lines and points of contact.
When asked about what he expects for attendance this year, Cassidy said he believes last year’s record of 1.62 million is, in all likelihood, not in danger of being broken, because there are some — how many, he just doesn’t know — who will not want to be part of large crowds of people this year. He’d like to see 1.4 million, and notes that he needs 1.2 million to pay for the fair.
“My goal is simply to provide a great, healthy, family experience for the fairgoing public,” he said, adding that several factors will determine overall turnout. “Our demographic is a little bit older than in other parts of the country, and I think some people are going to be hesitant about large crowds, and I think that will have an impact on us. At the same time, if you look at some of the other events, their popularity has been very high. So I suppose it can go either way, but I think we will see some scaling back of attendance, and that’s OK.”
While crowd control is an issue, there are other concerns as well, as Cassidy, especially workforce, which will be more of a challenge for vendors than for the Big E itself, which has seen most of the regular workforce it hires come back again this year.
Indeed, he noted that work on several of the larger tents that dot the fairgrounds started earlier this year because vendors had fewer people to handle that work. This trend, coupled with cancellation of the Ferris wheel, which demands large operating crews, obviously leaves reason for concern.
However, Cassidy believes the clock, or the calendar, to be more precise, may be working in the favor of employees.
“We open on Sept. 17, and the unemployment bonus checks will cease in the first week of September,” he said. “So, hopefully, people will be wanting to get back to work.”
While there is anticipation and some anxiety within the confines of the Big E, there’s plenty of both outside the gates as well.
As was noted earlier and in countless stories on these pages over the years, the Big E impacts the local economy, and many individual businesses, in a profound way. Gravanis tried to quantify and qualify it.
“It’s thousands of dollars in room and beverage revenue,” she said. “It’s keeping our people employed on a full-time basis. It’s seeing these people, these vendors, that we’ve worked with over the past 20 to 30 years — we missed them last year. It has both financial and impact for our staff and our local businesses.”
Elaborating, she said the hotel, like all others, suffered a seemingly endless string of hits last year as events were canceled, tourism came to a screeching halt, and airlines (who book crews into the hotel on a nightly basis) all but shut down. But the Big E, because of its duration and scope, was perhaps the biggest single hit of all.
Which is why having it back is so important, and also why those fingers are crossed.
“We get hundreds, if not thousands, of room nights, as well as the incremental spending in our restaurants — it’s extensive,” said Gravanis. “We sell out every weekend of the year with a combination of vendors and attendees; right now, there are very few rooms left.”
Berthiaume certainly has her fingers crossed. She told BusinessWest that the return of fairs, and especially the Big E, could not have come soon enough for vendors like her. She said the Charleston (R.I.) Seafood Festival, staged earlier this month, was the first event she’d worked in roughly 18 months, and it has been a long, rough ride since gatherings started getting canceled in March 2020.
“It was crazy last year because you couldn’t plan — life was in limbo,” she said, adding that events were postponed early in the year and there was general uncertainty about when or if they would be held. This year, there was less uncertainty, but also nothing in the calendar, for most, until very recently.
She said a good number of vendors have been forced to pack it in or take their businesses online. “I know a lot of people who have gone out of business because of this. Many had been in business, like us, for 30 years or more, and they figured, ‘what the heck, I’m not going to do this anymore — it’s too hard.’”
Like Cassidy, she senses a strong urge on the part of many people to get back to doing the things they’ve missed for the past year and half, and she cited the seafood festival as solid evidence.
“They had people waiting for two hours to get off the highway to get in — the traffic was so backed up,” Berthiaume recalled. “We hadn’t seen people like that in maybe five years.
“Everyone is ready to get out there,” she went on, with some enthusiasm in her voice. “People are just so happy to be out in public. So the Big E, based on what I’ve seen with their tickets for the concerts … everyone is ready to roll; everyone is waiting for the Big E.”
Fair Weathered Friends
Getting back to the weather … yes, Cassidy is still concerned about it on some levels. And why not? There has been record rainfall this summer and extreme conditions in other parts of the country and across the globe.
He’s hoping all that is in the past tense, with the same going for the very worst that this pandemic can dish out.
The weather can never be an afterthought at the Big E, but this year it is well down the big list of things that keep organizers up at night.
Indeed, this is a time of anticipation and anxiety — and for keeping those fingers crossed.
George O’Brien can be reached at [email protected]