Saving county fairs (and tourism dollars) during a pandemic

County fair
Spencerville has a fair that’s lower key than others, says board member Tammy Ferguson. Even so, it’s a key economic driver for the small community.

COVID-19 stopped the Spencerville Fair from operating last year, but organizers weren’t going to let that happen again.

After putting their heads together and brainstorming a new type of fair that could co-exist with a global health crisis, organizers got creative and adopted a new model for its 166th year: an in-person-virtual hybrid model.

Keeping the gates open in 2021 has been a challenge faced by hundreds, if not thousands, of county fairs across the country. Fairs drive tourism numbers higher, provide a reliable and sustainable boost in revenues through the autumn and bring residents together.

It took the Spencerville group and its volunteers about nine months to coordinate but they came through, and on September 9 welcomed back locals and visitors alike — both online and on the grounds, in a modified way. 

The small community south of Ottawa has a fair that’s lower key than others, says board member Tammy Ferguson. Even so, it’s a key economic driver for the small community.

For a behind the scenes look at how the fair came to be this year, Ottawa Business Journal spoke with Ferguson to talk about the fair’s legacy, what went into planning a fair during a pandemic and what it all means for the event’s future.

How was this year’s event different?

It was a lot smaller, it was free and of course with the COVID protocols, we didn’t know what we could do or how we could do it. We kind of pulled it together at the last minute, so there were none of the big draws — there was no midway, no tractor pulls, no derby and Sunday afternoon entertainment for the old timers.  We did a stationary parade this year which, unfortunately, was very small because people just weren’t coming out. We did find that the crowds were smaller, of course, and I think that we made the right decision not to hold a full fair. We found from looking at other fairs around that tried to run full fairs — they weren’t getting the full crowds like they were used to because a lot of people still aren’t prepared to come out because of COVID.

What did you have?

This year we had a marketplace that was huge — we had over 80 vendors this year, which was a lot. We’re all spaced out because we’ve got 10 acres of land. We also had four different bands playing out in the trailer — the stage. You could just take your lunch or your meal and sit on the hill or near the stage and enjoy the music. We had the dancing cows, we had the upside down clowns and different entertainment going around. The virtual side this year, people were able to do their competition entries online. There was a fair book that had a paired down version of entries that were available and people were able to submit their entries online or take photos or videos. Entries were judged and winners were picked and cheques will be sent out for the winners, so there is prize money for the winners this year just like last year. 

Why was it important to keep the fair going? Why not take another year off?

It’s been going on for so many years and it’s such a big draw. Spencerville’s not very big — but when you draw to  a community of 600 to 700, and over the weekend you bring in 20,000 people, it’s a big event. I know that people always look forward to the grounds entertainment, what are the rides going to be this year, who is going to be in the tent this year for entertainment, what’s going on at the fair — what can we expect. We start getting these questions early on. People want to know so they can plan. The community counts on it, the community looks for it and the community misses it.

What does the fair mean to tourism in the area?

It draws in a bunch of people so obviously they are coming in and either staying with family or staying in hotels, they’re going to be buying at the fair which is going to put money into the economy.  We get the gate money, which goes back into the economy — because we’re a non-profit. The vendors spend their money, then there are the restaurants and hotels — whenever people come, they spend. So wherever they spend, that money gets pumped back into the community and gets spent in the community. So, it has to work its way around. Plus, there’s the prize money — we have tens of thousands of dollars in prize money.

What lessons have you learned about putting on an event during a global health crisis?

Where there’s a will, there’s a way. Even when you don’t know what you’re going to be able to do, we wanted to do something.  We started out doing one thing and then as we kept going, then we thought, “Well, if we can do this, then we can do that, and then we can do this,’ then the fair got bigger than we had anticipated.