Reality check for ‘armchair fair organizers’ and their ‘simple’ solutions for Chesterville

Tribeck Inflatables' array of bouncy attractions at this year's Chesterville Fair. Zandbergen photo, Nation Valley News

The Editor:

I’ve been involved with the Chesterville Fair in some capacity over the past 20 years. As usual after any fair, I hear feedback from all sorts of people, either directly or indirectly. Some feedback is positive, some is constructive, but some is downright nasty and useless. I’m not currently a member of the Board of Directors and am not speaking on their behalf, but I’d like to respond to some feedback and help enlighten a few members of our community to the complexities of running a fair, based on my own observations, analysis and experiences.

The year-round commitment of the Board of Directors entails more than putting on an event for one weekend of the year. In fact, there is no official organization called “The Fair Board”. The Chesterville Fair is run by the Chesterville & District Agricultural Society (Ag Society) which is governed by a Board of Directors — usually just about 10 volunteers. Although commonly referred to as the Fair Board, that group is mandated with many more tasks. The Ag Society is a registered charity, meaning it has to live up to certain standards to keep that status. Plus, it owns a big chunk of land with three buildings, all of which must be maintained. The Ag Society’s mandate is to promote agriculture and enrich rural life and that’s what many grants are based on. The primary way the Ag Society meets its mandate is to put on a fair, but that’s only one activity. Ag Society volunteers work year-round not just to plan the fair, but to ensure all aspects of the organization are run properly and maintained.

Focusing on just the Fair, I’d like to dissect a couple of the most common complaints I heard this year, where some people believe the solution to be so “simple”.

This year’s Midway was inflatable and Tribeck did an outstanding job of putting on a great looking show. The games and activities were new and exciting for kids, and their team was clean and friendly. Still, it’s unfortunate that some parents chose not to give this change a chance, even though their kids may have liked it. Several fairgoers would have preferred the mechanical rides and understandably so — thrilling rides are a staple at a traditional fair, but I’d like to clarify that the Board of Directors did not sit down one day and decide to eliminate rides as a fun thing to do.

Gable Bros. Midway had been setting up at the Chesterville Fair since 2015, after helping provide rides when another midway provider failed to show up in 2014. Feedback about Gable Bros. had not been positive, especially by the end of 2017. From not enough rides, to broken equipment, to too high of prices, enough people made it clear to the Board that Gable Bros. was not an option to be at the 2018 Chesterville Fair. By September 2017, dedicated volunteers contacted and met with the few other mechanical midway suppliers who come to Eastern Ontario and there was simply nobody available. The only options left were an inflatable midway or a giant field of grass. As an added bonus with an Inflatable Midway, the Ag Society was able to give families a massive break in price compared to previous years.

If you’re one who complained about Gable Bros. last year and then immediately moaned about the inflatable midway this year, my advice to the Ag Society Board of Directors is to associate less value with your feedback moving forward. Some people will never be satisfied, are happier complaining, and their business isn’t worth the added stress.

“If you’re one who complained about Gable Bros. last year and then immediately moaned about the inflatable midway this year, my advice to the Ag Society Board of Directors is to associate less value with your feedback moving forward. Some people will never be satisfied, are happier complaining, and their business isn’t worth the added stress.”

The Midway business is not an easy one. Until less than 10 years ago, midways came to Chesterville at no charge and paid a percentage of their revenue for the weekend. Since then, provincial regulations have raised costs, fuel expenses have skyrocketed (a tractor trailer has to haul each ride across the province), employees (including certified mechanics) require more money, insurance premiums have gone up, and the parts that come from Europe are getting more difficult to procure. As a result, Midway providers could no longer offer Chesterville the deal they used to, especially since Fair support and gate numbers had been dropping even then.

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As of 2014, the only way to get a Midway into town was to pay a few thousand dollars. Then, if they made a certain amount, the fair would start to receive a percentage of their revenue. So, we went from risk-free and a few thousand dollars in revenue, to a few thousand dollars in up-front costs and a bit of extra income that doesn’t cover the deposit. Midways now cost money instead of make money.

Of course, there is the option of a pay-one-price model; however, assuming there’s a Midway supplier available and willing to do it, that requires an even larger financial commitment. With gate numbers decreasing, the Board of Directors needs to seriously consider the risk and whether or not they can make that money back. Finding rides isn’t quite as simple as some “armchair fair organizers” like to think.

“Finding rides isn’t quite as simple as some ‘armchair fair organizers’ like to think.”

The other complaint I heard all weekend was the lack of a big refreshment tent and the Board’s decision to use the Arena for evening dances. I love the tent and would also have preferred seeing it, but it’s also expensive. When you factor in the price of a large tent plus the costs that come with it (extra porta-potties, fencing, security, and the new provincial regulation that requires us to pay for an Engineer to watch it go up), it approaches an extra $5,000 in costs. This is compared to the Arena which the township provides at no charge with impeccable service. Perhaps the fair may have had higher attendance with a tent and made that money back, and that’s a detailed analysis for the Board of Directors to make, but given tent attendance had been dwindling in previous years, using the arena was a responsible decision.

Overall, as in all businesses today, costs for the Ag Society are rising and margins are shrinking. If the fair prices raised at the same rate as fair expenses, we would all be paying significantly more at the gates, in homecraft, and at the bar. The Board of Directors has to get creative and cut costs in certain places if we want another fair next year. This year, they cut tent costs but they also invested more in entertainment.

The age-old response to most negative feedback about a volunteer-run event is “join the board and do something about it.” If you plan to show up and save the day with bright ideas like “just bring better rides,” I’d recommend holding off on joining the board for now because you’ll be disappointed. Instead, get involved with the Society as a volunteer or committee member, attend board meetings (anybody can), ask questions and enlighten yourself. Learn the business of the Society and the Fair. A local business owner would never change the way they run their business because one loud person gave them uninformed advice, and the fair is the same way. If you want to help manage and change any organization, you need to first understand all of its complexities.

Recent examples of successful change at the Chesterville Fair are the ball tournament and the fair’s growing truck pull. In both cases, a group of passionate people formed a committee that works extremely hard and focuses on just their event. A member of the committee reports to the Ag Society Board of Directors to gain guidance and approval, and they all work together to put on a spectacular show. If you have an idea, instead of just talking, I guarantee that if you approach the Board with a solid plan, including how to pay for it, and a team committed to make it happen, your idea will be embraced.

There is no need for a volunteer to attend every Board meeting and give up their life on fair weekend. Find out where you can help and join a committee to give as much time as you wish. Slowly, you’ll learn more about the Ag Society and can become a valuable director. Jumping directly onto the Ag Society Board of Directors is the equivalent to taking on a management position in an industry that’s new for you. You will have a steep learning curve and may not be as successful as you think you can be.

Our town loves their fair and I admire the passion they have for it. I especially appreciate the support it receives from the vast majority. I’m well aware there are people who show up and pay money even when they’re not fully satisfied with the fair, but because they want to see the fair succeed.

Constructive criticism from the fair’s patrons is helpful and definitely appreciated. Unfortunately, some bitter people provide only pure negativity with no value, and that builds up. It’s discouraging and demoralizing to hardworking volunteers. I’ve mentioned a few ways you can help the fair that do not include senseless complaining. At a minimum, if you don’t have the time or money to give, the easiest thing you can do today is thank a fair volunteer and let them know they’re appreciated. If we lose people, then all the ideas and money in the world will be irrelevant.

Dan Gasser
former President of the Chesterville & District Agricultural Society


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