Jan de Koning's fair at Download Pilot Festival, Donnington 18-20 June 2021

Business buoyant as showmen adapt offer to new trends

The Showmen’s Guild has announced that as at 11 November, 1561 fairs took place since the 12 April restart under Stage 2 of the roadmap out of lockdown.

This is a sizeable percentage of the fairs that normally take place pre-Covid (figure pro-rata allowing that the season usually starts in February), the Guild says.

Those fairs that have not taken place have been part of larger events that were cancelled or postponed at an early stage ahead of the country fully reopening. It is hoped that these will take place next season, but the concern is that if some events have failed to take place for two years, as is the case for some, it is that much harder for the organisers to have survival plans, investment, or even personnel still available to reignite their events.

Halloween Fairs have been a success for showmen across the country, with increasing investment in theming for the celebration that spans the schools’ half term. They have become an important part of the ‘back-end’ season, dovetailing with the established – and, happily, returning – Charter fairs.

Whilst Nottingham Goose Fair did not take place, Hull did, with strong attendance and successful trading, along with Oxford St Giles in September; Stratford Mop; Yarm Fair; Salisbury Pleasure Fair; Sherborne’s Pack Monday and (after much careful planning and local interest) Pembroke Charter Fair among many local and regional celebrations.

Importantly, there were few, if any, cases of Covid infection reported from these and other fairs that have taken place outdoors, as the public voted with their feet to participate whilst following the precautionary measures in place.

There were fewer formal civic-run bonfire and firework fairs this season. Around half of the London Boroughs didn’t run them although neighbouring boroughs did.

Advance booking is a growing feature of those that continued, with many selling out in advance, aided by the coincidental timing of other societal celebrations, including Diwali.

This is a continuing and growing trend, which fortunately guarantees an audience in cases of less welcoming weather. That said, this year the weather was overall fine and dry.

There are 35 major winter / Christmas seasonal events listed, including Winter Wonderlands. The largest – Hyde Park’s Winter Wonderland – is going ahead, with many further ones in a variety of settings.

At Hyde Park, organisers are working to a reduced capacity and paid advance booking for the first time, with an encouraging public response so far, ahead of its launch next week.

This winter’s tally is a growing percentage of that of a non-Covid year. However, local authorities vary in their ambitions for them to go ahead.

Local Authorities’ Directors of Public Health still have final control and the ultimate say-so of fairs and events going ahead in each locality, unlike settled bricks & mortar businesses.

They are, irrespective of the mooted ‘Plan B’ from the government, keeping a cautious eye on the infection rate of possible new Covid variants.

This in turn makes showmen and co-organisers nervous to plan too ambitiously themselves, especially as the much-trumpeted government-backed Event Cancellation Insurance is proving both very expensive and not applicable for many organisers’ events, a fact reiterated by the wider events industry.

Set against this, the showmen, as adaptable as ever, are varying their offering of attractions to suit the desired town centre and out of town formats and following the interest of the public.

Out of town shopping centres are, happily, enthusiastic to host winter themed fairs and markets, to boost customer footfall and bring a welcome rental income.

What is less visible publicly, but none the less concerning for the showmen affected, is the percentage reduction in corporate fairs that are usually operated (for Christmas staff parties and product launches).

It is hoped that this segment of the business will grow back next season, aided by the joint lobbying and support of the wider Events Industry, with whom the Showmen’s Guild works.

This all said, showmen report that business has been strong at most, if not all, the public fairs they have organised or attended this season. A returning customer base has been swelled by those who initially had fewer entertainment options and who discovered the value and excitement fairs had to offer.

Many showmen opted to continue the Covid mitigations as best practice throughout the season and this has found favour with the public.

The switch to cashless payment among dynamic payment options, has progressed at fairs nationwide, in keeping with the transition to card and phone payment driven by the natural choice of the customers.

Photo: Jan de-Koning’s fair at Download Pilot Festival, Donnington in June. Photo: Desmond FitzGerald

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