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COVID-19 and the Future of Our Events - A Pandemic Planning Guide
A Exclusive Editorial

Carnivals, Fairs, and Festivals have been a staple in many communities for years and are part of many family's annual traditions.

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With the pandemic in full swing in the US, we have had many phone calls and conversations with fairs, carnivals and events over the last week or two, trying to figure out what to do and what others are thinking the future may hold.  We keep coming back to the notion that we are all in this together.  Carnivals, food operators, local businesses, concessionaires, and the general public are all affected by the events we run. We wanted to pass along a few suggestions, thoughts, and observations from our team and many in the industry with whom we have spoken.  We hope these points can serve as a useful guide when deciding the future of your event. 
The COVID-19 outbreak has thrown the country and the world at large for a loop.  Mass gatherings have been banned, non-essential businesses have been ordered not to operate in many states, and schools have closed throughout the country for the first time in modern history.  Events such as the Houston Livestock Show and Rodeo and the Miami Dade County Fair were but the two largest events to cancel among many others early this season.  Coming off a very successful 2019, just about everyone in the industry had an optimistic outlook for 2020; then the pandemic hit.

The most frustrating aspect to this pandemic is the uncertainty.  We do not know when the ban on mass gatherings will be lifted or when business will be allowed to open.  This makes it very difficult to plan for the future.  Carnivals are closed, fairs are canceled, postponed, or on hold, and only a few enterprising food operators are open and selling. 

The President has called for a 15 day period to slow the growth of the virus which includes school closings, social distancing, working from home when possible, and not going to bars, clubs, and restaurants.  That 15 day period will end on Tuesday, March 31st, and the government will issue new guidelines at that time.  The president said on March 24th that he hopes the economy will be able to start coming back by Easter Sunday, April 12. 

For events considering cancelling, especially those planned for May, June, and beyond, we urge you to make every effort to delay the decision as long as possible.  We are certainly aware of the difficulties and challenges involved in planning events and the financial responsibilities contained therein.  However, in the spirit of showmanship, we should make every effort, for our related businesses and communities, to proceed with our events if conditions permit.  Waiting a bit, unless there is an undue financial burden doing so, does not have much of a downside.

Why is an event so important?

What's the big deal about canceling for a year, you may ask?  There are several important reasons for “going on with the show”, if conditions permit:
  1. We are often the single largest gathering of people in a community and we are a celebration of the community.  In a time of stress, coming off a national crisis filled with fear and uncertainty, the annual fair or festival will play an enormous role psychologically, boosting community pride and providing families with a much needed affordable entertainment option close to home.  We are part of the fabric of our local communities and a cherished tradition that should not be interrupted, if at all possible.
  2. The fair or event, as we tout in our literature and press kits, has a large economic impact on our local communities, measuring in the tens of thousands or even millions of dollars.  It is a boost to local small businesses and a source of advertising and promotion for non-profit and community organizations. After a time when so many businesses will have felt the impact of a shut down and may be struggling to survive, the blow of losing this great local economic engine will be felt especially hard.

  3. Carnivals, vendors, and entertainers need you too.  Many vendors and entertainers will also be impacted by the crisis and have been hurt financially.  A cancellation can affect routing, adding extra costs and further hurt income for the year.  Many won't be able to continue in the business if too many events cancel prematurely.
  4. 4-H and FFA programs will be impacted.  The kids raising their animals to show at the fair rely on the event as a source of income to proceed with their projects, and with school closings and sports interrupted, many need the outlet in a time of crisis.  The public also needs to continue to be educated on food, food products, and how it gets to their tables.

  5. People will desperately want to find reasons to feel normal again and there's nothing more normal than a fair or festival.  Now more than ever, we need than kind of continuity in our lives.

We make these arguments because we love the business and know that each event touches so many in the local community.  Every event faces financial obligations, “drop dead” dates and financial triggers which necessitate “no or no go” decisions, but we encourage you to work with stakeholders to push that date as far as possible.


A few tips for being able to do so:

  1. Talk with your entertainers and agents, especially those requiring a deposit or no cancellation clause.  Let them know of your situation and work with them to add a provision for cancellation at a later date.

  2. For vendors, exhibitors and sponsors, have an open dialogue and let them know where you stand and what the decision making process will be along with timelines.  Most, if not all, want the show to go on and will make every effort to work with you.

  3. When working with governmental agencies for permitting and security, have a meeting and discuss the possibilities of pushing deadlines and holding off on contracts, especially those that require deposits. Ask them to be flexible on permitting deadlines due to the crisis so the event can avoid being canceled.

  4. For advertising, most of it is cancellable with a week or so notice, especially with good reason like a public health issue.  If the timeline is tight, shift spending from longer commitment media like billboards or print, where you have to make decisions several weeks out, to radio or digital advertising where you can go up immediately and creative/production costs next to nothing.

  5. Discuss your decision making process with your carnival provider.  They can often provide valuable advice, support, and most times, they will understand your difficulties and be flexible with their contracts and obligations.  They also want the show to go on.
  6. Get the support of the community through traditional media and social media channels.  Let them know where you are on proceeding with the event.  The coverage will greatly benefit you if the event does go on, building community support and awareness.  If the event does have to cancel, the pubic will be fully informed and engaged.

  7. If you have a big financial obligation like a concert or grandstand show that will not be flexible with you, consider stripping down the event without the booking.  By waiting, you can buy yourself some more time and once the event is green lighted, there will likely be many options for you to add something if budget allows, as many will be looking for work once the economy gets rolling again.  If things don't work out, you may also find not having a big financial obligation actually helps the bottom line.  

We sometimes forget how important a fair or festival is to our local community as well as other stakeholders such as vendors, carnivals and local businesses.  Our events are a loved and honored tradition in our communities, a source of entertainment and enjoyment stretching back generations.  In a year when so many children have lost proms, graduations, sporting events and school milestones, when their parents have weathered hard times like the loss of a job, a business, or other economic hardship, when we have all joined together to sacrifice some of our freedoms for the health and welfare of our nation, the local fair or festival will be an enormous source of hope, joy, and continuity in all of our lives; a tradition we all need to keep going strong.

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