What’s plaguing the PNE?

After drops in attendance over the past three years, the PNE is looking to win back the concert-going youth demographic, plus gain attendees with new programming.

The under-performing PNE turns to new programming and lower prices to boost its floundering attendance rates

PNE organizers are hoping that a broad slate of new programming can reverse a trend of sagging attendance that has plagued The Fair in recent years.

After drawing 937,000 visitors for the 100th anniversary celebration in 2010, overall fair attendance has dropped in each subsequent season. In 2013, The Fair closed for the first time on Mondays, traditionally an under-performing day. As a result, overall attendance dropped by more than 50,000, to 712,000 visitors, though average daily attendance showed a slight uptick.

The PNE has been operating under uncertain conditions for the better part of two decades. In the late ’90s, The Fair was slated to move to Surrey as Hastings Park was developed into a green space. The decision was later reversed when the PNE changed hands from the provincial government to the City of Vancouver. A master plan for the Hastings Park space was completed late in 2010, laying out a long-term strategy to expand and improve park space while also providing better functionality for The Fair and other on-site events.

This year’s PNE will feature a Game
of Thrones

It wasn’t until June of 2013 that governance of the site was officially handed to the PNE organization after a Park Board management bid was denied. With a mandate now firmly in place, the PNE executive team is moving forward with plans—all self-funded—to augment the current green space and expand Hastings Park’s biggest revenue generator, Playland.

In the first year of a new five-year plan that came into effect in 2013, PNE organizers slashed admission and parking prices, each from $20 to $16. For 2014, the focus is on presenting one-time-only programming that will play alongside Fair favourites like the Prize Home Lottery and the midway. “What we’ve tried to do with our programming is say, ‘You need to come this year, because it’s going to change next year,’” says PNE president and CEO Michael McDaniel.

Today’s best country fairs have successfully changed with the times, says Karen Oliver, executive director of the Canadian Association of Fairs and Exhibitions (CAFE). “Originally, fairs and exhibitions were to sell agricultural products or to market them. Many fairs are now urban and reflect the community that supports them. If they don’t, they become redundant.”

The crown jewel of this year’s PNE programming will be “Game of Thrones: The Exhibition,” making its only Pacific Northwest appearance. “We’re pretty excited about this exhibit given its popularity and its relevance today,” says self-professed GoT fan McDaniel. “We anticipate some big lines but we’ve got a management plan in place to deal with that.”

This year’s lineup will also include new family-friendly programming on the history of animation; two new cultural shows that will rotate with the long-running Superdogs; and an Internet Cat Video Festival.

To compete with the plethora of music festivals that draw away young-adult attendees, organizers modernized The Fair’s live music selection. Multi-platinum singer-songwriter Phillip Phillips headlines the Summer Nights concert series, and musical tribute acts at the Park Stage have been supplanted by the new Mosaic music series, with a focus on emerging local artists.

McDaniel says the shift in music programming is meant to bring the concert-going youth demographic back into the fold. “When you think of a typical fair—and I don’t want to necessarily describe us as that or not that—you’d say families with young kids. Programming is the only thing that influences demographics outside the traditional stuff.”

Looking at the PNE’s prospects for 2014 and beyond, “I don’t think you see a large event come back in a year or two years,” says CAFE’s Oliver. “It’s a process. I know [the PNE has] some really dynamic people who are very creative. Those are definitely characteristics that are going to serve them well.”