The Royal Welsh is the People’s Show. Around 200,000 people come through the gates every year to see the livestock, watch the displays, and wander around the traders’ stalls.
For many who live in isolated rural areas in Wales, it is one of the biggest events in their social calendar, a chance to get away from the farm for a few days, meet friends and strike deals. It is a holiday, as well as being one of Britain’s biggest trade shows and live events.
So having to cancel it this year was a major blow, not just to us in the Royal Welsh Agricultural Society but also, as we were well aware, to the rural communities we serve. Public safety of course comes first, and the cancellation was necessary because of the coronavirus lockdown measures. But that doesn’t mean the show won’t be missed by the many thousands who normally come to the showground each July.
We moved quickly in the RWAS as soon it became apparent in January and February that the coronavirus could become a threat to the show. The Trustees set up a small executive group with the authority to make decisions quickly. That group, of which I was a member, decided early on to cancel the Smallholders and Countryside Festival, which was due to be held in May, to protect the Society’s finances. Then in April we furloughed 80% of the Society’s staff, and cancelled the main show.
The 20% we kept on included half the estate team. We decided it was important to keep an appearance of business as usual at the showground rather than let it become overgrown and dishevelled. This inspires confidence in people passing the ground that things will return to normal, or something like it, as soon as public safety allows.
But there’s no escaping the severe impact of the cancellation. We were able to agree, with some traders who had booked stalls, that they could have a stall next year at this year’s prices. A large number agreed to us keeping their booking fees, which has helped tremendously with our cashflow. We are grateful for their support.
It’s wonderful that we will have their presence next year, but there’s no getting away from the fact that one year’s revenue is being stretched over two years. All being well, there will be a show next year, but it will be 2-3 years or more before we are fully recovered.
We did not initially think about putting on a virtual show as a partial replacement. Our thinking was that the TV broadcasters would probably put on coverage from previous years, as the BBC has done with Glastonbury. We are grateful to the excellent TV coverage we get each year.
But as it became apparent that other events, such as the Hay Festival, were putting on very successful virtual replacements, we realised the opportunity of a Virtual Royal Welsh was too good to be missed.
Of course, a virtual event cannot replace the atmosphere of the display stands, or wandering around the livestock sheds or the traders’ stalls. Our virtual show will be something different, but we hope equally interesting and exciting. It will provide people with a flavour of what they are missing, as well as some new ideas which we have come up with especially for the Virtual Royal Welsh. It’s part of our desire to continue to support the rural community by providing that point of contact where they all come together, hoping they’ll choose to do it in a virtual way.
Out of every crisis comes an opportunity, and we see this as an opportunity to develop an exciting new aspect to the Royal Welsh that we hope can sit alongside the actual event in years to come. It’s also an opportunity to engage a new audience.
At the Hay Festival 16,000 people clicked on to watch Stephen Fry online, compared to 1,500 who would have been able to see him in the auditorium. We believe the Virtual Royal Welsh gives us an opportunity also to reach out to the large numbers of people around the world who are interested in the show but never come to the showground. We’ll be reaching out in particular to the younger generation, engaging their interest in ways we haven’t tried before.
We have to look positively to the future. This is a major crisis, it’s going to present major challenges for the Royal Welsh and all other major events in the UK, but we have to adapt and look forward to the future with positivity. If we fail to adapt and take advantage of the crisis to look at new ways of doing things, we will fail.