EN dons a Barbour jacket and Hunter wellies and heads to the Game Fair – where we find a community stronger than ever
What do you get if you combine a James Martin restaurant, a helipad, more dogs than Crufts, a shop-front 15 times the size of Oxford Street and a five-year partnership with the nation of Qatar?
The Game Fair, naturally.
The event, which covers all things countryside, takes place year about at Ragley Hall in Warwickshire and Hatfield House in Hertfordshire and welcomed around 116,000 visitors to the July 2018 event.
“We’re restaurateurs, we’re shopkeepers, we’re dog show organisers, we’re fishing show organisers, we’re golf show organisers – everything is on a big scale,” the show’s managing director, James Gower, tells EN. The event also includes camping, and in 2018 saw 6,000 visitors staying onsite during the three days of the show.
The Game Fair celebrated its 60th anniversary in 2018 – Gower’s third year running the event – and took place on a rare weekend of rain during a largely hot and dry British summer.
“We always put trackway and infrastructure down just in case,” continues Gower. “We were pretty optimistic that we wouldn’t need it but then of course we did.
“If it’s a sunny day the farmers don’t tend to come out because they’re tending to their harvest but they had a respite, so we had more farmers and landowners than we would normally get.”
As one might suspect, the show attracts a wealthy audience – 70 per cent AB – who collectively spent an eye-watering £70m at the 2017 event, and Gower predicts a similar figure for 2018. The show even has its own helipad and offers a range of royal and wealthy visitors the chance to land their helicopters.
Visitors also bought more platinum tickets than ever before, which included VIP parking, a show guide and access to the VIP enclosure where they have access to ‘posh toilets’, cloakrooms and meals throughout the day.
Choosing a venue
Finding a venue able to comfortably accommodate the sprawling event isn’t easy, says Gower.
“First of all, it has to fit,” he says. “Which requires a massive amount of space for car parking and all the logistical elements and there’s a big campsite area.
“Then we look for soil type; we won’t build an event on clay soil and in fact it’s difficult to get insurance for people who run events on the wrong type of soil. Clay subset would mean a small amount of rain could potentially put the event at risk. Before we choose a venue, we take soil samples and we look at how the ground has performed.
“We also have to have an area that can cope with the noise; we shoot a lot. We had the longest shooting line in Europe. At Blenheim, for example, the noise and the size of our show is a problem. We’ve been to Blenheim in the past, but we can’t go there again.
“We’ve booked Ragley Hall and Hatfield House as rotating venues because we’ve put a lot of investment under the ground: fibre optic cables, pipes etc. You could run Stratford Upon Avon off our showground, it’s so heavily equipped. We want to reuse that investment every other year.”
Alongside the shooting range the show also includes areas for fishing and – new for 2018 – the Falconry Village and a five-year partnership with Qatar, where falconry is a highly popular pastime.
Ensuring the high standard of each individual area of the show requires the organisers to occasionally be discerning when looking at potential exhibitors.
“We try and maintain the quality and relevance of exhibitors,” explains Gower. “We get lots of applications which aren’t for us, so we would refer them to other events. Some of them wouldn’t benefit from being there, and we’re not doing that in a snobbish or arrogant way. We try and select the ones that are going to be good for the show and also good for themselves.”
For any show in its 60th year, it’s vital to keep innovating and surprising visitors and exhibitors. In the case of The Game Fair, this includes keeping a watchful eye on the issues affecting the modern countryside community.
“We provide the platform for debates to happen,” says Gower. “In our theatre we have politicians, and both sides of any argument are always welcome to the show. It is a hotbed for media and for discussion, but as organisers we don’t take any one side.”
In the three years that Gower and his team have been overseeing the show they have streamlined and further commercialised the event, adding high-level sponsors and attention-grabbing new features.
“The show had to go through its rebirth,” he explains. “We’ve added innovations and modernised it, as well as keeping the tradition. Bringing in people like Gregg Wallace and James Martin has broadened the appeal.”
Making sure the show is appealing and valuable to its core market is also important when it comes to onstage content.
“You have to keep changing it; if you keep putting on the same event every year it’ll get stagnant. What we try and do is put on a special event, in an incredible setting, build it to the highest standards, and then continue to surprise visitors.
“We offer them new things, but when they arrive everything they know and love is still there as well.”