James Gower is the dynamic presence behind the Game Fair, our most eagerly anticipated country event. He tells Steve Faragher what to expect this year, and how they overcame uncertainty.

An inspiring line-up of country life and fieldsports, all represented at the Ragley Hall Game Fair in 2019

SF: I’ve never been to The Game Fair before. Tell me what it’s all about?

JG: The Telegraph called it ‘Glastonbury for the green-welly brigade’, and the footprint is quite similar. It’s a big, outdoor event. Our strapline for it is ‘The festival of the countryside’ and I think that’s a very good description because it is a celebration, and while there are serious things going on in the theatres and lots of networking going on it’s also a fun day out and a big celebration and I think that’s what sets it apart.

We’ll have around 800 exhibitors this year. We’re not expecting it to be any smaller this time—in fact, I think we’ve got around 200 new exhibitors this year and it’s not been a good year for other events and so we’ve picked up some fantastic new exhibitors that have been displaced. That, along with our regular customers, will make it a full-scale event to attend.

There are three entrances and the show is divided into gundogs, equestrian, fishing… there’s an enormous retail section and, of course, Gunmakers’ Row. Food is represented by around 150 exhibitors and you’ll see dispersed around the show automotive customers, too, Land Rover vehicles, that sort of thing, and a big land and estate section as well for land and estate management.

It’s very interesting—you see people turning up thinking they’re there just for the gundogs and they end up shooting on the shoot line or trying archery and other things, so I think it’s a great way of introducing people to new sports as well.

Do the same people come every time?

The Game Fair moves around—last time it was at Hatfield House—and there are some regional differences, but there are probably around 60% who attend all of them. Those who just come for the one that’s near to them, they’re great for the exhibitors because if you buy a pair of boots this year you probably won’t the next year, but you might the year after that and so those people who come every two years are important as well.

Have you ever looked forward to a Game Fair more than this one?

I don’t know how I’m going to feel when I’m stood there. It’s been challenging. I’ve only ever worked on large-scale events—the Boat Show, Top Gear, lots of large-scale events—but I’ve never had to go through an experience like this and it will be an amazing achievement, and I normally feel emotional on an ordinary year. People don’t realise what it’s like organising an event like this.

So the visitors turn up and there’s a fantastic enormous show there. But even my friends, who have known me for 30 years say, “What do you do for the rest of the year?” They don’t know that there’s a team of professionals working full time all the time and then there’s a huge crew of hired help. Come the opening there are about 10,000 people working on site.

I’m sure it’s impossible to know what the highlights of the show will be until after the event, but what are the three things you are most looking forward to seeing?

We try to refresh the show every year. There’s an element of things that will always be there because we know people love them, but each year we want to add some new things, so this year in our gundog rings we’re adding a new working test. We’ve always very successfully hosted the Home Inernational and the Euro Challenge, but the working test will allow non-registered dogs to take part—spaniels, retrievers and HPRs… You can be a complete beginner and take part in that, so who knows what we’re going to discover—some rising stars? I’m looking forward to that.

We’ve also got around 100 new exhibitors in the arts and antiques section and we’ve got a partnership with LAPADA, the UK’s largest association of professional art and antiques dealers, so we’ve got two new pavilions in arts and antiques, which I think is really going to be something to look forward to.

And then every year I love popping into the cookery theatre. We’ve got lots of new chefs taking part, including some from the Country Food Trust, which is our official charity for the year, and they’re bringing their own restaurant—open to the public. You’ll see Phil Spencer in there, flipping eggs . It’s not only a fantastic cause but an amazing facility, too. And there’ll be a few surprises.

Do you think this Game Fair will be bigger than ever because people will be so relieved to get out and about again?

I get to see the dashboard, so I know how many tickets we’re selling and I can genuinely tell you we’re trading where we normally would do in June. In a normal year, things really start to accelerate in June but that’s already happening.

Some of our campsite areas are sold out and I think it will be the celebration we hope it will be. A lot of people have suffered awfully throughout this pandemic and other groups have accumulated savings. I think the Bank of England has said that it is relying on that consumer retail spending to be part of the recovery. We normally would see £60 million of transactions at the show, and I think it will be considerably more than that this year, I really do.

Food and drink will be represented by around 150 exhibitors, as well as the popular Game Fair Kitchen

Will there be less people coming from abroad this year do you think?

We don’t know why but we get a lot of Dutch people attending in normal years and, depending where the rules and regs are by then, that might be the case. It’ll be more than compensated for, however, by the domestic audience I genuinely believe. There might be a small change in it but, in terms of age and profile, very similar.

Is there a cut-off point at which you consider the Game Fair ‘full’?

Well, it’s in 6,000 acres and the local authority divide the show up into 10 zones, so we have to buy 10 alcohol licences and get 10 insurance policies. Even in the hedonistic days of Tier 3 restrictions  we were allowed 40,000 people—4,000 in each zone.

Which, of course, adds up to 120,000, though not all at the same time. We’re not like a concert where people come for a set performance. So we are going to ask people to book and register in advance and that way we have their email addresses and if we need to communicate with them then we can. But it’s hard for us to say the Game Fair will be ‘full’, but it will be ‘well-populated’.

Will any of the exhibitors be focusing on steel-proof guns and shot?

We know BASC, present on the shootline, will want to do demonstrations, and any exhibitors that want to participate in that are, of course, welcome, too. So, yes, there will be trials, demonstrations and have-a-go experiences run by BASC on the shooting line.

Also, will you be offering anything that focuses on gundog theft—how to avoid it, any presence from gundog theft bodies, etc? 

The price of dogs has become a real issue and we’ve seen some terrible stories in the news. One of the debates in the Game Fair Theatre with Carter Jonas will be exactly on this topic, and what people can do—how they can protect their dogs. I think that will be one of the most popular discussions in the theatre.

Have you done anything to make it easier for fairgoers to navigate their way around the showground?

Yes, we have. We listen to feedback all the time and that was part of it. We recognised we needed more maps and more signage, and people had relied on buying the show guide—and that wasn’t fair, so people will see more ‘you are here’ boards, more maps and more signage so they can navigate around the show.

The team have listened to visitors and improved the signage across the site

Tell us about the measures in place to ensure the safety of attendees.

We consult almost on a daily basis with the local authorities and Public Health England and we will adopt any and all the guidelines they put to us, and probably more than that. The government roadmap suggests everything will be lifted by 21 June, but we’re not going to be complacent.

So people can expect more hand sanitisers, more showers, more toilets. If we’re asked to do a rule of six on our dining-room tables in our restaurants, then we will. Our theatres and our restaurants will be bigger, so with more space to circulate around and—as I say—we are selling tickets in advance so we can trace people. 

Things are going well, we hope to see further improvements but we’re not complacent.

Public Health England will do an inspection before we open and the paperwork behind an event like this is enormous. We work with a group called the Safety Advisory Group and that’s made up of representatives of the local authority, Public Health England, local ambulance and fire services, traffic agencies—it’s a big group of 40 to 50 representatives from those agencies. We have one person working full time on this.

It’s been a long, hard road to this Game Fair—tell us about the most difficult times.

Cancelling last year wasn’t a brilliant time. What made it easier was that the industry has been fantastic. We went to the industry and we said: “Can we have your blessing to roll your booking over until the following year?” and 95% said yes.

So that gave us the breathing space we needed. The public were also asked if they would mind hanging on to the tickets they had bought until the next year and again the percentage that said they would was in the high nineties. So that gave us thinking time and a bit of breathing space and we were then able to pack it away and strategise—that happened in June but quite quickly—by September—we were planning again and I suppose the difficult part for us has been the same as for any other business: what are the rules?

We just wanted information and it wasn’t until November that we were getting very clear signals that actually we are in a big outdoor open space, we offer essential retail, non-essential retail, outdoor sports and camping—and all of those components are allowed to happen. I think it was the vision and the proactive nature of the local authority that made the difference. They said: “We’re here to tell you how to make it happen, we’re not here to tell you not to do it.”

We furloughed some people—for a month or so—but not everybody, and we’re back now. We’ve made some changes. We’ve got a new chairman and we’ve started to outsource a few jobs that had once been internal, but largely we’re the same team.

Although people left their money with you and that was a great support, nonetheless there must have been a huge amount of revenue that disappeared. Have you had a capital injection? How have you survived?

Well, we fund it ourselves—it’s a private enterprise we fund ourselves, so the directors are the investors. We’ve had virtually no government support—we’re not a venue that was forced to close, we didn’t fit the criteria for anything.

So we’re here, putting on an event at the most difficult time ever, putting on an event for the industry, and I think that’s important. We’re doing it for the industry, we want the industry to support us. And they are—we’re seeing that. We’re going to be really well attended and now is the time for the industry to really get behind it and show the world what they can do.

The new working tests will allow non-registered dogs to compete for the first time this year

How will those experiences affect the Game Fairs to come?

We’ve got our online offer together, it’s definitely been a catalyst for that. A lot of people have said they always knew how important online was for them and this just accelerated it. But, actually, how do you replace getting to a live event and meeting up with all your friends and trading face to face? That’s hard to replace and that part of the Game Fair I think will be the same for many years to come.

The possibility now seems small but, in the event that we did have a third wave of COVID-19 and The Game Fair was called off at the last moment, what systems do you have in place to make sure exhibitors and attendees would get refunded?

The chances are slim. It would mean the vaccines had failed, or a new variant had come along. We’ve demonstrated that we’re not running away from any problems. We were happy to give refunds before, we were just lucky that most people didn’t ask for them.

But that would be the case again if it ever had to be. We could move it to a bit later on in the year, but I will say that one of the reasons I’m able to get up in the morning and put a smile on my face is that we don’t think that’s going to be the case, and neither do the public either—that’s why they’re buying so many tickets.

You must be optimistic by nature to be the sort of person who would propose and deliver something like the Game Fair. Has your optimism been dented by this process?

You learn a lot about yourself, don’t you? And there is resolve I didn’t know I had. We’ve all helped each other. I’ve got a fantastic team and we have three team meetings a day, without fail every day, and the whole team meet at 10am, 2pm and 4pm, either in person or by Zoom, and that’s been very good. Running the Game Fair is a team effort. 

You’ve not been alone in having struggled through the past couple of years—as you look around your sector of the industry, who do you think remain the key players?

How come we’re able to run and others aren’t? It isn’t COVID rules that are preventing things happening. It was for some early events inside, and they had very little choice. There are agricultural shows that have very delicate, committee-based structures, and for them to roll the dice is very difficult.

So it’s not COVID-related issues stopping them, it’s not red tape stopping them, it’s more their structures and their finances. Other events where their makeup is different—for example, Glastonbury, where they have huge numbers of international acts and talent that can’t get into the country—they can’t go on.

We’re lucky, aren’t we? We’re a big show outdoors, without set times for major performances, and that’s a unique position and has allowed us to go ahead. I’m sure that lots of the other events are still in leadership situations and will bounce back in 2022.

We hope that people will come to the Game Fair, and we hope they’ll continue to support other shows, too. One or two of our exhibitors have looked around and seen that there’s not much else on and so they have come over to us and we’ll make sure that the experience is good for them—it could be a chance for us to grow.

Aside from The Game Fair, which shows do you enjoy attending?

It’s hard for me to attend events, because I can’t go somewhere without noticing what bins they’ve got and whether or not their toilets are clean [laughs]. But I do enjoy them. I love going to IWA, I really enjoy that and meeting new people. It’s nice because it gives me the chance to catch up—and become the visitor at that point. 

When do you start thinking about The Game Fair 2022

We already are. There are thoughts beyond that, too. As an organisation we’re looking for more events and new events—we are planning quite a bit in that area. Some will be existing ones that we start to manage. People often say to me, “We don’t want any more events.” What they often mean is, “We don’t want any more bad events.” Our aim is that we are able to grow some existing ones.

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