‘It’s very depressing for all of us’: Big E searches for revenue with 2020 fair canceled by COVID-19 pandemic

WEST SPRINGFIELD — The small bit of text on the Eastern States Exposition’s website looks innocuous at first – until you really pay attention to the numbers.

“366 days until The Big E! Sept. 17-Oct. 3, 2021,” it reads.

It’s the middle of September, but opening day of the Big E is still a year away. Tomorrow would have been opening day for this year’s fair.

“We’re missing it. We love it,” said Kelly Bryant, executive director of Granite State Ambassadors. Usually at this time of year Bryant would be leading a team of New Hampshire volunteers, passing out promotional literature at the New Hampshire Building on the Avenue of States.

“Our volunteers love New Hampshire,” she said. “They love talking about it, and they love the Big E.”

The Eastern States Exposition announced in June that it was calling off this year’s edition of New England’s great state fair because of the coronavirus pandemic, a global health crisis that still has not abated. It was the first time the Big E was canceled since World War II and only the third time in the exposition’s 103-year history. (The only other cancellations occurred during World War I.)

There will be a few things happening in the grounds in the coming days – livestock judging open only to participants with the public barred, a drive-through food promotion of culinary delights loved by fairgoers – but otherwise a quiet September on Memorial Avenue.

A quiet fairgrounds in 2020 is a disconcerting though for people who look forward each year to the 17-day fair, a more than century-old event that drew a record 1.7 million people in 2019. It’s a downright scary thought for charities that look to the Big E as that one big opportunity to raise funds each year or an organization that depends on the Big E’s visibility to recruit.

It’s also dismal for vendors a who depend on the Big E to make ends meet. And, it’s even worse if you’re the Eastern States Exposition itself.

“It’s very depressing for all of us,” said Eugene Cassidy, the Eastern States president and CEO. “We’re trying to find ways to generate some revenue in order to sustain the organization. So that we can get to 2021. Which is extraordinarily difficult.”

The exposition is doing all it can to help tenant the Storrowton Tavern maintain its business, Cassidy said.

The fair is also serving as a distribution point where farm stands can pick up Cabot Creamery-brand cheese and other dairy products. Cabot owner Agri-Mark can’t allow retailers to pick up products at its butter and dry nonfat milk manufacturing plant on Riverdale Street in West Springfield.

The Big E has also created an online marketplace featuring, among other products, Victory Cheese.

This file photo from 2013 shows a typical Big E crowd. (Don Treeger / The Republican file)

The Big E’s estimated annual economic impact is $750 million. The event generates 85% of the Eastern States Exposition’s gross revenue of roughly $21 million each year.

What’s more, Eastern States lost a string of spring and summer events to the coronavirus pandemic – the much-anticipated debut of its Hooplandia 3-on-3 basketball tournament in partnership with the Naismith Memorial Basketball Hall of Fame along with trade shows – costing it more money. As of Aug. 30, the Big E was down $3 million in lost revenue already.

Cassidy, speaking earlier this week, said he’s used about 40% of the Eastern State’s reserve fund and is down to about $3 million remaining in that reserve.

That sounds like a lot. But the Big E has 44 buildings and 175 acres of real estate to maintain. To put things in perspective, plowing after an average-sized snowstorm can cost $30,000, and, Cassidy says those expenses add up.

The Eastern States entered the pandemic with 29 full-time employees. There have been no layoffs, but four employees have voluntarily “taken a step back,” according to Cassidy.

“I’m trying to keep people employed,” Cassidy says. “I don’t know ho w much longer I can sustain it.”

Cassidy has arranged for a line of credit from Westfield Bank if the exposition needs it. In the meantime, he and the Big E staff are trying to make money, and they are trying to make money during the traditional fair times.

There is the Big E Food-To-Go drive-through being held Tuesdays through Sundays through Oct. 18. It’s $5 a car, and cars need reservations so there aren’t too many people in the grounds.

Log Cabin and the Big E are also offering fair food, including turducken and the signature cream puffs at the Log Cabin Thursdays to Sundays with some proceeds going to the exposition.

And, this week, according to Cassidy, the Big E is working on a deal with restaurateurs Andy Yee and Peter Picknelly to bring a similar promotion to the Student Prince and the Fort restaurant in downtown Springfield.

The exposition is also setting up an online marketplace for fair vendors to show off their wares and, hopefully, do some business.

Big E 2020 cancelled

The food court on the grounds of the Big E, Sept. 16, 2020. (Don Treeger / The Republican)

Still, it’s difficult for the Big E to make money when rules aimed at stopping the spread of the coronavirus are so stringent, Cassidy explains. The rules specific to eating and gathering are more difficult on the Big E than on another businesses. Costco, for instance, can have 1,000 people in its West Springfield store, he says, but the exposition, with a bigger building, can only put 50 people into it.

“We’ve been working very hard,” Cassidy said. “And we’ve come up empty handed because of the rules.”

Cassidy expressed frustration with the way the state is handling the pandemic, echoing some of the frustrations he voiced in the weeks before he had to cancel this year’s fair.

“I think that for the greater Springfield regional economy we were being treated as if we were the hot spot that Boston was,” Cassidy said. “I think our economy has suffered because of it.”

The Big E canceled its season back in June under pressure from West Springfield municipal authorities. City Council president Brian Griffin called the Big E’s coronavirus plans “skeletal”.

This week, a week normally filled with he hustle and bustle of Big E preparation, West Springfield Mayor William C. Reichelt said that if the city and the exposition hadn’t canceled, he believes the state would have stepped in and pulled the plug.

“We still can’t go into bars,” Reichelt said. “There is just no way you could have safely hosted an event where you bring people in from all over.”

For West Springfield, this means less money for the Big E-West Springfield Trust Fund. After last year’s fair the Big E donated $260,483 – 1% of the exposition’s gross annual revenues for 2019 – to the fund. It was the biggest donation ever.

Contributions to the fund, including this year’s gift, now total $4,496,906, and Reichelt said the fund grants only about $60,000 a year from the trust fund so there is money in reserve. In 2019 the fund made $77,720 in grants to 17 community organizations:

Numerous charitable organizations that make their money at the Big E each year, including the West Springfield Fire Association, are also impacted. The firefighters’ group is out $8,000 to $10,000 in profits they made at their Station 4 Coffee House. The popular breakfast stop is near the Avenue of States.

“It’s a rough one this year,” said association president Sara Boucher, a firefighter-paramedic with the department. She said the group uses the money to support youth sports, the Special Olympics and other endeavors.

“We give all that money back,” she said. “We’ve been talking about different ways we can raise funds without the Big E over the next year. Hopefully, we can do something to make up the difference.”

V-One Vodka founder Paul Kozub shows off a drink during a preview for the fair in August 2018. (Don Treeger / The Republican)Staff-Shot

V-One Vodka creator Paul Kozub is a familiar face at the Big E each year. He started the company 15 years ago and V-One’s been at the fair for 14 years, growing from one little bar to in the Young Building to six sites on the fairgrounds in 2019. The Big E was half the company’s business for the month of September last year, according to Kozub.

“I’m just worried about next year,” Kozub said. “It definitely hurts. The sales are obviously the driving force. You are moving cases (of vodka). You are selling thousands of drinks.”

But it’s not just the sales at the fair, he stresses. It’s the opportunity to expose the brand to a million passersby. Kozub knew that even if he didn’t sell anyone a V-One cocktail at the fair, he might have put a brochure in their hands or gotten his brand in their heads. Hopefully, they remembered him on their next trip to the package store.

“It hurts especially this year because we are re-launching in Connecticut,” Kozub said.

He’s going to try an bridge the gap by posting Youtube videos demonstrating the special V-one cocktails he’d hoped to introduce at the fair.

Being robbed of exposure also hurts Rhode Island favorite Del’s Lemonade, says Demetrios Kazantzis, vice president of development for the brand.

The idea is to get a Del’s in a customer’s hand in the Rhode Island Building and make an impression so the person pick it up on the grocery store.

“Of course, we are going to miss the Big E. It’s a great show for us,” he said. “We are trying to increase our delivery business. We are trying to do more internet sales. But, there are small things compared with something like the Big E.”

The state of Vermont is also trying to use internet sales and an online marketplace to make up for lost business in its state building. But it’s difficult as Vermont Day, alone, usually meant 170,000 visitors, according to Scott Waterman, policy and communications director for the Vermont Agency of Agriculture, Food and Markets.

This year’s Vermont Day on Sept. 26 is virtual with special sales promotions and YouTube videos promoting the Green Mountain State.

“We’ll be doing our best to make sure that people don’t forget that Big E’s still out there and coming back next year,” Waterman said. “Don’t forget about Vermont.”

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— to www.masslive.com

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