Big E President Eugene Cassidy, now head of global fair association, describes industry devastated by COVID

At a time when The Big E normally gears up for late-winter trade and consumer shows — campers, hunting and fishing, and home improvement — the biggest event coming to the Eastern States Exposition grounds could be a COVID-19 mass vaccination site. The sprawling 175-acre fairgrounds on Memorial Avenue — a 104-year-old institution with 44 buildings is expensive to operate. Just cleaning up after a snowfall can cost up to $32,000. The Big E was canceled in 2020 — the first fall without a fair since World War II.

And Eugene J. Cassidy, president and CEO of the Eastern States Exposition, isn’t just worried about his fair. He was elected in December as chairman of the International Association of Fairs and Expositions, a global trade group with more than 911 member fairs including The Calgary Stampede in Canada, the Sydney Royal Easter Show in Australia, and fairs in England and across the United States .

“It’s a very interesting circumstance,” Cassidy said this week. “Everybody is in the same boat. All over the world. We are all wearing the same expression: ‘What do we do?’”

The problems are really no different from the issues surrounding pro sports, casinos like MGM Springfield, theaters and restaurants, Cassidy said. On Thursday, Gov. Charlie Baker began loosening restrictions on restaurants and some indoor venues.

“Our industry, the stress on it is magnified, because we are large public venues,” he said.

Or small ones. Cassidy said the association includes many rural fairs run by small groups of volunteers that depend on one year’s fair to finance the next one. Cancelling in 2020 is a huge hardship.

“There are many that will never run again,” he said. “That’s a sad circumstance”

What he’s doing is cutting expenses, and payroll, continuously reevaluating the money available for workers. The fair only had 30 full-time employees in the best of times. Staff and managers took pay cuts. He and the Eastern State Exposition’s staff have raised $400,000 in donations and borrowed $3 million.

That’s the same figure in savings The Big E had following the successful 2019 fair, a nest egg that’s since been depleted, Cassidy said.

The fair has held promotions — food truck days and sales of its famous cream puffs — to raise cash and keep the fair in consumer’s minds. In November, The Big E’s “Golden Ticket” lifetime passes sold out in a minute and 2 seconds: 100 tickets at $1,000 each.

And Cassidy — both for The Big E and International Association of Fairs and Expositions — said he’s also spoken with companies interested in providing visitors a sort of “COVID passport” proof of immunization document that would allow public venues to reopen.

The idea worries the libertarian in Cassidy. He knows that many in the public will resent the intrusion.

“But there is a reason why concert promoters are pushing this as a solution,” he said. “They want to get back into business.”

And he agrees.

“I don’t want to fall for the illusion that our economy can be put on hold forever,” Cassidy said.

And he wants to get back into business as well.

“It’s too important for the economy of this region,” he said.

COVID-19 is already shaping the planning for the 2021 fair.

“It really depends on what the next six months bring,” Cassidy said. “We are deep into planning for September.

Right now, the plans are for a normal fair, he said

The fair will adapt, he said, if restrictions prevent people from sitting next to each other in grandstands. Ticketing will change to allow fewer advance tickets and make it easier for The Big E to limit crowds on the grounds on short notice.

More than 1.5 million people visit the fair every year and crowds can top 170,000 a day on weekends.

The event generates 85% of the Eastern State Exposition’s gross revenue each year — that’s roughly $21 million.

The Big E also creates an economic impact for the region somewhere in the neighborhood of $750 million. Many people are hired to work for the 17 days, and thousands of vendors sell goods and services during the event.

Plans are moving along for the 2021 fair: Sept. 17 through Oct. 3 with country music superstar Brad Paisley among the acts set to perform. In the meantime, the Springfield Sportsman’s Show, Springfield RV and Camping Show are all off for 2021.

Hooplandia, a 3-on3 basketball tournament that was to have had its first edition in 2020 is now scheduled for June 2021, but in an email this week, its promoters say they still have not yet made a final decision about moving forward.

The original Western Mass Home Home Show is listed with a tentative date of June 2021 — instead of its traditional March — pending the state of the virus.

The Eastec industrial trade show was set for the Eastern States grounds in May 2021. The every-other-year show draws more than 13,000 to West Springfield.

Eastec means $100,000 in revenue to the Exposition each time it comes to town.

The event is still on the website of its organizers, a trade group called SME.

But Cassidy acknowledges that it’s unlikely that the giant trade show will keep its May dates.

“They love West Springfield,” he said. “And there are other place they can go. We are looking at other dates on our calendar.”

In Greenfield, the Franklin County Fair is also trying to move big events to the fall while preparing for a September fair. Michael Nelson, president of the Franklin County Fairgrounds, said he hasn’t even heard much from the organizers behind Extravaganja, a marijuana lifestyle and music festival that was supposed to move to Greenfield for 2020. They didn’t respond to messages from The Republican, either,”

“We hope they move forward,” Nelson said. “But we would be hard pressed to think they will make their traditional date of April 20.”

The relatively small Franklin County Fair is out more than $100,000 in lost profits he said. In a good year when they have a fair and lots of events, the total budget is only $500,000.

“We are surviving, but on a thread,” Nelson said. “We are very optimistic that in the next few months people will continue to receive their vaccinations.”

The Franklin County Fair is moving ahead with a major capital project, the $200,000 repair of a mudslide on the grounds that’ll be partially paid for with federal dollars from the USDA.

In Northampton, the Three County Fair said last month that it’s instituting a 14% pay cut for senior management and staggered furloughs for all employees to close a budget gap created by the COVID-19 pandemic.

Furloughs could be extended if the fairgrounds are unable to host events this spring that were postponed in 2020.

Last fiscal year the Hampshire, Franklin and Hampden Agricultural Society — the nonprofit organization that runs the fair — reported $1.6 million in gross revenue. This calendar year the fair will pull in less than $300,000.

The Blandford Fair, held every year on Labor Day weekend, and fairs in Heath, Cummington, Hardwick also canceled this year The Hardwick Fair, which bills itself as the oldest fair in the United States since it was established in 1762, was also canceled.

All the events, like The Big E, take visitors back to the days when agriculture was the economic driver, Cassidy said. They also educate about what agriculture is today.

“For us, we’re trying to support our missions. We are trying to support our communities all over the word,” he said. “It’s happening from tiny fairs all the way up to the biggest ones like us and Minnesota State Fair, Wisconsin State Fair.”