Can the Game Fair be saved?

Country Life asks whether the Game Fair has any chance of surviving as the CLA calls a consultation period to explore the future of the event

Shockwaves are reverberating through the countryside after it was announced last week that the 2016 CLA Game Fair at Ragley Hall has been cancelled. The landowners’ lobbying body says that it can no longer underwrite the much-loved annual gathering of rural folk that has been rotated around some of England’s greatest estates since 1958.

This will be a serious blow to many businesses and it represents the significant loss of a platform for field sports and farming. The CLA has called a consultation period in which other organisations and estates are invited to explore ways of running another fair; COUNTRY LIFE and sister magazines are closely involved.

It has been a heartbreaking decision. It seems that the event never recovered from the cancellation, through rain, in 2012: Ragley Hall in 2013, which required expensive infrastructure, resulted in a deficit of nearly £300,000.

Surprisingly, the 2014 show at Blenheim Palace, usually the banker venue, lost even more, and the numbers didn’t stack up at Harewood House this year either, despite spectator entry charges of £35 and a high media profile—it hosted Today. There were fewer tradestands, notably in Gunmakers’ Row, and regulars seemed unprepared to travel north.

‘Unfortunately, an increasingly crowded summer calendar of outdoor events has contributed to falling attendance, which has made it financially unsustainable,’ explains CLA director-general Helen Woolley. ‘Over the past three years, the board made the decision to invest in the Game Fair because of our strong desire to turn the event around. We could do this because of our otherwise robust financial position. However, we can no longer ask members to allow their subscriptions to underwrite the losses.’

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Blenheim had already announced that it would no longer host the Game Fair because it has signed a long-term contract to host Countryfile Live, organised by the BBC’s Countryfile with the National Trust and other bodies, on August 4–7, 2016. Some tradestand holders are debating whether to switch to the new event, at which the audience is likely to be of a different profile.

Owen Williams of the Redspot Artists group, which spends more than £20,000 on its Game Fair stand, is considering what to do. ‘I do need to satisfy myself that the audience is right for my sporting art,’ he explains. ‘The Game Fair was my main area of sales, but many of us have seen this coming. It has lost sight of its USP, which used to be country sports, and the progressive change in exhibitors has made it more like a county show, so it’s no wonder it had difficulty competing against the likes of the Great Yorkshire Show.’

Dylan Williams, managing director of the Royal Berkshire Shooting School, thinks the likelihood of its presence at Countryfile Live is ‘between nil and zero’. He adds: ‘I was incredibly saddened by the news. It’s like the Lawn Tennis Association cancelling Wimbledon. However, hopefully something better will come out of it and the field-sports world can create an event that retains the cerebral element of what the Game Fair was.’

The gunmaker Purdey didn’t attend this year’s Game Fair, but was planning to return in 2016. Executive chairman James Horne thinks the company is unlikely to go to Blenheim, but is waiting to ‘understand the format’.

He says: ‘The Game Fair is a forum that will be missed enormously, but the formula has to be carefully examined. We need a show that’s commercially viable for exhibitors and visitors, which is a challenge in an increasingly digital age. Although it’s laudable to move it around the country, Blenheim is the only location that’s any good.’

* Read more on Country Pursuits