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Q&A: Can You Get Millennials to Care About a Fair?

Ahead of the Royal Agricultural Winter Fair's 96th anniversary, C.E.O. Charlie Johnstone discussed planning the massive Toronto event, new programming, and how his team tries to reach different demographics.

By Amanda Scriver November 1, 2018, 7:02 AM EDT

This year's Royal Agricultural Winter Fair, which features a number of new programs, runs November 2 to 11 at Exhibition Place in Toronto. 

Photo: Courtesy of Royal Winter Agricultural Fair 

For many Canadians, the Royal Agricultural Winter Fair has become a longstanding autumn tradition. Now celebrating its 96th year, the fair, also known as the Royal, is Canada’s leading event in showcasing agriculture, food, and equine excellence.

With nearly 300,000 people visiting the fairgrounds at Toronto’s Exhibition Place from November 2 to 11, the Royal’s C.E.O., Charlie Johnstone, wanted to find a way to keep the 10-day event fresh and exciting for kids and adults. Since 1922, Canadian farmers, growers, producers, and homesteaders have flocked to the event to showcase agricultural products and livestock. But as Johnstone shared with BizBash, it was time to expand to the growing millennial market, which is looking for experiences and seeking to educate themselves on what exactly “farm to table” means.

Education, the heart of the fair's mandate, has expanded this year. The new Burnbrae Farms Culinary Academy features interactive cooking classes with prominent chefs Jamie Kennedy (Kennedy Kitchens), Rob Gentile (Buca), and Michael Hunter (Antler). The classes, available on a first-come, first-serve basis, will focus on seasonal, local, and sustainable gastronomy. 

Meanwhile, a new partnership with the University of Guelph will help students and attendees “Get Agricultured,” the name of the fair’s new campaign, with an exhibit space about agri-food research and careers, in collaboration with the Ontario Ministry of Agriculture, Food and Rural Affairs. The fair also formed a new partnership with the country music festival Boots and Hearts to launch the inaugural Country Music Culinary Festival.

Johnstone discussed the thinking behind the new programs, the challenges his team faces planning the event, and how they keep the fair fresh, but still family friendly.

Who is involved in the planning of the Royal and what considerations do you make each year?
We have a dedicated team of about 12 full-time staff, with a dozen different committees and hundreds of volunteers who all help pull off the Royal. Some of those numbers ramp up as we get closer to the fair, but to give you some context, we are the largest combined indoor agriculture show in the world. Combine that with a million square feet of exhibit space and there's a lot going on here, which is pretty exciting. Each year, once the fair is over, we take the feedback from our attendees, sponsors, and suppliers to find out what we can do better and apply that to the next year. 

This year, you’ve launched the Burnbrae Farms Culinary Academy and a partnership with the University of Guelph. How did that come to fruition?
In recent years, we found that there has been a prevalence of farm-to-table cooking. It’s become a topic of conversation that people want to have and, similarly, the way those in agriculture have been thinking. So many people just take for granted that our food shows up, so we don’t really have a concept of how it got there. At the Royal, we wanted to be able to tell that story in a real and authentic manner. So rather than just have a chef’s demonstration, we wanted to introduce the Burnbrae Farms Culinary Academy, where some of the best chefs in the country could cook alongside people in attendance and talk about the relevance of farmers and producers. It’s a fun and interactive way for people of all ages to learn what is organic. And once they are done there, they can go over to the University of Guelph exhibit space and see what exactly it takes to grow food in Canada’s harsh North.

I think the beauty of the Royal is that no matter who you are, there is an experience for you. Year after year, we are dedicated to making sure the experience is better for everybody. And, when we say everybody, we mean everybody.

These types of events seem to appeal to a more millennial audience. Are there other types of events or considerations you’ve made to reach a different market?
Because we're living in such a fast-paced society, we know that everything is always on a screen. As a father of four millennial kids myself, I know they're looking for experiences and something that they can relate to. We found that music is something that speaks to them. So we decided to go ahead and partner with the Boots and Hearts Music Festival, which adds authenticity. We also decided to partner with the Ontario Craft Beer & Cider Awards, because it’s not only an event where you can come in to sample products from over 40 breweries—but you’ll be walked through and get a better education on the making of the product. I think then it becomes a more authentic, cerebral experience that you can't get anywhere.

What are some of the challenges you face with keeping the Royal fresh, but still family friendly?
I think the beauty of the Royal is that no matter who you are, there is an experience for you. Year after year, we are dedicated to making sure the experience is better for everybody. And, when we say everybody, we mean everybody. Some families have been visiting and competing at the Royal for five generations. We try to make this a place where you can come and see the animals, or you can go to an event like the SuperDogs [comedic dog show], or check out the butter sculptures. You can find whatever appeals to you on any given day. We know we’re appealing to different demographics and different families with different experiences, and I think we do our best to hit that with each experience and offering.

How important has it been to involve kids in the fair?
We believe it’s so important to have school groups visit and come through the Royal. Some have never seen these animals before and don't even know what that visceral sensation is of what it’s like to smell a farm. It’s really important for kids to celebrate that at the Royal because it goes back to our core base needs and lets them have a completely new experience. We launched a new advertising campaign this year called “Get Agricultured,” developed by the agency Fuse Marketing, which was so important. The campaign really showcased the importance of what we take for granted in day-to-day life, while showcasing to them how food, agriculture, and our environment can mean so much to us.

With the 100th anniversary on the horizon, what’s next?
I would say as an organization, we've got a completely different mindset on that now. You know you want to keep adding new elements to the Royal and we want to keep pushing boundaries in terms of new offerings and new excitement. We’ve got our 100th-year celebration coming up, and we not only will get to celebrate that we’ve come this far, but also just how much we’ve done. It all feels good. It's a good place to be at for an event. We know that we’ve got all these great things finishing in 2018 to build off of.

This interview has been edited and condensed. 

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