At the 2011 CLA Game Fair at Blenheim Palace, there was one visitor on a secret mission. That man was Andrew Crawford. He had just been interviewed to be the Game Fair’s new director and, never having been to one before, wanted to canvass opinions on the world’s biggest celebration of the countryside.
“Most of the visitors had nothing but praise for the show, the size of it and the things they can do,” he recalls. When his predecessor David Hough took over 15 years ago, the Game Fair had 250 trade stands and 25,000 people through the gate. In 2011, there were a staggering 1,000 stands and the visitor numbers rocketed to 148,500. Crawford continued his research in the pub in Woodstock to see how locals felt; he found all were doing a roaring trade. He then went to Witney and found most residents had stayed away, put off by fears about traffic problems.
However, born and brought up in Lincolnshire, Crawford is well versed on the routes to Belvoir Castle, home of the 2012 Game Fair: “Belvoir is the easiest venue because the traffic comes off the trunk roads on to a network of small roads. Our traffic guys love Belvoir.”
Many of Crawford’s childhood friends were involved in farming, so summers were spent potato picking. As a keen scout, he helped at local shows – putting up jumps, doing car parking or providing security. He used to beat in the winter and has shot a few clays but never took up shooting, preferring the rugby field.
He studied construction at Nottingham Trent before going into estate agency. He set up his own estate and lettings company in Lincolnshire, and then took on a sales and operations role at the Newark and Nottinghamshire Agricultural Society. The society runs 500 events each year, including LAMMA (Lincolnshire Machine Manufacturers Association), the biggest agricultural machine show in Europe. “I used to live for the start of a show. There is a groundswell of optimism as everyone wants the show to be successful because so many livelihoods ride on it,” he says. This was only too true when the Game Fair had to be cancelled in 2007 due to bad weather. Many stall-holders felt they should have had their stand fee refunded. “The problem was stall-holders had built up a lot of stock and the weather was against us. There was a serious danger someone could have died in the car park, it was that bad. We are now fully insured,” explains Crawford.
Conscious of the maxim – “if it ain’t broken, don’t fix it” – he’s not looking to make any radical changes: “My job is to reassure people there’s no change, it is still the CLA Game Fair.” He is amazed how many people don’t know what the Game Fair is: “Some people think it’s a big show with Monopoly and Cluedo.”
But there will be some changes next year. Visitors to Gunmakers’ Row may see how a gun is made from start to finish. The Game Fair will also host the inaugural Stihl Timber-sports British Championships. The axe-wielding men at the world championships in the Netherlands attracted around 10,000 people, so it is hoped that this event will boost numbers.
There will be a more centralised main ring, next to the members’ enclosure, and a members’ lawn to give a better view of what’s going on. Crawford is very aware that when people are deciding whether to go out for the weekend, they ask if there’s something for the whole family. “Whereas the traditional attendees who go to Gunmakers’ Row or are involved with the fishing will always come, the bread and butter and the thing that actually pays for the show is the general public,” he says.
His ambition for the Game Fair is quality not volume. “The last thing I want to do is to go down the route that a lot of agricultural shows went down – that is, to sell a stand for the sake of selling a stand. If a stand has no bearing on what the Game Fair is actually about I don’t want them. The show will not get any bigger but the footfall can increase,” he says.
So what does the new director believe the Game Fair is all about? “It is a celebration of the countryside and it is there to show the world what the rural economy does. It’s not just the landed gentry who earn a living from the countryside, there are a whole gamut of people, from the farm labourer up, who earn their living from the countryside, too.”
Conscious of the current gloomy financial climate, the ticket cost for next year will be fixed at 2011 prices. Crawford believes the tickets aren’t expensive and are comparable to county show prices. “Most people say they can’t get the Game Fair done in one day, so at £24 to enter on a Saturday you are effectively getting 8-10 hours of entertainment. If you go to a football match you’re paying double that for 90 minutes,” he maintains.
Moving sites is essential to the Game Fair‘s ethos; it currently rotates between Blenheim, Belvoir and Ragley. Other sites are being considered but until 2014 these three are set in stone. “The advantage of moving,” argues Crawford, “is that visitors don’t find it too samey, and the volunteers, who provide invaluable support on local committees, only have to turn out once every three years; this keeps them keen.”
The Game Fair office is now part of the CLA, based in Belgrave Square. Rumours abounded last year that it was to be farmed out to an events company but these were scotched by the new director general, Martin Jamieson. “It would have then been run as a purely profit-making exercise. The CLA Game Fair is not run in this way; it is there very much as part of member services,” says Crawford.
Crawford’s first Game Fair will open a week before the Olympics. The world’s spotlight will be on London but, outside the M25, there is still much about Britain to celebrate. Perhaps the axe wielders will do the trick.