Written by: Jessica Lefroy

The challenges faced by horse show organizers to host a competition that appeals to exhibitors, sponsors, and spectators is a trying task at the best of times. In a recovering economy that has left consumers with less disposable income, show organizers are forced to become even more creative with their marketing and guest service strategies, offering value-added incentives that attract new faces, keep regular competitors, and draw crowds of all ages.

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Spruce Meadows: How the West was Won

Since their inaugural shows 35 years ago, Spruce Meadows continues to be the granddaddy of all tournament venues. With their success in hosting horse shows that are consistently well supported by spectators, exhibitors and sponsors, they remain a model in the industry. Bringing in over half a million fans each year, crowds are attracted to the big-money classes filled with the world’s top talent; and with admission prices that have remained unchanged since 1975, spectators are treated to an affordable family show jumping experience that highlights the unique aspects of the sport. With world-class, exhibitor-friendly amenities, Spruce Meadows understands that in order to run a successful horse show in a recovering economy, appealing to spectators and delivering to competitors is of utmost importance.

With over 1,300 show jumping tournaments to choose from in North America, it is an increasingly difficult task for organizers to attract consumers in this fiercely competitive market. Even at Spruce Meadows, although the summer tournaments continue to entice competitors from many geographic regions, organizers have noticed a drop in numbers during the months where tournament dates coincide with the lucrative winter circuits in the United States. “We have certainly noticed lighter numbers in our winter and spring indoor tournaments,” admits Ian Allison, senior vice-president of Spruce Meadows. He suspects one of the reasons is that the recovering Canadian economy means competitors can better afford to travel and stay in the south for extended periods of time. “The strength of the Canadian dollar seems to have taken many horses to the US markets for longer stretches in the winter.”

Attracting exhibitors comes down to providing a quality horse show experience, and the Spruce Meadows team continuously performs up to and beyond expected standards by conducting overviews of each aspect of operations to scrutinize performance and see where improvement is necessary. “We are adamant about holding “post mortems” with our entire team immediately following each tournament, with a focus on critical review of every aspect of our operation,” says Allison. “It is important to Spruce Meadows to be self-critical and always try to deliver superior value.” He believes another appealing aspect Spruce Meadows offers is the variety of competition available in one tournament venue.

“Essentially, each of our six major grass rings is akin to being at a different tournament. This is very good for horses, riders, and trainers. Different course designers, materials, and ring character are all part of the recipe.”

According to Allison, the organizing and executive committees strive to improve the Spruce Meadows experience at each tournament. “For riders, that means a concentration on footing, stabling, prize money, facilities, and jump materials. For the media, that means improved facilities, bandwidth, information flow, and access. For sponsors, we concentrate on hosting facilities, exposure, media reach, product, and brand placement. And for fans, we concentrate on communication, the stadium experience, education and entertainment.”

Another of Canada’s premier equestrian tournament venues, Thunderbird Show Park in Langley, BC, has been hosting major horse shows for over a decade. Thunderbird’s Equine Canada Gold, USEF, and FEI-rated competitions draw approximately 10,000 exhibitors and 3,000 horses each season to their six tournaments, attracted in part by the over $750,000 in prize money and world-class exhibitor and spectator amenities.

By focusing on what they do best – providing exhibitors with amenities and prize lists under constant upgrade – Thunderbird has perfected the formula for attracting customers with fewer discretionary dollars available to spend on the luxury of horse showing. Thunderbird Show Park listens to the feedback of its clients, and respond with improvements to the facility every season.

“Working with the exhibitors allows us to stay connected and adapt to the ever-changing sport,” says Chris Pack, tournament manager and vice-president of operations at Thunderbird. “We are well-known for our guest services team, and with our mentality of ‘customer first’ we are dedicated to making every person’s Thunderbird experience the best it can be every time they come to the park.”

Challenges identified and addressed by tournament organizers included a drop in entries in specific divisions at the horse show. “In our area especially we have noticed that the hunter division numbers have been declining over the past four or five years, but the jumper numbers have increased by almost 36 per cent,” explains Pack. This decline in hunter division attendance has led Thunderbird to focus on the aspects of the tournaments that are clearly most popular with exhibitors, and have developed a new ring to accommodate the swelling numbers in the grassroots jumper divisions.

To promote horse showing as something even non-horsey family members can enjoy, Thunderbird offers onsite golf, fishing, pony rides, and face painting. Favourite exhibitor activities include the ever-popular Garbage Bag Fashion Show, the singing competition “Thunderbird Idol,” hospitality tents for grooms, trainers, and competitors, and comforts such as spotless washroom and laundry facilities. In short, Thunderbird organizers listen to what is most important to the exhibitors, and they deliver. “We want the Thunderbird experience to be well-rounded for the entire family, whether they are showing or just supporting,” emphasizes Pack. “Especially in this economy, we always strive to give exhibitors more for their money. We would not be in this business if it were not for our clients. We are honoured for them to spend their well-earned money at our facility, and they deserve the very best.”

Pack points to Thunderbird’s longstanding relationships with its sponsors as one of the largest contributing factors to the introduction of new feature classes that rejuvenate the prize list. Says Pack of the hospitality programs offered to sponsors and their guests: “We try to give every sponsor a unique, intimate experience that other larger sports can’t offer, allowing them to get a first hand and up-close look at the raw power and finesse of world-class show jumping.”

A little help from their friends Linda Hale, owner and operator of Old Orchard Farm in Moffat, ON, has been running a successful series of schooling shows for close to 20 years, and in that time has seen a steady increase in the number of exhibitors that attend the series. The one-day shows have faced only one major challenge as a result of an economy that has left consumers with less disposable income. “I’ve found that over the past two years, the number of beginners competing has dropped off,” remarks Hale. “I think in this economy, parents are perhaps encouraging their children to pick up less expensive hobbies, and that’s where we’ve seen a fairly major decline.”

Hale offers a cost-effective approach to horse showing for those wanting to gain experience without the expense of multi-day horse shows. “We’ve kept the prices really low; I think we’re the most affordable horse show next to a fall fair,” explains Hale, “and the primary reason we are able do that is because the series is run almost entirely by volunteers.”

Drawing on the Old Orchard Farm “family” to lend a hand, Hale is able to provide knowledgeable in-gate, office, and general horse show staff, all of whom compete or attend rated shows as parents and understand the intricacies of running an efficient horse show.

The depth of knowledge of this volunteer force not only ensures the exhibitors leave with a positive show experience, but perhaps most importantly, it allows Hale to allocate the funds that would otherwise go to providing such services to improving horse show amenities. “I don’t know anybody else with such a great group of volunteers,” stresses Hale. “We’re very lucky. Everyone really comes together to help make our show experience one that emphasizes fun, friends, and sportsmanship.”

The Old Orchard series also boasts a list of sponsors that rivals some large tournament venues, and because of the volunteer force, this sponsorship money is allocated almost exclusively to delivering prizes at each show and at the year-end awards banquet. It is a competitive series that well-known trainers often frequent with green students and horses, offering divisions from walk/trot beginner to low adult. Hale has been able to maintain a consistent number of exhibitors throughout the years with a series that by nature is preparing customers to move onto a higher level of competition. “Our goal is to be a great stepping stone for horses and riders,” said Hale. “We’re here to teach people how to show, and we want people to move up and move on – that’s what we’re here for.”

Holding their own

Many horse shows across the country are doing just fine, thanks. While Karen Hendry-Ouellette, manager of jumping at Equine Canada, could not reveal specific numbers, especially in light of the ongoing negotiations between EC and the non-signing provinces, she did say, “Looking at the Jump Canada levy numbers, it appears that there has been an increase in exhibitor numbers at horse shows in the larger provinces – Ontario, Alberta, and British Columbia.”

Seconding this claim is Alberta-based Rocky Mountain Show Jumping manager John Anderson. “We’ve seen a 90-100 per cent increase in exhibitor numbers during our August flagship tournaments from 2008 to 2010,” he says. “The 2008/2009 season saw an average of 250 to 275 horses, and in 2010 our numbers increased to 500 horses for that tournament. Over that same time period, our May tournament has grown approximately 60 per cent, and our June tournaments 75 per cent.”

He has noticed a big increase in exhibitor numbers in the grassroots and developing jumper divisions. The grand prix classes are also growing, and he anticipates that to continue with the added CSI** ranking that will draw riders. Their first grand prix attracted just 17 entries; now over 35 horses regularly compete in the bigger classes.

Craig Collins, managing partner of Equestrian Management Group which runs 16 shows at the Caledon Equestrian Park in Palgrave, ON, has seen some shifts in entries over the past few years. “On the whole, we’ve been very fortunate with our exhibitor numbers throughout the last few seasons. In 2009 we expected a significant drop and were pleasantly surprised with the entries that remained largely the same. As always, our early shows are very well-attended and numbers tend to quiet down towards the end of the season. The economy is not the only contributing factor to any fluctuations we may have noticed; there are many things to be taken into account. Spruce Meadows running in conjunction with our summer tournaments is an example.”

He has noticed a significant increase in numbers in the lower-level jumpers, but speculates that in the low hunter rings, for example, the average horse isn’t getting the three rounds with a professional any more, instead being taken around perhaps just once. Collins noted that the CEP’s location is a key ingredient to turnout. “Our exhibitors’ proximity to the park is a huge factor in our continued success. I’d say over 90 per cent of our competitors live nearby and are able to sleep in their own beds during the tournaments, saving money on hotel and travel costs.” Overall, Collins is very positive about the future of EMG shows, stating that while entries at the CEP plateaued in 2010, he expects an increase in 2011.