New Royal Norfolk Show team’s vision remains rooted in farming
There will be a new partnership at the helm of the Royal Norfolk Show this year – but there will be no change to the beating agricultural heart on which its success is based. Rural affairs correspondent CHRIS HILL reports.
Last year's Royal Norfolk Show saw an emotional changing of the guard as two stalwarts of this great institution stepped down after a combined service of 30 years.
But following the retirement of show manager Sarah de Chair and chief executive John Purling in 2012, the new top team are determined to continue the show's success – and preserve its deep-rooted agricultural traditions.
This year's event, on June 26 and 27, will be the first for show director Julian Taylor and for Greg Smith, the new chief executive of the Royal Norfolk Agricultural Association (RNAA).
Although this fresh start has brought opportunities for new ideas and innovations, both men are agreed there must be no wholesale change of direction.
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And they said the livestock element of the show will remain at the centre of its appeal – not only to showcase Norfolk's peerless farm produce, but to meet the educational goals of the RNAA to show youngsters where their food comes from.
Mr Smith said: 'We are not doing anything cathartic. If people notice big changes to the show, then we have got it wrong.
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'When you look at the show, part of what we must do is to make sure we have the right chemistry to balance between the agricultural, and farming industries, and the interesting things for people to come and see and do – a bit of a spectacle, the retail, and the competitive side of the equestrian events.
'John and Sarah did a brilliant job of getting that balance right and making the Royal Norfolk Show one of the premier shows in the country over a sustained period of time. What Julian and I have to do now is hold that together and develop and adjust the various elements to reflect changing interests and consumer needs.
'You can always talk about the legacy of the past. The association has been on this site since 1954 and so, in the post-war period, the trustees had to make some really big decisions on what the future was going to be. I think that my chairman and the trustees now are in a similar generational moment.
'I would hope that during my tenure as a chief executive we will have taken the RNAA into a position where it is set fair for the next 50 or 60 years. There are some big strategic decisions which we have got to make along the way but I hope we will have had a series of highly successful shows and made some progress in being able to do things which will have a profound impact on people's lives and in their understanding of food and farming in the countryside.
'I am really looking forward to the things that make the Royal Norfolk Show absolutely the best county show there is - and that is the agricultural part of what we do. I love going down the cattle lines as people are starting to prepare these brilliant beasts for judging.
'That is what this show is all about, along with the entertainment in the Grand Ring and the produce in the Food Hall. The Royal Norfolk Show is a place where you see the absolute best of Norfolk and what it produces in terms of food and farming.'
Mr Smith was born in Norwich and studied agriculture at Newcastle University but his career took him away from Norfolk and into market research.
He became managing director of public opinion polling company Ipsos MORI and he is also known as Major General Greg Smith in the army reserves – a senior role in which he has worked for the Ministry of Defence in implementing policy changes.
He said his Norfolk upbringing and career trajectory had equipped him perfectly for his role at the RNAA.
He said: 'It brings together a whole range of things – agriculture, Norfolk, organisation, logistics, marketing... and military bands! It is a combo that works.
'I've been dealing with government ministers and heads of the armed forces, and now I am dealing with animals, car parking, VIP visits, radio advertising and show security. It is a fascinating world.'
Tens of thousands of visitors to this year's show can expect familiar Grand Ring entertainment ranging from military displays to an Australian stunt biker, added to the customary Food Hall delicacies and more than 650 trade, charity and shopping stands.
But while there will be some changes, they are respectful of the show's agricultural heritage.
The RNAA's youthful new president, TV sports presenter and Norfolk ambassador Jake Humphrey, is aiming to encourage a younger generation to come along and see the animals and machinery which produce their food.
And the 40th anniversary of the Rare Breeds Survival Trust has prompted the creation of a rare breeds village to showcase these lesser-known creatures.
Show director Mr Taylor said a cautionary tale against abandoning an event's agricultural roots could be seen in the demise of the East of England Show in Peterborough, which came to an end last month after 200 years as a result of falling visitors and financial losses.
He said it proved why the livestock competitions in Norfolk – even though they are a loss-making section of the event – must be preserved.
'The last time we had a really detailed look at the livestock side, it was costing the association £90,000 to have livestock at the show,' he said.
'We budget to break-even, but we do not make money from that part of the show. The reason that it exists is that people with their various animals want to compete against their friends and other farmers to show off who has got the best cow, or whatever – it is an opportunity to give them the chance to do that.
'The last thing we need is an accountant running the show. If you look at it through accountants' eyes, it does not make sense. But from my point of view we need to show that our customers are well looked after, they need to be proud of the fact that most people exhibiting here are from the Eastern Counties and they need to be reassured that the meat they eat comes from well-managed stocks. 'This is the only way a lot of farmers get to meet the public. Over a two-day period, how on earth could you get 100,000 people to come and admire your livestock otherwise? So for me, it is crucial that agriculture remains central to the show and we will do all we can with the businesses around the rest of the showground to manage the cost of it.
'I think the association would be appalled if we decided we were going to go down a different avenue, to have funfairs and get taken over by other activities rather than agriculture. If you are going to do that, you might as well just have a car boot sale.'
Mr Taylor, who runs a mixed farm at Starston, near Harleston, joined the show as a volunteer steward in 1987 and later became head steward of the countryside area before taking the new role of show director at the age of 56.
He said other crucial factors in the show's success were sponsorship – with 75 businesses contributing £160,000 this year – and the great variable of the weather, with two wet days having the potential to reduce visitor numbers at the gate by 20,000.
A perennial problem for the new director is likely to be traffic, as thousands of people descend on the Costessey showground. A full management plan is currently being circulated around parishes and will be published soon.
Measures this year include closing the neighbouring Park and Ride and making Long Lane one-way only for southbound vehicles, so that the Longwater junction can be cleared more easily.
It is hoped that a schools 'inset day' on Thursday 27 will encourage families to visit with their children, while on Wednesday more than 3,700 youngsters are already registered for school visits with their classes. A series of 30 'study trails' have been created, with a ticket price refund offered for successful completion, acting as an incentive to take advantage of the educational opportunities at the show.