Farming: The shows must go on, but how many will attend? - Brian Henderson

It’s often one of the more exasperating parts of covering an event – trying to prise an attendance figure out of the organisers at the end of the day.

Given that my experience is pretty much limited to the farming side I’ve no idea if it is a universal issue or one that is confined to our own sector but I often find myself wondering where the difficulty lies in supplying this figure.

I guess the organisers seldom want to admit that, despite their best efforts, they have failed to attract enough people to the show, so maybe they want to hold out until the very last person crawls through the turnstile at the very last moment to boost the flagging numbers.

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But while it might have been an acceptable excuse in the old days that it could take a while to get all the figures added up from the stewards with the clicker counters placed at the various gates around the show perimeter, modern technology with QR code reader apps giving instant electronic confirmation has not only made sure that each ticket can only be used once but must surely also have facilitated the real-time collection of the numbers through the gate.

The Royal Highland Show returns this year
The Royal Highland Show returns this year
The Royal Highland Show returns this year
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Like most people who attended last week’s Scotsheep event, judging by the thronging mass and the fact that I was unable to walk more than a few yards without bumping into someone I hadn’t seen for years, I wasn’t surprised by the organisers’ claim that it had been a record breaking attendance.

But despite what the world at large might say about journalists never letting the facts get in the way of a god story, we do sometimes like to have evidence to back up our surmises – so to have had that verified by some actual figures would have been nice.

Looking from the other side of the fence, though, I can see how annoying it might be for the organisers to have to address this hoary old chestnut at the end of a long and undoubtedly stressful day.

But just let me make it plain while we as journalists probably don’t really care all that much ourselves if attendance records are being broken by every local – but the first thing anyone wants to know is “was it busy?”. And, on an industry obsessed with counting cattle and sheep, that’s probably not all that surprising.

Getting the gate figures had become a bit of a long-standing chore at big events like the Highland show – and the scramble to get the attendance figures was always a bit of a ritual.

It was surprising, though, just how often we seemed to be able to carry the news that it had been a record attendance – or, on more disappointing dreich days, at least a ‘near-record’ attendance.

But of course that’s likely to have changed this year – with the new-fangled online advanced electronic ticketing system meaning that the show organisers should be able to tell us exactly how many people will be attending the show the minute we walk into the press room.

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On this front though, bets are pretty evenly placed as to what the attendance figures will actually look like this year, with the desire evident at Scotsheep for farmers to get together and rebuild some of the social links which have been missing recently – or simply the opportunity to bump into friends and neighbours not seen since the last show – being counterbalanced by the antipathy being expressed on social media towards the strictures imposed by the new pre-booked only ticketing system.

At least the Highland will take place – but elsewhere the numbers game is also beginning to show its face on the organising committees of some of the local shows.

For some, the figures might revolve around the show association’s annual accounts, but for a larger number their continued existence is likely to hinge more on the number of volunteers willing to come forward and help organise, set up and ensure the smooth running of these traditional events.

While a few have always fallen off the annual calendar or amalgamated with neighbouring events, the hiatus over the past few years caused by the Covid pandemic has perhaps highlighted the fact that not only did these things tend to be organised by the same old faces every year – but also that these same old faces were getting ever older.

And it wouldn’t just be journalists who’d be disappointed by a zero attendance figure…

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