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Vancouver’s PNE kicks off ‘totally different’ drive-thru fair amid COVID-19

Click to play video 'A revised PNE event raises concerns about the future of the annual fair' A revised PNE event raises concerns about the future of the annual fair
A revised PNE event raises concerns about the future of the annual fair – Aug 22, 2020

Some of the classic attractions are there — the farm animals, the Superdogs and of course the food.

But staff at Vancouver’s Pacific National Exhibition acknowledge it’s “going to be totally different this year.”

With COVID-19 putting the brakes on any mass gathering, staff at the century-old fair had to think outside the box to pull off what may be the only live summer fair this year.

“When we heard the news there was not going to be any mass gatherings and events like the PNE were not going to be able to happen this year, it was devastating for the team, there’s no question about that,” said PNE president and CEO Shelley Frost.

“But we did immediately start looking at what we could do, and we started working on what we’re calling a series of micro events.”

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Click to play video 'Bumper-to-bumper traffic for PNE drive-thru mini donut event' Bumper-to-bumper traffic for PNE drive-thru mini donut event
Bumper-to-bumper traffic for PNE drive-thru mini donut event – May 22, 2020

Those micro events — a series of drive-thru food festivals — served as a trial run for the drive-thru PNE that kicked off Saturday.

Read more: No PNE this year, but you can still get your mini doughnut fix

In what organizers say is more of an “expedition than an exhibition,” visitors will take a 40-minute drive through the fair grounds this year for a $25 per carload fee.

“I’m personally thrilled we have live performers performing for real people, that warms my heart,” said PNE creative director Patrick Roberge.

Click to play video 'The PNE looks for help to weather the COVID-19 economic crisis' The PNE looks for help to weather the COVID-19 economic crisis
The PNE looks for help to weather the COVID-19 economic crisis – May 14, 2020

“It’s going to be totally different, but I think everyone that comes down to share it will know we’re showing a moment in history together.”

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While organizers are focusing on the positive, COVID-19 has brought very real economic storm clouds over the event.

Read more: PNE/Playland predicts gross loss of $52 million due to COVID-19 shutdown

The PNE usually employs about 4,200 people, but Frost says this year staff number in the hundreds.

Reduced traffic will also likely take a major bike out of the fair’s bottom line.

Click to play video 'Financial fallout of B.C. losing PNE this summer' Financial fallout of B.C. losing PNE this summer
Financial fallout of B.C. losing PNE this summer – Apr 19, 2020

In May, the PNE projected it could record a gross loss of $52 million this year, due to the pandemic.

The fair operates as a non-profit organization, but technically owned by the City of Vancouver — meaning it also does not qualify for the federal government’s wage subsidy program.

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Read more: Playland to reopen July 10, PNE to be drive-thru

That’s prompted CUPE, the union representing fair workers, to plead with Ottawa for help.

“Without immediate action from the federal government we may lose this important public institution, along with over $200 million of economic benefits to the region and the jobs of 4,200 people it employs every year,” said CUPE 1004 president Andrew Ledger earlier this week.

“Even with cost cutting measures, the Exhibition is staring down at project debt of up to $19 million by the end of the year. For a non-profit organization, this could be a fatal blow.”

Despite those longer-term concerns, fun and frivolity is the name of the game for the next eight days at the fair ground.

Read more: Despite cancellation of PNE, the 2020 prize home is still up for grabs

The event is open from 11 a.m. to 7 p.m., and tickets must be purchased ahead of time.

“I’ve been so proud of the team for really focusing on what we can do, rather than what we can’t do,” said Frost.

“(We want to) bring as many people in, have some fun, feel socially connected and just bring some joy back into what’s been a really, really tough spring and summer.”

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