PNE transformation just getting started: be different but stay the same

If it doesn't rain, attendance numbers may hit third consecutive increase

Pacific National Exhibition executives hope new events will draw enough people for this year’s fair to notch a third consecutive increase in attendance, after hitting a decades-plus low of only 678,193 visitors in 2015.

Among the new events are the Action Sports World Tour, which includes skateboarding and BMX bike riding tricks at the Pacific Coliseum, a medieval jousting show at the Agrodome and an exhibit on the history of dragons.

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“We hear a lot of people say, ‘Change it. Change it. Make it different, but don’t take anything away that I like,’” said new CEO Shelley Frost, with a laugh.

Frost, who took over reins from longtime CEO Michael McDaniel earlier this year, added that dry weather will be key to success at the fair, which runs August 18 through September 3.

A rainy spell would likely mean attendance would drop below the 700,000- to-750,000-visitor range, said Frost, who spent almost 15 years as a PNE vice-president, and is familiar with the rhythms of B.C.’s largest summer fair.

Decades ago when the fair was larger, the site included the Showmart building, a food building and the B.C. Pavilion, she noted. All of those structures are long gone, replaced with elements such as gardens. That transition has cut into available square footage for crowds to occupy.

Transformation of the PNE grounds is likely to continue. Frost and other executives are looking ahead to a potential massive revamp that could lead to sustained year-round growth.

PNE staff have worked on geotechnical and traffic studies that are intended to be part of a presentation to Vancouver city council next year as the culmination of an eight-year effort to get council to approve a $120 million, 10-year expansion at the PNE that would expand its year-round Playland amusement-ride section to 22 acres from the current 15 acres.

The soccer fields on land that Empire Stadium previously occupied will stay put. Parking, however, could be removed to accommodate the Playland expansion, Frost said.

“This won’t be something that will be a drain on resources,” she said. “It is a growth period that will allow us to grow and generate enough revenue to cover all of that, as well as additional greening on the site.”

The PNE, which includes the Fair at the PNE, Playland and other events at facilities such as Pacific Coliseum, generated about $2.4 million in profit on $55 million in revenue during its fiscal year that ended on March 31, Frost said, referring to figures in an unreleased annual report. That’s up from about $51 million in revenue last year, she said.

The fair generates about half of the PNE’s annual revenue, with Playland generating about one quarter and other events combining to account for the rest.

Frost said that future spending on expanding Playland will be financed entirely by the PNE, although it will likely access the city’s line of credit.

Tickets at this year’s fair have risen by $1 for adults, to $18, and $0.50 for seniors, to $9. Children up to age 13 get in free.

“There have been a number of things that have affected our costs, such as the rise of the minimum wage, which happened in June,” Frost said. “We’ve had to make adjustments for that.”

About 4,500 people work at the PNE on peak days, with the PNE itself employing about 3,500 of those. Concession vendors, or other private businesses, employ the rest.

“The PNE is an iconic institution and I am incredibly honoured to be able to lead it through this next period of time,” Frost said.



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