How the Early, Early Christmas Fair beat the Covid challenge

This time last year, how many of us would have imagined this life of uncertainty a year on?  As we moved through the months of 2020, we saw 2021 as being the turning of the page.  A new year, the restrictions behind us, the threat averted, everything back to some kind of normal.  But as we approached Christmas 2020, we were so much less sure that 2021 would be the new chapter.   On the contrary, we were looking at more of the same.

For all its apparent bleakness, however, 2020 taught us many things.  There were ways of adjusting and making the best of the bad.  Restaurants turned into high-class takeaways, cafés diversified into bakeries and grocers, and online thrived.

ABF, The Soldiers’ Charity was yet another case in point.  By Spring 2020 it was clear that their flagship annual 2020 EEC Fair at Tidworth was no longer possible. So – no event, no marquees, no invitations, no Save-the-Date, no this-is-what-we-do-every-year.  Caroline Cary, the EEC Fair Event Organiser, sat at her desk with some thinking to do. Covid-19 had cancelled the 2020 EEC Fair, but that is not the memo that can be forwarded to the thousands of veterans, soldiers and their families whom ABF The Soldiers’ Charity supports throughout the year.

Caroline decided to take the Fair online.  Easy words to write but weeks of work ensued to see how this vision could be realised in a way to make the vitally necessary funds for the Charity.  It was a learning curve of some proportions, but like every business which made the best of the pandemic, Caroline learned how to re-think the unplanned.

Question marks draped themselves like bunting on all the Fair’s standard procedures.  Which stallholders were best suited to a Virtual Fair?  Was their website strong enough without their personal presence to encourage sales?  What mix of stallholders was best for an online Fair?  There was the opportunity to expand, as there were no space restrictions, but how many is too overwhelming for the online visitor?  Caroline was committed to support the stallholders as they had all lost their primary source of business – the Fairs.  However, the online Fair had to maintain the interest of the potential customer who is only one click away from leaving the site.  A sense of exclusivity had to be retained.

Equally taxing was the construction of the website itself, which needed to be both eye-catching and tempting, promising hidden gems and yet very easy to navigate. The technical side had to be failsafe since the online shopper rarely perseveres for long when pages do not load or links are not made.  Profitable traditions like the Raffle had to be imagined differently so that it could be included.  Finally, Caroline had to market the Fair with every promotional means available.  By the time the 2020 EEC Fair came online, it was not the only virtual event around.  The EEC Fair’s audience was now nationwide but Fairs around the country had made the same decision to go virtual and there was plenty of what is referred to as ‘online noise’.   Somehow the EEC Fair had to stand out and be heard.

Form a standing start, the valiant endeavour was an unqualified success.  The site had more than 52,000 unique visitors and the Fair made almost £40,000 for the Charity.  The hours of work getting to grips with unchartered territory had paid off and Caroline had snatched a small but important victory over Covid-19. In the past year, ABF The Soldiers’ Charity has helped 70,000 people in 60 countries across the globe and funded numerous charities and organisations to support the Army family at large.  The EEC Fair was a vital part of this undertaking.

Fast forward to 2021 and much the same uncertainties about restrictions are still in the air, albeit with the added aroma of a bit of hope!  The EEC Virtual Fair 2021 is now confirmed and the actual Fair, the live event, is going ahead, subject, of course, to government guidelines.  The Fun Day Out is back. The 2021 EEC Fair at Tedworth Park, Tidworth, complete with marquees, stalls and stallholders, food and drink will take place, as always, over a two-day period from Tuesday 28th September (2pm – 9.30 pm) – Wednesday 29th September (9.30am – 4pm).  There will be the usual fabulously eclectic display of produce and products, from beauty and fashion, food and drink, gifts and gadgets, jewellery and flowers, things for the home and the garden, and much, much more…  Something for everyone and a place to meet, at last.  Any government guidelines will be strictly adhered to if they are in place at that time and visitors will be informed in very good time of any protocols that will need to be followed.  Everything will be on the website.

The EEC Virtual Fair will go online immediately after the actual EEC Fair, launching on Thursday 30thSeptember and concluding on Thursday 1st January.  Some of the stallholders at the live event will also be online, but both the live event and the Virtual Fair will be designed with a distinctive mix of businesses and product ranges to entice and attract our shoppers.  The stallholders are picked very carefully for their range, quality and unique features which makes the Virtual Fair something of a retail paradise.

The last words belong to Caroline: “I am so proud that we rose to the occasion and found a way to keep this event alive and support all those that have done so much to support us.  We will continue to bring you two wonderful events and to fulfil our mission to raise funds for our service men, women and their families.

As they say, “When life throws you lemons, make lemonade”

Wiltshire Life – Written by: Ally Cardozo

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