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Getting back to reality after COVID-19

Will farm shows and machinery events ever be the same again?

In my time as machinery editor, getting to publicity events held by equipment brands has meant spending a lot of time in hotels and on airplanes. My schedule saw me, on average, flying somewhere every six weeks, and you get to experience a lot of unusual things that way, like when a flight attendant on a transatlantic flight asked over the Boeing 777’s PA system if there were any paramedics or medical staff onboard. An elderly passenger was having severe chest pains and shortness of breath as we passed over Greenland.

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We’d been travelling several days and I have to admit one of my first thoughts wasn’t so generous. I hoped we wouldn’t have to divert to Gander, which would have caused me to miss my connecting flight and spend another night on the road. Fortunately, everything turned out fine for that passenger. An off-duty nurse on the flight was up to the job of stabilizing him, and we landed in Toronto on schedule.

Then came the COVID-19 pandemic, and all that cloud hopping suddenly became impossible. Borders were closed, and my in-box filled up with cancellations for all the typical media events held to introduce new machines and the farm shows where they made their official public debuts.

But equipment brands still have launch schedules that need to continue with some semblance of normalcy. How then can marketing staff get these new machines launched with a modicum of fanfare? How can they hold the typical machinery events I was used to travelling to?

The answer to that problem seemed to be — not surprisingly — to go digital. Virtual events soon replaced every product introduction that would have required machinery journalists to hop on a flight.

Most farm shows, too, have had to follow that lead. Major U.S. shows cancelled their in-person events, some this year for the second time since the pandemic began. That includes the two biggest U.S. events: the Commodity Classic and U.S. Farm Progress Show.

Canadian events followed suit. Into March this year, organizers of Canada’s Farm Progress Show in Regina were taking a wait-and-see approach on the fate of the scheduled June event.

In previous years machinery journalists would all gather at in-person product launch events. Those events are now all being held online. photo: Scott Garvey

The Ag in Motion event typically held near Saskatoon, Sask., and Canada’s Outdoor Farm Show in Woodstock, Ont., (which are both owned by Glacier FarmMedia, the parent company of Country Guide) were both hoping there might be some on-site opportunities this year, but they were also busy building on and expanding the digital formats they turned to in 2020.

“Plans for virtual events are proceeding as hopes for a return to live events fade,” summed up Laura Rance-Unger, vice-president for content at GFM.

“For 2021, Canada’s Outdoor Farm Show is offering digital online events that we know we can deliver,” added Doug Wagner, show president. “Starting in March and throughout this coming year, COFS will be partnering with Farmtario (magazine) to provide six digital online events that will examine current issues, new technologies and agri-business to mention a few.

“In addition, depending on the status of COVID-19 during the growing season, COFS is hoping to host smaller on-site events to complement the digital online events. The size of the on-site events and number of people that can attend will depend on the guidelines for outdoor gatherings by the area public health agencies.”

But with the promise of widespread vaccinations in the coming months all across the globe, DLG, the German Agricultural Society that runs Agritechnica, which is held every second year in Hanover, Germany, has announced it still intends to hold its regularly scheduled in-person event this November. In a press release, DLG revealed around 90 per cent of the show’s floor space was booked by early February.

As impressive as that sounds, in past years the show’s available space would probably have been fully sold out by that time. So it seems there is some reluctance on the part of many exhibitors to commit to attending. In fact, the show’s largest and arguably most important exhibitor, John Deere, announced it will not be present there this year because of the COVID-19 pandemic.

But even as DLG announced it was still planning to hold a regular Agritechnica — for now, at least — it added that it, too, would be creating an online platform to offer a digital experience in parallel with its regular event.

All of that brings up the question: Will the temporary practice of holding digital events as an alternative actually become a new trend in machinery exhibitions? And if shows have a virtual component, is there really a need to kick tires on the showgrounds? Could the convenience and appeal of digital presentations surpass the attraction of in-person shows?

Going digital allows customers to hear directly from product reps and see slick video images of all the new equipment and features. And that happens right on the computer screen on the kitchen table in the farmyard, all without the risk of sunburn while navigating the crowd or trying to find a parking spot near the show gate.

If virtual viewing does becomes a popular method of promoting new machines, why wait for a farm show to offer it? Some brands aren’t. They’re upping their online presence.

Last year AGCO launched its new digital showroom site. Recently Case IH did the same, introducing Case IH VX, “a virtual platform and immersive brand experience for producers to see and learn about the latest equipment solutions and technology at any time, from anywhere,” says the company.

“Shows and events are an important way we connect with farmers. That’s why we’re excited to offer an opportunity to conveniently experience Case IH equipment during any season of farming,” said Sy Stevens, Case IH brand marketing communications manager, in a press release. “Just like any in-person show, Case IH VX offers the ability for producers to learn about and experience a wide range of equipment solutions at their own pace and in the comfort of their own home.”

The Case IH VX website allows potential buyers to kick virtual tires on new equipment. photo: Case IH

AGCO’s Massey Ferguson held the company’s first all-digital new-model launch in July 2020 to promote the new 8S Series tractors. The event, which streamed live from Massey Ferguson’s Beauvais, France facility, was watched by 65,000 participants from 170 countries around the world.

AGCO then followed that up with a global press conference in October for its Fendt brand, streamed live from Germany to get the message out to machinery journalists. While “attending” it meant being in the office at 4 a.m. local time for me, it was an effective way to see the new machines and hear from senior brand executives.

As I was wrapping up the latest of one of many “Zoom” new-equipment launch meetings online from my office at home, a brand representative asked me what I thought of the online format the company was using to bring journalists up to date on the new machines.

The answer, I had to admit, was these digital meetings were pretty efficient at getting the message out. I saw the machines and all their pertinent details. Each of us was given one-on-one time with product experts to ask questions. Then the brand sent us high-quality images taken by professional photographers.

And all of that happens without experiencing any jet lag or the frustration of dealing with all-too-frequent flight delays. And I didn’t lose two days getting there and back from the events. Now, my travel expense claims are non-existent, which I’m sure makes the publisher’s accountant smile.

Travel distance is one thing farmers who want to attend shows must take into consideration, too. Throw unpredictable winter weather into the mix and at least the off-season shows may find producers are more willing to attend virtually than in person, even if there is an in-person event to go to.

The COVID-19 pandemic has forced us to look at virtual events as an alternative to what generations of farmers are used to. Granted, farmers have used shows as an excuse for a road trip and a reason to get off the ranch for a day or two, and maybe do some networking or combine the show with attending grower meetings. But will that be enough to keep attendance numbers up in the future? The virtual alternative seems to have gained some momentum.

As for us machinery journalists, will brands continue to depend on virtual media events? I recall Deere’s media rep saying almost a decade ago the company found holding in-person media events pretty expensive. Not long ago all the major brands decided to blend media events with the major shows for a couple of seasons to cut costs. But things had mostly reverted back to the way they were.

During my conversation with that brand marketing rep I mentioned earlier, he seemed to think in-person product launches for journalists will likely return post-pandemic.

His comment: “Oh, I think we’ll be able to find creative ways to get you to come out into the field with us.”

We’ll see.

About the author

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Scott Garvey

Scott Garvey is a freelance writer and video producer. He is also the former machinery editor for Country Guide.

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