Red Deer’s most successful trade show owes its existence to a flash of inspiration on Hwy 2.
It was the early 1980s and Patrick Kennedy was returning from the Farm & Ranch Show in Edmonton. He’d asked organizers there if they’d considered organizing a similar event in Red Deer.
“On the drive back from Edmonton to Red Deer, I’m going, ‘Wait a minute, why would we let them do it when we could run it through the Chamber of Commerce and get this thing going right here in Red Deer, with local representation and local management?’ ”
A subsequent survey of exhibitors at the Farm Progress Show in Regina convinced Kennedy there would be an appetite for a farm equipment exhibition in Central Alberta, although some members of the Red Deer Chamber of Commerce worried about the financial viability of such an endeavour. Nevertheless, arrangements were made for the first Agri-Trade to take place at Westerner Park from Oct. 17 to 20, 1984.
On the first day of the event, it appeared the naysayers would be proven correct. A snowstorm rolled through the region, leaving 17-cm snowdrifts and closing a number of roads, including Hwy 2.
“I’m just sick about the weather,” then Chamber manager Pat Henry told the Advocate at the time. “But there’s nothing we can do about it.”
Kennedy remembers exhibitors calling to say they couldn’t get to Red Deer, with many farmers in a similar situation.
“We were at a point where we put out public service announcements saying if you could find your way to the front door you’d get in for free.”
To make matters worse, a late harvest meant many producers still had crops to bring in.
“Farmers were actually coming to the show in overalls and running,” said Kennedy.
But Agri-Trade survived — and went on to thrive. It long ago consumed all of the indoor space and a big chunk of the outdoor area at Westerner Park, which is now a partner with the Chamber in the event.
This year, despite squeezing some 385 exhibitors into 350,000 square feet of pavilion space and 75,000 square feet outside, Agri-Trade has a waiting list of about 125 exhibitors. Tens of thousands of attendees will converge on Red Deer from Canada, the United States and even overseas — creating an economic windfall for local ag product dealers, hotels, restaurants and other businesses that the Red Deer Chamber estimates at more than $15 million annually.
The 2013 edition of Agri-Trade, which will run from Nov. 6 to 9, is significant for a couple of reasons. It marks the 30th anniversary of the show and, perhaps more significantly, will be the last one that Kennedy manages.
The transfer of administrative responsibility for Agri-Trade began last year, when Dianne Smirl — a certified exhibition manager with 20 years of experience in the industry — was hired to assist and ultimately replace Kennedy.
“I’m personally excited, because I think it’s time for Dianne’s talents to take over,” said Kennedy, who is pleased with the changes his successor is already making.
For instance, Smirl is creating a Technology Pavilion where high-tech advances in the agricultural industry will be showcased, and is working toward locating other booths together on the basis of common themes. She’s also arranged for a professionally conducted survey of attendees and struck an advisory committee of ag experts to help plan for the future.
“Just sitting here, I can see where this thing is starting to morph into something bigger and better and more efficient, and more attractive to attendees,” said Kennedy.
For her part, Smirl speaks glowingly of Kennedy’s impact on the show during his three decades at the helm.
“Events are risky, even with the best idea. The fact that he had the chutzpah to take that risk and push it forward — you don’t meet many people like that who are willing to throw their necks on the chopping block and say, ‘Win or lose, I’m right behind it.’
“The reason it’s made it to 30 years has been the dedication that man has put into it.”
She even compares the challenges of guiding Agri-Trade from concept to world-class trade show to those associated with raising a child.
“He’s taken it through grade school; now I’m going to take it through university. He’s had the hard job; mine’s pretty easy now.”