Michelle Matschke: A Spectator’s Perspective on Event Profitability

Michelle Matschke is a 2007 graduate of Johnson & Wales Equine Business Management program currently working in the marketing and editorial world. Her hobbies include window-shopping for OTTBs online and following her friend from JWU, Daryl Kinney, around Area 1. Michelle is interested in supporting emerging riders as well as struggling event organizers with marketing and advertorial consulting on any scale. Thanks to Michelle for writing, and thanks for reading!

Spectators having a blast at Pau CCI4*. Photo by Kate Samuels.

One of the most prevalent issues plaguing the event world that I’ve been reading about recently is the incredibly high cost associated with running an event. Between the capital expenses, the orchestration of volunteers and employees, and the liabilities, events are shuttering across the nation. I read about riders lamenting increases in annual fees and show entries, asking how they can afford to compete and the strategic decisions they have to make largely based on finances.

It’s painful to hear about, especially as riders get disenchanted with these insurmountable economics. Even worse is hearing about land being sold and whole events dropping off the radar. As a spectator, I can’t personally tell you how these rising costs are destroying my sport, but I can tell you one thing for sure – event organizers are not utilizing all of their resources.

Here are some statistics on general admission (spectator) prices for different types of horse shows across the country:

• Dressage at Devon charges spectators $10 per day.

• HITS Saugerties charges between $5-30.

• Pennsylvania National Horse Show charges between $12-50 per day.

• Fairfield Hunt Club charges between $20-150 to get into the VIP tent.

• The All American Quarter Horse Congress (OH) charges $25 per day to park.

• A general admission season pass to the Newport Polo Series is $125.

• The Devon Horse Show charges $10 per day.

• Rolex general admission tickets start at $22 per day, and preferred parking is $130 for the weekend.

Granted, these are all big shows, but that is part of my point. There may be some reasoning for this, such as the limited number of spectators that show up for events, as opposed to some of the shows I’ve listed above. However, I don’t see a reason why that can’t change.

People love to watch horses do their thing; look at how many people show up at the Kentucky Derby with their goofy hats and mint juleps. On a smaller scale, in southwest Connecticut where I am from, spending an afternoon watching a hunter show or lunching at a polo match is a rather trendy, yet normal thing to do. (I prefer events, thank you, but to each his own!)

Horse sports are entertaining to watch, whether you know what you’re looking at or not. Events are incredibly exciting places to be, too, with so many horses going at the same time and lots to soak in. (Not like I need to tell you that.) If you get bored watching the stadium warm-up (how that might be possible, I do not know), walk to a different ring and take in some dressage.

Granted, events may be more dangerous for spectators, especially those that are in unfamiliar territory, but placing walking lane markers, a few rows of bleachers and some safety volunteers will straighten out that learning curve in no time.

Event organizers might say, “I can’t afford marketing to potential spectators; I can barely afford to hold an event!” Ah, that’s where you’re wrong. If you can maintain a Facebook page, you can advertise. Word-of-mouth is the most powerful form of advertising; tell your coworkers at your boring office job about this AMAZING horse show coming up! Tell them about the beautiful setting and all the talented horses, how there is so much to see, and don’t forget about vendors and delicious food stands.

Encourage them to bring family members and have a picnic. Know any single guys? Draw them in with tales of white breeches and fit girls. Talk it up. They will enjoy themselves, even if you deceived them a little about the “quality” of that food stand cheeseburger. We must stop hiding our amazing little horse world from the rest of society — they’ll like it, too! Spectating at events needs to be on the “average” person’s weekend repertoire, right next to apple picking and pumpkin carving in the fall; it’s the thing to do!

Events need to change their focus to bringing in the spectators and turn away from extorting riders’ wallets. I will gladly pay $10 to park in your pasture and enjoy a day at an event, so start gouging me. Charge different prices at food stands for competitors and spectators. (Riders deserve a discount after all those entry fees!)

Most importantly, if we all want to keep enjoying these events for years to come, we all need to pitch in. Tell your non-horsey friends where they should be spending their Saturday afternoons and help spread the word.

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