Why big concerts and fairground expansion are key to keeping an aging PNE relevant

With recent billings like ZZ Top and Rick Springfield, organizers welcome new visitors — and new challenges

With recent billings like ZZ Top and Rick Springfield, organizers welcome new visitors — and new challenges

ZZ Top is among this years top billings for the Pacific National Exhibition's summer concert series. (Stoyan Nenov/REUTERS)

A ride on the Coaster, a mouthful of mini-donuts, and a trip to the petting zoo might make for a great summer evening — but the lineups and price tags that come with it aren't always for everyone.

Year after year, Vancouver's Pacific National Exhibition offers much of the same thrills and attractions. And PNE CEO Mike McDaniel admits that the same old song and dance can get old after a while.

"To everybody, the PNE will be there next year," said McDaniel. "We have to create a call to action, so that people will come this year."

The PNE has seen historic highs and historic lows. Over one million people walked through its doors when it coincided with Expo 86. But recently, attendance has hovered around 700,000 visitors annually, down by roughly 200,000 since the early 2000s — and organizers say attendance this year will be much the same.

Opening day crowds roam the fairgrounds ready to take in the more than 50 rides and attractions and hundreds of new performances and exhibits. (CBC)

So how does one of Vancouver's most iconic yearly events maintain its relevancy as it ages well into its 100s? Festival organizers have called on the likes of ZZ Top, Rick Springfield, and the Doobie Brothers to help answer the call.

"A lot of our emphasis this year has gone into our concert series," said McDaniel. "Each year, we've kind of amped that up several notches and we've kind of done that again."

New visitors — new challenges

McDaniel says the big shows are one of the keys to creating the annual 'must-go' factor and pique the interest of both Vancouverites and tourists.

Some shows have drawn large crowds — but have also created some unintended challenges.

Reserved seats for last year's Steve Miller concert ended up getting resold on Craigslist, many for double the original price. Meanwhile, thousands of people who showed up to get into the general seating area (a perk that comes free with the price of admission to the festival) ended up waiting in line for hours.

Steve Miller's concert night at the PNE was one of the busiest in the festival's history, with 5,000 people lined up to get into the general admissions area — a perk that comes with the price of admission into the festival. (AP)

Hundreds of others who couldn't get a seat inside the theatre had to settle for watching the show on screens.

"As we increase the calibre that's coming — obviously that ampitheatre has a certain capacity, and once it's full, it's full."

McDaniel says organizers are working to address these issues, including a system that provides general admissions wristbands earlier in the day. But the overall capacity issue won't be solved until the theatre is rebuilt, which will happen sometime in the next few years.

Future upgrades

And the theatre isn't the only part of the PNE that's due for a makeover.

Other long term upgrades and expansions are also on the horizon. Last year, the City of Vancouver advanced plans for a $120 million upgrade plan for a re-imagining of the space into a 'thematic' park.

An artist's rendering presented to Vancouver city council shows the concept for the Adventure Land zone, one of six new theme concepts for Playland. (City of Vancouver)

"It'll happen over a period of 10 to 12 years," said McDaniel. "It will see Playland get majorly refreshed, expanded, and softened."

Early concept art shows a drastic shift away from Playland's aging steel and concrete fairgrounds, and increase the six-hectare amusement park to nearly nine hectares. Funding will be paid back to the city from the park's revenues.

City Councillor and PNE board member Raymond Louie says work is still being done to develop an economic strategy regarding the expansion, and that it will likely be financed in multi-year stages.

"This bodes well [not just] for the local neighbourhood, but overall for the city," he said. "After all, this is a city-wide, if not region-wide, serving facility."

An artist's rendering presented to Vancouver city council shows several seagulls flocking around the Coastal Village theme zone. (City of Vancouver)

About the Author

Jon Hernandez

Video Journalist

Jon Hernandez is an award-winning multimedia journalist from Vancouver, British Columbia. His reporting has explored mass international migration in Chile, controversial logging practices in British Columbia, and the global HIV/AIDS epidemic. Follow Jon Hernandez on Twitter: