SPENCERVILLE, ONT. -- The Spencerville fair will kick off its 166th year later this week south of Ottawa, with organizers using a hybrid approach, with a mix of virtual and in-person events.

The 10-acre fairground would otherwise be packed this weekend in a non-pandemic year, with more than 25,000 people descending on the small village over four days.

However, with provincial restrictions only lifted in July, organizers planned a mostly virtual event for 2021.

"A fair doesn't come together in four weeks; it takes six to eight months to plan," said Eric Connell, who sits on the Spencerville agricultural board.

"Last year, you had four days of non-stop streaming, with live entertainment and competitions that were shown into your home," Connell said. "It was interesting to do, it was stressful, and we are excited to do it again but this time with a little bit of a twist."

Connell says the virtual 2020 fair was successful and able to reach more people.

"Over the four days, we had 3,000 people log on," Connell said. "Globally we had people from Italy, we had people from California, and we had people from all over Ontario, which was amazing."

The Ontario Association of Agricultural Societies says rural fairs will continue to use the virtual technology, as it forced most of them to modernize.

"They really upped their game on learning how to use those tools, and that allows for accessibility, and I think some of that will not go away," said Valerie Allen, who represents District 1, which includes all rural fairs in eastern Ontario.

"Last year, there were virtually no fairs in eastern Ontario face-to-face," Allen said. "There were several fairs who had drive-through events and virtual events where people would drop things off to judge virtually. Very few face-to-face events at all, and if there were, there were no spectators."

"This year, it's been a little more encouraging because there's been more effort and more availability because of the lower numbers this summer in eastern Ontario, and fairs have been able to run more events," she added.

"Many hybrids, virtual, online or downsized events, where they might run a three-day fair in a typical year, and thye were running one-day fair this year," Allen said.

Allen said another benefit of virtual events is that viewers learn a lot more because the events are explained and there is background provided during the telecasts.

"Whereas, if you're there in-person, you often go from event to event to event," Allen said. "This way, you can take your time and really understand what's going on, so then when you attend in-person in another year, you'll know what they are talking about, and you'll know what the judges are looking for, those sort of things."

Spencerville, adopted one of the hybrid models for this year, with Saturday being the only day that people can attend the fair in person.

"We have an incredible vendor show happening from 12 to 5. We've got over 72 vendors currently, they just keep coming in," Connell said. "We're actually going to have our parade line up here. It's going to be a stationary parade, so you can kind of come along and see and interact with our parade floats."

A stage is set up for live music, encouraging people to bring lawn chairs to spread out. A touch-a-truck event is also planned, thanks to the township fire department.\

Spencerville Fair stage

The Barn of Learning will be open, but with 50 per cent capacity.

Admission for the one day is free.

"Because we are in a fair and our health unit, we are working closely with them, it is required that indoor and outdoor, you must wear a mask," Connell said. "We asking that before you arrive please log onto our website and do COVID screening."

Allen added a hybrid model helps put some money back into the local economy.

"People look forward to it. it's a tradition in many communities," Allen said. "People come home for the summer at fair time because they know that they can see many, many people."

"It's not just people coming to the fair, but they are staying in the community, they are spending money at local restaurants, they are engaging in stores, so its a social benefit and it's also a financial benefit for their communities," she said.

The society also did a study before the pandemic of the financial benefits rural fairs have on their communities.

"The study was that for every dollar brought in, there was more than four times that spent out in the community through the gas stations, stores, restaurants, accommodations, all those pieces," Allen said.

"We're lucky to now have enough passionate volunteers to do a hybrid fair where we will have something on the fairgrounds, even though its very last-minute," Connell said, saying the group had to wait until the province laid out it's reopening plan before they could really plan for the fair.

"For everybody who has helped, or partook in the last virtual fair or this virtual fair, this is why we are doing this. You're the reason why we have the passion to keep moving forward," Connell added. "Thank you so much for your continued support and your love for our fair because without you it wouldn't happen."