There is a lot of talk at the shows about declining entries. Frequently we read in the dog press about there being “too many shows”. This may be the case on the East Coast, but here in the west no one thinks this is true. Now word has gone around that AKC judges may be required to pay professional fees, a defacto tax, for the privilege of judging dogs. Many in the fancy, especially those in smaller dog clubs, fear this will sound the death knell for their organizations. Since judges will not take this “tax” lying down, they will undoubtedly pass their costs on to the clubs that hire them, which will force a rise in exhibitor fees. It already costs $25.00 to enter most of the shows in our division, which if you enter just two dogs for two days, adds up to $100.00 before you even walk into the venue. Add reserved grooming, parking fees and travel costs and a local show can be out of reach for those on the margins of the sport.
With the perception, or reality, that the playing field in the ring is far from level, you have to wonder why anybody shows dogs at all. What can clubs do to encourage exhibitors to spend their dog show dollars with them? First club members have to quit thinking of themselves as social entities and begin to run their clubs as businesses. While most are set up as non-profit organizations, this doesn’t mean it’s illegal, or ill-advised, to promote the club or conduct fund-raising. In the business world it is accepted that customers have a choice of where to shop. To attract more clients, stores have to approach their business in new ways and constantly try new things. Nearly every business, including dog clubs, have websites. Most successful businesses make greater use of their websites as well as social media such as Facebook and Twitter. Businesses are keenly aware of how the look and feel of their environments impress clients. Client comments and feedback are crucial to making one store stand out in the marketplace. Why are dog clubs so slow to adopt some of these same concepts.
When premium lists come in the mail, or the AKC Gazette arrives, we sit down and study the upcoming shows. Chief in our minds is usually the judging panel. Second, is the distance from our home and the costs associated with travel and entering the shows. Third, is our assessment of the overall quality of the show experience. To us that means: is the show giving club mindful of exhibitor comfort, are members responsive to the concerns brought to them over the course of a weekend and are there any little “extras” that make the show stand out. Some shows are known for putting club members first when it comes to grooming space, parking space and seemingly judging. The last shows we attended were this way. It was our second year being refused reserved grooming due to lack of space, although we were able to find a great spot on our own for free. It was disconcerting to see who did and didn’t get a spot when you walked through the venue. The judging also seemed skewed toward certain “favored” people. The quality of the winning dogs was no better than many of those left unrewarded, but you had the feeling that club membership was indeed a perk at these shows. We will not be back to this cluster again, if they are able to stay a cluster, due in no small part to these perceptions and the overall tenor of the weekend.
On the other hand, we are sorry to miss the Oklahoma City cluster over the July 4th weekend. For years our handler told us how fun and enjoyable these shows are and last year we finally made the day long drive to show there. While we did about the same amount of winning at this cluster as at the last one we attended, the experience was so much better. Oklahoma City in the summer is miserable, plain and simple. The heat in a car, even with the windows down can kill a dog in minutes. This show offers reserved grooming, but no reserved parking. It is held in the downtown area where unloading could be a nightmare. Instead, the parking lot runs like an airport. Vehicles are funnelled in and out in an orderly controlled way. To make it easier on exhibitors, there are legions of local youths who man huge wheeled carts and actually take you right into the air-conditioned venue and to your space. The dogs and your gear are brought in all at once and you are even assisted setting up if you need it. This is a free service but both loading in and loading out I tipped the young men $20. You exit the lot and are directed into the underground parking. Roving carts bring cold drinks, pizza and sandwiches to exhibitors setting up and working on dogs for the start of the cluster. Again, all free! People smile at these shows and the judging panels draw a nice mix of people just trying to finish their dogs and top handlers with ranked dogs gunning for more points in the groups. If you bring something to a club member’s attention it gets done.
While one show was nearly half the distance from our home as the other, one was unquestionably more worth the expense. These two experiences point up how running clubs like businesses could mean the difference in clubs thriving or failing in our current times. Clubs are volunteer organizations, but the level of committment is often as strong as found in any business. To stand out among the many, this caring has to be ratcheted up. Innovative thinking and an emphasis on self promotion could go a long way. Just because a show has always pulled more than 1500 dogs does not mean it will continue to do so. Appreciation for the entrants cannot be overlooked. There are two clubs in our area whose shows are this month. From the declining entries, it is obvious exhibitors aren’t made to feel valued. One has limited the entry to 1400 dogs, although there is space for far more, and the members prefer not to encourage handlers with ranked dogs to come to the shows. The entries seldom reach 1400 and the club loses money. The members aren’t friendly and do nothing extra for the exhibitors. The other club is worse on another level. Last year the club took a spanking from AKC for unsportsmanlike conduct when the club president exhibited a dog, in direct violation of their stated policy, and won the show on the second day. This show site is not well-maintained during the weekend and trash frequently piles up. What little grass there is becomes full of dog poop and nobody from the show polices the area. I always pick up at least two piles left by others for every pile my own dog deposits. At these events you feel stressed and realize nobody cares if you spent your money with them or not.
Businesses do many things to woo customers. Dog clubs should be no different. Every club is in direct competition with each other for dog show dollars. None of us hesitate to compete in the show ring, why can’t we compete openly with each other for entries. One club we belong to actively solicits regional and parent clubs to hold specialties in conjunction with our shows. We offer incentives to these specialty clubs and try to go that extra mile to make the experience a great one for the exhibitors. This year our club’s shows were in direct conflict with the Westminster Kennel Club show. Still our entries were down only 10 percent from the previous year. These specialties made the difference.
As discretionary income becomes more and more limited, dog shows will continue to suffer. The difference between failure and success may very well live in a club’s ability to actively solicit entries by making exhibitors believe it is worth their money to be there. Doing business the old way will no longer be good enough. Clubs must become more innovative and proactive if they are to stand out among their peers and draw entries.