The most newsworthy event at the annual convention of the Arizona Fair Association was that the state government was not going to cut funding, something the organization has achieved through an intensive organized effort of lobbying and solidifying relationships with political supporters.
Invited to participate at the convention were four Arizona State legislators. "We were fortunate to have four legislators join us at the convention," said Association President Wanell Costello and Manager of the Arizona State Fair. "The relationships we build and the information we are able to share with these Legislators help them better understand our issues and challenges."
"We are truly one of the states that are blessed our funding is saf
e," said Karen Searle, Current Past President and manager of both the Maricopa County Fair and the Pinal County Fair. "We've worked hard to make sure the funding is safe. We are not like other states where we have lost our funding and we've not been among the fairs who have had their funding reduced."
Having legislators be among their constituents at the convention is key to this sustaining the support. "Our conventions are very causal," explained Searle. "The main focus in networking, and that's how we build our relationships. Our government officials who attend, they are our true legislative champions who've made sure our funding stays the same. They make that happen. But they are able to hang out at the convention, and meet with us in a relaxed atmosphere, and it is personal and nice and we can speak with them informally about what fairs do and some of the problems we face."
Searle credits the association's lobbyist for ensuring legislators not only maintain legislative support but actually attend the convention and meet with fair personnel at the grassroots level. About six years ago, the association first contracted with a lobbyist to promote fair issues at the state house. "We've been using the same lobbyist and we have kept a consistent presence at the state level."
The annual funding for fairs is mainly marked for promotion of agriculture, and fairgrounds are facing other issues. "The county fairs, like fairs all across the country, are challenged with aging infrastructure, but we all are doing interim events. We believe the facilities belong to the community, and the funding helps, but it is certainly a challenge."
Fair funding may be one of those state-wide issues germane mainly to fairs and the agriculture industry, but the other looming issue impacting everyone in Arizona with a business.
As of January 1st, the Arizona's minimum wage increased by 25 percent to $10 per hour, and will continue to go up incrementally until it reaches $12 per hour in 2020.
The minimum wage last year was $8.05. Most of the seasonal and part time employees of Arizona fairs work for minimum wage, and this increase in the cost of labor caused much consternation at the convention.
How Arizona fairs will absorb this added cost - by price increases, cut backs or another method - is unclear. "It is pretty big concern," said Searle. "I think most fairs are not increasing prices this year, but looking at creating sources of new revenue to compensate for the wage increase. But price increases in 2018 probably can be avoided for some fairs."
Developing new revenue sources is a top-of-mind-topic for Arizona Fair Association convention attendees, mainly focused on increasing sponsorships. "Part of our networking was about exchanging ideas about sponsorships, which is a big issue," said Searle. "Fairs are looking at new types of sponsorships, from unused spaces on fences, to new sponsoring of the programs at the live stock shows, or the auction book. Fairs are looking for smaller money but more sponsorships, which is easier to look for in smaller communities, where most of our fairs are. Small town sponsors can be local business of any type, and it's about supporting those business, and fairs are willing to take as low as $200 for some sponsors. There were a lot of creative solutions to sponsorships."
The Arizona Fairs Association represents about 20 fairs, and 170 fair professionals attended the annual convention, a slight increase over last year's turnout, evidence of a very robust 2016 season. Searle describes the Arizona fair industry, "as very positive, some fairs had great weather and big numbers, and we get continued support from our communities."
Costello added, "things have remained very positive in Arizona. Our attendee's attitudes reflect the positive atmosphere. If they were any different from the previous year, they were more on the optimistic side as we continue to produce strong and successful events. Overall attendance and revenues were up at most of the fairs. Good weather and an improving economy were positive factors in a strong fair season."
Grounds Act Growth
The trade show featured about 12 booths, almost entirely entertainers and more than 20 acts were featured in the showcases, a slight increase in participation compared to 2016. According to Searle, at least 90 percent of the acts are grounds acts as well as some local musicians. "traditionally, the trend continues to be mostly ground acts for the trade show and our showcases," she said. "Fairs in Arizona have very small budgets, so to fill out their schedules, they use more ground acts. For the fairgoers, it's way for them get the most value for the affordability of the fair."
Aside from the fact that there were more entertainers wanting to be seen by Arizona fairs and those fairs expanding free entertainment line ups, Searle saw no trends among the entertainers at the association's convention, "we had a good mix, a good combination of veterans and many other entertainers new to our fairs."
The convention was extended a day for another day of classes, which meets a growing need among the Arizona Fair industry. The expanded education track - which includes Fair Manager Workshops and Operations Seminars - focus on fair basics, such as courses on ShoWorks Fair Management Software.
"Our goal is to continue to strengthen Fair management and staff in industry knowledge and skills and to aid in the building of a strong fair network throughout Arizona," said Costello.
The remedial nature of the new courses however fills what has been a dramatic turnover at the management level of Arizona fairs. More than a third of the Arizona Fair Association members have hired new fair managers within the last three years, and the vast majority are not "coming from the fair industry, they are come from fair boards or the livestock works or other events in their county," said Searle.
The courses are helping to overcome the inexperience in Arizona. "We need these starter sessions, but even the experienced fair people are taking these coursers, because they are a good reminder for the veterans, because they look at things they haven't looked in a long time, like insurance or some of the updates to the programs. It's very positive that we're reopening these conversations."
Also at the convention, Costello received Fair Manager of the Year and Kari Sears of Freckle Farms Petting Zoo received Associate Member of the Year.