A new fair is a rare thing indeed. Universal Fairs, a 12-year old event production company, founded the Sun City Fair in El Paso, Texas. The company and its midway partner, Reed Exposition Midway - saw a niche for a fair along the "border towns" - in Texas cities and counties.
The sophomore edition was built on the success of last year's inaugural El Paso event. The El Paso Times, in an article previewing the fair, underlined the optimism heading into the fair. "In 2016, the event's first year, the Sun City Fair was extended an additional week due to its popularity. This year, the fair will once again feature a petting zoo, rides, games and vendors, as well as performances by the Rhinestone Roper, the Marvelous Mutts dog show, a tiger display, pig races, pony and camel rides, jugglers, magicians and more."iv>
Everything seemed in place for a repeat effort - a two week fair, and free with admission headliner entertainment, ranging from Christian band Diamond Rio, classic-rockers Molly Hatchet, alt-rock and indie rock bans, such as Filter and Orange Anima, and Hispanic stars El RM and Mariachi Paso del Norte.
A windy opening day - which forced the kickoff to be canceled due to the high winds, according to local reports - proved to be an ominous start for fair that saw a tremendous decline from its positive start. But it wasn't the weather that hurt the fair as much as fear associated with the tougher immigration stance taken by the Trump administration.
The inaugural Sun City fair reached an attendance of 95,000. The second time around, attendance barely reached 56,000. "It was down a drastic amount," said Mr. C, a spokesperson for Universal Fairs.
"It seems the main decline in our attendance was around the fact that the Hispanic and Latino market is scared to go out publicly right now due to the level of fear towards deportation and ICE since President Trump has taken office," said Brian Ellsworth, G.M., V.P. of Sales & Operations, Universal Fairs.
"Soft attendance is an understatement," said Jimmy Reed of Reed Exposition Midways. "A 10 percent drop we can tolerate, but this was significant."
Reed agreed that the new crackdown on immigration has had a dampening effect on attendance for a lot of fairs and events, especially along the U.S. Mexico border, events that attract - and are marketed it to - a large Hispanic population. According to Reed, it's not that fairs attract large numbers of people who could be considered illegal immigrants, but that that atmosphere of fear and apprehension has become pervasive in the Hispanic community.
"The problem is that most of the families are either citizens or here legally, but have family members whose status may in question," said Reed. "With all the raids, the families are staying home. We have a lot of fairs along the border and they all are seeing steep declines in attendance."
The family part is key for this segment. "Anytime you can cater to the Hispanic market, it's all about the family. They bring the kids, the grandparents, the whole extended family. They love fairs, and they love the rides, and we provide a good, clean and safe modern family environment. With the border cities, there are so many Hispanic families, and they are diverse in terms of their status and I think a lot of families just stayed home because of all the reports of raids, of people getting arrested and deported."
It is disheartening to say the least for the fair organizers. The current political situation regarding immigration in the U.S. is out of their control, but they did everything they could to market to this segment, including bilingual marketing programs. The Sun City Fair had an advertising budget of $100,000, with nearly 25 percent of the budget designated specifically for social media. The other media allocation included: Billboards - 40 percent, Radio 30 percent and Print 5 percent. "El Paso is a heavily Latino market, we advertise in El Paso and Juarez for the event," he said. "We run both American radio and Spanish radio spots."
"Universal Fair ran several great promotions and really reached out to the community," said Reed. "We had great days the first year, and the second year we had days that were good but should have been great. There are different things happening along the border states though with immigration that is hurting overall attendance."
Reed Exposition Midway
The Reed midway featured 36 rides, which included 12 new rides, including new Star Flyer, Bumper Cars and Dumbo ride.
Reed Exposition Midways is on a growth trajectory, revamping its ride inventory with a $3.6 million reinvestment for 2017. "My brother (and partner) retired, and we needed to replace about 15 rides," said Reed.
The company travels essentially the middle of the U.S., going from the Southwestern border states like Texas and New Mexico then up to the Midwest, covering North Dakota and Iowa before returning south again. Their primary markets are the small-and-mid-size fairs - typically county fairs - as well as festivals and other events.
Reed calls these events, "the big small fairs. That's our specialty. You can really do a beautiful show. I would rather do these events than a big state fair, where there's an independent midway but you don't have same control. A lot of the county fairs can be bigger than some state fairs. We've decreased the number of big fairs we have but have added more of the mid-sized fairs."
Reed pointed out that one appeal of the Sun City fair was starting something new in the fair industry. 'There are just so many shows that have been in existence for years, for more than a century, and instead of midway companies battling over other people's fairs, I like that we have started events with Universal Fairs that didn't exist before, that has been our growth strategy for the last couple of years."
New Bacon Trailer
The fair included 40 vendors, and, according Ellsworth, the hot food item was "a brand new Bacon trailer brought in by Kevin Exum," he said.
He added, "We had a slew of great attractions. The Rhinestone Roper, Wolf Shows, Wade Henry magic, Steve Boger's petting zoo, pig races, The Marvelous Mutts and Kid Davie comedy magic show. People seemed to love all of them."
In spite of the severe attendance decline for the 2017 Sun City Fair, Universal Fairs remains undaunted. They see this year as an unfortunate anomaly, and are committed to the El Paso market and convinced of its untapped potential. "Were e a growing company and we are always looking for a good market," said Mr. C. "We've been in business for 12 years as an event management company, and we have started adding fairs in the last two years. We have a good idea of the pulse of the industry. Most fairs have been around a hundred years or more, but we specialize in developing new fairs. We partner with companies and look for avenues we can fill."
With the El Paso event, Mr. C said "We did our homework and saw there was a need for a fair in El Paso and it fit well into our route and you look for ride companies that can fit into that route."
Mr. C emphasized that with El Paso, that regardless of an attendance dip that by all accounts was due to current politics, the opportunity they saw there, the one that was validated by the strong first year, still exists.
"El Paso is a growing are and when we researched the location, we know that is growing and that our fair is growing. You're going to have off years for a variety of reasons, and you really can't judge the success of a fair until the third and fourth years. We are committed to this fair for at least five years."