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IAFE & SLA Concludes 2012 Trade Show
Updates from Universal Fairs; Wisconsin State Fair; Minnesota State Fair

12/3/2012

By Ron Weber

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The International Association of Fairs and Expositions annual Convention was held Nov. 26 - 28 at the convention hall at the Paris Hotel in Las Vegas.  The annual gathering of fairs and expositions from around the country provided opportunities for events to learn from industry experts and peers, shop for entertainers and new services in the trade show and meet with related companies such as vendors and carnivals.

Convention time is also an opportunity for an alphabet soup of related industry organizations such as the OABA, SLA, NICA and others, to hold meetings, seminars and industry gatherings.

The SLA trade show, which is aimed more at carnival related vendors was held at Ballys Hotel which adjoins Paris.

Deb Ashman, the concession manager for the Dutchess County Fair in New York is an example of a fair organizer who come to the show to meet with potential vendors and learn from programming held at the event.
 
She reported that the fair has named former Operations Manager Andy Imperati as the fair's new General Manager.  His assistant took his position as Operations Manager.

The fair had a good year in 2012 with great weather and solid numbers according to Ashman.  In 2011 the fair was pummeled by bad weather from Hurricane Irene, losing almost the entire fair.

Ashman said the fair honored tickets from the previous year that could not be used because of weather.
 
The six-day event has Power's Great American Midways providing the carnival and entertainment included the Circle City Sidewalk Stompers, a big hit at the fair in 2012.
 
The fair books its concessions on percentage of gross receipts so a good weather year can also produce excellent food revenue for the fair.  The fair also sells advance sale food tickets that all vendors are required to honor according to Ashman.  Advance sale strips with 10 coupons sell for $8 per sheet.

Perhaps the biggest news of the year was the purchase of the Virginia State Fair name and grounds by Universal Fairs of Tennessee.  The privately held company had a very small window of time to produce the fair and save it from bankruptcy but they were able to operate the fair with "good results" said Mark Lovell, President of Universal Fairs.

"We had about 70 days to put this thing together and we were able to pull it off", he added.  Lovell was especially appreciative of the support he received  from other county fairs in Virginia.  Kelly Liddington, associated for many years with the fair in Warsaw, VA lent help with logistics and Marlene Pierson-Joliffe, manager of the West Virginia State Fair stopped by to lend her support, said Lovell.

While logistically the company had things under control, they did face some challenges with governmental politics and permits.  Lovell wanted to move the kiddie land area away from the larger rides for a more family-friendly space only to find out from local government that there would be a permit process and hefty permit fee to make the changes on his newly purchased grounds.

On the other hand, the public, said Lovell, was as appreciate as they could possibly be.  Walking through the grounds, people would stop Lovell to thank him for saving the fair.  "Excuse me, but are you the man who bought the fair?", could be heard time and again when walking with the fair's new owner. 
Brian Ellsworth, who was recently married, was appointed the fair's General Manager by Lovell and has moved to Richmond permanently from his home in Memphis, TN.  He took up residence on a home on the fair's grounds.  The balance of the year will be spent booking events for the center and building year-round revenue.

The Virginia State Fair received much of the headlines this year but Lovell also purchased the Georgia State Fair and ran the annual event in Macon in the spring.  The Georgia State Fair, owned for decades by the Exchange Club of Macon ran for many years as a six-day event the third week in October.  It was likely the largest six-day fair in the country for many years.  When the State of Georgia built a fairgrounds in nearby Perry, just forty miles away, the fair in Macon began to suffer as the Georgia National Fair in Perry with big name entertainment, a large budget and permanent grounds, drew customers from the Georgia State Fair.  The Georgia State Fair's home is city-owned Central City Park.  In an attempt to keep the fair afloat, the event moved to the spring, away from the Georgia National Fair's dates, but the effort was only met with limited success. 

Lovell's Universal Fair's purchased the event from the Exchange Club and ran the event in the spring for ten days in 2012.  Lovell saw the value in the brand name and this fall, he decided to produce an additional version of the State Fair in the Atlanta area, using the grounds of the Atlanta Motor Speedway south of the city. 

Lovell sees the Atlanta event as an expansion of the State Fair brand and he said the event in the fall went "really well".  Billy Tucker brought the rides for the Atlanta version of the fair.  The Georgia State Fair will again have two locations in 2013, one in Macon and the other in Atlanta.

With the addition of the two Georgia State Fairs and the Virginia State Fair, Universal Fairs now runs six events during the year, the King County Fair in Washington, the Ostrich Festival in Chandler, Arizona and the Delta Fair in Memphis are the other Universal events.
 
Lovell, always on the move, had a booth at the trade show where he was looking at possibilities for expansion.

Another State Fair, the Minnesota State Fair, #3 on the MCW Top 50 Fairs list in 2012, was well represented at the convention.  The fair's Jim Sinclair, who is in charge of the independent midway and concessions, said 2012 was a "decent year".  New on the midway in 2012 was Tom McDonagh's Stratosphere and Fun Factory as well as a new Bubble House.  Sinclair reported no big new plans for 2013 but said they would remain steady as you go heading into the new year.
Rick Frenette, formerly of the Minnesota State Fair, Ohio State Fair and Utah State Fair, also jumped into the independent midway fray in 2012 at the helm of the Wisconsin State Fair.  Adam Heffron, whose father Mike was the long time manager of the Minnesota State Fair, lead the independent midway efforts for Frenette.  2012 was the first year for the independent midway where the carnival contract was held for many years by Murphy Brother's Expositions.

Frenette said the fair was up in 2012 with the largest single day in fair history of 128,000 people.  The state Highway Patrol shut down the roads for a few hours and parking lots were filled to capacity.

Frenette continued his policy of not admitting guests under 18 without a parent or guardian after 5 pm.  The policy was initiated at the fair last year in response to some groups of teenagers harassing customers and acting violently as they left the fair at night.  The new policy and beefed up security eased the problem and provided a more family-friendly atmosphere with only minimal complaints.

The new independent midway, dubbed "Spin City" met the fair's expectations.  "We are very pleased with the results", said Frenette.  Heffron is working on the new ride lineup and improvements for the 2013 fair.

Frenette said staff member Kathleen O'Leary, in charge of marketing and Sponsorship, did an outstanding job this year, bringing in a record 23 million in sponsorships.  The fair is also selling bundled discount packages for Christmas.

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