When the fair industry congregates at the annual, end-of-year event held by the International Association of Fairs & Exposition (IAFE), the industry will explore ways they can make the old new again. The theme of the convention portion of the IAFE Annual Convention & Trade Show - at the Paris & Bally Hotels in Las Vegas, December 7-11 - is "Seeding Change," infusing the largest industry event of the year with a forward-looking optimism.
With an exhibition floor of more than 390 trade show booths and a total attendance in excess of 4,000, the IAFE Convention & Trade Show is attended by fair managers and other executives, special event producers, entertainment buyers, carnival executives, concessionaires, and facility managers.
More than 400 fairs or other events and facilities are represented at the event, according to the IAFE.
Organizers cite evidence that fairs have sustained a healthy resurgence in 2014, and anticipate that attendees of the 2014 IAFE Convention & Tradeshow have a renewed optimism and a sense that many of the doldrums induced by the economic recession of just a few years ago, have all but faded away. "Our trade show floor sold out earlier than ever, and it is the third year in the row the exhibition floor sold out and we had to put vendors on a waiting list," said Marla Calico, CFE, Chief Operating Officer of the IAFE. "Our pre-registration is up and we expect more onsite registration to be higher too."
Calico cited another example substantiating a positive outlook industry-wide. The IAFE tracks attendance nation-wide by monitoring press releases and other news reports issued by fairs and while the methodology she readily admits is "totally non-scientific" the indication is that "60 percent of fairs in 2014 had higher attendance than the year before, and of those, 20 percent had record attendance." She added that the size of this sample is more than 130 fairs.
"Fairs as a whole are healthy," said Calico. "Some fairs are having issues, and there are pockets of the U.S. that are still struggling. But most fairs are feeling very positive this year, and from our reports, it seems that the economic recovery is getting stronger. There was a stretch of a few years ago that many fairs seemed to be struggling, but now many fairs are much more optimistic.
"There's some fairs that struggling, and they come to the annual convention and get new ideas that can be very useful for them," said Debbie Dreyfus-Schronk, CFE, who is the outgoing IAFE Chairman, as well as the Chief Operating Officer, San Antonio Stock Show & Rodeo. "But in general, and there is an increase in interest in fairs, and fair attendance is on the rise. We strive at the convention to do better than the previous year, just as every fair strives to do better each year than the previous years."
Industry leaders also point out that the caliber of fair professionals, as they prepare to gather, has never been higher, or more aware of the mission of a fair. "I've seen fairs evolve over many years and I am proud to be part of an industry with such intelligent people," said John Sykes, incoming IAFE Chair his term begins in 2015 and President of the East Texas State Fair. "We're a special group of professionals who understand how to put on an event as well as anybody in the country. We are a group who maintains tradition while also testing the boundaries of finding new happiness for our customers."
The convention features several educational and networking opportunities, addressing the range of challenges including issues such as labor, safety and entertainment booking the industry is confronting.
"With our convention programming, we are very cognizant about what's going on the industry and what's hot in terms of trends, and what fair managers want to talk about," said Calico. "This is a very member-driven association, and we have a number of committees who contribute to the content of the convention. We've upped our level of engagement with our members."
Seeding Change is the over-arcing theme of the convention, this idea serves as the lens that the conferences, seminars, workshops and networking events taking place throughout the four days of the convention and tradeshows will view industry issues.
The two main "Educational Tracks" for the convention are "Seeding Ideas on Small Budgets Series," a series of workshops for fairs with small budgets and the "Farm to Fork Series," which takes the concept of "agricultural education" a phrase appearing in the mission statements of many state and county fairs to the next level by presenting programs that engage those fairgoers with little or no personal experience with agriculture.
Schronk said the theme of Seeding Change grew out of the previous year's initiative Dream Big, which focused on showing what fairs mean to their communities, which she said led to the proliferation of food drives conducted by fairs. The purpose is that fair and fair managers can better make the public "understand how agriculture is related to their daily lives."
"One of the main reasons for fairs is to promote agriculture," said Schronk. "There has been a resurgence of interest in locally grown food and more people are aware of food and where it comes from, and they are looking to fairs for that information. Fairs have gotten better at presenting to people the role agriculture plays in society."
In designing the Seeding Change curriculum formulating the educational program of each IAFE Convention is a duty of the IAFE chairman, a one-year term position Schronk said she talked with fair managers and visited fairs across the North America and took two trips overseas, to "learn from fairs over there and see how we can incorporate things that they do in what we do it."
She added that the new IAFE members have been recruited from Korea, England. Australia and Mexico.
She said, "I've been very fortunate to learn from all these folks. It's been very inspirational to what we as an industry are capable of doing, and reaching across borders to help people."
Augmenting the exchange of ideas ethos crucial to the educational mission of the IAFE, the 2014 IAFE Convention & Trade Show premiers Swap Meet, a moderated town-hall type seminar. These sessions 45 minutes of discussion and 30 minutes of networking are described as a "rapid-fire swap of ideas... led by a team of experienced moderators."
Topics include: Concessions, Sponsorship and Entertainment.
Of course, entertainment booking was one of the major fair issues of 2014. In general, there's a shortage of affordable entertainment suitable for fairs. Fair managers are finding music talent costs inflated and the booking window shrinking to such a degree that there is insufficient time to effectively promote a show. Many of these issues also will be addressed in a separate seminar: "Concert Marketing & Promotion."
Talent booking, marketing and promotions are a perennial "hot topic" according to Calico, who says that many fairs faced a more competitive market in 2014. "It's changed a great deal in the last ten years," said Calico. "There are new facilities, new casinos, new festivals in any given market. The music business itself has changed too, with the growth of YouTube and streaming. A lot of fairs are looking at how they can better deliver music to fairgoers and what they are offering to the community."
According to Sykes, the extreme sellers market in talent buyer is not a new phenomena. "I do not think it happened yesterday, or in the last year or two," he said. "Fairs are paying close attention to what they book, and the market is evolving. It has been very disappointing for fairs to book good headliners one year but because of the costs and the tours and the routing with increased competition from other facilities, can't book them again."
He added, "There are some fairs that are taking themselves completely out of the concert market. Fair managers are very adept at maneuvering their fairs. I know at our fair, our staff is discussing that we know on certain days, short of a George Strait, we're not going to draw on a Monday or Tuesday. We have to be cognizant of that fact, and now like many fairs, we've become very focused on regional and local acts, who have their own fan base."
When executives and organizers of the fairs large and small gather in Las Vegas, colleagues will find and an industry that is not only resurgent, but ready to face current realities that could potentially impede the industry's progress. What is clear is that in confronting challenges, the fair industry has a history and traditions that provide a firm foundation helping them to survive change.
"Our focus with Seeding Change, and before that, Dream Big, which was about how to implement food drives, has been on how we can impact the local community," say Sykes. "Next year, my theme will be Focus on Fun. Nobody puts on more entertaining events than a fair. What is more fun than a fair? I'm enthusiastic that we can build on the foundation we have and focus members on new ideas and create more fun for fairgoers."
2014 IAFE / SLA Convention Coverage