All industries - on the regional or national level - hold conventions so members in the same business can meet, talk and network. But the exchange of ideas that occurs at a fair industry convention seems unparalleled, an outgrowth from the long-term solidarity among outdoor event organizers who share deeply held bonds with a state's agricultural industry
"Fairs are not in competition with each other," said Robert Simpson, the 2015 President of the New York State Association of Agricultural Fairs "In other businesses, you are on your own. But fairs come together and share ideas."
The 127th Annual New York State Association of Agricultural Fairs Convention was held at the Joseph A. Floreano Riverside Convention Center in Rochester, NY, January 16-19, 2015. More than 800 fair professionals attended, representing 42 fairs in the Empire State. In addition, a trade show exhibition featured 88 booths was part of the event.
According to Simpson, the most significant change that came out of the event was a recommitted and expanded lobbying effort, which was a dominant issue not just at the annual convention , the focus of organizational meetings pre and post convention.
The new direction is that lobbying will no longer be done solely with elected officials, but throughout the entire machinery of government. The association is taking a comprehensive approach to advocacy by promoting fairs and the agricultural industry these annual events represent.
"We are now meeting not just with legislative representatives, but with people in the different agencies and administration and who work with the different committees," said Simpson. Not only has the association formed an alliance with the Farm Bureau, but are strengthening one-on-one ties with agency officials ranging from the NY State Department of Agriculture & Markets to the Department of Tourism.
In addition, the revamped Legislative Committee is taking a distinctive personal touch. Instead of merely relying on hired lobbyists, the outreach is being conducted by association members and county fair managers. "We are working very hard, doing our own representation," he said. "We are working with everyone who has a policy relationship with fairs."
Simpson also cited that the state government in New York has never been more supportive of the agricultural industry. Members of the association's legislative committee were on hand at the state capital the first week in March when the State Comptroller's office released the findings of a report praising the agriculture industry, citing that the farms have contributed $37.6 billion to New York's economy, and an increase of more than 22 percent from 2007. Thomas P. DiNapoli State Comptroller: "Farms in New York are 98 percent family-owned, yet compete on a national level, diversifying our economy and keeping our local communities strong. It makes economic sense for the state to retain and promote our farms to feed our residents and preserve our land."
"It is evident that farms and fairs are interrelated," said Simpson. "We are attending more budget hearings because even though the government is supportive now, we have seen that change."
Other highlights of the Annual New York State Association of Agricultural Fairs Convention included Jane Jenkins Herlong, a humorist whose topic was "Don't Throw Tomatoes at my Field of Dreams," and IAFE speaker Martha Roth with "Just Squint.The association's "Hall of Fame" award was presented to John W. Burr of the Lewis County Fair in Lowville, and a past-president of the association. The New York State Showpeoples Association awards were presented to Mark St Jacques of the Washington County Fair for "Fair Person of the Year"; Joey Sofo, Jr. of Playland Amusements, Inc. for "Show Person of the Year" and Sarah McAndrew for "Workhorse of the Year".
In addition Simpson being named presidents, Other officers were First Vice President, Andy Imperati of the Dutchess County Fair; Second Vice President, Gary Newkirk, CFE of the Ulster County Fair; Third Vice President, Scott Christian of the Essex County Fair; Treasurer, Joan Rowland of the Saratoga County Fair and Executive Secretary, Norma Hamilton of the Schaghticoke Fair.
Arizona Fairs: Upbeat & unified
The atmosphere was upbeat and optimistic at the annual convention of the Arizona Fair Association (AFA), held November 18-20 of 2014. But for this association - with only 20 fair members, one of the smallest state associations in the U.S. - the chance to share ideas and experiences and finding new ways for the fairs and their association to be more effective strengthened the entire fair industry in the Grand Canyon State.
According to According to Kristina Wertz, Entertainment & Event Solutions Coordinator, Arizona Exposition & State Fair, who helped program and organize the convention, "The most newsworthy occurrence was the amount of collaboration and brainstorming that occurred between AFA members," she said.
"Last year was a positive year for the fair industry in Arizona," said Cynthia Nemeth, the new AFA President and Fair Manager of the Coconino County Fair. "Overall it was a pretty good year, and a better year than the year before. There was a fair two that had poor weather, but the sense I got was that most fairs were up compared to the year before."
Aside from the weather, the most noticeable factor has been the economic recovery finally taking place in Arizona. "The economy is showing its recovery which we expect to continue," she said. "Consumers have extra money to spend, and fairs and vendors have more money for marketing. Fairs are seeing some vendors buying a booth space again where they had stopped coming to the fair. As the economy improves, more people come out to the fair, buy food, go to the carnival, spend money on rides. Fairs were feeling more optimistic at the convention than in recent years."
The improved consumer confidence and other upbeat economic indicators seems to have prompted fairs to explore new ways of working together. Nemeth said that the AFA is more unified than ever before. "We are working towards things that we can do more collaboratively, like sharing equipment or exchanging information about entertainers and finding ways we can capitalize on our association," said Nemeth. "Working together, fairs can find opportunities, with routing entertainment or being financially efficient with service providers and other vendors."
The revitalized spirit of cooperation within the state's fair industry, Nemeth said is due to "strong board and dedicated membership. We have the ability to stay informed and educated on the issues, and that translates throughout the fair industry."
As 2014 drew to a close, Arizona fairs may have genuinely felt optimistic about attendance and revenue, but at the AFA convention, instead of merely resting on their past accomplishments, they also tackled some tough, new realities.
"You simply to not know what the next legislative session will bring," said Cynthia. "Arizona continues to have budget issues, and we as enter that new budget cycle, we know that government will be looking at our funding."
Working to maintain state funding dominated many of the brainstorming sessions and other meetings at the annual convention. "Right now, we have a lot of support from our legislative representatives, but we want to reinforce to them the value of maintaining that funding and have politicians recognize the value of country fairs, and keeping them successful really speaks to the vitality and culture of our state," said Nemeth. "We are spreading the message that a lot of the fairs are in rural communities, and without those events and facilities, which funding helps to support, there would any cultural activities."
Some legislators did attend the AFA convention. "They were able to hear first hand what our issues are," said Nemeth. "They sit right next to the fair managers, and we are lucky to have support. For the past couple of legislative session, we have laid low, which continues to be our typical modus operandi, but this year we are going to be more vocal in our communicating our message, and working with our partners, like the Arizona Cattle Growers Association. Together we are developing strategies. Our issues overlap and that agricultural groups are such active participants in fairs."
In other words, the convention unified this small but active association to "communicate to politicians and the community the value of fairs."
The subjects of the convention's Round Table Discussions - a hallmark of the annual gathering of Arizona Fair Managers, Staff and Vendors - included: Finding the Next Food Sensation, Creating a Beer Festival, Group Insurance, and Engaging Your Community. Other highlights included Martha Roth, keynote speaker, America Miranda with the Pima County Fair, who conducted an educational session on social media. "(Miranda's) presentation was extremely helpful and captivating, making it the topic of discussion for the rest of the day," said Wertz. Stephen Chambers, Executive Director, of the Western Fair Association, was also a featured speaker, presenting an educational session on board leadership.
The convention concluded with a dance party - "Walk This Midway: A Rock'n'Roll Reunion" - where attendees were encouraged to dress up in what was described as "rock star-inspired attire."
"We work hard all year around with our fairs and fairgrounds, so we were able to let out hair down and have fun," Nemeth said. "We had a lot of intensive discussion at the convention, so we needed to lighten up."
She added, "we try not to forget, that fairs are fun!"