Some fairs may be doing better than others, but overall the 105 fairs and festivals represented by the Rocky Mountain Association of Fairs feel that the 2014 season was strong and are upbeat about the upcoming fair season.
"Our fairs had a fairly decent year in 2014," said Jim Abendschan, the new President of the association as well as President of the Jefferson County Fair in Golden, Colorado. "Our members are very passionate about the fair industry and the agriculture industry."
The Rocky Mountain Association of Fairs is an intrastate fair organization whose members are smaller, county and local fairs. Members come from Colorado, Idaho, Montana, Nevada, North Dakota, South Dakota, Utah, Washington, Wyoming and Canadian provinces of Alberta and Saskatchewan.
"Overall, most of our fairs had a very good year for attendance that was equal or better than the year before," said Michael Mezmer, Board Member and 2015 Service Member Representative for the Rocky Mountain Association of Fairs. He is a fair performer of TranceNosis, an act combining hypnosis and magic. "When you come off a good year, you are always looking forward to the next season with more enthusiasm."
He added that while the economy has shown signs of improvement in the states covered by the association membership. "The value of what you get at the fair is what sells these fairs," he said.
The annual convention of the Rocky Mountain Association of Fairs was held November 12-15, 2014, Heritage Inn in Great Falls, Montana, attended by 488 members. The event featured an entertainment showcase and educational workshop. The organization eschews a trade show in a traditional format, instead the organization's service members are assigned hotel rooms and during exhibition hours, fair managers and other attendees visit with prospective vendors by going from room to room.
Business conducted at the Rocky Mountain Association of Fairs Annual Convention seemed more brisk than in recent editions of the convention, which may have been evidence of an improving economy. But as Mezmer pointed out, this convention is renowned for a higher level of floor transactions than other industry events. "It is not the same as other industry conventions and trade shows," said Mezmer. "When people come here, they are ready to make a deal. With other conventions, there is more follow up and back and forth. People aren't ready to commit to an act or vendor. Here they are."
Mezmer estimated that 80 percent of the attendees come "ready" to do business. This proactive attitude he attributes to the unique structure of the smaller fairs. "These fairs have smaller boards and fewer employees, they rely a lot on volunteers," he said. "They can make a decision at the convention, and they know what they want."
In addition, he pointed out that the Rocky Mountain Fair Association - which turns 90 next year - has established a reputation. "Fairs trust the vendors because the service members are all prequalified, they sign a pretty extensive Code of Ethics, and they have to show proof of insurance. By having all those qualifications, they take out a lot of the work fairs would other wise have to do. There is not the same hesitation to sign an act or vendor."
In addition to Abendschan over the President's chair, other officers installed at the convention included: Brandon Bird, 1st Vice President, Eastern Idaho State Fair, Blackfoot, Idaho and Dane Dugan, 2nd Vice President, North Idaho Fair, Coeur d'Alene, Idaho.
James Goodrich, Fair Manager of the Wyoming State Fair and Bob Albin of the Richland County Fair received Fair Person of the Year and John Hanschen of Thomas Carnival received the Service Member of the Year Award. Bobby Baker of Bobby Baker Enterprises and Heritage Marion Waters of the Phillips County Fair were inducted into the Hall of Fame of the Rocky Mountain Associations of Fairs.
A leading issue among convention attendees has been the rising cost of insurance. "With some insurance situations, it is getting difficult to stage entertainment, and the insurance s costs to cover that liability can become cost prohibitive for the smaller fairs," said Mezmer. "Fairs are exploring less insurance-heavy entertainment options. They are reconsidering how they structure their entertainment."
Insurance concerns are only one factor as these western fairs begin booking their stages in what seems destined to be another seller's market. "Entertainment costs are skyrocketing," said Abendschan. "Entertainers and fairs are trying to work together and negotiate in good faith and trying to accommodate fairs in their routing, but it is getting more costly for fairs each year and some fairs are exploring other options."
What fairs were looking for the most was providing entertainment appealing to a younger demographic. "A big thing is how to keep the youth involved and get more young people involved in the fair," said Mezmer. "Fairs are looking at ways to be cool, and to get the new, younger generation engaged, and finding the proper entertainment for those customers."
He added that fairs are looking to find that "sweet spot, they want entertainment and content that is edgy but still in that family style, It is not easy."
The youth problem the Rocky Mountains are confronting is multifaceted, going beyond programming and content. "The smaller towns for fairs are losing population," said Abendschan. "It is getting harder and harder for some fairs to find young people with a passion for agriculture."