The 2015 International Association of Fairs and Expositions Convention and Trade Show kicked off today at the Paris hotel in Las Vegas. Also beginning on Monday was the Showmen's League trade show, geared for carnivals, at Bally's.
Carnivalwarehouse.com kicked off the convention with the release of the 2015 Top 50 Fairs list
. The Texas State Fair once again led the list with a record estimated attendance of 3.5 million people, up 22.7% over 2014's fair. They had an incredible year with unprecedented growth. The Maryland State Fair, up 58.5% was the biggest gainer on the list and the Illinois State fair, down 53.8% saw the biggest drop in attendance, despite perfect weather. New fair management in Illinois reported gate revenue was only $55,000 down and they reported the second highest grandstand revenue ever so the variance in numbers may have been due to more accurate reporting of numbers.
Two huge surprises were the dropping from the list of perennial Top 50 fairs Pensacola Interstate Fair and the State Fair of Louisiana. Both events were down 40 % percent due to a massive rainstorm that struck the Gulf area. The State Fair of Louisiana lost every weekend day but one to rain, an unprecedented amount of bad weather. Both events were down about 150,000 people from typical fair numbers.
Weather during the year was a big topic on the convention floor on Monday. Throughout most of the country, events experience great weather early and many posted record numbers. Of the 9 record years on the Top 50 list this year, 5 ran in August.
Despite a great start to the season however, weather had a devastating impact on fair in Southeastern States in late September and early October, causing repercussions all over the Southeast. A storm system picked up moisture from Hurricane Joaquin and while it was not the direct effects of the hurricane that devastated the area, the weather event played a big role, causing tremendous amounts of rain and terrible flooding.
The Robeson Regional Fair in Lumberton, NC was just one of the fairs impacted in North Carolina. The fair, which ran October 2 - 6 was open just 43 hours out of the 9 days of the fair and "we should have only been open 23 hours", said Dixon Britt, board member of the fair. "We had one very good day, the final Friday, but rain returned on our final Saturday", he added.
The system caused the fair to close opening Friday and Saturday and while the event opened on Sunday, rain continued to fall, and attendance was impacted.
"We were ready, we had some great entertainment", said Britt, pointing to a Monster Truck Show and grounds acts that were booked along with a large ride midway supplied by Wade Shows and Big Rock Amusements. "We had a lot of bills to pay for shows and to top it off, we had to pay sales tax on gate admissions for the first time this year", citing a new ruling from the state facing North Carolina Fair.
Luckily, the fair has been able to establish an emergency fund for combating issues such as this weather event and they will be able to head into 2016 without jeopardizing the fair. The fair did discuss the possibility of staying over on Sunday of the final weekend but previous engagements by some ride companies and vendors prevented the action from being taken.
Britt said he visited the Dixie Classic Fair during the rain event on the first Saturday of their event and while the event was open, attendance was severely hampered. The Classic was down about 16% from last year.
Britt pointed to the Rowan County Fair in Salisbury, NC as another example. That fair only opened for 9 hours out of their 10-day run. The fair even went as fair as to run a "Rowan County Fair Part II" later in the season to try and make up for some of the losses to both revenue and disappointment to annual fairgoers.
Other events cited by Britt that were impacted by the weather event were the Columbus County Fair in Shelby, NC and the Wayne County Fair in Goldsboro, NC. The South Carolina State Fair, not a victim of actual rain was impacted by the effects of tremendous flooding and had to open the fair without running water. The fair overcame the adversity however and finished down only about 9% after the business community rallied around the event and purchased blocks of tickets for employees and customers suffering from the effects of flooding.
The business community in South Carolina was not the only one who pitched in to help fairs devastated by weather. According to Bobby McLamb of Artists and Attractions, an entertainment buyer with many business clients in the Southeast, he encouraged his artists to pitch in and help by cutting fees or in some cases, not take any fees at all.
"Its all about our relationship with fairs", said Mc Lamb. "We can't do much about Acts of God, but we saw so many fairs suffering and all my artists did what they could to help", he added.
McLamb cited the State Fair of Virginia, which closed on October 1st, well before their scheduled closing date of October 4th due to threats of inclement weather. The safety-related closing caused the cancellation of big name acts such as the Little River Band and Charlie Daniels Band. McLamb said all artists agreed they wouldn't accept any payment in an effort to pitch in.
Despite the adverse weather at the end of the year, McLamb said 2015 had been very good up until that point. Music acts have been a challenge for many events as prices have risen, even for tradition fair staples such as country musicians. McLamb pointed to the proliferation of large music festivals booking multiple big name headliners and charging hundreds of dollars for tickets. These events generally have radius clauses, preventing the acts from playing again in the area for a period of time and the fairs just can't compete with the money being paid by the corporate festivals.
McLamb said many fairs were turning to more grounds acts, booking shows that appeal to families and children such as animal acts. "The acts that draw the kids provide added value because the kids in turn ride the midway attractions, generating additional revenue for the event", McLamb explained.
2015 IAFE / SLA Convention Coverage