The annual convention of the Virginia Association of Fair Managers showed a forward-looking organization, that despite challenges, is taking fair traditions into the 20th century.
The theme of the convention - Get Connected - emphasized social media, networking and cost-effective communication.
"This was one of our better received themes, we are always trying to enhance the educational experience of attending the convention for the fairs," said Sam Long, President. Virginia Association of Fair Managers, and Chair Director, Field Day of The Past (the association has 64 members, including county fairs and other outdoor events and festivals).
"So many of the fairs are smaller fairs, they do not have the finances and monetary resources, or a full
time staff, to work on advertising and promotion. A lot them have yet to fully understand social media."
One purpose for showcasing the current state of social media at the annual convention is so the top brass can get acquainted with a means of marketing and fair promotions too often regulated by older executives into something done only by the young.
Old Dominion fairs seem to understand that change must begin at the top. "A lot of the board members and fair managers say 'I don't understand social media', so their fair don't use it as well as they could," said Long.
"But these board members and managers came to the sessions with an open mind. They were able to understand that social media is now the world we are living, it's inescapable. It was one of our better sessions, but we're always to trying enhance the educational experience of coming to the convention."
But knowledge can be fun. The convention of Virginia fairs has been on a course set by its organizational team to make the event, "as fun, entertaining and informational as our fairs," said Long. "It's an educational conference, but we want to be enjoyable. Fairs are about fun."
The outlook of Virginal fairs is positive, with most events having an upbeat year in 2015. "The Virginia fair industry, except for when you get bad weather, has been as strong as it has ever been," said Long. "There were many fairs who told me that 2015 was one their best years they had in their history."
An improving regional economy - bolstered by an economic recovery and lower fuel costs - helped create this optimistic attitude, but Long points out that is also the result of a concerted effort by local fairs to get younger. This youth movement is happening both internally and externally.
"The fairs themselves are readjusting to try and recapture the younger market, both young families and younger adults." Said Long. "Our fair industry has taken a look at where we are versus what we have to offer them. We have become more aware of the younger market, and how to capture that younger market."
The convention devoting so much time to helping fairs expand their social media presence seems emblematic of the Virginia fair makeover. "We are also seeing younger people at different levels of the fair and attending our conferences," said Long That gives me the best hope of for our future. Our convention attendees are getting younger."
Attracting a new generation of fair organizes is not accidental. "One of the stronger points that we have been emphasizing is communication, between the fair managers, our members and the association," he said. "Our round table discussions include the large and small fairs, and we are getting feedback from all the managers. We are finding topics and speakers that people want, and we are maintaining that upward direction."
The convention also featured a trade show floor with 45 vendors, and a showcase of music acts of different genres, including pop, country, and gospel as well other types of performers, such as magicians. The musicians were acts with regional popularity, with the potential of some local followers but more importantly, were affordable.
Like most fairs in the nation, Virginia fairs are struggling with increased competition, especially from festivals, and the rising costs of entertainment. "Headline entertainment has gotten so expensive, above $200,000 in many cases, that the fairs cannot afford these types of acts," said Long. "It is a balancing act, and many fairs are passing on that entertainment. It used to be you found somebody up and coming, someone young, who gets the new crowd or you resurrect a group, but those acts are harder and harder to find."
He added, "we are seeing limited options in terms of groups that are affordable. It always has been a balancing act, and it does happen on occasion that you book some rising star who has a hit in April and then will work for less money, but sometimes when they get hot they leave you."
The trend now among Virginia fairs is to book the less than marquee names showcased at the convention and supplement their entertainment with "the loud and noisy," events said Long. "You are seeing fairs adding more Demolition Derbies, Monster Trucks and Tractor Pulls. They are doing really, really well."
The balancing act is the cost can be a fraction of what it takes to get a headliner, savings both on the booking and the production costs of top name concerts. "They do require real estate, but you do save money," he said. "They are popular. We are seeing more motor sports and car racing at events too."
In addition, the lower gasoline prices has only enhanced the affordable appeal of replacing music with machinery in the grandstands. One of the more trendier motor sports are Lawn Mower Pulls. "These are starting catch on, it is really a different sport than the tractor pull and a lot of these lawn mowers have really popular engines," said Long.
Fair funding, a perennial topic of concern and discussion for convention attendees, was top-of-mind at this year's gathering. Governmental funding has basically dried up in Virginia, "and fairs are in great need of sponsorships. Fairs are looking at new industries for sponsors, or expanding ways they can use sponsors," said Long.
A new funding hope is now visible on the horizon. A new program was announced by the Virginia Department of Tourism - famous for the iconic "Virginia is For Lovers" campaign- that will provide up to $50,000 in matching funds to support fair advertising.
The details are still being worked out, such as how fairs would feature the familiar tourism logo in their advertising as well as how fairs will participate - initial plans say that up to three fairs can participate to together in order to accumulate the necessary amount of funds that the state ill match. "We are still in the planning stages," said Long. "It is very positive, because this is the first state funding of any kind in a long time. But we are still working out all the details."
What are Virginia fairs looking forward to the most beside good weather in 2016? Actually 2017, more precisely, January of next year - the 100th anniversary of the Virginia Association of Fair Managers. "We are very excited about making that event happen. We are looking for having some sponsors, doing things up right, embracing the past and looking forward to the future."
The celebration is expected to be much like the attitude of the annual county fairs that comprise the membership of this century-old organization. "The atmosphere of a county fair is very particular, only you can create that. It is a team effort, and you get one chance a year to represent your county, and that is at the county fair.
Awards presented at the annual convection included: 2016 Fair Person of the Year- Brenda Rich- Fauquier County Fair, Warrenton and Hazel M. Staley Volunteer Award- Macine Williams- Caroline County Agricultural Fair, Ruther Glen.
A total of 25 fairs entered the annual Communication Award competition, which is determined by a point system in three by admission categories: 7, 000 gate admission and under division; 7, 000-30,000 gate admission division; and 30,000+gate admission. Winners were: Under 7, 000 division - Patrick County Agricultural Fair; 7, 000-30,000 division - Caroline County Agricultural Fair and 30,000+ Russell County Fair & Horse Show, Lebanon. In addition, Jensen Hoover, Miss Shenandoah County Fair, Woodstock, was named 2016 VAF Queen.