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N.C. Fairs: Struggling After 2015 Rain Outs

2/15/2016

By Timothy Herrick

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Bigger was way better for North Carolina Fairs. The state's biggest fair, the North Carolina State Fair had 10 sunny days in 2015 and broke some of their attendance records. But timing is everything and Mother Nature determines the success or failure of any outdoor event. Most of the 39 county and local fairs in the state suffered through one of the wettest fair seasons in the state's history, depleting attendance, and of course, the bottom line. 

Not surprisingly, the steep financial shortfalls resulting from the monsoons that plagued the Tar Heel state dominated the annual convention of the North Carolina Association of Agricultural Fairs. 

"We were down around 40 people due to their fair's budgetary constraints as a result of the significant rain that happened during the 2015 Fair Season," said Bonnie Holloman, Executive Director. "Because of the torrential rains in some parts of our state we had fairs that had complete wash out days and were not able to open.  Of course, this took a financial toll on these fairs."

Somber Mood
Nonetheless, hope springs eternal for the North Carolina fair system. The theme of this year's convention was "Ever Changing & Improving."

"Our fairs were hit hard with the rains, but they remained optimistic and look forward to beautiful weather and record attending crowds in 2016," said Holloman. 
Milton Ingram, Convention Program Chairman, and former manger of the Wayne Regional Agricultural Fair, agreed that the fair representatives at the convention "still had a very positive attitude. But the rain was the big topic, no question. It was what most people talked about."

But Ingram had a more dire assessment of both the convention and the state of North Carolina fairs.  "The mood was a somber," he said. "Several fairs had to cut back on who they brought to the convention. There was one fair manager who brought  about 20 people last year, only brought 12 this year, and another who usually brings 15, only had two people here this year. It is very difficult for the fair to justify coming, if there's a lack of funds." 

Many fairs are going into 2016 stretched as thin as they can be. By all accounts, the North Carolina county fair sector was nearly devastated and if 2016 is a repeat weather-wise, some fairs may be put out of business. 

"Fairs had to tap into reserves, they had to make up almost a year's worth of revenue out of those reserves" said Ingram. "Many fairs told me they can't go through this two years in a row, they can't go back into the reserves a second year in a row the way they did last year."

Those fairs without sufficient reserves, "are looking at loans," said Ingram. "Most have a pretty good credit line, but that will only take them up to the fair this year."  
Going into debt seems a more realistic strategy than raising prices to overcome the budgetary shortfalls. While the North Carolina economy has shown signs of recovery, many families are struggling and consumer confidence remains flat. "Most fairs told me they couldn't up another dollar on anything, especially with the new tax," said Ingram. 

Tax & Not-Fund
At last year's convention, the dominant issue was the potential disaster of man-made origins, a looming, first time ever, tax on fair admissions of 7 percent. There was confusion as to the potential impact of this new tax, how it would be administered, if midway tickets would also be taxed and whether fairs would increase ticket costs or absorb the costs. 

But first the North Carolina Association of Agricultural Fairs launched a lobbing effort against burdening fairgoers with this new tax. "The North Carolina Association of Agricultural Fairs worked with N.C. General Assembly to eliminate the tax but did not prevail," said Bonnie Holloman, Executive Director "The North Carolina Association of Agricultural Fairs will continue to work with the N.C. General Assembly to eliminate this tax which has placed a burden on our fairs."

The tax increase followed years of slashing fair support by an increasingly austere North Carolina. Most state and county funding of fairs have long evaporated. "There is no more general funding, most of the fairs, to maintain the same level of programming, have looked to other sources for funding," said Kevin Donald Hardison, Marketing Specialist, North Carolina Department of Agriculture and Consumer Services.

According to Hardison, most fairs increased their admission, but because the new tax levy permitted counties to also tax admission by a fraction of a percent, most fairs, "increased admission by a $1," he said, which more than covered both the state and local tax hikes. 

How many fairgoers would skip the 2015 fairs due to this higher price? That was the question distressing last year's convention attendees, but any answers proved entirely inconclusive. Gauging the impact of the tax hike turned out to be impossible   because Mother Nature had other ideas. "With the exception of a very few fairs, maybe three or for, their attendance was way down, some were only opened for a few hours and got rained out," said Hardison. "That was the biggest problem, our attendance for the county fairs was way down because of the rain, so it is hard determine how the tax affected attendance."

The problem of course is fairs had little attendance to affect, "a few were only opened a few hours, they had complete rainouts," Hardison added. 

Overall, the general consensus was that most fairgoers accepted, if sometimes grudgingly, the new tax. "In talking to the fair managers, and those run the fair at the convention, I asked them, if increased it by a dollar, did you hear any gripes," said Hardison. "They told me, that is always going to be expected, somebody is going to complain."

But the reality is, "it was only an extra dollar and the other costs at the fair were held down," he pointed adding that fair managers also made an effort to smooth things over with families. "Fairs were also giving out a few extra ride tickets to kids or families who did complain," he said.   

Entertainment Contracting
With so many North Carolina fairs now operating with an anemic budget, cutbacks on programming, especially costly headline entertainment, are expected. "Fairs have been priced out the premium, multi-million country bands," said Ingram. "The are looking at a variety of different types of good entertainment. High Wire acts are popular, we are seeing more animal acts, jugglers, hypnotists, we are seeing more of those ground acts next year.

He added, "fairs are looking at what they can afford and not charge extra for, and that people feel they will get their money's worth."

Not that there won't be music, but the local talent will be emphasized in North Carolina in 2016. "We saw more local acts in the showcase at the convention," said Ingram. "Fairs are reaching out more to the local acts, they are very cost effective, they have some audience built in. Fairs are not booking the big name entertainers, especially after they year we had."

Even with the expansion of alternative entertainment, contracting was more difficult. "People were really seriously negotiating this year," said Ingram. "They were using a lot more restraint in spending. They would be more careful, even tougher, with particular entertainers, to get the deal done. Some were also cutting back, if they had three acts booked last year, this year they booked only two." 

One bright spot was that the first day of the convention, "The avian ban was officially lifted," said Ingram. "Barring any other outbreak, there should be birds at the fairs this year." 

Other positive signs for the North Carolina Fair Industry was the number of vendors, which not only increased, "but there were more new vendors this year, which is a good sign," said Ingram. This year's convention showed 30 vendors, seven of which were first time exhibitors.

Fairs also discussed using social media to reach to the growing multiethnic populations in the state. "We have a large Hispanic community, and fairs have been reaching out that segment with entertainment, such as mariachi bands, and food," said Ingram. "But there is a strong Asian community, and a large Indian population, fairs are adding entertainment and food for these groups, and doing more outreach and marketing to them. That was talked about at the convention." 

Marla Calico
Making her first public appearance (after the International Association of Fairs & Exposition (IAFE) convention) as the first woman president of that organization, Marla Calico, IAFE President and CEO, was a highlight of the annual North Carolina convention. In addition to her keynote speech, she also presented a workshop entitled "Traditions vs. Change:  Finding the Right Mix" and spoke to the Friday morning general session on "Life is Full of IFS". 

The convention featured several panel discussions and workshops: "Concessionaires/Fairs Relations and Concerns", "How to Have a Virtual Poultry Show at Your Fair", Carnival Operators/NC Dept. of Labor Meeting, "USDA Animal Care:  Let's Work Together", and Awards Program Update with a Q & A Session. A scholarship auction also garnered $5,2000 for the NCAOAF Scholarship Fund. 

The annual meeting also marked the annual transition of new association officers -  Johnny Love, (Rowan County Fair) President;  Lloyd Moody (Lenoir County Fair), 1st Vice-President; Matt Buchanan (NC Mountain State Fair), 2nd Vice-President and Ronnie Turner (Lee Regional Fair)Immediate Past President, Lee County Fair, Sanford.

In addition, the prestigious Image Award - best fair in their attendance category -- was awarded to Lenoir Co. Agricultural Fair, Cape Fear Fair & Expo, and Cleveland Co. Fair.   NCAOAF Executive Director Bonnie Holloman and 2015 NCAOAF President Ronnie Turner received the Holmes McBride Humanitarian Award.  E. C. Toppin and Milton Ingram received Honorary Life Memberships (the highest award presented by the NCAOAF). The winner of the Club Car Golf Cart fund raising raffle was Corky Powers of Powers Great American Midway.

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