When the 2016 annual convention of the Western Fair Association (WFA) named Barbara Quaid, CEO of the Ventura County Fair in California - as its new president, the move seemed to signal a "Year-of-the-Woman" for the fair industry. Quaid's presidency followed on the heels of the largest fair sector association's - the International Association of Fairs & Expositions -promotion of Marla Calico to the position of President & CEO.
With Quaid's ascendency to the helm of the WFA, now the second largest as well as the largest associations are both headed by women - and while that is a first, Quaid is quick to point out that the WFA "have had other [women] Presidents, I am in a long line of women."
Quaid brings a grass roots perspective to her leadership role at the WFA. She started as a volunteer for the Ventura County Fair in 1972, having just moved to the area with her family. She was a young wife and mother at the time and remembers starting the fair's first daycare center.
By 1984, she was on the payroll and ten years ago she was named CEO of this annual agricultural tradition.
Founded in 1922, WFA has more than 800 members, representing fairs and festivals, and all fair-related businesses,serving the fair industry throughout the western United States and Canada. According to its website, the "primary objective of Western Fairs Association is to promote the prosperity of fairs through educational activities, training programs and legislative advocacy."
The vast majority of the association is made up of California fairs, and in a wide ranging interview, conducted by email and phone, Quaid gave some candid insights about the present and the future of the fair industry in general, and of course, regionally - much of her perspective regards mainly Golden State fairs. As an industry leader, she is sure to draw on this personal experience to guide the hundreds of fairs under the WFA umbrella, as well as her good humor and upbeat attitude.
Now that two women now lead the two largest fair associations in the North America, perhaps 2016 will be the unraveling of at least the image of the industry being an old boys club. With that mind, what better place to begin than the always hot-button topic of gender and diversity.
Carnival Warehouse: What do you think its says about fair industry progress that both the IAFE & WFA are headed by women?
Barbara Quaid: I think there are good leaders in both genders, we have just taken a little longer to catch up! When I took over as CEO of the Ventura County fair, there had been other women top positions. I feel we were welcomed to the club. In the last few years it has become almost a nonissue. People who work on fairs have a love for fairs, and that comes from within.
CW: What other progress in terms of diversifying fairs do you think still needs to be accomplished?
BQ: We need to stay the course of providing good family entertainment at an affordable price. Our (Ventura County) Mission statement says it all: "The mission of the 31st District Agricultural Association, otherwise known as the Ventura County Fairgrounds, is to promote, support, educate, celebrate and preserve the diverse culture and traditions of our County and to make certain that the Ventura County Fairgrounds be an exemplary multi-use community resource."
If we stick to what we all set out to do we're good! As fairs, we can always strive for more diversity, and fairs no longer play to one gender or segment of the population. We gear our entertainment and programming towards diverse populations. It is always on the minds, of the WFA that our growing population includes both aging baby boomers and younger folks, and we are striving to appeal to the entire spectrum of colors, races, religions, cultures and sexual orientations. We have a diversified board. I know that WFA members are achieving more diversity, and I can only speak to California, that we have worked for a number of years to recruit workers and volunteers out of high school, and we hire adult workers too. What we look for is if you have a heart for the fair industry.
CW: What has changed for women in today's fair industry?
BQ: There are more women owned businesses and more leaders in the industry. Women are better supporters of each other in the industry as well.
CW: What is the leading fair issue in 2016?
BQ: Financial stability for fairs is always an issue. With fair funding being restored to a degree last year in California it is a help but we are always working towards sustainability in an industry that provides so much for the community.
One issue many fairs face is the aging infrastructure on their fairgrounds, which is wreaking havoc on many fairs. Fairs are worried how we complete improvement projects, and fundraising is a struggle.
Fairs are very conscious of how can we increase the gate. Sponsorships are very important and most fairs have foundations that can help raise needed cash. It's important for fairs to be relevant to the community, and more fairs are looking at interim events. Fairgrounds should be the place to hold your wedding, your trade show. It will continue to be competitive for many fairgrounds, there are a lot of other venues out there, but if you stay relevant to the community and offer value, the fairgrounds can do better.
CW: Did Western fairs have a good year in 2015?
BQ: We had a great year in 2015 and will also this year! Obtaining state funding in California though meant that smaller fairs were able to survive, because they rely more on funding. As attendance goes, 2015 was a very good year, fair attendance seemed up at most fairs. Fairs are the biggest event of the year for many communities in the western states
CW: What is the WFA doing about the H-2B crisis?
BQ: The OABA (Outdoor Amusement Business Association) is more the leader in the lobbying effort. (Ventura County Fair) has an independent midway, which makes me more aware of the need to have these workers, I know a lot of these business and they depend on these workers. The WFA is sending letters to individual politicians throughout our membership in support of the bills, we have done this and many have come forward to help. We are supporting the OABA in what they are doing for this issue.
CW: How are Western fairs dealing with the increasing costs of grandstand entertainment?
BQ: Costs have gone up dramatically, in the last four or five years, our costs have more than doubled for grandstand entertainment.
But grandstand entertainment drives the gate for many fairs. There's no place for the smaller fairs to go, and you are up against casinos and other venues and in California, several wineries are now having concerts.
Fairs can only absorb so many increases, and we are seeing more diversified entertainment, the goal is to have reasonable costs and make a profit. Fairs are putting more money into marketing, and with social media, you can save a bit of money, and increasing the sponsorship for the grandstand. Fairs are doing a lot more promotions, like dollar days, and the hope is to increase the return visit, so they come back later in the fair and pay full price.All fairs are worried about the increasing entertainment costs, and each year is going up.
CW: What was the impact of the drought and new restrictions on fairs in California last year?
BQ: Last year we were not able to have our concessionaires and ride operators wash their equipment on grounds. We also were not able to have the Livestock exhibitors wash their animals with a hose. They had to use a bucket and a sponge.
CW: What is the drought prognosis for this year, and what is the attitude among California fairs in 2016?
BQ: I'm keeping my fingers crossed - we are supposed to have rain this weekend, we'll see! We are still waiting for El Nino, haven't had much of it, but it's never going to catch up with the drought. The green grass has turned brown, we have lost 40 palm trees.
All fairs are coping with the restrictions. There's less beautification of the grounds. Fairs were not able to keep grounds looking as beautiful we have in the past, the extra touches of blooming flowers and lush lawns just is not happening here. Brown is the color! The drought has not increased any prices, and we do not expect any new restrictions on water usage in 2016.
CW: What was the impact on the California Agricultural industry of the drought last year?
BQ: A lot of agriculture workers are having a tougher time with the discretionary income, but they still come to the fair and they bring their crops. But the more we educate the public about what farmers do, and promote Farm-to-Fork programs, people can better understand about the impact of the drought on the cost of food.
CW: How is the economy in the West? Are people spending, and is consumer confidence up or down?
BQ: In 2015 the economy seemed to rally and we are hoping for the same in 2016.
The families in Ventura County always realize what a great value we are in every sense of the word. We are a business that needs to profit but we also want to give back to the community in terms of a good value.
CW: Is the economy recovering or is there still a long way to go?
BQ: There is still a long way to go. Discretionary income is still very hard for families with children and we are a discretionary income business. That's why we offer so many options for lower ticket prices or free carnival ride tickets for children that do book reports. We want families to come back two or three times during our twelve day run.