The Showmen's League of America (SLA) remains unique as a fair industry association because, at 103, it is one of the oldest industry organizations, and it was formed as and continues to be a fraternal organization. The SLA supports lobbying and other industry efforts - and most of its members are members of organizations with those agendas, but aside for discussing the issues affecting all aspects of the industry, the organization's main agenda is an annual convention and other meetings, still considered crucial networking opportunities, as well as a scholarship program for young fair workers looking to further their education, and annual Christmas Party that is also a fundraiser for special needs children in the Chicago area.
Ron Porter, the new president of the SLA, steps into some historic shoes. Buffalo
Bill Cody, whose wild west shows toured the globe, was the first president of the organization. But Porter being named leader of the league is not without historic significance. While the SLA has had concessionaires and other industry suppliers serve as president, Porter is believed to be the first industry food supplier named as SLA president.
Porter is president of Fare Foods, an industry supplier. One of the leading wholesalers in the outdoor event industry, Fare Foods sells to concessionaires who in turn feed fairgoers, audiences and other customers at an estimated 3,600 events throughout the year. Few have a such a nationwide and daily perspective (he swears he wakes up to the Weather Channel every day) on the fair industry as this new SLA president, a good-natured gentlemen who lacks any hesitation when it comes to saying what he thinks and telling it like it is.
As SLA president, his main concern is the future. The industry needs new blood. His fear, shared by many, is the graying of the industry, and all that may imply. while his interview with Carnival Warehouse touched on many controversial topics, the need for more youth in executive circles of the fair industry seemed paramount. Without replenishing the ranks with new voices and fresh ideas, how can both the industry and its leading fraternal organization remain relevant?
Carnival Warehouse: What issue are you most concerned as President of the League 2016?
Ron Porter: Getting the younger generation involved to carry the League into the future.
CW: Why is this such a concern for the SLA?
RP: With the organization being 103 years old and the active membership is aging, the only way to survive is get the younger people involved.
CW: What are the programs you are enacting as SLA president to attract these younger professionals?
RP: We have developed a Gen-X/Y Committee to recruit younger members in the League. We are also using social media to spread our message that "The Future is so Bright" with the SLA. You look at our boards, the boards of fair and industry organizations, and they all seem right at 60 years old. The industry as a whole is not attracting young people and going forward, we have to do something. Blake Huston of North Amirian Midway Entertainment (NAME) and Andy Schoendienst of Luehrs' Ideal Rides are heading the committee and one of their goals is to get more young men and women to the annual SLA banquet and to join the league. Younger generations can learn from the historical knowledge of the SLA members, but as an industry we need the insights of the young to move forward. Also we want to do a better job with our scholarship winners. We need to know more about what they do after they graduate, how many of them are working in the industry, so the committee will be looking at how we can better track the scholarship winners too. Why American youth are not working in the fair industry at all levels is bigger than the SLA, but it's a conversation we need to start having. It's a problem everyone in the industry can identify.
CW: This "graying" of the fair industry is bigger than the SLA?
RP: Yes. There are many concessionaires and carnivals that do not have a second or third generation getting involved. Many of the younger people associated with the industry are pursing alternative careers at an alarming rate.
CW: What are you goals for the SLA Scholarship Program n 2016?
RP: To create more "Named" memorial scholarships. Named memorial scholarships are at least 4-year scholarships (usually sponsored by individuals or a company, and "named" after the sponsor) and created with ongoing funding for that time frame. They have been popular, and we almost never turn away an applicant, it almost never happens. When we've overshot our budget, we sometimes pass around pledge sheets and do other fundraising. We want to expand our scholarships. But like I said before, we will be following up with those who received scholarships to see if they are continuing to pursue their career in the industry. We want to do a better job of making sure and encouraging these scholarship winners to build their career in the industry.
CW: Was 2015 a good or bad year for Fairs?
RP: The weather was an issue in spring and late fall of 2015. Overall it was slightly down from the year before. In the September and October time frame, the southern region was hit hard, hurting the late season fairs. We had a poor finish to a rather decent year.
CW: Are there other objectives as SLA president you would like to accomplish?
RP: Improve some of the administrative aspects of the organization. We are improving our website to give the members more flexibility, such as paying their dues online, the ability to make pledges, and basic information of what is going on with the League. This will allow us to communicate more effectively with our members.
CW: Keeping alive the history of the industry is a major part of the SLA mission. What do you have planned in this regard for 2016?
RP: We promote the history of the League in many ways. We will continue to promote on our website the history so our members appreciate how the League was founded. With our website improvement, we will be posting past board meeting minutes so the members will have access to review them. Our members and officers do ongoing research, and the information is compiled and displayed at the League's office.
CW: How concerned are SLA members about the H-2B visa situation?
RP: Very. It is affecting many of our members from carnival owners to concessionaires. It has become a major issue in our industry. The League supports the OABA (Outdoor Amusement Business Association) and IAFE (International Association of Fairs & Expositions) in their lobbying for this critical issue.
CW: Is the economy recovering or is there still a long way to go?
RP: There is a long way to go. but we have seen improvement in our industry. When the economy is down, people go to our fairs, because it is affordable. When the economy is good, they come to the fairs and spend more. We are seeing spending picking up. If the weather is good, 2016 will be a great year for fairs.
CW: One questions on your area of expertise –what midway food trend are you most excited about in 2016?
RP: Bacon...Bacon... Bacon. They are using Bacon to make about anything you can think of. We have a customer that even serves a piece of extremely thick Bacon on a stick. Other items you see are chocolate covered bacon , bacon funnel cakes, a new item we are carrying is a sausage with bacon. It is certainly a hit!
CW: Are presidential election years good or bad for fairs?
RP: Presidential election years are good for fairs. When Donald Trump hit the Iowa State Fair, attendance was up. Candidates comes to fairs, and that spikes attendance. It's not just the presidential election, but all the state and local elections. All the candidates come to fairs and the fairs benefit.