(Midway Millennials is an ongoing series profiling the new generation of fair professionals)
Joshua Woods, Chairman of the Board, Greater Gulf State Fair Inc., grew up going to the fairs he now oversees. The earliest midway memory of this 29-year-old is playing the Duck Game, with his sister and uncle. The siblings were both winners of stuffed toy bears, but size was a factor. "The bear I won I could fit into my pocket," he said. "The bear my sister won was so big my uncle had to carry if off the fairgrounds."
The Gulf State Fair is a late-season event in Mobile Alabama, which takes place the end of October and/or beginning of November (2016 dates are 10/28-11/6.). Woods may be one of the new generation of millennials transforming the fair industry, but as his childhood anecdote indicates, regardless of age all fairs for both short and long term success, are intent on creating happy memories that become annual traditions.
However, when it comes to young professionals, the Gulf State Fair is unique. Not only has the management of the fair always been young, the fair has underwent a massive rebranding effort that reflects it Gen-Y leadership and appeals to the young families of the 21st century.
Our goal is to be the safest, cleanest, most family friend event on the Gulf Coast," said Woods. "Millennials are having families now, and so that is who we are appealing to."
Millennials we know are more information driven, comfortable with using an APP for everything and savvy at finding the right price for everything, from movies on Netflix or Amazon to rides from Uber or Lyft. "We want value for our buck, and this how we appeal to our community," he said. "We add value to the fair experience through partnerships and our exhibits, so parents can enjoy the fair with their young children. It is the best value in the region."
Knowing the millennial market may be easy for the Gulf State Fair, the average age of a board member is 30. This may be the youngest fair in the country, or maybe that has always been the case. The fair is run by the Mobile Alabama Jaycees—the Mobile Alabama Junior Chamber of Commerce - a regional civic organization that as the name indicates, the organization, founded in 1925, is made up of younger community leaders. The organization is the parent organization of the Alabama Deep Sea Fishing Rodeo, the Azalea Trail Maids, and the Greater Gulf State Fairgrounds. The latter -- now known as The Grounds - is the largest enterprise, a 100-acre property that hosts events year round, although the annual fair is by far the largest and most lucrative fundraiser for the organization.
Millennials - basically anyone born 1980-1996 - may be coming of age and making their stamp on society and the culture at large, but young people running a fair is nothing new in Mobile, whose Gulf State Fair has been Jaycee operated since 1955, and according to the website the 1955 fair was actually a revival of the Gulf Coast Fair, an agricultural fair that had become defunct a few years earlier. According to their website, the fair's mission is"To promote the civic welfare and betterment of Mobile County, South Alabama, Northwest Florida and Southeast Mississippi..."
According to Woods - bylaws state that the fair board members can no longer serve after age 40, although there is an Associates council, basically a non-voting board who also acts as an advisory group, with no age requirement. Associates are made up of mainly former board members over the age who still want to be involved with the fair, although a few were never board members.
The associate members also preserve the institutional knowledge of the fair. "We want to retain people with experience, and most of them have served on the board," he said. "Associates do not vote, but they do advise."
Age is always consideration for the board because of Mobile Jaycee bylaws, when it comes to hiring, the millennial aspect is just one consideration. "We hire staff that are passionate about the fair," insisted Woods.
In the 80s and 90s - the hey-day of the Gulf State Fair - the event attendance was upwards of 300,000, but by the late 90s, a variety of factors led to an attendance decline to about 90,000. A souring regional economy, an aging population, and lack of enthusiastic leadership held further the decimated appeal of the fair. "Attendance dipped, our board started aging out, we were not rebuilding the fair or the fairgrounds," he said. "The fair had gotten associated with being a dirty fairgrounds, not safe for families. We now pride ourselves on the cleanliness, our grounds are as clean as Disney."
Ironically the nadir of the decline was a turning point for the future upswing of the fair - Hurricane Katrina in 2005 - which devastated the Gulf region actually helped the fair. According to Woods, Mobile was relative unscathed by this historic extreme weather event. "We had great attendance because we just a few weeks after Katrina, people needed a break and they came to the fair. There was not a lot else to do. People rediscovered the fair."
The post-Katrina rebuilding effort in the Gulf States eventually led to an economic rebirth of this region. While no part of the U.S. was immune to the Great Recession, Woods pointed out that several manufacturers located to the area, fueling job growth and the local economy, with a subsequent boom in younger families. "We have great schools in the area, but all our young professionals left to make their lives elsewhere," he said. "Now people are staying here and raising families, or coming here to work and raise their families."
As with so much of American culture in the 20th century, Gen-Y had a fresh perspective and implemented changes that Gen-X was unable or unwilling to do. Beginning in 2010, the fair launched a rebranding effort, which began with "rebuilding our board and diversifying our board," said Wood. The 13-member board now includes four women and two African Americans. "Diversity is a big part of our goal."
The effort led changing the name of the Gulf State Fairgrounds to the more current sounding "The Grounds," which also served to make the property more relevant to the new Mobile market. The website was redesigned and updated, as was the social media presence, especially Facebook, now boasting more than 30,000 followers, said Woods.
The rebranding into the family-friendly fair was based on social media research. "We looked at who follows us. The majority are moms with one or two kids, so we tailor our social media advertising to them, and the fair."
Last year's rainy autumn in the southeast negatively impacted the fair, including at least one day of full closure, but in 2014 attendance was upwards of 125,000, with 10-25 percent growth per year since the rebranding began.
Through the 90s, the fair staged headline concerts - mainly country music - but with the rising costs of concert production and "after country music went mainstream, we can't afford the stars that we used to get. There's too much competition, and you can't find the up-and-comers that we used to be book."
The replacement was a focus on the family. "We've re-positioned the fair, so we have exhibits like sea lions and bears, but there's always an educational component to it. We also had a Peppa Pig & Friends and a Barbie Meet & Greet."
The midway provider at the Gulf States Fair is North American Midway Entertainment (NAME), "they have worked with us to expand the Kiddieland area and redesign the layout, and we added new picnic tables and umbrellas. They have been great partners and really support what we are doing here."