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Carnival Warehouse Interviews Sarah Cummings, President & Executive Director of Western Fair Association
Reopening After Two Years, Western Fairs Optimistic

Sarah Cummings, President & Executive Director?Western Fair Association

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No region of the U.S. seems under more fair industry scrutiny this summer than the west, particularly California, which boasts 80 agricultural fairs and scores of other outdoor events with amusement rides and concessions. For most of America, states reopened fairs and other outdoor events, but other entertainment venues remained under some restrictions during the height of the fair season. With fewer options and flush with stimulus funds, fairgoers fled lockdowns in droves and fairs recorded robust revenue.

Following a year that included tens of millions in lost revenue, crippling staff cuts and making resources available for testing, vaccinations other pandemic responses, 2021 restored many fairs' commitment, confidence and financial stability. California and many other Western fairs had no such year. There was little lifting of limitations on public gatherings of any kind. These fairs went a second season without a revenue producing event, a near devastating blow not just to fairs, but the region's midway providers, concessionaires and entertainers.

Not only does it seem more difficult to restore an event after a two-year absence – as opposed to a one year cancellations of eastern fairs – but Western fairs are returning to a more crowded entertainment field. Fairs will not be the only options when they return to western towns. Nor will the public's pockets be as deep, with inflation and soaring gas prices eroding disposable income.

 Essential to navigating through the unique pandemic perils western fairs faced has been the Western Fair Association (WFA). So, there was no better place to ask, what are western fairs facing now?

Carnival Warehouse interviewed Sarah Cummings, President and Executive Director of the WFA, about the current state of the western fair industry, the status of events and organizations that make up the WFA's membership, and what is the outlook for this critical year currently unfolding.

The San Diego County Fair Returned as a Full Fair in 2022.  Photo by Chris Vega.

Carnival Warehouse: As the western fair season winds down what are you most excited about for 2023? How have the  2022 fairs gone so far?

Sarah Cummings: The Western Fairs Association members who have concluded their events to date in 2022 are achieving strong financial gains over prior year. Our fair members are realizing increased attendance, increased length of stay, and elevated per cap spending. Our service members are also seeing strong revenue increases over prior years. Trends indicate communities are eager for local celebrations; Fairs are a perfect opportunity for families to enjoy wholesome entertainment while staying close to home. High fuel prices historically result in financial upticks to our industry as staycations become popular.

CW: Have any fairs cancelled for three years in a row?

SC: I'm not aware of any fairs canceling for the third year in a row. We are thrilled to see our membership back to business, creating community celebrations, and making money!

CW: What is your outlook for the future?

SC: My outlook for 2022 is incredibly positive and remains positive through 2023. My hope is that communities continue to lean to their local fairs and fairground events for safe family-friendly entertainment options. I anticipate, despite current struggles with hiring and staffing, our members will continue to provide excellent service to our patrons across our membership regions and I'm hopeful that a strong 2022 will roll into yet another strong fair season in 2023.

CW: What are you most apprehensive about?

SC:  Labor shortages continue to be an area of concern across all of our membership divisions. We are aware of the advocacy work that other industry organizations are doing in support of the H2B guest worker program, we also advocate to bring relief to the program as well. I remain hopeful for unified advocacy among all our industry representation moving forward and hope that with a unified voice we can find success in reducing the burden of labor shortages.

CW: What was 2021 like for WFA members? What were the unique challenges a trade-organization faced during COVID, and how stable is the WFA now?

SC: For Western Fairs Association 2020 and 2021 were difficult years, no different than what most of the world experienced due to the global pandemic. Our membership renewals declined in 2021 as our diverse membership base made difficult financial decisions. Decreased membership and the resulting decreased revenues for our trade organization, compounded by our inability to produce our annual convention resulted in lean operations for WFA. However, we were pleased to be able to offer our membership virtual convention and meeting options in 2021, and an in-person convention in January 2022. We are grateful for a dedicated membership who has remained with us through the duration of the pandemic and are so proud of the members that have been able to re-join once they found financial stability. As a trade organization that services membership, investing in us allows us to invest in you. We are grateful for our members believing in us, allowing us to continue to advocate and educate on an annual basis. Western Fairs Association continues to maintain very strong relationships with state organizations within our region and we look forward to continuing to work in support of the fair industry with IAFE, OABA and NICA nationally.

CW: What's the “New Normal” for the association?

SC: The new normal for Western Fairs Association is currently a condensed staff and slightly fewer events through 2021. However, we do not intend for our pandemic normal to remain as a “new” normal or to be our future normal. Western Fairs Association looks forward to filling pandemic driven staffing vacancies and continuing to serve our membership by supporting professional leadership, providing education, communication and advocacy for the fair industry. We very much look forward to our upcoming events which include Western Fairs Association open houses at the California State Fair and Arizona State Fair in 2022, our Feature Fair Tour at the New Mexico State Fair, member mixers throughout the Western United States, and of course celebrating our 100th Convention in January 2023 in Reno, Nevada. We have enjoyed seeing our members at work through the 2022 fair season and look forward to visiting more members at future fair visits.

CW: The perception is that all of the California Fairs cancelled last year, losing two years of revenue. How widespread was this trend and is there anything such a sweeping statement overlooks?

SC: Our California Fair membership was severely impacted by the inability to produce large events during the pandemic. It certainly appeared California Fairs were slower to re-open in contrast to states across our regional membership, however some of our California fair members were able to offer modified events allowing for some business for our California-based membership in 2021. Foodservice members were creative with pop-up events, Fairs and entertainers were creative with drive-through entertainment opportunities, and as pandemic driven event bans began to lift, outdoor events with social distancing were produced across all of our membership states. We are certainly glad to be back to more traditional events in 2022.

CW: Last year, fairs that reopened saw general trends of soft attendance and spending spikes. What do you think will be different for the WFA fairs reopening in 2022?

SC: We anticipate seeing spending spikes remaining through 2022. Reports I received from membership to date indicate spending remains high, and  attendance appears to be strong; communities are supporting local events in a big way. Our communities are eager for activities, entertainment, and community engagement. High gas prices tend to keep people close to home, so local fairs are perfect for local summer entertainment.

CW: One 2021 trend was reducing the number of midway rides and cutback on grandstand entertainment. Do you expect to see these trends return for Western fairs reopening in 2022?

SC: I am pleased to see full midways, action-packed grandstand entertainment lineups, and fairs in a more traditional format in 2022. The uniqueness of our industry lies in that fairgoers can enjoy a diverse entertainment experience at one venue. Fairs are the only place where attendees can enjoy experiences including art galleries, live entertainment, concerts, carnival, culinary delights, agricultural exhibitions, shopping, adult beverages, local traditions, equestrian events and social engagement all at one venue. The diversity of our entertainment experiences are like none other!

CW: The majority of western fairs are agricultural as well as community events. How have the agricultural industry and farming communities navigated through the pandemic, are they as eager as other stakeholders to have their fairs back?

SC: The agricultural industry remains a strong stakeholder to their local community fairs. At the same time, many of our member fairs have adapted to reflect the current cultures of their local communities, while agricultural education and traditions remain a focal point at many of our Fairs.
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