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Event-By-Event: As Restrictions Ease, New Quandaries Emerge

No Layoffs at the Indiana State Fair
With revenues slashed by 70% in 2020, the fair was able to retain its workforce throughout the year.

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Non-Fair events and venue rentals are growing and have become an essential revenue steam for most fairs. The pandemic closed down both fairs and non-fair events alike in 2020, but as the rollback of restrictions allowed public assembly to reoccur in many places, non-fair activities are resuming, re-opening the fairgrounds to the public. But these events can face a distinctly new set of challenges – prohibitive yet changing state and local restrictions, nervous promoters, untested consumer confidence – that fairgrounds must navigate through while coping with steep losses and staff reductions. Reopening Fairgrounds: The Rocky Return of Non-Fair Events is a two-part series exploring how the Pandemic is reshaping a fair's year-round business.

In Part I, we look at states that have been more restrictive and in Part II we look at states that have been less restrictive.

Part II

The resumption of non-fair events and rentals may face significant challenges, but even in a truncated form the fact an event went on at all generates positive publicity for fairgrounds. Regardless of decreased-capacity and other restrictions, events reinforce the message that the fairgrounds continue to fill an essential role in the community and stimulates interest in the here-before-you-know-it annual fair.

But as with many aspects of the fair industry, how quickly and smoothly reopening non-fair events unfolded depends entirely on the state. Fairgrounds in states maintaining rigorous masking, capacity limits, social distancing and other measures have found the reopening of non-fair events faced several more impediments than those in states that have lifted most of the pandemic restrictions.

In early February, Iowa's Governor lifted nearly all COVID-related restrictions, making the state and its iconic Iowa State Fairgrounds one of  a growing number of places small, but growing number of places people can gather almost like they did before.  The timing of the announcement, weeks before the interim event season begins in earnest, enables a smoother transition out of lockdown status.

Unrestricted but Apprehensive

“We suffered along with everyone else and most of our events were cancelled not just because of government restrictions but consumer confidence,” said Gary Slater, CEO & Fair Manager, Iowa State Fair. “Promoters didn't want to go forward under reduced capacity conditions.”

Now that Iowa is mask-free, are promoters apprehension free? The answer is no and the question may be somewhat unfair. Just because masks are not required, they are still recommended as are social distancing, hand sanitizing and other protocols.

Slater said his booked 2021 non-fair business is about 75 percent of what it was in 2019. “There's still a lot of handholding with promoters. We recommend that they spread out display booths, keep a two to three foot distance between booths. The promoters can insist on wearing masks. There was a cheerleading competition where wearing masks was encouraged. We tell the promoters if they're the ones taking tickets, they can insist on people wearing masks, which we do if we're the ones taking tickets, and we require people to sanitize their hands.”

“We still recommend they follow CDC guidelines,” said Slater. “But those guidelines keep changing as vaccines go up.”

Marketing the non-fair event business to increase facility rentals has gone from none-to-nil this year. “We don't have a huge marketing effort this year,” he said. “We have so many repeats and the plum dates are already taken.”

For the booked events ready to open, he said that promoters “are nervous, because they are worried how strong attendance will be, but they are also excited to have their events. Consumers are excited about getting at the house. The second quarter will be better than the first quarter and the third quarter will be better than the second. We are working hand-in-hand with some promoters for their events, and that shows the fairgrounds is alive and opened for business, which sends a positive message about the fair and sends people to our website.”


Booking Since June

When the Florida State Fair moved its 2021 dates from February to April, many in the industry feared continued COVID disruption, especially in a state where following CDC restriction has met with some controversy. The fact is that Florida had moved to phase-3 late in 2020, easing many indoor public gathering restrictions, and the Florida State Fairgrounds had been hosting mainly outdoor events in some capacity since June.

These events, accounting for 40 percent of the fair's annual revenue, run an impressive non-fair gamut – Equestrian Shows, the Florida RV Super Show and  the NFL Super Bowl credentialing center – as well as “many indoor events ranging from gun shows, boat shows, reptile to dog shows,”  said Cheryl Flood, Executive Director, Florida State Fair. “At all of these events combined, we have learned best practices and how we plan to safely host the 2021 Florida State Fair.”

Indoor events, operated under capacity restrictions, have suffered compared to the outdoor events, where protocols can be loosened. “We have seen an uptick in our equestrian business as well as many of our outdoor events,” she said. “We have over 335 acres so we have plenty of room to host events and spread out patrons on the property. Due to our space we have not had to limit outdoor events.”

As the vaccine rollout expands, consumer confidence grows. “Our Fair Authority made the decision mid-December to postpone the 2021 Florida State Fair from February to the end of April,” she said. “We postponed because our Board wanted patrons to have more consumer confidence in coming to the Fair and to let vaccines be more widely distributed within the State.”

The rescheduling actually disrupted some events, but unlike this time last year, a hailstorm of cancellations is not reoccurring. “So far 2021 events seem to be cautiously moving forward with COVID protocols in place,” she said. “I do think most event promotors are still nervous given the uncertainty and troubles this past year we have all experienced. We have seen a decline in our customers willing to make long term commitments.  Multiyear agreements have basically declined and most are looking to go from year to year until the market stabilizes and there is a true sign of the economy recovering.”

The 2021 Florida State Fair is scheduled to kick off April 22 -May 2 in Tampa


March Madness

The Indiana State Fairgrounds, whose non-fair event bookings account for 50 percent of its annual revenue, had 185 non-fair events cancel in 2020.  Combined with the cancellation of the Indiana State Fair, “our operating revenues were decimated by nearly 70 percent, causing us to alter our operations,” said Sharon Smith, Director of Communications, Indiana State Fair Commission/Indiana State Fairgrounds & Event Center.  “Cost saving measures were implemented to help, but these are not sustainable into the future.”

The fair's workforce was spared the knife, with no layoffs of full time staff. The fairgrounds did host more than 60 non-fair events, with about 40 outdoor events, and the remainder indoor events at the Indiana Farmers Coliseum, although most were minor league hockey games “set-up in pod-style seating with safety protocols,” said Smith. “The fairgrounds span more than 250 acres, so we have flexibility to spread out events to allow for social distancing measures. We have done this with many of our events. During a normal year, an event would occupy one building, but we can spread them out between two or three buildings, all interconnected to allow for a safe event and a better guest experience.”

Even in non-pandemic years, other non-fair event bookings are stronger after Spring. So far this year, slow and steady seems to be the non-fair event booking rule. “There has been a lot of movement in Q1 2021,” she said. “While we have hosted some events,  most moved early on into the March and after timeframe,” said Smith. “We are starting to see our event calendar pick-up; more events are comfortable moving forward; partners are committing; customers are coming out. While our event calendar is nowhere near 2019 numbers, we are hopeful that we will continue to host events in a safe way.”

That hope will be severely tested as March Madness descends on Indiana. “A HUGE win for Indiana, Indianapolis and the Indiana State Fairgrounds is being selected as the site for the entire 2021 NCAA D1 Men's Basketball Tournament,” stated Smith in an email. “[all] Host venues and colleges are working daily on plans to hold these events within COVID-19 measures and within fan capacities.”

RELATED STORY:  Part I- Reopening Fairgrounds: The Rocky Return of Non-Fair Events
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