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Face-to-Face: IAFE & Showmens League Conventions Ready to Meet & Grow Fair Strong
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In 2020, without a vaccine and the pandemic still peaking, an estimated 90 percent of fairs cancelled – or as some announced – postponed until next year. In 2021, the scenario was reversed – 90 percent of fairs went on, according to the International Association of Fairs and Expositions.

Those fairs also saw healthy attendance and revenue, fostering an optimistic attitude among industry members.

According to the IAFE:
  • 65 percent of fairs reported an increase in attendance over 2019, with many reporting record attendance.
  • 72 percent reported that the gross revenue the carnival operator had at their event was up.

2021 might have been a successful revival of state, county and local fairs, but it was far from easy for fair managers, staff and board members. Reopening was often rocky – most states delayed issuing guidelines for fairs to follow until the last possible moment, constricting the planning process and contracting realities fairs and their partners – midway providers, promoters, entertainers, concessionaires and other vendors – require. Further complicating the season of reopening were labor shortages, food shortages, price increases and an economic recession.

 

IRL Meeting


It's been a tumultuous and nerve-wracking year filled with uncertainty and frustration. But most fairs that did open experienced increased spending, enthusiastic fairgoers and a supportive community grateful to have their annual tradition back in their lives.

No better sign that the fair industry has been restored than its members gather IRL (In Real Life) at the  2021 IAFE Convention, scheduled for Nov. 28-Dec. 1, at the Henry B. Gonzalez Convention Center in San Antonio, Texas. It will be the last Texas IAFE convention for the foreseeable future, as next year the convention moves to Indianapolis.

“We are so looking forward to meeting again in person!” said Marla Calico, President & CEO, IAFE. We've heard from members eager to see one another at the convention, to build upon the friendships and networks, many of which were strengthened through the many online meetings and calls our association hosted in the last year. [But] no virtual, or on-line event can ever totally replace the power of face-to-face connection. The entire world has discovered this in the past two years and so it is no surprise that we have a strong number of companies who want to show off their products and services to fair representatives.”

The IAFE Convention & Trade Show will feature a full roster of events, including a trade show exhibition floor, ancillary programming by the Outdoor Amusement Business Association (OABA) and the Showmen's League of America (SLA), and one of the most extensive and impressive educational schedules in the association's history.

Grow Fair Strong



The theme for the event – Grow Fair Strong – which not slyly references the farming roots of the fair industry, but reflects the resiliency the industry relied upon to survive the global health crisis as well as the confidence they'll need to face the many challenges ahead.

While the theme epitomizes the current mood of the industry, it was actually selected pre-pandemic. Eugene Cassidy, 2021 Chairman of the IAFE Board of Directors and President & CEO of the Eastern States Exposition, was responsible for selecting the theme and retaining it for the comeback convention.

“I have had several years to think about what I wanted my overarching theme to be,” he said. “It was my desire to focus on agriculture, which includes the visual messaging used to promote the annual convention. Our industry is perhaps the most important and largest when it comes to public gatherings, and what we do influences tens of millions of people.”

The other ag-centric contender for the 2021 fair -- Planting the Seeds to Success – “but the interruption of the worldwide pandemic required us to pivot,” he said. “We kept the same graphic so aptly designed by Andy Kroening at Wisconsin State Fair and incorporated a revised tag-line that fits perfectly for the times: Grow Fair Strong!,”

Cassidy's emphasis on agriculture is not some mere nostalgic nod to the foundational organizing principal for fairs, but a way forward to remaining relevant to contemporary society. “In most of the major population centers agriculture must be emphasized, promoted, supported, and celebrated, lest it be lost all-together,” Cassidy continued. “The reason? We see it in the rise of negative activism around animals and food. In fact, the U.S. government is culpable in social engineering that steers people away from our most wholesome and nutrient rich food, with regulations that suppress dairy, beef, and hogs. Currently before the U.S. Congress are measures being advanced by some that would assess punitive taxes on each of those three animal food groups mentioned, all to the detriment of our way of life. It seems these trends hatch in the United States, and I am certain they will move like a wave around the world for fairs.”

The seminars, workshops and discussion topics cover a gamut of issues relevant to post-coronavirus-crisis fairs. But for fairs to Grow Strong, the emphasis will be on fairs and their relationship with the agriculture industries.

“In keeping with the theme, we wanted to provide opportunities for ag-centric informational and exchange opportunities, and at the same time focusing on income generation for fairs of all sizes, and clever means by which we can stimulate and engage fairgoers,” said Shari Black, 2021 Convention Program Committee Chairman, and Interim CEO, Wisconsin State Fair. “Creating the recipe by which we can be successful by bringing more people to the fair, driving volume attendance and revenue is the goal.”

 

Industry Showcase



The trade show component of the IAFE is projected to showcase 200 exhibitors in 300 booths, with a noticeable uptick in cashless and other ticketing system. “The IAFE Trade Show will be about 25 percent smaller than 2019, with many acts opting for agency representation this year rather than purchasing their own booth,” said Steve Siever, Director of Sales, IAF. “Ticketing/Ticketing Services and technology services seem to be a very competitive segment within our show – specifically, cashless solutions. Overall, the mood of exhibitors is great – with high expectations for a robust 2022 fair season.”

This upbeat mood seems also prevalent among the anticipated attendees. “Our members are very much in “rebound” mode after a very tough 2020, but much better 2021,” Siever added.

However, this optimism is still tempered by a high degree of caution. More fairs and other events might be spending this year, but with unmistakable deliberation.  In addition, while registration is reportedly steady, attendance will likely be lower than 2019.

“The industry took a huge hit financially – that translates to fewer people attending the convention,” said Calico. “First, even if a fair went forward in 2021 and had good revenues, very few recovered the revenue losses from 2020. Second, although we have ended up with a handful of registrants from Canada, the international cohort that normally attends were unable to travel; and finally, we know that many from our member fairs who are paid employees of a governmental entity (county or state) are restricted from any travel out of state. We have surpassed our budgeted goal and anticipate stronger than normal on-site registration.”

Meet Your Midway Provider


A highlight of the IAFE convention will be an OABA-sponsored workshop designed to reintroduce fair mangers to their midway providers. Entitled:  “When the Carnival Comes to Town – A Unique Insight into the Daily Life of a Carnival Owner.”  The workshop will focus on the history of carnival shows, what it takes to move the carnival from town to town, and the unique challenges carnival companies face every day.”

Moderated by Greg Chiecko, President & CEO, the panel features such veteran midway providers as Jay Strates, Rick Reithoffer, John Hanschen and Andy Deggeller. “It is important that our industries meet in person because we need that personal touch,” said Chiecko. “ After two years of Zoom calls, it's time to shake hands or give a hug to our many partners and friends. Our hopes for the IAFE convention are to strengthen the relationships with our fair partners.  The pandemic has taught us all to think a little different.  We need to make sure that our fair partners understand our challenges and we understand theirs.:

He added, “My best summary of the current attitude of the industry is that 2021, given an event being open and good weather, was one of the best years ever.”
 Gatsby Party



Carnival companies and midway providers in the Showmen's League of America  will be presenting two days of The SLA Exhibitors Lounge Trade Show. Finally, after two years, the oldest industry association in the carnival industry will be able to hold its annual member meeting and Board of Governors Meeting as well as the SLA Memorial Service, which honors and remembers the colleagues who've passed way. A highlight of the lounge is a tabletop tradeshow.

In addition, the new roster of SLA officeholders will be installed –   President:  Patrick Jamieson;  1st Vice President: Marc Janas;  2nd Vice President: Bob Johnson; and 3rd Vice President:  Nate Janousek. The annual SLA Banquet will feature A Great Gatsby-themed extravaganza, with attendees encouraged to wear Jazz Age formalwear. The party will honor Robert Thorson, retiring SLA president.

“Everyone went into this year very nervous that it would be a repeat of 2020,” said Cindy Henning, Executive Director, SLA. “But as the year went on, it turned better than anyone thought. In terms of fundraising, SLA had a very good year. Our member carnivals have had a great year. There was a lot of pent-up demand for doing things and as a result, people came out. Last year, we did everything online, but now we're even more excited to meeting person.”
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