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After at least four decades in Las Vegas, the largest annual gathering of fairs of all sizes and categories and the multitude of their business and service partners will take place in a new city and convention facilities. Unable to reach satisfactory terms with Las Vegas venues, three years ago the International Association of Fairs & Exposition (IAFE) announced they were bringing the IAFE Annual Convention & Trade Show to a new locale deep in the heart of Texas – the Henry B. Gonzalez Convention Center in San Antonio.

According to the Trade Show News Network, the 2017 IAFE event attracted more than 4,000 attendees and had 325 exhibitors. Las Vegas has long been a business meeting destination with global appeal and while it may have served the fair industry well for decades, its high cost was becoming increasingly prohibitive for the fair managers and other staff members to attend.

Leaving Las Vegas
In addition, fairs have long been family oriented events – and in fact there’s been a resurgence throughout the industry of this family appeal. In recent seasons, many fairs strived to create a more comfortable atmosphere for families. Examples of this trend include: expanding kiddielands, enhancing agricultural programs and installing a host of amenities ranging from more seating and shade sections to diaper changing stations. The glitzy, gambling ethos of Las Vegas party lifestyle was long in conflict with the pro-family philosophy of most fair organizers and many, motivating the organization to consider other convention options.

“The move has – as we anticipated – driven registration up,” said Marla Calico, President and CEO, IAFE.” We had heard for a number of years prior to making the decision how our attendees were very tired of meeting in Las Vegas – their travel costs, especially food, had skyrocketed; many reported how they hated the cigarette smoke which permeated every place, etc. We also were finding that the average of our delegates was decreasing each year, and some wanted to bring family with them to Convention – certainly not something fitting in Las Vegas, and also, they just didn't like to gamble. It was past time for a move and the registrations to date prove that so.”

Other signs of support for the switch to San Antonio was that we have exceeded the pace of 2017 –as well as past five years – by quite a bit,” said Calico. “ I anticipate we will have surpassed the total of all registered attendees at Convention end (this does not include trade show day passes, exhibitor passes, etc. – ONLY "full registration" badges) for any of the past five years and perhaps even longer.

Exhibition Innovation
In addition to the networking and educational opportunities, the IAFE Annual Convention & Trade Show is a crucial showcase for new product and services. Before the end of October, booth space was completely sold out, and more than 300 exhibitors will be represented. In terms of possible buying trends among fair organizers, there’s been a noticeable uptick in booth space purchases in two categories: high-tech solutions for operational issues and entertainment.

"The categories where we continue to see increased competition is in the tickets/ticketing services category and in technology services –which includes systems for cashless midway operations,” said Steve Siever, IAFE Director of Sales. “In addition, all categories of entertainment continue to be strong categories for participation in the IAFE. Booth spaces sold out on Oct. 22nd – so interest in trade show participation this year has been fantastic."

Given that the IAFE Annual Convention & Trade Show will take place in a space new to the vast majority of the fairgoers, the organization selected “First Impressions” as its theme for this year. The idea for this tagline began with the simple notion that first times only happened once. Calico explained, “We work very closely with a Convention Program Committee and the committee believed that with the move of the Convention to San Antonio that we absolutely had to concentrate on the mantra, ‘You never get a second chance to make a first impression’.”

When asked what was the objective behind this theme, Jeremy Parsons, Clay County Fair, Iowa and Chairman Of the 2019 Convention Program, replied: “Truly for me it will be watching the ‘first impressions’ that each of the convention attendees will have – their ‘first impressions’ of San Antonio and our beautiful convention space, their ‘first impression’ of our tremendous keynote speakers, and their ‘first impressions’ of the new features of our program.”

“This concept of first impressions is true at member events every year – the fair must stay fresh from the moment it opens until the moment it closes because even that last guest in the gate deserves a great "first impression" of the event,” said Calico. “ And with the educational programming offered at the IAFE events, members can expect to go home with ideas on how to keep "first impressions" in mind for their event.”

Educational Resources

Educational opportunities at the IAFE event include the “Ed Shed” programming, with its various segments, such as Campfire Theater, Legend-Led Theater, Power Talk Theater, Training Corral. The educational program IAFE staff develops with considerable input from members and their topic suggestions. This year’s seminars and workshops range from the pragmatic – such as The ‘Gram,’ which focuses on Instagram, ‘How to Market Your Facilities ,” which looks at selling non-fair facility usage year-round,” “ Increasing Revenues without Increasing Attendance,” and “Cashless Systems – The Evolution of Cashless, Automation, and Beyond” to the more conceptual, such as the Power Talk series, “Why airs Matter.”

One of the major issues of 2018 is the high cost and drawing power decline of headline entertainment, and the IAFE is addressing those concerns with two programs and "Entertainment Out of the Box," on using something else besides headline entertainment, and "Enhancing the Concert/VIP Experience,” which looks at adding value and profitability to headline entertainment.

With an improved economy with drops in unemployment and reported increases in disposable income, stable fuel costs and at least for the 2018 season, a stable H2-B workforce for carnival companies, the fair industry has an optimistic outlook for its largest gathering of the year. “From the conversations I have had with members, there is a general feeling that can be described as ‘upbeat’,” said Calico. “

Certainly, October has seen many major fairs dealing with lots of rain and that has an impact on attitudes, but when you're in this business you know that weather will not always cooperate.”

Even with higher levels of rain and other extreme weather events, according to IAFE monitoring of the fair industry, about 60 percent of “news reports indicate attendance held steady or was up. Those that were off could point exclusively to weather – more so by rain than heat it seemed. We're very pleased to see more fairs, though, emphasizing the other metrics that are really more important than a pure "attendance" report – F&B sales, carnival gross, youth market auction sales gross, the number of youth impacted through scholarships and jobs, etc.”

The majority of fairs in the U.S. are agriculture based. These events bring needed exposure to a state or region’s agriculture industry. The IAFE is intent on strengthening this partnership and spreading awareness about issues impacting all parties. “ The biggest trend impacting agriculture industry that, I believe, affects fairs is that of the vast disconnect – and growing one at that – between what consumers know and perceive about agriculture and the reality of what it takes to put food on the plate and clothes on the back – as well as so many other products we use in daily life,” said Calico. “The animal rights extremist groups have more money and are adept at manipulating the perceptions and have years of expertise in doing that. People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals stepped up their attacks on 4-H and FFA youth participating in livestock shows this summer, with some of their celebrity members calling these kids ‘terrorists’and the next ‘school shooters’.”

Calico seesthe IAFE Convention & Trade Show as a means to help fairs promote both themselves and the crucial role farming plays in all our lives. “agricultural fairs have not only the opportunity, but the imperative to provide agriculture education to fair guests – to help kids learn by providing fact-based information to combat perceptions, to help parents to make decisions on facts rather than propaganda imposed upon their kids.”

2018 IAFE / SLA Convention Coverage

IAFE and SLA Conventions Make their San Antonio Debut
SLA Reports Fundraising is Up • Deggeller to debut E-Ticketing & new rides
IAFE reports Record Attendance  •  LJM Associates Inks Safety Deals with Carnivals

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