IAFE Members Explore the Benefits of Change

After 40 years the gathering leaves Las Vegas for San Antonio, indicative of a new era for a business steeped in tradition

  • by Linda Deckard
  • Published: November 29, 2017

Rick Vymlatil, South Florida Fair & Palm Beach County Expositions, West Palm Beach, and incoming chair of the International Association of Fairs & Expositions (IAFE), is seen with Marla Calico, IAFE president and CEO. (VT Photo)

REPORTING FROM LAS VEGAS — After four record years attendance-wise, the Minnesota State Fair, St. Paul, is still configured and programmed for 1.5 million people. In 2016, it drew 1.9 million, and management thought, “wow, we won’t see that again,” and then they did.

Those growing pains are a good thing to have and Jerry Hammer, manager of the St. Paul event, was looking at options both here, during the International Association of Fairs & Expositions convention Nov. 26-29, and back home, where he was headed for another round of expansion planning.

“We’re looking at sea containers,” he said of planned outdoor/indoor development, particularly for the Pet Center, which is currently in a warehouse. [Coincidentally, yet another architect is looking at sea containers in new construction – see the story on Qatar’s World Cup stadium in this VT Pulse.)

Hammer doesn’t see the fair and festival business slowing down because “people are hard wired to share experiences. Ours happen to be traditional agricultural shows,” he said of what state fairs have in common with all live entertainment, which is on an upswing.

The vibe was upbeat at this year’s IAFE convention, where Cynthia Hoye, manager of the Indiana State Fair, Indianapolis, was inducted into the IAFE Hall of Fame; Becky Brashear, Maryland State Fair, Timonium, completed her term as IAFE chair, and Rick Vymlatil, South Florida Fair & Palm Beach County Expositions Inc., West Palm Beach, stepped into that role.

Even the pending move to San Antonio for the next four years, after holding this convention in Vegas for the last 40, was looked upon as positive. Marla Calico, IAFE president and CEO, said member feedback has been pro-San Antonio — change is good. There will be eight convention hotels in San Antonio, something for everyone, and events will take place at the convention center.

“We’re moving to the convention center model,” she said, assuring anyone who is concerned about being “spread out” that all but two of the hotels and the convention center in San Antonio fit in a footprint the size of the Vegas headquarters hotels, Bally’s and Paris. There is also no smoking in the convention center and San Antonio is more affordable for eating out, she said.

The fact that the IAFE convention skewed more than 50 percent women for the first time last year also informed the decision to move out of Vegas. “It’s the number two culinary destination in the world,” Calico said, quoting a magazine article and noting the Culinary Institute of America is headquartered there.

She expects attendance to possibly increase with the change. Numbers were not in yet for this year’s convention, which closes tomorrow, but she said it has held steady at about 4,000 for the last few conventions, which includes Outdoor Amusement Business Association and Showmen’s League of America registrants as well

Brashear added that San Antonio is a family-friendly city with restaurants, culture and sightseeing. The newcomers to the industry, in particular, are open to change, she said.

To that end, conventioneers spent several sessions hammering out the fair industry of the future, what it will look like in 20 years. Results will be published next year. “We need to be ready for 2030,” Brashear said. The sessions were an open discussion.

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Robert Fogle and Becky Brashear of the Maryland State Fair, Timonium, celebrate with new Certified Fair Executives as a reception during IAFE. (VT Photo)

Brashear’s main takeaway from this year’s gathering is the significance of “the engagement piece,” meaning the need to offer participatory exhibits and entertainment, which is critical to drawing the next generation of fairgoers.

For Tracey Gardner, GM, Mississippi State Fair, Jackson, a primary takeaway was that people come to the fair to eat. Some come for the rides, some for entertainment, some for agricultural exhibits, some for commercial exhibits, but they all eat.

On the state fair highway, food is the center lane, she said, while admitting hers is a flat-fee fair. Concessionaires pay a flat fee per front foot — from $118-$147— so the fair does not participate in the upside on a percentage basis. This year, for the first time, they did change from one flat fee to a graduated charge, depending on location.

Gardner noted the Mississippi State Fair is currently without a CEO, having said goodbye to Rick Reno two days after the October event, which drew 701,000 attendees. The board has not yet announced plans for a new CEO.

She was headed home to host the Dixie National Rodeo, which moves in in February, and to watch construction of a new trade center which will be under construction by spring and is being designed by Populous (see story in the November issue of Venues Today.)

Change is underway at the Central Washington State Fair, Yakima, as well. GM Greg Stewart said the new $2-million catering kitchen, which was approved two years ago, is about to become reality. Design is done and construction will be out to bid in January. They will break ground in March and debut the new improvement, which is housed in the Sundome arena, at next year’s fair. This year’s fair drew 323,000, Stewart said.

The new catering kitchen comes on the heels of a change from self-op to hiring Spectra as concessionaire. They came on board Aug. 1, with Phil Hossler as GM.

“Find your niche and think outside the box,” said Renee Alexander, Minnesota State Fair, St. Paul, entertainment buyer of her takeaway, particularly from the panel on entertainment she moderated. For some fairs, that has meant booking boxing, for some it’s more gasoline events (motorsports), and for some, like Minnesota, there has been great success with comedy.

Food and drink was top of mind for many who attended sessions for certification on that topic. Rey O’Day of the National Independent Concessionaires Association, got down to the nitty gritty of making the customer comfortable.

“If you see a lonely bottle somewhere, throw it away, because a single piece of trash becomes a trash can,” she said. And that pile accumulates rapidly.

On a management note, O’Day suggested concessions managers schedule times to be in the office versus on the grounds, which makes it easier to make appointments rather than spending the fair hunting each other down. “A lot of times, people who schedule appointments solve the problem before their appointed time,” she noted.

Another topic top of mind with many conventioneers was this year's tragic ride accident at the Ohio State Fair, Columbus, which impacted other fairs down the line and worldwide. Representatives from that fair, that fair’s PR firm and the carnival industry dissected the response and lessons learned in 2017, which Venues Today will recap next week in the Dec. 6 VT Pulse.

A key takeaway was that venue managers should remember this is their business and they need to get in front of any crisis with their own key audience, which is the people they do business with directly. When there is a food recall, for instance, David Margulies, The Margulies Communications Group, advises his clients to call Walmart or whoever buys their product first – don’t let them hear it via social or news media.

“The focus is on keeping your business going, which is much more important to you than it is to the media,” Margulies said.

  • by Linda Deckard
  • Published: November 29, 2017