"Telling Your Tale," the theme for the 2017 convention of Texas Association of Fairs & Events, echoed an upbeat organization encouraging its members to rediscover and cultivate its greatest source of support - the communities they serve.
According to Daryl Real, Livestock Manager of the Texas State Fair, who assumed the presidency of the Texas Association of Fairs & Events in January, the theme selected was for "encouragement for members to get their story out, to connect with their communities and the people in those communities, and to tell them the agriculture story and the fair story, and to celebrate their fairs with their communities."
Those communities are not the only audience for the stories the individual fairs and festivals are telling. The convention's theme also encouraged sharing ideas among the fair professionals in the state. "The convention provides a networking opportunity, and people connect with others at the convention and share ideas to make better fairs."
The Texas fair industry had a "healthy 2016 as a general rule. A handful of events had bad weather days," said Real. "We had a wet spring, that hurt some of the fairs. But I know one fair that had rain, but also had individual record days, so the bottom line did well."
The Texas economy also is not as robust as it was, mainly due to the price drops of fuel. But Real points out that the economic doldrums is not as widespread as it might seem. "North Texas and Houston are two of the fastest growing areas in the country, creating a lot o jobs. There has been a lack of activity in the energy sector. In more rural areas, those communities that had been more dependent on oil production, they are now hurting, because they don't have the same driver that stimulated economic activity. But the events that are close to metro areas are doing better because those economies are more diversified, and that offsets the decline in the energy sector. Some of the smaller towns that relied on oil productions aren't doing as well."
The Texas Association of Fairs & Events represents 115 fairs and festivals and the convention attracted 687 attendees, both numbers showing slight but significant increases. Real attributes this growth to a few more festivals joining the ranks, as well as more county fairs joining the associations. "The new members are bringing fresh ideas to the association and they make us stronger," said Real, who added that the new members from both categories add-value to the association by enhancing the networking and idea exchange aspects of the organization.
Regarding the small but noticeable influx of county and local fairs, many of those fairs often go in and out of membership, dependent on a variety of factors. Why they are joining again is that the "fairs had better years or their organization is more financially stable," he said. "they are seeing the value of paying the dues and coming to the convention. Many of the fairs had a good season, with higher attendance. Most people who work for the smaller fairs are volunteers, so sending them to the convention is a kind of benefit, and they come back with new ideas for their fairs."
In addition, the fairs are realizing the value of collaboration. "They are working together more for contracting entertainment and routing talent throughout the state in a more cohesive fashion."
Entertainment - particularly the free and roaming acts - made up the majority of the Trade Show, which sold out this year, with 77 vendors and 88 booth spaces, with a highlight of the event a Talent Showcase for entertainment. "We created some new spaces this year but we still sold out, there is a lot of demand for the spaces," said Real.
While other categories of the vendors - associate members of the organization - such as insurance and ticketing companies as well as midway providers -remain stable, the expanding segment seems to be entertainment. "There seems to be healthy balance between types of vendors, but we are seeing more entertainment," he said. "We have a pretty good return rate of vendors. We have talent agencies who handle the free and strolling acts, and also regional musicians, which have followings. We're lucky in Texas because we are known for our music, especially in places like Austin and San Antonio. Our fairs may be booking more music. The pool is very deep here."
In recent years, many fairs across the country have cut back on headline entertainment because of rising costs and increased entertainment. Texas Fairs are in a different situation. The smaller fairs traditionally have not booked big name headliners - certainly not as ticket shows - while the larger fairs continue to book some of the biggest music acts in the country. The reason is that the larger fairs - the "Rodeos & Stock Shows" - book a combo ticket with the PRCA and a headliner.
Obviously, big names like Willie Nelson do not attend the annual convention of the Texas Association of Fairs & Events, but the roaming or strolling acts and other free entertainment are showing an uptick. "Fairs need free entertainment, and they need to book family entertainment," said Real. "We have seen a plethora of regional acts and a wide variety of strolling acts. There has been an increase in booking these acts by the fairs."
Security & Safety
"Safety and security was the big topic of discussion," Real said. "In this day and age, you have to be concerned about all areas of safety and security. The possibility of something going wrong is growing, that doesn't mean we live in fear, but as event mangers, we have to be responsible."
What will be the new safety procedures adopted by Texas fairs and festivals in 2017? Real says that adoption will be on a per-event basis, but the safety and security discussions that took place so much more noticeably this year was that fairs, especially at the county and local level, are seriously considering procedures and protocols for the first time. "More fairs are discussing bag checks and metal detectors," he said. "It was a topic of discussion, and people left here with the seed of that discussion to see how they can make their event more safe. As event managers, the safety of our guests is our top priority and we have take reasonable measures, that make good sense, to ensure that safety."
Two of the best attended seminars were "Carnival Safety - You Can Never be too Careful!" and , "Options for Big Picture Security."
Other top seminars were: "Strengthening Your Backbone -Volunteers & Members," "Agriculture Programming At Your Event," "Grow Event Revenue with Online Marketing," "Sponsors & Social: The Art of Partnership Promotions," and "Engaging with your Community."
Unlike fair industries in some states, Real said there is not much concern of a graying of the profession, mainly due to synergy between fairs and the agriculture industry. "The agriculture industry is still the number one economic driver in the state. The agriculture industry is seeing a lot of younger professionals entering the industry, and they're supporting the fairs. The last decade we have seen more young professionals in the agriculture industry in general and at the fair management level."
He added that fairs and the agriculture industry bond over the need to expand agriculture awareness. "Fairs and the agriculture industry ask themselves, what they are doing at the event, and what they can do, to raise public awareness and education of agriculture. We wan to increase the agriculture literacy of our guests, and that continues to be a trend and younger people are very much receptive to spreading that message."
In addition to Real, the new officers of the association include: First Vice President: Jerry Huffman of the George H. Henderson, Jr. Exposition Center; Second Vice/President/Treasurer, Nanci Kimmey of the North Texas Fair & Rodeo; Secretary/Assistant Treasurer: Douglas Borchardt of the Washington County Fair , and Immediate Past President, Steve Russell of the Titus County Fair.