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After 100 YEARS, Pennsylvania Association of Fairs still going strong


By Mary Weber

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The 2018 Pennsylvania State Association of County Fairs Convention was themed "Farms, Families, Fairs, Fun." From January 17th-20th, Fair Association members and Pennsylvania Showmen's Association members met at the Hershey Lodge in Hershey, PA to attend meetings, round-table discussions, a trade show, and a Pennsylvania Fairs Queen Coronation. 

Harry Reffner is the Pennsylvania State Association of County Fair's Executive Secretary. According to Reffner, attendance at this year's convention was consistent with last year's; "Our 100th anniversary was 6 years ago and we had about 1700 people attend that year. Last year about 1600 people attended and this year we've counted about 1586 people," says Reffner. 

Reffner estimates that about 85-90 fairs were represented at this yeaPhoto By r's convention. Dick Hortsman, the trade show organizer for the Pennsylvania State Association of County Fairs says there are 104 fairs in the state of Pennsylvania alone. Hortsman says that the trade show was down about 15 booths from last year but their trade show is large compared to other fair convention's trade shows. "With 104 fairs in Pennsylvania and so many of them represented at our convention, we have great buying power at this trade show which make it very desirable to attend. We even had a delegation from Maryland fairs come up to see how we run ours," says Hortsman. 

When planning table topics and seminars, education is on the forefront of everyone's mind says Kevin Bieber of the Oley Valley Community Fair, who assists in planning programming at the convention. When asked about popular topics, Bieber says, "To be honest, if I had to pick two topics it would be technology and marketing. Those seem to be the most popular right now." The keynote speaker at this year's convention was Aaron Alejandro who serves as the Executive Director of the Texas FFA Foundation. Bieber says that Alejandro spoke about opportunity and perception surrounding fairs. "His main message was you get out of a fair what you put into it," says Bieber. Alejandro's talk was a hit; convention attendees really enjoyed his speech. 

In order to start planning programming for the next year's convention, Reffner says the board puts out surveys at the end of all the workshops and roundtables asking convention attendees how informative the session was or how helpful it is. They also ask what people would like to see next year. Reffner says that the International Association of Fairs and Expositions (IAFE) suggests options for speakers to attend conventions. They typically choose one of those speakers for their keynote program. "We use those speakers a lot because they're well-versed in those topics and relevant in the industry. We are also IAFE members so we get a discount," says Reffner. This year, Reffner reported that they had standing room only at many of their table topics and seminars which he takes as a positive sign that programming is helpful and relevant. 

The Pennsylvania State Association of County Fairs Convention has been held in Hershey and at the Hershey Lodge for the last 22 years. Reffner says that Hershey Lodge is a great fit because they can accommodate the large size of their convention. They rent over 600 rooms for attendees and their educational programming requires several, large meeting rooms. "There are other venues in other areas of Pennsylvania that would like to have us but we haven't found another place that can accommodate all of our spacial needs and going to another place would make it so that lots of people would have to stay at other hotels that are not the host hotel which would require more travel and coordinating. We always travel to Hershey in June to plan out the convention and they're always very cooperative," says Reffner. 

In addition to educational programs and the trade show, the convention hosts three separate Chinese auctions. One is for the Pennsylvania Showmen's Association Scholarship, one is for the Queen's Scholarship, and one is for the Association of County Fairs. Reffner reported that they were able to give six $1000 scholarships from last year's auction. The size of all three auctions have grown over time as well. "Fairs and other individuals are more than happy to contribute once they hear what the money goes to. All three auctions are for a great cause," says Reffner. 

All but three counties in Pennsylvania have a fair, according to Reffner. So, a lot of fairs are close to each other but Reffner says they work together to not overlap as best as they can. Out of all the fairs in Pennsylvania, 61 of them crowned a Fair Queen and 58 of those Queens competed for the Pennsylvania Fair's Queen crown at the convention. Three out of state judges are brought in to judge the pageant and the contestants participate in an interview, a speech, and an evening gown competition. The 2017 Pennsylvania Fair Queen is from the Butler County Fair. Over the course of the year she travelled 6,000 miles across the state to visit fairs and festivals. 

The Queen was crowned at the Saturday night Queen Coronation banquet. Friday night, the Showmen's Association held a banquet and Thursday night the Pennsylvania State Association of County Fairs held a banquet. Reffner says about 850 people attended the Thursday night banquet. The County Fairs Association and Showmen's Association work very closely together according to Reffner. "We all have to work together. The carnivals need to work with fairs to stay in business and the fairs need carnivals to stay in business," says Reffner. The Pennsylvania Showmen's Association is celebrating their 50th year of existence. 

Reffner currently serves as the Executive Secretary/Treasurer of the County Fairs Association but he has served on the board for 10 years. There are 25 people from across the state who serve as board directors. The President serves a two year term and then serves on the board as the immediate past President for two more years. The Directors meet twice a year, in April and October. All Pennsylvania fairs are divided into zones and board members share financial and government reports at those meetings. 

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