While a nasty summer heat wave and rain may have marred several Michigan fairs - and the economy in the state is not yet fully out of its doldrums - the state's fair industry remains resilient and forward-looking, according to Steve Thelen, President of the Michigan Association of Fairs & Exhibitions and Assistant Treasurer, Saline Community Fair.
"Fairs had a pretty good year, depending on the heat and rain," he said. "But even fairs that had the 90 plus degree weather are positive about the upcoming year, we're a resilient bunch."
The economy may still be suffering in the state, but the entertainment appeal of local, agricultural oriented fairs seems to be growing. "People are coming out, and we are seeing a steady rise in attendance," said Thelen. "Like a lot of parts of the country, our economy is starting to come back. The idea of a stay-cation is pretty strong, people are looking for entertainment closer to home."
The annual convention of the Michigan Association of Fairs & Exhibitions had a total attendance of 1,264, representing 73 fairs and festivals (a total of 86 fairs are members), and 97 associate members. Thelen noted that attendance increased by "about 50 people."
Unlike other states who worry about the graying of their fair industry, at this year's convention an influx of younger fair professionals was apparent. According to Thelen, this youth movement is occurring from many different levels. "I have been noticing that we've had success with young people, many are going on to successful careers in agriculture and coming back to the fair," he said. "We are seeing more young people joining fair boards, helping the fair out."
Much of this Gen Y/X interest is related to local-vore movements in Michigan. "People are asking more questions about where their food is coming from," he said. "The younger people coming into the agriculture industry are promoting agriculture education, and buying local, and we are seeing this interest more and more across the state."
A youth Ad-Hoc committee was formed at the convention made up of young professionals -- under 45 - said Thelan. Beyond just being a catalyst to formalize and strengthen the presence of new blood in the organization, the objectives of the new committee are still being formed. "We've had a few discussions and we've gotten the Ad-Hoc committee off the ground, and they are increasing their participation and influence on the association and fairs."
The tradeshow show floor had 78 booths, and a total of 14 showcase acts, including three for a special Kids Showcase. According to Thelen, trade show exhibitors have been increasing, resulting in a "re-landscaping" of the floor to accommodate extra booths and incorporate "seating areas for different meetings," he said. "The trade show has been increasing, we are seeing more insurance companies, but also more types of acts, more local music acts."
The county and local fairs in Michigan are moving away from nationally known headliners, going towards more regional acts, which offer lower costs and often a loyal local following. "We are seeing more local acts at the convention and who are playing multiple fairs. You are generally taking a gamble with a big name, and I think with all the competition, many people prefer to see a big concert in a venue other than a grandstand at fair, there are so many other opportunities than the annual fair to see them. It's tougher to make money on the big acts, because you not only have to pay the them, but all the accessory costs like stage, lighting and sound are higher."
While the local and regional acts are filling in some of the entertainment gaps left by so many headliners pricing themselves out of the Michigan fair market, other nights are being filled with spectacles, especially motor sports. Thelen pointed out that innovation is occurring in this segment, making it easier for fairs to feature more than one night of vehicular entertainment. "You are seeing demo derbies being reinvented, and there are different types of tractor pulls now. Some fairs can have two different nights of tractor pulls or demo derbies and not repeat themselves, it works out well."
The convention featured 49 workshops, the most-well attended being a series of grant writing workshops. Michigan's state government cut much of their previous funding for fairs, but there is a capital improvement competitive grant program - which requires matching funds - but eligible fairs can receive up to $20,000. There are also a handful of other grants available to fairs. The workshops featured speakers and instructions on the nuts and bolts of writing grant proposals. "It was a very well attended, and we are encouraging all our fairs to apply for grants."
He added, "the workshops were very good, went over the nuts and bolts of state grant writing and the attendees became more confident about writing grants."
Prior to the convention, state legislators allocated $6 million to this grant program, said Thelen. The Michigan Association of Fairs & Exhibitions is actively increasing their lobbying effort, and plans are in place for a Legislative Day in March, where fair representatives will meet the state political leaders "to acquaint them with fairs in the state, who we are and what we do," he said. The meeting is especially critical this year, with 46 new legislators starting new terms this year and the 2018 budget being worked on.
But the game plan seems to be more along the lines of securing what support Michigan county and local fairs do receive than trying to increase their state support. The resiliency Thelen has seen among his membership is not just about serving bad weather fair days, but finding new revenue streams. "People are working much harder at fundraising for their fair so they can match the grants they do get," he said.
Several workshops on sponsorship programs were also well attended, said Thelan. Fairs are getting better finding national and local sponsors, with the latter seeing some new energy by more targeted programs and closer collaborations with local, mom & pop business. "We are seeing with the mom & pop businesses, that they are sponsoring specific things within the fair," he explained. "For instance, they are sponsoring a shuttle bus from the parking lots to the fairgrounds. The buy-in can be cheaper, so that's attractive to the smaller business, we are seeing a lot of those kinds of things, because they get exposure and are associated with the fair, which they want. For the fair, it's great because it covers expenses for different parts of the fair."
Awards given out at the convention included: "Youth Volunteer of the Year"—Michael Omans, Newaygo County Fair; Nathen Kronemeyer, Chippewa County Fair; Carlie Thueme, St Clair County 4-H & Youth Fair. "Volunteer of the Year" - Gerald Blanchette, Monroe County Fair, Gary Hoppa Newaygo County Fair; Katie Hartsuff, Shiawassee County Fair; Tammy Fettig, Emmet Charlevoix County Fair; Darren Keller, Chippewa County Fairl; Nancy Koehler, Saline Community Fair.
"Heritage Award" - Robert Armstead, St Clair County 4-H & Youth Fair; Chuck Goeke, Ingham County Fair; Keith Cronenwett, Monroe County Fair; Margaret Wegner, Midland County Fair; Deb Kayga, Oakland County Fair; Earl Kelley, Lenawee County Fair; Elaine Masters, Saline Community Fair, Bob DeClerg (deceased) Shiawassee County Fair.
Individuals inducted into the Michigan Association of Fairs & Exhibitions Hall of Fame at the convention, were: Greg Dziewicki, Liberty Group Insurance; John Currie, Mecosta County Fair; Joe Skerbeck, Skerbeck Entertainment Group; James Elliott, Elliott's Amusements LLC; Ivan Arnold, Arnold Amusements; Carol Brittem, Manchester Community Fair; anndLC & Jackie Scramlin, Oakland County Fair.