Date: Dec. 1, 2005

As the earliest public assembly venues in the United States, fairgrounds have in recent years had a reputation as quaint, rustic plots of crabgrass that host the annual carnival and pie contest. But in an increasingly competitive economy, where even state and county properties have to prove their worth to survive, these sleepy venues have been jolted awake and are formulating business plans to aggressively tout their assets – and build on them.

No one is formally keeping statistics on interim use of fairgrounds, but Steve Chambers, executive director of the Western Fairs Association for 20 years now, said his gut instinct is that nationwide, off-season usage is growing and renovation and new construction is pervasive.

“The manager of the Placer County Fair [Roseville, Calif.] said their interim use doubled this year,” Chambers said. “I know no one’s fair attendance has doubled. We’d certainly hear about that.”

He has observed fairtime-like traffic jams around the California State Fairgrounds in Sacramento, which is near his office, several times this year, most recently for the Hmoung New Year celebration, a Cambodian holiday, over Thanksgiving weekend. He observed them crossing the street in finely embroidered outfits and wondered how best to lure them to the fair as well.

The problem is fairs were built on the outskirts of town, buildings weren’t air conditioned, and everyone counted on the annual anticipation of fairtime. Fair attendance growth has not kept up with population growth in any town in America, partly because newcomers did not grow up with that visceral ‘It’s Fair time!’ mentality, Chambers said. And even though the town has grown to include the fairgrounds, now a downtown property, fairs have been unable to capture the benefits of that more central location. They are looking for more year round use, but are hampered by the event-specific buildings.

Chambers recalled a fair where the poultry building had permanent cages. How rentable is that? The larger fairs have been upgrading and building for a long time now, but it’s filtered down to the smaller fairs as well, he said. “We have the spaces; we’re not on the outskirts of town anymore; we have parking and restrooms. The missing link have been to fix the buildings, make them more usable,” Chambers said.

The fair board at the Champlain Valley Fair, Essex Junction, Vt., reached that fork in the road about seven years ago. “We knew we needed to make a decision to get bigger and better or just go down the hill,” said Dave Grimm, general manager, adding that going down the hill wasn’t an option. So the fair sunk thousands of dollars into renovating one of their buildings, turning it into a 100,000-square-foot clear-span trade show and convention space. At the same time, a partnership was developed with an indoor not-for-profit soccer league, Nordic Spirit Soccer Club, which used the facility for games and practice.

“We moved quickly, did our due diligence and started on the Robert E. Miller Expo Center,” Grimm said. “About one-and-half years ago, the soccer league approached us to expand again.” That led to the 45,000-square-foot Champlain Valley Expo, a $2.5 million building that opened in January 2005.

When Grimm came to Essex Junction in 1989, there were about 15 events other than the fair on the fairgrounds. This year, there are 100 events scheduled for the grounds, not including the soccer games. Grimm said some are even shows the fair owns and produces, and include eight flea markets, a horse show called Everything Equine, a healthy living expo and a balloon festival.

North American fair officials have found year-round grounds usage has added significantly to the bottom line. Fairgrounds are hosting not only consumer shows, which primarily seem to be a good fit, but also trade shows, corporate meetings, auctions, weddings, parties, hockey and soccer.

The Florida State Fair, Tampa, opened a 12,000-square-foot Florida Center, which is a full banquet facility, last month. Patrons pass through botanical gardens to enter the building and 700-feet of murals have been painted on the walls. Chuck Pesano, executive director, said this building will be ideal for sales meetings, banquets and other fine dining affairs.

“We are always looking for ways to increase our off-fair usage,” Pesano said. Right now, the grounds host close to 500 events annually. On the grounds are an 88,000-square-foot exhibit hall, a 52,000-square-foot entertainment hall which is connected to the expo hall, and a 40,000-square-foot special events building that can be subdivided. Boston Culinary Group was awarded the food service contract at the Florida State Fair grounds and with that contract, they will invest $500,000 in improvements to the food service operations. The contract is a 10-year agreement with a five-year option.

“We are in an extremely fast-growing area of the country,” Pesano said. “Every fairgrounds is different and everyone needs to look at their own assets. This is working for us.”

At the Iowa State Fair, Des Moines, non-fair usage is 16 to 18 percent of the year-round budget, said Gary Slater, manager and CEO. Six years ago that fair renovated the largest building on the grounds, turning it into a 119,000-square-foot heated and cooled, almost clear-span building.

“That building was an open-air shed, so when I say we renovated it, I mean we really renovated it,” Slater said. “Before that, we used it as storage during the winter for boats and such. We don’t have that now, but the consumer shows we have instead have given us a lot of versatility.”

Last year, the Iowa State fairgrounds had 215 events, which constituted 500 event days. Other buildings on the grounds are a 50,000-square-foot 4-H building, another 15,000-square-foot building, and another 11,000-square-foot building. “We are pretty busy all the time,” Slater said.

Since 1997, the Indiana State Fair, Indianapolis, has spent about $50 million in capital improvements to their grounds to increase non-fair usage. “We actually razed some buildings and put up new ones with better features and more amenities,” said Andy Klotz, public relations director. “We have about 15 buildings now available to rent and 300 different events such as trade shows, consumer shows and agri-shows last year.”

Klotz said next year, they will host the National FFA (originally the Future Farmers of America) Convention, which was held in Louisville, Ky., this year. That event will bring 50,000 kids to town. Indiana fair officials are also trying to find more ways to use their renovated 4-H buildings, two of which were completed two years ago. The third is in the works. Those buildings will be ideal for corporate use, because of the extra amenities including closed circuit television.

“We have a good competitive situation and it just depends on what people need,” Klotz said. “We have good parking here and we have security 24-7. We also have Internet hot spots.”

Years ago, the Big E, West Springfield, Mass., held only a handful of non-fair events. Now, besides the fair, held in September, there are about 130 shows on the grounds, said Sue Lavoie, vice president. Lavoie said although they try to keep up with renovations on their buildings, she feels the marketplace has been driving their business more than anything else. “We are just in a very good market,” she said. “Plus, we went after these events. We like them.”

There is a total of 275,000 square feet of space in four buildings on the grounds. The largest is a 123,000-square-foot building. There is also a 375-seat banquet facility. Lavoie said they just concluded their largest event outside the fair, the Equine Festival, which drew 100,000 in four days.

Between mid-March and mid-October, officials at the Minnesota State Fair, St. Paul, will host about 100 non-fair events with attendance of about one million. Jerry Hammer, general manager, said they do have room to grow, but have to make sure it is a measured growth. They hold events as small as collectibles shows to their largest event, the Minnesota Street Rod Association, which uses the entire grounds.

“Our challenge here is to have climate-controlled buildings,” Hammer said. “During the winter, we have one building that is climate-controlled. It is used as a hockey rink for games and practices.” There is also the State Fair Coliseum on the grounds for uses such as horse shows. It is in the livestock events Hammer feels they could grow, but even then, a measured growth. “Our next big step is to add climate-control to our other buildings,” he said. “We have already looked at the costs.”

Officials of the Arizona State Fair, Phoenix, helped stage 300 event days last year, said Kristi Walsh, director of marketing, including home shows, gun shows, bird shows, etc. “We do a lot of consumer shows, and ride and drive events, because of our large parking areas,” Walsh said. “We don’t do many meetings. The state Department of Transportation holds many driver-training sessions here. We really don’t have a lot of free dates out here anymore. We are getting close to our maximum.”

The South Carolina State fairgrounds, Columbia, stays busy also, said Gary Goodman, general manager. Officials there hold about 54 events a year. And Goodman said there are many new opportunities in the area for new business, because business is booming in the surrounding areas. “But we have people that have been here for 20 something years so we want to be careful to protect them and not bring in anything similar to the shows that are already here to erode their business,” he said.

The Great Allentown (Pa.) Fair has been holding non-fair events for many years, said Bonnie Brosius, marketing director. The grounds has one large exhibit hall with a total of 58,000 square feet of space. It has two sides, one with 40,000 square feet and the other with 18,000 square feet. There is a lobby on each side so the building can easily host two events at one time. “We can also hold concerts there,” Brosius said. “Every weekend we have a show in there, except in August before the fair.”

There is also a farmers market on the grounds. Brosius said the fair rents to a holding company that leases to vendors. That market is held year-round. There are also three restaurants and a nightclub on the grounds. “We are located in Allentown proper and we pay real estate property taxes,” Brosius said. “We have to make money.”

Interviewed for this story: Sue Lavoie, (413) 205-5018; Gary Goodman, (803) 799-3387; Chuck Pesano, (813) 621-7821; Jerry Hammer, (651) 288-4400; Kristi Walsh, (602) 257-7161; Gary Slater, (515) 262-3111; Andy Klotz, (317) 927-7500; Bonnie Brosius, (610) 433-7541; Dave Grimm, (802) 878-5545; Steve Chambers, (916) 927-3100