It may be hard to think of warm summer days and flashing carnival lights while facing snow and freezing temperatures, but members of the fair community recently gathered in Wisconsin Dells for the Annual Wisconsin Association of Fairs Convention Jan. 5-8.
The conference was an opportunity to bring together fair board members and associates to network and make plans for the upcoming fair season, according to Jayme Buttke, executive secretary/treasurer of the Wisconsin Association of Fairs.
“There are 75 different ways to run a fair,” Buttke said. “We have 68 of those 75 fairs represented at the conference. When you can put 68 fair members of whatever role that they have in the same room and network and share the things that are working and things that are not working and feed off of each other, it is a great asset for them. There is one thing about our industry. When we get here, we are a sharing group. We are just that family.”
Nearly 1,100 people attended throughout the conference with 150 association members present. Those who were present represented a mix of first-time attendees and other individuals with decades of experience whether they were fair employees or volunteers.
“We have such a range that is represented that it is crazy, but it also a place for us to bridge the gap,” Buttke said. “How you educate an older generation to accept the newer way of doing things? How to teach the younger generation to find wisdom in what those who have been in the industry have done? We do that. They network really well together.”
With fewer farm families in Wisconsin, Buttke said the fairs can play a crucial role in educating those of all backgrounds about agriculture, but they have to adapt to a changing audience.
“We keep talking [about consumers] five generations removed from the farm,” Buttke said. “Fairs have to take a step back and say, how we educated the public in the past is not how I can go into it now. We may have been heavily involved in agriculture, but how you educate on agriculture now? It is important to relay where wool comes from, where milk comes from, all of the different avenues. Utilize the exhibitors that you have.”
One tool Buttke acknowledged is social media for promotion and education.
“There is a generation that maybe doesn’t want to learn it, but you can’t ignore it,” Buttke said. “There is a generation that is so honed into it that they know nothing else. If we as an industry don’t utilize those tools and get into their world, they are only going to get further and further removed. It is so important that we are still staying on-trend and finding people who can come into your fair who have agriculture backgrounds that can help educate and use all of those social media areas.”
One way members of the fair industry can continue to adapt is through the International Association of Fairs and Expositions (IAFE). The network represents and facilitates the evolving interests and needs of agricultural fairs and exhibitions. Full-time fair staff members associated with an IAFE member fair can go through extensive training on finances, insurance, grounds evacuation, public safety and other aspects involved in planning to become a Certified Fair Executive.
“It maybe took 2-3 years to do that, but it is continuing education in full training,” Buttke said. “It is a valuable tool because you are trying to learn every facet that you can to make you a better-rounded manager. Treat it [the fair] more like a business. I think that is one thing fairs struggle at. They often volunteer. It is a local community event, but you really have to have a business hat on because sometimes that is really taken for granted.”
Buttke said Wisconsin is very well represented at the annual IAFE Management Conference with those who serve as chairs and as committee members.
A list of upcoming fairs in 2020 can be found online.