Fairs and festivals struggle during downturn

Fun-seekers venturing out to farm fairs, art festivals and other mainstays of the American summer are finding either crowds or cancellation notices this year — and sometimes for the same reason.

Many festivals have met their demise when national sponsors pulled away and lawmakers slashed grant budgets, leaving organizers without enough money to buy tables, tents, portable toilets and other fair basics. That has many wondering whether their events will ever mount a comeback, though the ones that downsize stand a better chance than the ones that cancel entirely.

The survivors have creatively scaled back and trimmed expenses, with many receiving record crowds.

"It's going to be Darwinian," said Ira Rosen, who runs Entertainment on Location, a festival and event production service.

"The ones who can survive are going to be stronger, because now they have to watch every nickel and dime, and there's going to be less competition."

The flip side of that gloom is that fairs have weathered past recessions well. For every event cutting back or canceling this year, there seems to be another with happy crowds shelling out for corn dogs, concerts and rides.

"The trend really is people vacationing here in their back yard," said Eiron Smith, a spokeswoman for Watkins Glen International raceway in New York, which just wrapped up the 12th Finger Lakes Wine Festival.

Watkins Glen, which owns the festival, spent less selling itself to other states and more on marketing at home, Smith said, and was rewarded with a 10 percent increase in attendance over last year.

Typically, the festival draws about 20,000 people.

When Gov. Ted Strickland opened the 156th annual Ohio State Fair this week, he called it a way for families to enjoy a "staycation," and organizers are counting on the economy to bring in big crowds. State fair spokeswoman Christina Leeds said the event tallied 227,719 people during the first four days of the 12-day event. That's 4,000 more than the same period last year, despite rain on the first day.

In California, the 17-day Alameda County Fair in Pleasanton drew more than 432,000 people in July — 1,000 more than the previous attendance record, set in 1997.

Other fairs in California and Wisconsin have also drawn record crowds, according to Marla Calico, director of grants and special education for the International Association of Fairs and Expositions, which has 1,300 member events worldwide.

Bigger crowds are common during economic downturns, Calico said. "There's almost a pent-up demand for something fun," she said. "It's a nice escape."

Some events have adapted by cutting back on expenses and revising plans.

At the Lehigh Valley SportsFest in Allentown, Pa., organizer Ray Atiyeh saw reduced corporate sponsorship cut his budget in half, to about $65,000. Forced to improvise, he persuaded local businesses to donate any items they could, even little things like basketballs. He also found a way to build a stage similar to one that cost $25,000 last year for less than $10,000.

The crowds didn't seem to mind the scrimping: On the Saturday of the festival, Atiyeh estimated more than 7,000 people at one point in the day — more than he'd ever seen in the event's 13-year history.

Elsewhere, though, long-running events have been scaled back or even canceled. State funding has been the culprit in places like New York, Michigan and Illinois, among others.

In Pennsylvania, the Mount Nebo Grange Fair and the Pike County Fair were canceled over uncertainty about state funding.

Organizers of the art and jazz festivals in Newport, Ky., across the Ohio River from Cincinnati, first tried merging into a single three-day event, but ultimately had to cancel this year. A revived one-day festival is tentatively planned for next year.

However, it's tough for events that take a year off to regain their "save the date" status in patrons' calendars.

"Coming back from a cancellation is a lot harder than coming back from a downsizing," said Rosen, of the event-planning firm.