WFA members meet at Baja Blues Restaurant, Bar & Grill at the Orange County Fair in Costa Mesa, Calif., before beginning their behind-the-scenes tours. (VT Photo)

REPORTING FROM COSTA MESA, CALIF. — Standing on the stage of the Pacific Amphitheatre in Costa Mesa, Calif., members of Western Fairs Association are hot. Many wipe their foreheads in the summer heat or rub sore muscles from two 12-hour days of walking and learning. Somehow, every one of the around 50 fair managers and service members standing around is smiling and listening intently. Welcome to the Western Fair Association’s Feature Fair Tour.

The Feature Fair Tour has been going on for about 15 years, though to WFA Executive Director Stephen Chambers, it still feels like a relatively new program.

“It used to be that the WFA board of directors would visit a fair during the summer board meeting,” said Chambers. “The directors realized that if we’re making all of the plans for a few people to come, we might as well open up the opportunity to all of our members.”

The WFA board picked Orange County Fair in Costa Mesa as its 2013 Feature Fair. The fair runs July 12-Aug. 11, with the tour landing in the middle, July 23-25. The first night served as an opportunity to catch up and have dinner after a cruise of Newport Harbor, and also a chance to get settled in and prepare for a couple of 8 a.m.-mornings.

Chambers said the OC Fair stood out as the right choice for a few reasons, not the least of which is because it’s “deep into a very major master plan.” The WFA surveys its members to see where they would like to go for the Feature Fair Tour. Members were especially interested in how the fair has built its midweek attendance with We Care Wednesdays, a promotion in which fairgoers receive free admission and a carnival ride with a specified donation between noon and 4 p.m.

WFA President and CEO of the Washington State Fair in Puyallup Kent Hojem, Ray Cammack Shows' President and CEO Guy Leavitt, RCS' Chris Lopez, Butler Amusements' Rich Byrum, and WFA Executive Director Stephen Chambers meet up during the Feature Fair Tour. (VT Photo)

OC Fair Interim CEO Doug Lofstrom has been involved in planning the Feature Fair Tour itinerary for months. 

“Our part was fairly simple, but I started working with (former OC Fair CEO) Jerome Hoban on this concept back in September,” said Lofstrom. “The idea was that I was going to come on board and work with him and the WFA team as a liaison.”

Hoban made the move to Alameda County Fair in Pleasanton, Calif., in April to serve as its CEO, and Lofstrom stepped into the interim position at OC Fair.

“I had been working on the Feature Fair Tour before, so I kept it prominently on my desk and purposefully did not burden the fair staff with a lot of planning,” said Lofstrom, who added that planning consisted of a lot of emails and a couple of days of scheduling.

The Feature Fair Tour schedule included tours of We Care Wednesdays, Centennial Farm, Action Sports Arena, Hangar Building, Ray Cammack Shows’ carnival, the Pacific Amphitheatre renovations, and the administration.

Another reason the WFA board chose OC Fair was the opportunity to tour Ray Cammack Shows, a large operation that tours California’s San Diego County Fair in Del Mar, OC Fair, Antelope Valley Fair in Lancaster, and LA County Fair in Pomona. RCS also provides the midway for Arizona State Fair in Phoenix, Pima County Fair in Tuscon, Ariz., and Houston Livestock Show & Rodeo.

The Feature Fair Tour ended with a wine tasting from the Orange County Wine Society. (VT Photo)

Chris Lopez, VP Safety, Legal & Governmental affairs for Ray Cammack Shows, said that providing a behind-the-scenes tour of the operation was a no-brainer. The Feature Fair Tour also provided an opportunity to educate fair executives on the importance of seasonal H-2B workers to carnivals.

Much of RCS’ tour focused around the education and arrangements of the 260 H-2B visa workers that travel with the operation, 160 from Mexico and 100 from South Africa.

“Without those skilled workers, some of whom have been coming back to work for us for more than 10 years, I could provide maybe 30 rides, which is half the size of the entertainment and attractions we have at the Orange County Fair,” said Lopez.

Lopez said he wanted to stress the importance of those seasonal workers to the fair staff because “we don’t know if some of the members read the emails about this or who provides their carnivals, but we know that their carnival providers rely on these workers just like us.”

“Every little bit helps, from reaching out to their fair boards or writing a letter to politicians,” he added.

Participating in the tour was more of an opportunity to show off than it was a sales pitch.

“We didn’t do this to get more business,” said Lopez. “It just gives them the opportunity to see what we do and maybe take questions back for their carnival providers. It’s basically sharing info and sharing data.”

“Plus, we love to show off what we do,” he added.

Lofstrom said that the Feature Fair Tour gave the opportunity for the staff that isn’t necessarily very active in WFA to get to tell the story.

“I’ve known this team for a long time so I know what they’re capable of doing and their passion and dedication. You just show them the general direction and off they go,” he said. “My role all along was basically behind the scenes instead of doing all the tours.”

“When we get to the behind-the-scenes stuff, the staff really has a chance to shine,” he added.

Interviewed for this story: Stephen Chambers, (916) 927-3100; Doug Lofstrom, (714) 708-1543; Chris Lopez, (602) 237-3333