Hands on is one way to describe the approach of Fair Advantage, a fair consultancy firm founded by Rick Ferenette this year, but it is not the company's only attribute distinguishing it from similar enterprises.
Frenette may be the CEO, but his approach to consulting is very hands on - its his boots that are on the ground assessing a fair. The biggest difference between Fair Advantageand other consultants is that Frenette emphasizes that his recommendations are customized to the unique needs of the client.
While only few months olds, Fair Advantage has already been utilized by the Indiana State Fair, the Northern Wisconsin State Fair, the Langlade County Fair, and the Big E (Eastern States Expositions)
Carnivalwarehouse talked with Frenette after the Fair Advantage debut at the 2016 International Association of Fairs & Expositions Convention & Trade Show. It was the first time for this industry veteran on the "other side" of the trade show floor booth.
"The convention went well, I had a lot of people at the booth, which was a way of introducing myself as CEO of Fair Advantage," he said. "We were very well received and there is a real need in the industry for what we provide, strategic solutions to project management."
Frenette has more than 30 years of experience in the fairs and events industry-- his first job in the early-1960s was operating a Pronto Pups deep fryer at the Northern Wisconsin State Fair in Chippewa Falls. He went on to earn a Masters of Business Administration Degree, concentrating in Finance, from the University of St. Thomas in St. Paul, Minn., and a Bachelor of Science Degree from the University of Wisconsin.
Frenette received his Certified Fair Executive designation in 1988, served as IAFE Chairman in 2008 and was President of the Midwest Association of Fairs in 2005.
His fair executive gigs range from Finance Director at the Minnesota State Fair, Executive Director of the Ohio State Fair, Executive Director, Utah State Fair and more recently Executive Director of the Wisconsin State Fair, a position he held from 2010 to earlier this year.
During his tenure at that fair, one of the largest in the Midwest, he doubled revenue, increased attendance by more than 50 percent, and created Spin City, one of the largest and most successful independent midways of any U.S. fair. In 2015, the Wisconsin State Fair marked the third straight year its attendance exceeded the one million mark, reaching 1,030,881.
During his long career, Frenette worked with and has seen his share of fair consultants and when he decided to form Fair Advantage, he knew what type of consultant he did not want to be from the get-go.
Typically fair consultants "come in, write a report, and get big money and demand these changes be made," said Frenette. "Fair Advantage helps fairs to have an advantage in the industry, and to consider things that are positive, it is not a negative situation as it can be with some consultants."
He added, "I talk with the clients, and find out what they are looking for and what they need. We bounce ideas off each other and I show them things that worked for other fairs. They hire me to find their challenges and we address them and help them reach their goals."
Many fair consultants come in, assess a fair and issue a report that "tells the fair what they should do, offering only one option," said Frenette. "Organizationally, I am never going to tell the customer what to do."
Instead, Frenette takes a holistic approach, then offers a range of well-thought out solutions. "We look at all the what ifs, the pluses and minuses of each option we offer. What is often needed is another set of eyes on a problem or area that can be improved, examples of what has worked in other places."
Not only does the Fair Advantage approach engage the fair manager and other stake holders in developing a solution - enabling the client to actually customize the solution for his or her specific fair - Frenette draws upon a professional network of more than a dozen fair professionals, most with specific expertise on a segment of the business. "The process is that I am the CEO, finding the clients and discovering their challenges," he said. I have a group of professionals, an advisory panel of professionals, whom I draw upon as needed."
Members of this network generally have more than 30 years experience with fairs, including financing, midways, concessions. Facility management and other areas. Typically, one or two are tapped per project.
Like in other industries, fair consultants serve an instrumental role in giving fresh perspectives to key decision makers.
According to Eugene J. Cassidy, President and CEO of Eastern States Exposition, leading up the fair, he began working with Frenette on an informal basis while Fair Advantage was being developed. "There are things that happen in an organizational environment, that you need a high level of advice, that is kept confidential," he said. "It can be inappropriate to get that level of advice from inside the organization, because it can compromise my leadership position and it lacks the objectivity of an outside observer."
Cassidy say that Frenette came out to the fair a day and half early and spent three days at the fair, with a subsequent report that included insights on layout, public safety, concessionaires, and both pedestrian and vehicular traffic analysis. Some of the onsite suggestions Cassidy was able to implement for the 2016 fairs, although most were for future consideration. "I received the report quickly, and it was filled with great observations and suggestions. He is a great resource. Some things we were able to deploy right away, others will be deployed in 2017.
Cassidy has use consultants in the past, often with mixed results. Often consultants have a "disregard for the capacity of the fair and the economics of your situation. Somebody like Rick, who has been at the helm, knows the limitations and that's where is options come in. He understands the need for flexibility."
Cindy Hoye, Executive Director, Indiana State Fair Commission said she decided to use Fair Advantage, "because I have known Rick for many years, I reached out to him when he was developing his company because I recognized the value of industry knowledge, especially from someone who has led a Midwest fair. He understood the culture here and was able to tap into that culture quickly."
Part of the Fair Advantage process at the Indiana State Fair, according to Hoye, had Frenette "shadowing" key directors, vice presidents and other personnel, and also attending several meetings. "Everyone was using him as a sounding board, but then he really dug into the fair operations and our financials. He was looked at anything and everything."
One of the most immediate areas Frenette improved was "a good scrub on our concessions, and looked at what we should be doing, such as pricing, layout and what purveyors we should be using."
Other areas of recommendations included ticketing, admission gates and campgrounds. "He gave a great deal of recommendations. You need another set of eyes, not just to offer changes but to sometimes validate some of our assumptions."
She added, "he didn't just write a report or meet me with me, he met with the board, the entire team. He really immersed himself in our entire operation."
The difference between Fair Advantage and other consultants Hoye has used has to do with the immersive approach. "Immersion is really the best word, he didn't just give a cursory view. He went into the soul of the organization, and not just a high-level glance. He understands the fair doesn't happen in a vacuum."
The 2016 Indiana State Fair was negatively impacted by weather - with 9 days of rain - over five inches fell - and four days of a heat index of 95 degrees - not to mention tornado warnings and lightening storms.
Frenette was at the fair and his work rapidly evolved beyond the observational. "He was a kindred spirit, together with us in the trenches, talking with the staff and board, not just offering useful suggestions but boosting morale. He brought tremendous value at the fair, but also we are constantly learning, constantly growing our efficiencies and practices, and he helped us to look at things differently."
Filling A Niche
After leaving the Wisconsin State Fair, Frenette was not ready to retire but as he started searching opportunities, his friends and contacts began asking for advice. "Fair managers and their boards are eager for expertise, both in managing their fairs and managing their facilities," he said. "A number of them began asking me about things like contracting, relationships with carnival companies, concessionaires, and financing, areas where I have a strong background. I had the experience with the political situation fairs can be placed in, and many of the risks and rewards of the fair specifics. I realized it was time share my experience, because I enjoy working with fairs and started the process that led to Fair Advantage."
Essentially Frenette saw a niche that "catapulted me into making this a permanent company, because of how many fairs really needed this sort of consultant."
Issues facing the fair that he's effectively addressed includes lowering budgets, working with a smaller staff, concessionaires and overall operations. "The recommendations are customized to the needs of the fair, whether it is a small, mid-sized or large fairs, and I work with the fair manager, the staff and fair boards as needed. It's been my experience that fairs have several different entities involved and you have be aware of them all."
One example of an area of assessment that Fair Advantage has effectively conducted are concessionaires, food & beverage as well as merchants. "You have to look at the entire concessionaire operation, look, layout, mix and contracting. You can not just isolate one issue, their percentages. It's not just one thing, it's an entire operation, and then you have to look at all the recommendations, and then the what ifs for each recommendation."
Another Fair Advantage specialty is Fair Financials, often requiring an even more comprehensive assessment. "Fairs welcome a look at their financing issues, which involves fair and non-fair financing, revenues and areas where they can increase revenue and other areas where they can produce savings," he said. "This really depends on the fair, and the issues can be with the carnival company, admissions, any number of areas. You have to look at the profit and losses and the projected budgets."
One challenge many fairs are now facing is the transition to electronic ticketing and scanning, a purview no longer exclusive to larger fairs. "Smaller and mid-size fairs are adapting these systems and they need to learn how to optimize that information," said Frenette.
He points out, that implemented properly, the new ticketing and scanning systems reduce snarls at the admission gates and provides better accounting, "it is real time management, so you have better data on spending and fairgoer traffic, so you can better arrange staffing, while increasing revenues and reducing expenses."
"A lot of fairs suffer from a lack of funding," he said. "Many are governmental agencies and suffer financially when the funding gets cut off because they are not run as a businesses. At the end of the day, they have part time management and a volunteer board and it is hard financing the fairs to show a profit."