Hamfest Review and Editorial: Fort Wayne Hamfest 2014

The Fort Wayne (Indiana) Hamfest has always had a place in my heart.  My first time in Fort Wayne was in 1989, just a few months before I passed my novice license test at the age of 14.  My elmer Bob Kehr KA9MDP took me to that swap, I think it was a couple of months after he took me to my first hamfest in LaPorte, Indiana.  After the LaPorte swap, which was held at a fairground, the Fort Wayne Hamfest was like going to a professional trade show — it was (and still is) held at the Allen County War Memorial Coliseum, which is a very nice, clean, well lit facility.  I can’t remember if it was a one-day or a two-day swap, my memory is telling me that it was Saturday only but that may have been because we only went on Saturday.  Also, I’m relying on my memory here again, I believe that it was only held in the EXPO1-2-3 hall.  At some time in the future it got too large and for some time the Hamfest also used the EXPO-4 room (I think that’s the room under the ice rink/basketball arena, I’m not sure).  Sometime in the last 5-8 years the Hamfest has shrunk back into EXPO1-2-3.

Last weekend (November 15 and 16) was somewhat of a disappointment that started at the beginning when I bought my ticket and walked to the EXPO rooms.  Instead of buying the ticket in the rotunda and walking straight into EXPO-3, I had to walk all the way down the hall to the side entrance to EXPO-1.  I discovered why as soon as I walked in.  EXPO-3 had been partitioned off.  This had the initial effect of making the place seem more crowded, as they had stuffed the Hamfest into a smaller space.  I think I know why they did this, over the past few times I have visited the Hamfest, it had some wide open spaces where tables had been in the past.  So this had the effect of mitigating the negative effects of seeing open space.

The physically smaller event could be blamed on the smaller number of vendors and dealers.  Attendance seemed kind of bleak this year as well, and some of that could be blamed on the smaller number of vendors which could in turn be blamed on the smaller number of people, ad nauseum.

The first thing that people bring up when someone complains about a dying hamfest is the “eBay excuse.”  People don’t wait to go to a hamfest to buy something when they can get it almost instantly on eBay or from a commercial online vendor like AES or Ham Radio Outlet or the countless other vendors online.  I have never accepted the “eBay excuse” because there are more reasons to go to a hamfest than just to buy stuff.

Many hamfests of comparable size to Fort Wayne’s are thriving.  Ham-Com here in Texas is close to the same physical size as the Fort Wayne Hamfest, yet has increased steadily in size and attendance since it was first conceived.  Ham-Com used to be hosted by hotels in their banquet rooms.  Growing too large for this, they moved to the Arlington Convention Center in 1986.  After completely filling the venue and having difficulty scheduling the center, it was moved to the Plano Center (in Plano) sometime around 2005.  It has since outgrown this venue and in 2015 will be moving to the new Irving Convention Center.

So, let’s detail the many positive things that the Fort Wayne Hamfest has going for it:

  1. Location — it is within driving distance from many areas of the Midwest and Great Lakes.  Microsoft Streets and Trips lists the following cities within a three-and-a-half hour drive of the Coliseum:  Chicago, South Bend, Grand Rapids, Lansing, Flint, Detroit, Toledo, Cleveland, Columbus, Cincinnati, Dayton, and Indianapolis.  Another thirty minutes of drive time extends out to Milwaukee, Youngstown, Traverse City, Louisville and Lexington.  And even here we’re almost reaching Pittsburgh, Peoria, and Springfield IL.  Fort Wayne may be your standard “boring” Indiana town (I grew up in South Bend so I’m allowed to say that) but it’s not a bad place to visit.  There are plenty of hotels there as well for those who don’t want to make it a day trip.
  2. Venue — the Allen County War Memorial Coliseum is a beautiful place with wide open exhibit halls and plenty of parking.
  3. Time of year — The Fort Wayne Hamfest is held almost exactly six months before the Dayton Hamvention.  Which means it’s held almost exactly six months after the previous Dayton Hamvention.  Which means right about the time that you’re hankering for a nice large hamfest, it’s mid-November and time for Fort Wayne.
    The downside to mid-November is the weather.  This (and the layout of the Coliseum, probably) precludes outdoor tailgate sales and may affect participation due to the errant early winter storm.
  4. Admission costs — Admission to the Fort Wayne Hamfest is only $5 for both days.  It’s $4 for Sunday only but from what I saw this year on Sunday, very few people came.  Some of the vendors packed up and left Saturday afternoon.  The Hamfest used to have extended Sunday hours of 9 AM through 3 PM but this year it ended at noon.
    The Coliseum charges for parking as well — it’s $5 per car per day with no in-and-out privileges.  Come as a group and it’s not that bad.
  5. Vendor costs — Vendors can rent a table for as little as $25.  Premium tables are $50 and electrical hookups are $30.  It doesn’t cost much to set up a place to sell stuff.

OK.  Now let’s try to figure out why the Fort Wayne swap is shrinking.  And before I get into this, I am going to address the one statement that I dare to make each time someone criticizes the Dayton Hamvention–that statement is “If you don’t like it, then instead of going to the event and then complaining about it, just don’t go.”  I actually like to go to the Fort Wayne Hamfest–for the reasons outlined above and a few more — an old ham friend from my teenage years still goes, it’s close to South Bend so if I make a special trip up from Texas I can see my parents and in-laws, and it’s kind of tradition for me.  I still like to go.  I address this situation because I would like others to like to go too.

Understand right here that I am only criticizing this event because I really hate to see it decline.  The Fort Wayne Hamfest is near and dear to my heart.  Should this article reach the board of the Fort Wayne Hamfest or the Allen County Amateur Radio Technical Society, I’m sure that you are hard working people.  These are only suggestions based on my experience as a radio club president.  I don’t like people who come to me with problems without offering solutions.  So that’s what I’m doing here.

In my opinion, which is worth about 35 cents taking inflation into account, the one single problem is… MARKETING.  The Fort Wayne Hamfest seems to still be using the same two-page mailing that they used 25 years ago.  I like their logo, but someone get creative here!  And send it out a little sooner.  I live in Fort Worth, Texas.  I received my two-page flyer about seven days before the hamfest.  I’m not going to be suddenly convinced that I need to go to a hamfest 860 miles away if I find out a week prior to it.  Also, using the Internet Archive Wayback Machine, I have found their 2001 Hamfest main page and General Hamfest info page.  Here are the Wayback Machine’s snapshot of the 2014 main page and 2013 General Hamfest info pages for their 2014 hamfest last month (I used the latest available Wayback Machine snapshots to keep the links from changing when this article is read in the far future.  Here are the current “live” main page and general hamfest info pages).  You will notice that over the span of 12-13 years (and probably longer but I reached the limits of the Wayback Machine) the web site has barely changed at all except to make the dates and other stuff current.

When a hamfest is the single or most important annual fundraiser for a radio club, when the profits from this single annual event determine how active your club will be, how many potential hams you can elmer into the hobby, or how many public events or emergencies that you can serve, then you MUST treat it as a PRODUCT, not just a project.  The Dayton Hamvention is a PRODUCT.  Ham-Com is a PRODUCT.  Pacificon is a PRODUCT.  The Orlando Hamcation is a PRODUCT.  They have nice websites.  They are a DESTINATION.  They are something that hams look forward to from the day that the previous year’s event draws to a close.  Those who are regular attendees to these events bring new attendees to future events.  Even the Dayton Hamvention, where even though the venue is an absolute dump and even though they had a sewer line explode onto the flea market in 2011, they still managed to increase their 2012 attendance by nearly 10% from 22,312 to 24,483.  That’s because, despite the vast list of negatives that can be said about Hamvention and the Hara Arena, it has still managed to become an event to be looked forward to.  It’s still a DESTINATION for hams worldwide.  The Fort Wayne Hamfest used to be something that hams used to looked forward to.  When October came around, regular attendees remembered that “sometime next month, before Thanksgiving, we’re going to go have fun in Fort Wayne.”

So, here would be my suggestions for the Allen County Amateur Radio Technical Society (AC-ARTS) to re-invigorate the image of the Fort Wayne Hamfest.

  1. Do not allow any aspect of the Hamfest to slide further backwards.  Examples of this would be making the room any smaller or reducing the hours (the Sunday hours have been reduced and the closing time has gone from 3 PM to noon).  And as tempting as it would be to eliminate Sunday because of the dismal Sunday attendance this year, don’t.  It would be a sign of weakness.  Strive to improve things so you don’t have to.  In fact, if I were running the swap, I’d lengthen Sunday to at least 2 PM.
  2. Do something nice to your vendors.  I saw Rick Pourciau NV5A, the owner of The Signman of Baton Rouge in an utterly bad mood this past weekend, presumably because business was slow at his booth.  Rick comes a long way from Louisiana to make custom badges and hats.  His livelihood depends on making money from hamfests and his expenses are significant.  He goes to many hamfests–I’ve seen him in Fort Wayne, Dayton, Ham-Com, and the Cowtown Hamfest in Fort Worth.  The nicest thing that AC-ARTS could do would be to somehow increase attendance.  Perhaps a one-year reduction in table rent could be offered to those who have been longtime vendors or to brand-new vendors.  Or do a buy two tables, get the third one free.  More (quality) vendors = more attendees = more vendors = more attendees = more profit.  Yes, it may take a few years to realize this.
  3. A complete rework of your website.  It doesn’t have to be completely professionally done but it must look more professional.  It just has to not be 2001 every year.  More pictures, a countdown to the next hamfest, etc.  Make people not only want to come to the Hamfest, make them want to come to Fort Wayne.  List some of the good restaurants.  Mention things that a wife and kids could do while the husband was at the Hamfest.  Make it prominent.  Use the Chamber of Commerce for help — they love events that bring people to their town.
  4. Customize your mailing list.  Two weeks to a month before the hamfest, send out the mailing.  To those more than four to six hours away by car, send out one two months before and then a reminder postcard.  AC-ARTS does a good job about keeping attendees on the list for a few years if they skip a year or two.
  5. If they need to keep things down to two of the EXPO rooms instead of three, instead of partitioning off EXPO-3, partition off EXPO-1 instead so that the main entrance to the Hamfest is off of the rotunda.  It looks better to the attendees.  I realize that the Dock 13 drayage entry and main overhead door is located in EXPO-1 and that’s probably why they cut off EXPO-3 instead.  But you could also keep the partition open during setup and close it before the gates open to the public.  Having to walk down the corridor to EXPO-1’s side entrance wasn’t really an inconvenience.  But it surely wasn’t inviting.
  6. Issue a thorough, well-written press release, submit it to local news media, and have it handy for when you see the press come to your event.  Or this news disaster may happen.
  7. How about a special event station?  There are plenty of paths to run coax to a temporary tower outside the exit doors off the EXPO rooms.
  8. The Wouff Hong is a fun event.  But don’t hold it at noon.  It’s supposed to be a secret midnight ceremony.  As an inducted member of the Royal Order of the Wouff Hong, I was offended.  🙂

After all of that, I still want to offer my thanks to those who operated this hamfest.  Even though it is declining, I still had a good time.  However, I would like to have a good time there ten and twenty years from now as well and I really hope it’s still around.

What other suggestions do you, my occasional reader, have to re-invigorate this hamfest or hamfests in general?  Please feel free to use the comments below.


(Published from DFW, Texas)


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