For his first Mississippi Valley Fair as general manager, Shawn Loter implemented a few seemingly small but very significant changes to the fair, including facelifts to all the buildings and fairgrounds, repositioning key tents and creating a special social media center that engaged fairgoers.
The initiatives created a curiosity among the community, which may have helped boost attendance. But the driving goal was to fuse new life into the fair as well as year-round business for the fairgrounds. " We changed a lot of things, just to freshen up the fair, because people had been seeing the same thing for the last 10 years," he said. "I think some people came just to see what we were doing. But we are doing a good business year-round and we are growing that business. We rent out buildings all year, with fle
a markets, weekly bingo games."
The upgrade program included remodeling the 100-year old, 50-foot twin, archway towers that are the main gate of the fairgrounds, painting and other upgrades to every one of the 15 buildings on the grounds, ranging from exhibition facilities to cattle barns. New landscaping as well as asphalt and other street work was completed throughout the grounds.
Upgrades to the fairgrounds may help both the fair and the year-round value of the property, but the makeover didn't stop there. Loter redesigned the layout of the fair by repositioning tents and canopies for the actual event. The tents were mainly entertainment tents, ranging from regional and local bands to a range of grounds acts, including a tiger and elephant shows, a Lumber Jack show and a puppet show.
Repositioning the tents accomplished several objectives, especially the sense of change for change sake, as least as when it comes to appearance. "You cannot be doing the same thing year in and year out; people get used to it and don't want to come back. You want to keep things different."
Loter also added educational exhibitions and attractions, ranging from new agricultural education programs to a robotics demonstration.
Repositioning the tents improved pedestrian traffic flow, bringing attention and attendees to different areas of the fair, benefitting other exhibits and concessionaires. Loter also added a few new grounds acts - such as the lumberjack show -- which created fairgoer excitement. "I added a bunch of new acts, and my goal is to change the acts. Some acts will stay, people will always come for certain shows, but others we need to change them, which keeps people interested."
Social Media Booth
Another new addition by Loter for his freshmen year at the helm of this Iowa tradition was an innovative combination of the actual fairgrounds with the virtual world of social media. Social media of course is crucial to the fair's marketing program, but the Social Media Booth was an interactive center located on the grounds. Where many fairs conduct contests on Facebook and other social media platforms, Loter brought that contest promotion to the grounds with the Social media Booth, which hosted different contests - participants could win everything from tickets to meet & greets with the fair's headliners to the iconic fair food staple, corn dogs.
Winners were decided by the spin of a wheel located at the booth throughout the day, each contest being promoted on Facebook, the actual spin of the wheel covered on Facebook live. Once at the booth, contestants became followers on Facebook, as well as Twitter and Instagram. The ongoing contests at the Social Media Booth increased the fair's social media followers by more than 15 percent. Not only did the Social Media Booth expand the marketing audience of the fair, it promoted things like a corn dog vendor in real time at the fair. "Anytime you can give away stuff you get more people," he said.
The Mississippi Valley Fair has an advertising budget of approximately $250,000, consistent with last year, said Loter. The bulk of the expenditure is towards TV and Radio. "One of our major papers jumped up their advertising rates by 40 percent," said Loter, leading to less print advertising and shifting those funds to digital media. The Mississippi Valley Fair has its own jingle, "American Way to Play," which has long been used as a soundtrack to its commercial advertising.
The fair also featured a corn dog eating contest, determining how fast 10 corn dogs could be eaten, for a prize of $500. The winning time was 5 minutes, 20 seconds resulting in a tie and the winners split the prize money.
The fair averages about 40 food vendors, according to Loter, and its fair cuisine is generally traditional, which in addition to corn dogs, includes pizza, pull-pork sandwiches and turkey legs "turkey legs are the biggest sellers," he said.
The most popular new food vendors this year was a "new Mexican restaurant," he said. The most exciting new food time was a "wonder stick" ice cream cone," which he described as ice cream but "in a weird shaped cone."
Attendance at the fair was 295,000, about 4,000 more than last year. "The weather held up, it was very cool, which probably hurt beer sales,' he said. "Beer sells better when it's hot, but the weather was very comfortable.
Return visitors are key to the Mississippi Valley Fair's business strategy. The fair features a stellar line up of stars, which this year include Dustin Lynch, John Mellencamp, Randy Houser and Lynyrd Skynyrd, which due to a medical emergency, had to cancel days before their show. They were replaced by Vince Neil of Motley Crue.
The fair offers a once price admission deal - the Fun Card, where fairgoers can attend concerts each night of the six day fair. Fun Cards are priced at the bargain rate of $55, then a month before the fair, they jump to $60.
Loter is committed to both headline entertainment and the fun card concept, but the challenges of rising costs and competition and other issues related to fair entertainment continue to bedevil the fair.
"The big names drag their feet in committing to the state," he said. "We are the only fair with the Fun Card, but we need a few big names to tie into marketing by December first or second, so people can give the Fun Cards as Christmas presents. We want to keep the Fun Card affordable, we set a budget and we are already looking for acts. But it is a little harder, and it can be difficult, and it really becomes a waiting game."
Evan's United Shows is the carnival company for the Mississippi Valley Fair, with a midway of about 30 rides. Loter said that the midway provider introduced a new Chicago Loop ride. However, in spite of the significant attendance increase, "the carnival was down this year, because of the incident in Ohio," said Loter, referring to the Fireball accident during the Ohio State Fair that resulted in a fatality. "That just scared people across the board, and I think they stayed away from the carnival because of it," he said. "I was interviewed about the safety of the rides at our fair constantly, so we got a lot of coverage and I was able to explain that we are a safe fair and all the precautions we take, but it hurt this year's midway."
Loter is a 29-year veteran of the 98-year-old Mississippi State Fair, and prior to his promotion he held the position of Maintenance Manager. The fair conducted an executive search before selecting Loter, deciding that an internal move would serve the best interests of the fair. Upon his announcement, the local press quoted Mile Vondran, board president, Mississippi Valley Fair Board: "Shawn has been a member of our fairgrounds family since the age of 13,''. "He truly loves the fair and all its heritage. He is an outstanding young man and the perfect person to take us past our century mark.''
Loter said that for his first fair as general manager, "I made the transition smoothly. The biggest change is that instead of being responsible for the maintenance crew, I'm in charge of a few hundred people."
The Mississippi Valley Fair is one of the biggest of the Midwest "county" fair and has a 100 year anniversary fair looming, further heightening expectations, but Loter is looking forward to even further changes for 2018. "We need more daytime activity to bring in the families. We are a night time fair, that's when we get our biggest crowds, and they're a night time crowd. We are working towards bringing in more families during the day."