Few fairs are as iconic and successful as the Minnesota State Fair. Exemplifying the optimistic, and egalitarian so often attitudes associated with the Midwest, the Minnesota State Fair also enjoys state-wide support, living up to its tagline, of Minnesota's Great Get Together, year in and year out.
But however iconic, successful and long running an outdoor event is, back-to-back record breaking attendance for one of the largest outdoor events in the U.S. is a significant and noteworthy accomplishment. "You can't plan for a record breaking year or the kind of fair we had," said Jerry Hammer, General Manager, Minnesota State Fair. "To fully appreciate this year, you have to realize how incredible last year was. In terms of attendance, which drives spending and economic impact, in that context, this is the third time we went over 1.9 million, and remember, we do not count kids, so that's at least another 100,000. It is quite a jump."
Officially, the fair's 2017 record total was 1,997,320, surpassing the previous record of 1,943,719 set in 2016. In addition, three different record attendance days were set: Monday, Aug. 28, with 144,504 visitors; Friday, Sept. 1, with 187,066 visitors; Sunday, Sept. 3, with 242,759 visitors. "It is extraordinary we had 50,000 more than last year," he said. The weather was generally cooperative, although actually better last year. There was rain on two weekend days, said Hammer, "we had bad rain on one day, but we still had 160,000 that day, in ponchos and with umbrellas," he said. The midway always suffers the most when it comes to inclement weather, but "we have several buildings and barns, so we create an inside environment people can enjoy."
Hammer did point out a few factors that the fair has strived to keep returning. Probably the most key rule of thumb underscoring the fair's philosophy can be summed as too much is never enough, "give them too much to do," said Hammer. "You want to give people the feeling that the more you explore the fair, the more things you find to do."
What this does is not only add value to the price of admission, but encourages repeat visits. He mentioned an anecdote about a family member's coworker who said she went five times to the fair, "she said that were so much to do that she had to keep coming back, so clearly people like the environment, where you want to come back, where you don't want to miss something."
In addition to abundance, affordability is likewise key. "The first thing is to make it affordable. That happens in the context of having a lot of things to do. At the Band Shell this year, watching George Clinton and Parliament Funkadelic, and I was talking to a young man and was really excited to see George Clinton for only $14, where a ticket to see him at a club would be $40. You have to make the fair experience affordable."
Park & Ride
Lastly, accessibility is a necessity for fairs. Traffic snarls and parking can be the bane of many outdoor events, and fairs are just as susceptible to word of mouth, intensified by Facebook, Twitter, and Yelp. The fair developed a Park & Ride system with stations throughout the Twin City area, where free shuttle buses take attendees to the West Market, which opened in 2014 and featured a the new Transit Hub - which utilized a restored, 80-year-old "arch" - from a North St. Paul train depot. According to Hammer, about a million people use the system, an incredible easement for parking and traffic woes. The convenience though is only one aspect. One reason the new commute to the fair works better now than before is that fairgoer riders were dropped off on what Hammer described "as a dusty lot between buildings,' then walked to the gate. "Now when you arrive at the transit hub, there's a sparkling entrance, and history, and you are already at the Northern part of the fairgrounds," he said.
Like the best of customer amenities, the Park & Ride system is not just more convenient, the West End Market and its Transit Hub, enhanced the fair experience. In fact, it's that very experience Hammer feels is another factor in the recent winning streak of record-setting Minnesota State Fairs. "Coming to the fair makes people feel good and they leave smiling," said Hammer. "Older people remember the times they had here and keep coming back. People come to the fair to get that sense of feeling good. Maybe it's something in the human condition that we need to feel grounded, to laugh out loud."
As the fairgoers using the Park & Ride system now enters the West Market, immediately being thrusted into the Fair milieu, this universal need to escape the troubles of the day has fueled the continued success of the Minnesota State Fair. "I think we can all agree, that whatever your politics, things are pretty screwed up right now," said Hammer. "People come to the fair just to feel good because so many things today are screwed up."
Grandstand Sell Outs
The regional economy has seemed to stabilize, accentuating the positive attitudes driving attendees through the gates. There were upticks in spending for food & beverage, and a record (paid ticket) concert attendance -- total Grandstand attendance was 120,383, again beating the previous record, in 2016, of 111,319. Sold out shows included: John Mellencamp with special guest Carlene Carter, Pentatonix with special guest Us The Duo and Sam Hunt with special guests LANCO and Ryan Follese.
"It was our best year in the grandstands, and we remodeled the grandstands," said Hammer. While booking is still a sellers market, he does feel that this year things were a little easier than previous booking cycles. "Two years ago, it was a tougher market. Booking is built on relationships, and Renee Alexander (Deputy General Manager of the Fair and in charge of booking acts at the fair) works closely with agents and has a good reputation with those agents."
Just prior to the fair, the Minnesota Star Tribute ran an article entitled, How Minnesota State Fair is Winning the Battle with Casinos for Grandstand Acts, which stated one reason the fair was able to stay aggressive against the rising competition was lineup diversity. "Eight of the 11 acts at this year's Minnesota State Fair grandstand have never headlined there. "It's probably one of the most diverse lineups we've had for quite some time," said Alexander.
Great Big Wheel
The Minnesota State Fair's independent midway featured 60 rides (30 in the Midway; 30 in the Kidway) and 47 games, which meant contrasting with 23 ride providers and 12 game concessionaires.
The foot print was similar in size to 2016, but the total midway revenue did take a hit of 5.9 percent from last year, reaching $6,912,437.24, down about $431,611, with rides alone down by $261,322, while games dropped $170,288. "It goes with the territory," said Jim Sinclair, Deputy General Manager, Minnesota State Fair. "We had period of inclement weather and the midway is susceptible, and it doesn't track with the gate. We had a rainy day, and a cool, first Saturday. We didn't get rained out, but we only recovered some. We still had a good fair."
Not included in the midway gross was the new addition of the 156' tall Great Big Wheel - co-owned by Wade Shows and Wood Entertainment - which was sponsored by Cricket Wireless. The wheel was placed on a hill, and like the sky-glider, is considered an off-midway ride. The wheel was located near the edge of the fairgrounds, and Sinclair said, "we always wanted a wheel on that hill. We wanted the wheel to be on highpoint of the fairgrounds because we wanted a great view from the wheel."
Sinclair said the wheel had 216 riders per cycle and at times, about 1,000 riders per hour were on the wheel during peak time. "You are not going to get the full capacity every time, but we had a total of 124,958 riders. The wheel had a very positive impact on pedestrian flow, by placing it away from the midway it brought new people to concessions in that area of the grounds."
In addition, the size, height, capacity and impressive array of publicity about the ride added to the premier of the new "Great Big Wheel," which Sinclair said is the new "iconic image of the fair and exceeded all expectations."
Top 15 Rides & Games at the 2017 Minnesota State Fair
1. Crazy Mouse Spinning Roller Coaster S.J. Entertainment
2. Starship 3000 Laser Fair, Inc.
3. Sky Flyer Reithoffer Equipment Co., Inc.
4. New York New York Fun House Fair Ride Entertainment LLC
5. Puppy Express Prime Pacific Ent. LLC
6. Galaxy Roller Coaster Reithoffer Equipment Co., Inc.
7. Wave Swinger - Fair Ride Entertainment LLC
8. Air Max Mr. Ed's Magical Midways LLC
9. Tilt-A-Whirl Lauther Amusements
10. Flipper S.J. Entertainment
11. Equinox Laser Fair, Inc.
12. Arabian Daze Fun House Fun Attractions LLC
13. Magic Maze Glass House Wood Entertainment Company, Inc.
14. Dragon Wagon Roller Coaster - Prime Pacific Ent. LLC
15. Monkey Maze Glass House Alamo Amusements, Inc.
1. Bottle Up Candice P. Anderson
2. Goblets Candice P. Anderson
3. Goblets Candice P. Anderson
4. Long Range Basketball Oren Concessions LLC
5. Long Range Basketball Oren Concessions LLC
6. Ring-A-Bottle Trejo Concessions
7. Whopper Water Race Cassata Concessions
8. Shoot Out The Star Midwest Concessions, Inc.
9. Roll Down Potopas Concessions, Inc.
10. Star Dart Diversified Amusements, Inc.
11. Mini Basketball Oren Concessions LLC
12. Ring-A-Bottle JBS Concessions
13. Milk Cans Potopas Concessions, Inc.
14. Rising Waters Water Race Cassata Concessions
15. Balloon Pop Water Race Thornberry Concessions
CLICK HERE to view the official Minnesota State Fair Photo Gallery