One of the most iconic state fairs in the country, the Iowa State Fair, had a record setting year in terms of attendance - 1,130,072, up 9.14 percent from 2016.
In fact, this 11-day event benefited from near optimum weather-or as Gary Slater, CEO of the Iowa State Fair. described it, "unseasonably reasonable" for late Midwestern summer.
The 2017 numbers were also higher than the 1,117,398 attendance number from 2015 - a remarkable feat, given that the fair is known to be a prime photo-op stop for presidential primary candidates for the year before the election year. In addition, the fair recorded two record Saturdays with more than 120,000 attendees.
The weather was as good as you could order it," said Slater. "We had one rain day and most days were below 90 and above 80 but with very low humidity. Attendance was up this year and all preliminary discussions with vendors indicate that sales were up too, so it seems the economy is picking up steam."
Optimum weather was aided by a sustained improvement in the economic climate. "We had all-time records set at the fair," said Slater. "The economy is continuing to grow and that had something to do with it. Most of the economy in central Iowa is in agriculture, and people working jobs in that sector stayed employed, and that affects other areas, like John Deere products. The economy is our metro areas is better than last year, interest rates are low, borrowing money is not as hard as it was, and you see lot of construction and expansion."
Few states epitomize the American Heartland like Iowa and since most fairs at their core are celebrations of Americana, the fair industry always takes notice of the annual edition of one of the most iconic events in this sector. The Iowa State Fair takes place not only in the Midwestern state that many feel epitomizes America's heartland and its agricultural fairs. But the fair industry was paying closer attention this year to the Iowa State Fair for its total makeover of its midway format.
Belle City Amusements had been the fair's midway provider for several years, but instead of renewing or renegotiating their contract - or soliciting RFPs from another large midway provider - Iowa decided to follow the footsteps of other Midwestern state fairs, such as Minnesota and Wisconsin and create an independent midway.
Independence was just one midway debut in 2017. The other was the first ever electronic wristbands at the Iowa State Fair since its 1854 inception. According to Slater, there was much heated discussion about the wisdom of testing both untried initiatives - an independent midway and electronic wristbands - simultaneously. "That was the most debated issue we had, how do you roll out two major things during the same fair?" said Slater. "There were negatives on both sides."
Slater conducted extensive market research for both the independent midway and the electronic wristbands, consulting with many fairs, including the Miami Dade County Youth Fair, the Wisconsin State Fair, and the Minnesota State Fair. Rick Frenette of Fair Advantage was hired as a consultant to the fair.
"We did our homework," he said.
The biggest anticipated hurdle for the electronic wristband - acceptance by the Iowa fairgoer - proved to be the least of their worries. "It was readily accepted by the public," he said. "We thought there would times we had to take people off to the side and explained how it worked, but most people, especially the millennials, already knew how to use the system. The problems we expected didn't really happen."
How much more profitable the streamlined, digitized system is compared to the paper ticket system has yet to be determined. Slater admitted that the inaugural year is not a justifiable measure. "We are still crunching those numbers," he said. "It is still more expensive our first year, there are a lot more costs involved."
How well did the other 2017 Iowa State Fair introduction do? Actually, the new midway format alone may have helped fuel turnout. "We attribute some of the increase in attendance to people that were coming to see the new midway. People may have been skeptical, but people came to see the new midway. But people liked the change and we feel they got hooked, and will come back next year. "
The new midway featured 45 rides, an increase of five rides over the previous footprint. The fair invested $8 million in capital improvements, which included a new admission gate, restrooms, roadwork and enlarging the midway area by 50 percent. "We added more room and more space," said Slater. The objective was not to squeeze in more rides, but to "make the aisles wider, give people more rom and space. We were able to accommodate more people in a more friendly atmosphere, so they weren't all pushed together in narrow spaces or alleyways."
Not only did the fair follow the examples of other fairs and create a bigger separation between the adult and children's rides, they christened each with new moniker - Thrill Ville for the main midway, and Thrill Town for the children's area. The notion was inspired by what has become best practices in some segments of the fair industry. "We have heard from other fairs, that parents of young children do not like putting all the rides together," he said. "Our families loved the new layout because the parents were more relaxed."
The top grossing rides at the fair: Crazy Mouse, Giant Wheel, Hang Glider, Groovy Train, Centrifuge, Space Roller, Magnum, Extreme, Rockstar and the Bumper Boats.
While more tweaks and changes are in store for the Iowa fair's new midway, Slater did note that an independent midway benefits from something one carnival company is unable to provide - competition. The Iowa State Fair contracted with 15 ride companies (and five game concessionaires for its 18 games) for its new midway format. "Each owner has a stake in getting as many people get on their particular ride. They each have to be friendly and provide customer service. I really appreciate the independent model for how they each sold their own rides."
Thrill Park Marketing
The fair's advertising budget was $600,000 "a slight increase for special promotions for the new Thrill Park," said Slater.
The marketing theme this year was: 'Nothing Compares to Iowa State Fair Thrills', with a media mix of: TV - 32 percent; Radio - 30 percent; Print - 20 percent and Outdoor/Out of Home/Transit-15 percent; and 3 percent online. "We started our own Snap Chat account and we had great success with Facebook Live events," he said. "Engagement increased 25 percent because of our live videos."
The headline entertainment included four concerts that sold more than 10,000 tickets - I Love the 90s, Featuring Vanilla Ice, Salt-N-Pepa, Color Me Badd, Tone Loc, Coolio, and Young MC, Pentatonix with special guest Us the Duo, Little Big Town with special guest Seth Ennis, and Kid Rock with special guest Uncle Kracker. " Pentatonix sold out in just 2 hours," he added.
However, talent buying for even this large, iconic fair is not getting easier. "It is a challenge to book entertainment every year," he said. " It is definitely still a sellers' market. Top entertainment is more expensive. We sold 81,000 tickets this year, last year was 82,000."
The fair also featured 197 food stands, from 80 different vendors. Slater noted that the fair holds a fair food contest 30 days before opening day. "This works, because people were anticipating the new foods. Our marketing emphasized the new foods."
The three top selling new Iowa State Fair foods were: Iowa's Big Pork Leg, Pork Almighty and Mig's Applewood Smoked Chicken Wrap. According to Slater, fairgoers voted and chose the Pork Almighty as the People's Choice Best New Food for 2017.
New foods, quality entertainment in spite of booking challenges, and a new midway format and wristband system that was well received by the public helped the 2017 Iowa State Fair overcome challenges and achieve objectives. "The Fair was one for the record books, the weather was perfect, great entertainment, and a top-notch livestock competition" said Slater. We couldn't ask for anything more."