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Wisconsin Going Independent Route
Best attendance in 15 years
By Ron Weber, Editor
For Rick Frenette, opening day of the 2011 Wisconsin State Fair was something he was very much looking forward to. In his second year as manager, Frenette had a full year to prepare promotions, entertainment and all the other fair elements to reflect his insights after his first year at the helm. Opening night was likely a time for a quick celebration after getting through opening and assessing what corrections were needed.
As happens so often in the special event industry, the best plans can be changed in an instant by circumstances you couldn,t have predicted. On opening night, teenagers gathering on the midway began to fight and disrupt other patrons. The troublemakers were ushered to exits on the fairgrounds.
Outside the gates, the groups "continued their antics", according to Frenette. Patrons were knocked down and injured, property was damaged and increased security had to be called to stop the rampaging mobs outside the grounds.
There were 24 arrests on the fairgrounds and the rest of the run of the fair was possibly in jeopardy with guests fearing for their safety. Frenette said this was not the first incident in Milwaukee in the weeks surrounding the fair but it certainly received lots of media attention and calls for answers from fair guests.
Having spent his entire adult life in the fair business, including heading the Ohio State and Utah State Fairs, Frenette was familiar with crisis situations. He called his management team to the fair for a 6 am meeting. The board chairman and staff "batted around ideas, age limits, times for admissions, what the effect of the teen-centered grandstand shows would be", said Frenette, before settling on a policy of restricting admission after 5pm to those accompanied by an adult.
The fair called a noon news conference to announce the policy, which would take effect at 5pm that afternoon. In addition, the fair hired a security company to check IDs at the gate and secure the entrances.
Frenette,s initial feeling about the increased police presence and black mark on the event was not a pleasant one. He felt for the overwhelming majority of guests and teens who behaved themselves at the fair but he now had to disrupt their visit times "because of some bad apples", he said. "I just don,t understand the mentality", he added.
In hindsight, the policy of checking IDs at the gate turned into a real plus for Wisconsin State Fair guests. There were many positive comments after the policy was implemented and Frenette believes guests appreciated the steps the fair took to ensure the incidents did not happen again. By the end of the event, 911,213 people attended the Wisconsin State Fair, the best attendance in the last 15 years.
The fair had great weather, the gate was up and food sales were up. Vendors were also happy with the results.
Promotionally, the fair added Family Value Day on Tuesday, a promotion Frenette started at the Ohio State Fair in the 90s. Kids got in free and adults were admitted for the kid,s price. 2-for-1 wristbands were sold on the midway and vendors offered food specials. The promotion resulted in an increase of over 20,000 people for the day.
Just after the fair, the fair made news again, this time within the industry, when the board voted to manage the midway area internally. The first board vote was actually to retain a midway area because of some calls to eliminate the rides and attractions all together. With that direction decided, they then took up the issue of what the midway would look like going forward. Their contract with Murphy Brother,s Expositions expired after the 2011 fair and the fair had sent out requests for interest from potential carnival and independent suppliers in late 2010. Frenette said the vote to manage the midway internally was "the best thing for us at this time".
Adam Heffron, who worked at the Minnesota State Fair, where they operate an independent midway, will be leading the midway project in Wisconsin. Heffron will see that the fair has adequate staff, equipment, including generators, boxes and wire and inspectors to properly operate the midway in 2012.
Heffron and his team will be selecting the rides, games and limited food stands from the proposals received by the fair.
Frenette said the rides and games will be taking tickets and food will still work on a cash basis. Games will pay the fair 25% of gross sales and rides will pay 45%.
Unlike some other independent midways, the Wisconsin State Fair will offer unlimited ride wristbands every day of the fair. Rides will be compensated using a formula developed by the fair to ensure equity in distributing the funds, according to Frenette.
Requests for proposals to bring equipment for the 2012 midway to the Wisconsin State Fair are available on the fair,s website:
The deadline for submission is Oct. 31st.
The number of rides and games provided by any one entity is not restricted in the RFP. Potential applicants have the ability to apply for as many or as few spaces as they would like.
Frenette sees the internal operation of the midway in 2012 as a way to continue his improvement of the fair experience for his guests. The fair will be adding creature comforts such as shading and sit-down areas. Beautification of the midway will be undertaken including the addition of decorations and landscaping.
Frenette envisions less rides and games than in 2011 but the equipment will be of the highest quality with increased capacity and better selection in both areas.
"Families are coming back to the fair and we want to go to an even higher level for them", said Frenette. "It,s (the fair-managed midway) more work for the fair but everyone is prepared", he added.