A severe heat wave hit the Midwest just in time for the Nebraska State Fair, which had a beleaguered attendance during the early 00s and is still getting used to its new home in Grand Island, where it moved to in 2009. With temperature in the high nineties for many of the days of this 11-day event, the fair struggled but luckily, cooler weather arrived in time for final stretch of this fair, which concluded over Labor Day Weekend.
"The heat was certainly an issue for the first nine days when temperatures were much higher than weeks previous to the start of the fair", said Joseph McDermott, Executive Director of the Nebraska State Fair. "Happily, our total attendance came in at 334,931 which is just 2,056 visitors behind 2012. We rallied the final two days of the fair when even Labor Day attendance was 3,500 higher than the same day a year ago. This single day attendance record surpassed our previous record of 67,929 on the same Sunday in 2011."
In spite of the challenges of a new location and oppressive heat, McDermott pointed out that Nebraska State Fair attendance figures remain steady. The peak day for the fair, he added "was only 367 visitors short of the all time State Fair single day attendance record of 71,627 set in 2009-the final year the State Fair was in Lincoln."
Before it was even a state, Nebraska held its first state fair, in 1859 when Nebraska was still a territory and the American Civil War had yet to begin. It was not until 1868 that the state fair was held in the new official state. From 1872 until 1901, the fair alternated locations between Omaha and Lincoln, until the state legislature named Lincoln as the home for what was now an annual event. By the 21st century, according to Wikipedia: "Struggling with lowered attendance, the Nebraska State Fair was thought by some to be threatened with termination in the early years of the new millennium."
But the people of the Cornhusker State rallied to save the fair. The Nebraska State Fair was a voluntary donation recipient to the annual state income tax and in 2004 Nebraska voters approved an amendment to the state's constitution directing the Nebraska Lottery to earmark 10 percent of annual net proceeds for the "enhancement" of the annual fair. In 2010, Nebraska allocated $42 million to construct new facilities in Grand Island. Nebraska risked the potentially negative impact on attendance, but moving the fair further away from this more populated area towards a more rural location - Grand Island is in the heart of Nebraska's agricultural industry - coupled with the added bonus of new facilities - has proven to be a success.
The Nebraska State Fair has not only sustained previous fair attendance levels, but has experienced a measurable jump in attendee enthusiasm. A customer satisfaction survey indicated that 93.4 percent approval rating for the 2013 edition. State Fair Board Chairman, Jana Kruger said, "Given our tremendous survey results, we know we're continuing to do the right thing year after year to keep folks coming back for more. We're very pleased we're able to provide a family friendly venue for all of our visitors."
The change in location has meant an increase in people from central Nebraska, but the fair is steadily increasing its state-wide draw. "We do know that 60 percent of our attendance came from Grand Island and Central Nebraska and 17 percent came from Lincoln and Omaha," said McDermott. "The Lincoln/Omaha numbers are up a percentage point over 2012."
Back to the Farm
Much of this continued and even new-found popularity of the Nebraska State Fair is attributable to a return to the rural beginnings of the event. "In Lincoln the fair had become urbanized and most likely attracted a different crowd," said Shaun Schleif, Marketing and Sponsorship Director, Nebraska State Fair. "In Grand Island, there has been a recommitment to agriculture at the fair."
The Grand Island facilities also assisted the fair's re-focus on agriculture. Newly built, state-of-the art, swine, sheep and cattle barns and other exhibition facilities gave the agrarian aspects of the fair a needed boost. "The facilities are more accessible, not on the fringes of the fair," said Schleif. "Somebody showing cows told me he had more people in fifteen minutes at Grand Island than the entire fair at Lincoln."
Schleif describes the new facilities "as wonderful, and the envy of the fair industry. They are well lit and bring excitement to this core part of the fair. Farm families have been going to this fair for generations, and that sense of community has been strengthened by the new facilities."
The New Midway
In 2013, Wade Shows became the midway provider. "The contract was coming due with Belle City and we shopped it around to the top midway providers in the nation," said Schleif. " In the end, Wade Shows was chosen because of their ride selection in addition to partnering with the Nebraska State Fair for the installation of the AirCare Sky Tram."
According to Schleif, Wade Shows installed the Sky Tram in 2012, which was a resounding success. In 2013, the full-contract with Wade Shows went into effect. In addition, the new fair layout also put the midway front and center, closer to the entrance of the fair, setting the fun and exciting tone of the vent for each individual attendee. "Having the midway the first thing they see really gets the fairgoer's heart pumping immediately, it gives them feeling of being at the fair," said Schlief.
In addition to the rides, Schlief stated that the Wade Shows "made the whole experience very comfortable. The people operating the rides are well-dressed, clean and professional. They also have great landscaping. They make the midway a great place to visit, with plant life, and shady areas, lots Photo Opportunity Areas. The cleanliness is impeccable."
In addition to the Sky Ride, other Wade Show rides featured in Nebraska included the White Water Log Flume ride, one of only a few portable models in the United States, and the Fighter, an enormous portable ride that swings riders high in the air on arms that extend out from the center of the ride, the Crazy Cat roller coaster, the Mega Drop and the Drag Strip Mega Slide. In addition, Wade Shows showcased its new kidde area, Lil, Pardner Land. "We want to have attractions where Mom and Dad can ride along with the kids on our midways" said Frank Zaitshik, owner of Wade Shows. "We try to make our carnival midway as close to what you would find at an amusement park as possible."
Cuisine on a Stick
More than 70 food vendors participated in this year's Nebraska State Fair. According to Schleif, one of the more popular items were new - Moink Balls: which were meatballs wrapped in bacon and dipped in barbeque sauce served on a stick (Moink is an amalgamation of Moo and Oink). "Also, Fried Alligator on a stick," added Schleif. "In general, traditional fair food on a stick is popular. People come have certain expectations of fair food." In fact, the fair surveyed indicated that 70.1 percent of attendees said that "Food/Eating" was their main reason for going to the fair.
Affordability is also a mandate for the fair - ticket prices remained $10 for adults ($7 on Monday, Tuesday, Wednesday). The 2013 fair featured seven concerts -the two paid concerts, with ticket cost around $30, were Classic-Rock stalwarts, Chicago and Lynyrd Skynard, who appeared on the closing night of the fair. The other concerts were part of the Nebraska State Fair Fan Club program, a wrist-band system that also includes Fair admission. Country music secured the spotlight of the 2013 Fan Club program, performers included Kellie Pickler, Mel Tillis, and Eli Young Band. Toby Mac was this year's Contemporary Christian concert. "We want the fair to be affordable for all Nebraska families, and we strive to keep those concert ticket prices low," added Schleif.
The Midway, agricultural exhibits and events and of course, the food are the key draws of the Nebraska State Fair - the other component in this equation that makes up it's success is to "Surround it with fun family fare around every corner. Some of the new strolling acts include the Showbot (a "robot" act), from Napa Auto Parts; The Pirates of the Columbian Caribbean ( high wire aerial); K9 Kings Flying Dog Show (A Frisbee and dog agility show), TAIKOPROJECT (taiko drummers) and The Enchanted Wagon (interactive puppet show with a giant, mechanized box turtle with a gypsy wagon on its back). "Along with the new acts for 2013 we're also happy to welcome back some fan favorites," said Chelsey Jungck, head of State Fair Events and Entertainment. "Each year we search worldwide for performers and acts that are not only new to Nebraska State Fair attendees, but also fun and exciting for fairgoers, of any age."
The Nebraska State Fair is an agricultural non-profit and does not receive state funding.The fair's annual budget is $5.5 million; about 20 percent of that revenue is derived from sponsorship. The fair's $300,000 advertising/marketing budget, according to Schleif, is almost equally divided between Television, radio, print and online. "We are using more social media, and we try to mix it up. Radio is still very effective for us, and we promote in the print and online editions of the newspaper. We introduced the Nebraska State Fair Smart Phone App this year, which was very popular."