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Iowa State Fair: Saving The Sacred Cow
2013 attendance flat, spending up

9/18/2013

By Timothy Herrick

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Not only was an opening week catastrophe averted, but the Iowa State Fair turned a negative into a positive. They saved their sacred cow and the subsequent sales of a T-shirt commemorating the rescue significantly added to the organization's coffers.

Few states immediately epitomize America's heartland - the breadbasket of the world - faster than the great state of Iowa and few states match the international recognition Iowa has gained for this event, held continuously since 1854. In recent summers, the fair regularly hosts in excess of one-million attendees. Few fair mascots are as iconic and as identifiable with their fair as the Iowa State Fair Butter Cow, a masterpiece of bovine splendor, requiring 1,200 lbs. of butter. The butter cow has welcomed visitors to the fair since 1902.

Butter Emergency
Iowa ButterSometime between midnight and dawn the night before the fair, militant vegans broke into the cooler and covered the butter cow with fake blood. "Luckily, the fake blood doesn't' stick to butter," said Gary Slater, CEO of the Iowa State Fair. "It was relatively easy to clean up, it looked worse than it was."

Pictures of the blood-stained icon went viral, causing an outrage that vastly overwhelmed any sympathy for the vandals. The result was increased fair publicity and a pouring forth of region-wide support and goodwill for the event. The Midwest Diary Association donated more butter for repairs and Sarah Pratt, Iowa State Fair butter cow-sculptor since 2005, performed emergency surgery. Iowa's ultimate monument-to-dairy was ready for opening day and a new appreciation for this icon was shared by Iowans and Fair enthusiasts. The Iowa Fair Foundation soon made t-shirts - in butter-yellow of course - emblazoned with: Butter Cow Security. "More than 6,000 where sold in just few days," said Slater. "It was the best selling single item of fair merchandise at the Fair, which nobody expected."

Attendance Flat, Spending Up
One of the best attended fairs in the country, estimated attendance is 1,047,246, approximately a 4.5 percent dip compared to 2012. Slater points out that the 2012 figures used in the comparison are audited - the 2013 audited are not yet available - and the decline is likely within a statistical margin of error. Of course, over a million attendees is a figure any fair would welcome in any year, but the gate-count alone fails to accurately depict the financial success of the 2013 fair. "Merchandise sales and Food & Beverage Sales were up 15-17 percent, our parking was up," said Slater. "The only conclusion you can draw is that attendance was about the same and people spent more this year than last so that means we had a great fair."

While the attendance and the increased spending may not indicate the local economy is back to pre-recessionary levels, Slater added, "It does show an Iowa economy that is no longer worsening. Gas prices were reasonable this summer, and we got more people outside of the Des Moines area. There are a lot of positives with this fair."

One positive was a lucky break with the weather - the day after the Fair, a heat wave pushed temperatures into the dog-day range of the upper 90s - during the fair, the temps remained in the comfortable 80s during the day and 70s at night. "When people are comfortable, they stay longer. When it is hot they're not as comfortable, they drink more water, and not as much high-sugar beverages or beer. They don't want another corn dog."

The admission cost increased by  $1.00 in 2013 to $11 for 12 and older and $5 for ages 6-11 (5 and under free). The most-effective promotion  was a discounted advance admission $8 (12+) $4 (6-11) price.

MoonrakerMoonraker Returns
Belle City Amusements operated the midway, which featured 40 rides. The company had not made sales figures public, but Slater said, "It was a very successful midway. We are very happy with Belle City. Their workers are well-dressed and well mannered. You want your midway people looking friendly and polite. They all wear company shirts. The equipment is newly painted. They are very safety conscious, but they also look safety conscious, and that is what you want if your family is going to get on one of those mechanical contraptions. They run a very clean midway."

A midway highlight was the reintroduction of the Moonraker ride, an 80s-era ride named after the 1979 James Bond film. According to the Belle City website: "Hang on tight as the hair raising "Moonraker" ...  takes you to heights over 70 feet. This giant spinning disc ride takes you to angles up to 90 degrees at an exhilarating speed combined with oscillating action. The "Moonraker" is the only ride of its kind in North America"

"It was a very popular ride," said Slater. "It's a vintage ride, but they completely refurbished it, adding some LED lighting. It's similar to a Graviton, but nothing looked quite like it in this year's midway."

Country & Oldies
Paid attendance concerts at the Grandstand - which holds about 10,000 - featured Alan Jackson on closing night of the fair, "which probably was the highest attendance show," said Slater. Other top shows included Toby Keith, Kip Moore, Dierks Bentley, and Justin Moore. Top end ticket prices were $51 for Keith, with the average price hovering around $39. "We had one of our best nights with Train, which sold nearly 10,000 and Casting Crowns, the contemporary Christian Rock band, which sold over 7,000."

Happy Together, an oldies package featuring Flo & Eddie, Chuck Negron and Gary Lewis, "does very well every year we have it and there is a following. It is also very inexpensive, so it is a very profitable show."

Lost Saturday Night Live, another package show featuring comedians who first gained fame as cast-members of the late night comedy show had the worst sales of the summer. "Comedy can do well here, Larry the Cable Guy sells out, but this year this comedy night did not do very well."

More than $500,000 of free stage and grounds entertainment was also featured, including Blue Oyster Cult and Skid Row, and popular returnees Bandaloni, Chainsaw Carvers, The Blue Band and The Nadas.

Panacek FamilyFair Cuisine Contests
Approximately 190 food vendors offered a comprehensive line of fair food, including the premier of 18 new food items. Prior to opening day, the fair held a "tasting contest" for the new items, winners included Shrimp Corn Dog (a shrimp kebob coated in corn dog batter and fried), Strawberry Smoothie on-a-stick and a Bacon-wrapped Pork Riblet. "The contest was an additional promotion for the fair, a people's choice for fair food. People come to the fair for the food and they anticipate eating their favorite food at the fair and the contest promoted fair food," said Slater, adding. "The deep-fried Brownie was also popular.

Two new food vendors doing notable business at the Hawkeye State's fair was Parlo Pizza, which served "Fresh Wood Oven Pizza" cooked to order from a trailer that housed wood-fire grill, and Chuckie's Tenderloin, which served Fresh Tenderloin Sandwich, made with fresh meat that was never frozen, and then hand-sliced for the sandwich. "People raved about these two vendors, who did not have the best locations. People appreciated the freshness and the fact they were made to order. People who like fair food really like fair food and these vendors added something new while keeping with the fair food tradition."

In related food news, another first for Iowa as an Opening Day Meal Packaging event, a unique twist on the Food Drive - 45,438 pounds of donated food was packaged into more than 255,000 meals (which then were airlifted to Haiti). More than 1,500 volunteers participated in this massive goodwill gesture. "The support was overwhelming; we had 120 people packaging the food into an individual meal serving, which was then heat-sealed. The volunteers we recruited didn't even get free admission; it was a very successful event."

Cultural Center Renovation
The 2013 fair debuted the second-phase of the refurbishing of the Patty and Jim Cownie Cultural Center, a 3-story facility originally constructed in 1948 and hosts many of the fair's events, including contests as such Doll-House Making, Wood-Carving, China Doll Painting, as well as an Art Show - claimed to be the largest in the state, which features fine-arts and photography exhibits.

This year's attendees welcomed the improved creature-comforts at the venue, which included new air-conditioning and upgraded restrooms. Renovation resumed after the fair and the facility will be completed in time for the 2014 edition of the Iowa State Fair.

"Nothing Compares" has been the ongoing branding statement/tagline for the fair and facility marketing/advertising, but "Happiness Is" was the 2013 Fair campaign, which lends itself to an interactive response (Happiness Is the Iowa State Fair, etc.). New promotions included a Groupon campaign for the performance by Country Music Diva, Victoria Justice. Iowa State Fair also expanded its activity on Facebook, Twitter, YouTube and Pinterest, featuring daily interaction with attendees, contests and timely information.

"Some things like Victoria Justice, required a special plug, so we experimented with Groupon," said Slater. "Social media gave us a great response, the new food contests and the vendors were huge on the social network. Five years ago, maybe 10 percent of our marketing was on social media. Now, it's at least 75 percent. We're still doing the more traditional print marketing, but for the awareness of the fair and staying in-tune with all our friends who come to the fair every year, social media is huge. We would never have gotten the kind of support we did for the butter cow without it."

Photo credit:  Iowa State Fair & Belle City Amusements

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