What makes the Maryland State Fair unique is its focus on agriculture, despite its location in Timonium, Maryland, a suburb of Baltimore. Just 14 miles north of Baltimore - where some low-income neighborhoods are considered "food deserts", the fair provides visitors an opportunity to see live animals and to learn about farming. This year's fair took place from August 23 to September 2, but the 100-acre fairgrounds, also home to a thoroughbred racetrack, are used throughout the year for approximately 200 events.
The Maryland State Fair is a private, non-profit organization founded in 1878. The fair receives support from the Maryland Department of Agriculture and also receives a grant for relinquishing racing days. The casino and racetrack receive support in the form of purses and capital improvements.
"We receive several sources of funding beyond what we're able to generate," says Max Mosner, the fair's General Manager.
After experiencing two years of less-than-stellar attendance, the Maryland State Fair finally recovered this summer with about 407,000 attendees, up 35.1%.
"We're coming off of the two worst years in my 51-year history with the fair. Last year we just barely made 301,000, and the prior year we made 312,000," said President and General Manager Max Mosner, who oversees a full-time staff of about 22 year-round employees. "We've gotten back to what I consider a normal, good year. We're pleased with the outcome. Our weather was near perfect, but in the two prior years we had hurricanes and tropical storms. We were due for a good one."
Admission prices this year were $8 for adults, $6 for seniors, and $3 for children (ages 6 to 11), while children under 5 years old were admitted free. Some special promotions included M&T Dollar Preview Night with $1 admission and $1 per ride, a Food Lion ride coupon, which was a discount coupon available at Food Lion grocery stores, and a Labor Day Ride special: unlimited rides for $23.
This year, Mosner and his team tried to do a few things differently. First was the introduction of self-service ticketing kiosks.
"Our ticketing agency had the self-service terminals here for an off-season event, and we had an opportunity to take a look at them and give them a try," said Mosner. "We don't have the numbers yet, but I'm expecting that only a couple thousand people used the kiosks for the 11 days. If it's more than that I'd be surprised. We're probably going to continue using them, though, and I think people are getting used to self-service terminals."
Another new addition to this year's fair was 10 days (increased from previous years) of live horse racing.
"Our racetrack is probably the fifth or sixth oldest continually operating thoroughbred track in the country. It's been a part of our history since at least 1878. Few if any fairs east of the Mississippi are doing thoroughbred racing," said Mosner. "We did okay this year. The Maryland Jockey Club, which is in charge of the Preakness, helped us with personnel and provided advice. They're very accommodating."
Horse racing had always been the main form of entertainment, but this year Mosner and his team felt they needed to offer a more diverse array of attractions.
"We converted one building on the grounds into two stages and put local entertainment there. Budweiser brought in a two-story bar with a mechanical bull and food concession. The Goat Mountain exhibit, a chance for guests to see goats in their natural habitat, was very popular. We put a 100-ton sand sculpture in our exhibition hall, and we had a high-dive show," said Mosner.
Other entertainment included bull riding and barrel racing, masters of the chainsaw, a sand sculpture contest, a sausage-eating contest, a Batmobile replicar, and the Miss Maryland Agriculture Contest, which was a chance for young women to compete for scholarships and cash awards valued at $13,000.
Unfortunately, the concert series at this year's fair was not as profitable as Mosner and his team had hoped. Headlining acts included Carly Rae Jepsen, Fall Out Boy, and Three Days Grace.
"We thought we had some pretty good people coming in, but for some reason we were unsuccessful in selling tickets," said Mosner. "Those acts have been successful every place they went. I'm starting to think our problem in the Baltimore/Washington market is that people can see these big names at numerous facilities in the area, and our budget can't compete with that. We need to take a hard look at how we're going to handle entertainment events in the future."
This year's midway, provided by Deggeller Attractions, offered 42 rides and shows like dark rides and fun houses. Deggeller is known for its assortment of amusement rides, sense of quality and detail, and emphasis on safety. The company is a member of the Outdoor Amusement Business Association's Circle of Excellence and, in addition to the Maryland State Fair, services events like the Arkansas State Fair and Virginia State Fair. Carnival revenue this year increased by more than 38%.
The fair generally has about 30 food vendors, unlike some larger fairs that have hundreds of vendors.
"We have the Maryland Food Pavillion, which is not part of the carnival operation. They have eight different food vendors that specialize in different commodities like beef, pork, chicken, turkey, and seafood," said Mosner. "You can get whatever you're looking for, and the vendors put out a good product for a fair price."
The 4H competitions, demonstrations, and exhibits are also a major draw, and they give people from the urbanized area a chance to experience agriculture. 4H events included beef, livestock, and dairy shows in addition to a costume animal contest and livestock sale.
"We've been fortunate that the agricultural community and 4H in Maryland are very strong," said Mosner. "The U-Learn Farm is aimed at young children. Down at Cow Palace we have a birthing center and a milking parlor. For a lot of our customers, it's the only time they see a chicken hatch out of an egg. I think it's well received."
The fair spent about $180,000 on advertising this year. They partnered with advertising agency 83 North, which is located directly across the street from the fairgrounds.
"We have a Fox affiliate as a media sponsor so they give us a lot of free time in addition to what we buy. But then we buy radio, billboard and some newspaper. The Baltimore Sun is a sponsor as well so we get advertising there. We had a nice marketing, promotional, and cooperative effort with CBS radio stations in Baltimore," said Mosner.
In addition to traditional advertising channels, the fair also used social media networks like Facebook (more than 8,500 "likes") and Twitter (more than 2,400 followers).
"Our agency made a proposal to us that they would handle the social media for us during the fair because the people who do it throughout the year have other responsibilities for those 11 days," said Mosner. "We found social media maybe wasn't getting the attention it should have been given. I think there are some improvements we can make for next year."
Next year's fair will be held from August 22 to September 1, and the team has already started working on changes and improvements.
"We're so space poor, it hurts. Our parking facilities are just totally inadequate," said Mosner. "But one of the things we've looked at doing is creating a special area for Kiddie Land, which would be separate from our main midway. We're also going to bring in a rollercoaster next year, and we think that will help with performance of the midway."