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In Spite of Weather Challengers, Century Old Kansas State Fair has solid year

10/21/2013

By Timothy Herrick

Photo courtesy of Kansas State Fair

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County and even what might now be considered state-wide celebrations of the agriculture industry existed in Kansas for several decades prior to 1913, the year the Kansas State Fair was established.  Once begun, this 10-day late-summer event has operated under that name every year since.

The Kansas State Fair - which ran September 5-15 in Hutchinson - has a $5 million annual budget. The Fair is a state agency and the entirety of its operating budget comes from revenue it generates through the State Fair and rental of facilities throughout the year. "Kansas State Fair... It Never Gets Old," was the promotional tagline for this centennial edition of the fair, which balanced history and tradition against a less than cooperative mother nature. The 2013 record-breaking Midwest Heat Wave hit for the opening four days ofPhoto By Kansas State Fair the Kansas State Fair. Temperatures soared beyond 100 degrees.

"It was unusual for that time, much warmer than normal," said Denny Stoecklein, General Manager. "There was no air movement, no wind. We still had good crowds, but in that heat, people don't spend as much."

As the fair progressed, mother nature showed signs of cooperation. Stoecklein pointed out, "the weather broke mid-week, then we started seeing some great crowds."

Unfortunately, her cooperation was not consistent. The final day of the fair, rain storms poured 2 1/2 inches of water on the closing-day festivities, forcing a midway shutdown, although   the evening's headlining act still performed. "8,000 showed for our Toby Keith concert, and there was just enough of a window between storms to present the show."

Highest Grossing Day Ever

In spite of these impediments, "what we could control went very well," said Stoecklein. "We are in the process of conducting our ticket audit to determine attendance, preliminary indicators are things will compare favorably to last year. The second Saturday was the highest grossing day ever for the carnival, $229,000."

According to Stoecklein, in spite of the sluggish economic recovery, business at the Kansas State Fair has remained steady. "Some of the stronger attended years, have been in the last five years," said Stoecklein. "Kansas was hit pretty hard by the recession, but with more people having "stay-cations," where they stay at home, they come to the fair, which is a great value."

Century Commemorations

What never got old during the event was Centennial Fair fever. As part of the 100th birthday celebration, a time capsule, buried in 1973, was unearthed. Ironically no records were available of what was buried in the time capsule 40 years ago, Nobody knew what to expect. Organizers were surprised to find nine rolls of microfiche, an ultra-analog documentation technology, still used by some library systems. Although the immediate photo-op may not have lived up to the anticipation, the long-term benefit has much potential of historical significance. The canisters were labeled agriculture, business, etc. "they seem to represent life as it was in Kansas in 1973." Stoecklein added.

Reproductions of these Sunflower State secrets from the time capsule should be ready by next year's unveiling of the State Fair Museum. A ceremonial ground breaking for this building was held during the fair, construction began the week after the fair closed and is expected to be completed in time for the 2014 fair. The musem will showcase a large work of art, which Stoecklein describes as a mosaic, featuring various mementos and keepsakes from past fairs. "We requested people bring in or take photos of their old souvenirs and the response was overwhelming, people have a lot of nostalgia for the fair."

The nostalgia these fair items provoke was also turned into a clever marketing campaign - each day of the fair, a different trinket - such as pencils or refrigerator magnets - commemorating the 100th annivesary - were given to attendees. "Giving out mementos we usually do every day of the fair every year. There are some collectors of the items. In the museum we are planning a large, separate display of these mementos"

Kansas State FairPrice Promotions Peak
 
Pre-fair discount pricing - e.g. adult tickets (13-59) were $6.00, but $10.00 at the gate - proved to be a successful sales tactic, as did "Dollar Day Monday" when gate admission was $1.00 for ages 6 and up or free with a Dillon's Shopper Card (the loyalty card of state-wide supermarket chain). Instead of the entrance fee, attendees merely swiped their card. According to Stoecklein, the fair receives a $26,000 sponsorship from the chain.

Dollar Day Monday has been a promotion for a few years, but 2012 was only the second year for the supermarket sponsorship. "Monday is becoming our third highest-attended day, after the two Saturdays," said Stoecklein. "Monday used to be a very quiet day, so we charged a dollar and that boosted attendees. The midway followed suit, they require only one coupon per ride the entire day."
The food vendors typically do not offer discounted product on Dollar Mondays, yet they still reap rewards: "Dollar Mondays are very good day for the food vendors, people spend more on food," said Stoecklein.

Media Marketing

The Kansas State Fair has a $175,000 advertising budget - primarily TV, online, radio and outdoor with limited print. "We are doing virtually nothing with print now. Our social media, including Facebook, Twitter, Pinterest and e-mail blasts are growing each year."

The old media of radio remains strong, even slightly growing in the mix. "Some of the music groups wanted us to spend more money on stations that supported their music, but those stations were not always the best ones to promote the fair, because their audiences were more limited. There is more outside pressure from record labels and managers about where to advertise on radio. Our attitude is we listen to their opinion but in the end, you have to advertise where you think it will be best for the fair."

Fair Entertainment

North American Midway Entertainment wa the midway provider, with about 42 rides. "We do not have the figures yet," said Stoecklein. "The White Water ride is always popular."

The Kansas State Fair featured two motor sports events - demolition derby and a truck-n-tractor pull - and eight concerts, which included: Bridgit Mendler with Shane Harper (Stoecklein :"they hit the tween market") ; Eli Young Band; Larry Gatlin and the Gatlin Brothers with Billy Dean; Jars of Clay; Theory of a Deadman; Lynyrd Skynyrd and Toby Keith. Tickets generally ranged from $35-$45, although the Keith show, featured five different prices with the top price - $100 - for a limited number (under 200) of ultra-premium, stage seating. In spite of the weather, "Toby Keith was a good seller," said Stoecklein. Of course, the highlight of the fair was the state's namesake band - Kansas, the classic rock band from the 70s, at a bargain ticket price of $13 ("for 2013"). "We had to have Kansas - in honor of the centennial of the fair. It was the first time the band played at the fair and it was a great night."

Free-entertainment for the fair included: Ron Diamond, Comic Hypnotist; Oscar the Robot; Richard Renner, Stiltwalker; the Recycle Cycle, and a new one for 2013, a Barney of Mayberry impersonator, "he impersonated Barney Fife from the television show and he stayed in character the whole fair, he was immensely popular. Most of the free entertainment is of the strolling type, they add value to the fair."

Cuisine Highlights

In honor of the centennial celebration, 100th anniversary birthday cake - fried on a stick - became a crowd pleaser, but the fair's corn dog - Pronto Pups - and chicken & noodles on a stick "stay a solid favorite as well as fun funnel cake flavors - red velvet, Dutch apple pie, carrot cake," all fried and on a stick. "Moink Balls are starting to be a new favorite," he added, referring to the smoked meatballs wrapped in bacon and fried on a stick, Bacon Snicker Doodles were also popular."

There are 103 food vendors at the fair, and Stoecklein points out that there is a waiting list and the fair is judicious on how vendors are selected. "We do not want repetition, too many people selling the same staples, like hot dogs and hamburgers, because we can give them a more valuable contract when we give vendors exclusive rights."

Even though the attendance remains steady, and the highest attended day was recorded for its centennial edition, competition from a nearby casino and a growing number of entertainment options has become a factor to the growth of the Kansas State Fair. Increasing the number of younger attendees has become both more challenging and more critical. "Fairs have to maintain that traditional activities, like live - stock shows, quilting and cooking contests at the same time we need to better connect with the younger market," said Stoecklein. "Those activities have built-in audiences, and younger attendees do appreciate them, but they are not the draw they were. We have tried text messaging and gaming contests, but they did not take off as hoped, maybe because the younger people do enough of that at home. They want something different for the fair experience."

Get them while they're young was one strategy to increase the amount of younger adults. Because the fair coincides with the start of the school year, some 2013 fair promotions that targeted schools brought in thousands of student-age attendees. "We want them conditioned that going to the fair is cool place to go, and hopefully when they have families of their own, perhaps tradition is established," he added.

Kansas State Fair

Time Lapse Video of the KS State Fair Midway - teardown night

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