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IAFE HALL OF FAMER: HOW JERRY HAMMER KEEPS THE MINNESOTA STATE FAIR FRESH

1/8/2014

By Timothy Herrick

Photo courtesy of Mike Ekern

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2013 could not have concluded on a more positive note for Jerry Hammer, Executive Vice President & General Manager, Minnesota State Fair. In addition to the fair itself receiving several Awards of Excellence at the 123rd Annual Convention of the International Association of Fairs and Expositions (IAFE), Hammer was officially inducted the IAFE Hall of Fame, one of the highest recognitions bestowed by the fair industry.

"It's an incredible thrill for which I am extremely grateful," said Hammer. "The Minnesota State Fair is a team effort, so I'm sharing the award with everyone here."

The modesty and emphasis on collaboration is typical for Hammer, who is not only Minnesota born and bred, but that birth and breeding actually occurred within the vicinity of the fair. Evidence indicates that the old saying - the fair is inPhoto By Mike Ekern his blood - is very true for Hammer. Hammer attended the fair every summer growing up and it was where he got his first job and subsequently spent his adult life happily working the Minnesota State Fair.
 
"I grew up about a block from the fairgrounds and started working on the grounds crew in 1970 as a 15-year-old high school student," said Hammer. "I joined the full-time staff out of college in 1977."

JUST SHOW UP

 After graduating from the College of St. Thomas with a degree in journalism, he spent a year as sports and wire editor of the Owatonna People's Press.  In  1977 he returned to the fair as a full-time staff member, rising through the ranks by holding positions in special events, publicity and marketing before being promoted to his current position of General Manager in 1997.  Hammer has spent 44 years with the Minnesota State Fair.

His secret of being a successful fair manger?
 "Show up."

While this may sound overly modest and simple, the bottom line is to make your commitment apparent to all the fair stakeholders. "Be there for your staff," said Hammer. "Be there for your board.  Be there for your commercial and competitive exhibitors and your neighbors, sponsors and business partners.  Most of all, be there for your fair visitors.  Just show up!"

With an annual budget of $42 million, the Minnesota State Fair is one of the largest, and oldest of the Midwest fairs. The Minnesota State Agricultural Society (the governing body of the fair) was founded in 1854 - four years before Minnesota became a state.  The fair has been held at its current location on the northwestern corner of St. Paul since 1885. The Minnesota State Fair is now a quasi-state agency, non-profit public corporation, receiving no public financial assistance and attracts approximately 1.8 million visitors annually, running 12 Days, ending on Labor Day.

MULTIPLE AWARDS

The IAFE awarded a host of additional recognitions to the Minnesota State Fair, reflecting both Hammer's leadership skills and his journalistic and public relations background. The categories where Minnesota State Fair received IAFE 2013 top honors included: Fair and Sponsor/Partner Joint Exhibit Program Award in Agriculture; Fair Agricultural Photo Award; Innovation in Sponsorship Award; Promotional Advertising Award - non-traditional/out of home advertising; Printed Promotional Material Award - multi-page publication; Electronic Newsletter Award; Best Individual Social Media Idea or Effort Award; and Solution-Based Communication Effort Award.

The array of innovative promotional activities these awards recognized included a "bus wrap" on the Twin Cities bus line, showcasing a Mighty Midway night scene, a Minnesota State Fair Guide insert, distributed in Sunday editions of daily newspapers throughout Minnesota and reaching a combined circulation in excess of one million, and a quarterly e-newsletter that cultivated fair anticipation for months prior to opening day.

The IAFE award also recognized press initiatives that improved and expanded promotional and publicity opportunities for the fair, including a Media Relations Hotline that fielded both media-requests and issued breaking news reports; creating a new position of Public Information Officer for State Fair Police, which allowed the media to receive information directly from State Fair Police regarding incidents, investigations and police activity during the fair; and starting a Twitter account exclusively for the media to better facilitate and increase press coverage of fair events.

SOCIAL MEDIA

The IAFE Best Individual Social Media Idea or Effort Award social media award was given for the fair's "newest effort on social media, Pinterest," Hammer said. "We began using Pinterest in June of 2013 with the intention of focusing our boards on useful, inspirational ideas to help fair guests make the most of their fair experience."

Hammer and his staff developed a multi-tiered, comprehensive marketing program in 2013 that balanced the new and experimental with the tried and true.  "We did not change our marketing approach in 2013, but rather layered social media into our existing marketing mix," he said. "We have certainly expanded our reach as it relates to the use of social media as a marketing tool. Our numbers of Facebook followers continues to remain strong, Twitter is growing, even in the off season and with the addition of Pinterest, we are able to tap into specific interests for the growing demographic that is using that form of social media."

Another highlight of the 2013 fair - for which the IAFE awarded Minnesota its Award of Excellence for Promotion Event  -  was a "Welcome Home" parade for Veterans of the Vietnam War, held on the fair's annual Military Appreciation Day.  Thousands of Vietnam Era Veterans participated in a parade through the fairgrounds and an estimated 10,000 bandanas were given away to attendees to wave during the event. "We've been doing veterans events on an increasing scale since 2005 when we created and dedicated a Veterans Garden," Hammer explained. "Since then, we've added a Military Appreciation Day with a variety of activities that grows every year.  The most memorable event yet was the Welcome Home Parade for Vietnam veterans."

The sight of thousands of Vietnam Veterans being cheered by tens of thousands of fair goers, Hammer described as, "a very emotional moment."

Reimagined Equestrian Exhibit

Another IAFE award (the Award of Excellence for Special Agricultural Educational Exhibit) wining event was EquiMania!, a re-imagined equestrian exhibit that was both interactive and comprehensive. EquiMania! featured full-size skeletons and anatomy models, dental tools, tail-braiding and leg-wrapping activities and an 80-foot-long digestive tract as well as various stations that provided in-depth educational exhibits on horse behavior, rider safety, and equestrian careers.

Given its historic emphasis on celebrating  agrarian culture, horses have been showcased at the Minnesota State Fair, since it was first held more than 160 years ago. But the innovative approach to this traditional fair exhibit standby proved immensely popular among fair-goers, and IAFE's award recognized Hammer's unique adeptness to modify the traditional with cutting-edge ideas. "This was Equimania!'s first year, but we brought it in with the idea that it will be a feature of our ag education program for a long time to come," said Hammer. "All of our presentations look to the future.  The straightest road to ruin is to become hung up on perfectly preserving our past.  With our programs, if it's too loud you're too old."

While industry awards and recognition from your business colleagues and comrades is certainly satisfying, the 2013 edition of the Minnesota State Fair had significant challenges to surmount, not the least of which were several days of a record-setting Midwest heat wave. Through team-work, fast-thinking and the ability to adapt to changes during the course of the event, the fair exceeded many expectations. "State Fair staff, concessionaires and exhibitors were outstanding throughout our hot spell," Hammer declared. " It would have been easy to get down during the eight days of extreme heat, but very few did.  Almost everyone was cheerful, upbeat and dedicated to making sure that fair visitors had a great experience despite the heat. Attendance was down on the hot days, but not much, and when the weather finally cooled off for the final two days, we had two record attendance days including the biggest day in State Fair history."

ADDITIONS & RENOVATIONS

While recognition by industry-peers is satisfying and appreciated, Hammer's optimistic attitude is much too forward-looking to rest on his recently received laurels. The newest IAFE Hall of Famer is eager for the 2014 Minnesota State Fair, which features the debut of a new facility epitomizing Hammer's strategy of using the new to make the old fun, exciting and relevant to the contemporary fair audience.

Only a few weeks after the record-breaking conclusion of the 2012 Minnesota State Fair, the architectural site plan for "West End Market" was released to the public and construction on this project on the final days of October. This massive, $15 million construction and comprehensive overhaul on the west end of the State Fairgrounds (formerly the Heritage Square area) features an amphitheater, bazaar-style merchant section, a transit hub, food outlets and restrooms.

The West End Market boasts individual shops - designed and decorated by regional artisans - and a 21st century barn housing a variety of new food and beverage options. Some of the more traditional icons of the fair showcased in the new development are the old North St. Paul train depot, the newly restored, 80-year-old "arch" - the main streetcar entrance to the Fair from 1933 to 1964 - and a  renovated State Fair history center. "This project has been brewing a long time," said Hammer. "Getting the new West End Market  online presents us with the biggest changes to our facilities and operations in 80 years.  That, along with production of the annual fair, are plenty for one year."

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