"Michigan is reinventing itself for the 21st century and the Michigan State Fair is reinventing itself along with the state," said Steve Master, 46, who three weeks ago was named Executive Director of the Fifth Third Bank Michigan State Fair.
Like all key-executives manning the helm of a fair, Masters is in charge of the multitude of responsibilities that accompany managing and promoting a state fair, but the annual Michigan event has some unique challenges few fair executives confront. Michigan had a Detroit-based fair since 1849, but the latest version of the fair, a 4-day event to be held in August 29 - September 1 in 2014, will actually be only the second annual fair under this moniker. In fact, Masters is the first Fair Manager of this fair, and he has been handed the reins previously held by Watts Up Inc., a local events marketing company. Masters now heads a resuscitated fair and the challenge is to make this Michigan fair an integral part of today's Michigan.
For most of the 20th century and the first decade of the 21st, Michigan had two state fairs, the older fair, the Michigan State Fair, and the Upper Peninsula State Fair, held in Escanaba, founded in 1927. The "Big 3" automobile manufacturing bailout coincided with the Financial Crisis, and as the great recession began, Michigan was one of its first and most severely hit victims and both state fairs were early collateral damage.
Once Two, Now None
In 2009, citing budgetary cutbacks, then Governor Jennifer Granholm vetoed legislation to provide funding to both the Michigan State Fair. The Upper Peninsula State Fair fared better, with fair operations being taken up by the Upper Peninsula State Fair Authority which includes representatives from each of the 15 counties in Michigan's upper peninsula along with representatives from the Hannahville Indian Community.
Downstate, the Michigan State Fair - whose attendance peaked at 1.2 million in 1966; In 2009 the fair attracted only 217,000 visitors (Wikipedia: The Michigan State Fair) -- was not held at all in 2010 and 2011. In 2012, the Great Lakes Agricultural Fair, a 501 C (3) corporation was formed and the Great Lakes State Fair took place August 31 through September 3, 2012 at the Suburban Collection Showplace in the Detroit suburb of Novi. Naming rights then went to Fifth Third Bank, thus the Michigan State Fair was reborn - without any state funding - and is produced as a private event at the Suburban Collection Showplace grounds. The official name is now the Fifth Third Bank Michigan State Fair. In 2013, an estimated 80,000 attended the fair under this moniker.
Tracking the complicated history of the Michigan Fair may look like the ups and downs of one of the roller coasters on the midway. For Masters, being the head of one of the few state fairs whose sponsorship program includes corporate identification in the actual name of the event is not just better than having no state fair at all, but reinforces the community outreach he believes will be integral to the ongoing success of the fair.
"A fair is all about partnerships," said Masters. "We believe we can't do that alone. If you are going to partner, you have to give back to your partner, and deliver them to them the value of their partnership with you. You want a partnership to be a win-win. The naming rights give a mention and a presence to those people who have give us their generous support of their time, talent and financial resources."
As Executive Director, Masters wants the fair to reflect the vibrant agriculture industry of Michigan, the second largest industry (the automotive industry is number 1) in the state. "The fair is growing and is in transition, but we are all about celebrating the diversity of agriculture tradition we have inherited," said Masters.
This farming tradition, Masters is quick to elaborate, is one that continues to progress into new areas. "We are showing pride in Michigan, and our agriculture is all over. We are showing our new wineries, our urban farmers and other urban initiatives, our craft beers, our cherry farmers. We are showing that our agricultural industry is competitive with any other in the United States."
The main showcase for these food items will be the Michigan-Made Pavilion, which features samplings of food, beverages and other products manufactured in-state be found. The Kroger Co. of Michigan will be a presenting sponsor of the pavilion.
Marketing the 2014 edition of the revived Michigan State Fair means a "strong social media presence, especially Facebook, Twitter and Instagram. We are working with our television, radio and print media partners. We are looking at a hybrid of new and tested marketing strategies. The integration of the marketing allows us to have continuing conversations with our customers and our potential customers."
Even with the marketing of the fair, Masters insists on the partnering approach that is the hallmark of the operational policies of this freshman fair manager. "I believe that that building partnerships is the effective strategy. With media partners, you want to be more than just a customer who buys ads. You want to develop synergies."
In addition, the 2014 state fair will feature a new and expanded layout, including an expanding Midway. Arnold Amusements, Inc., of Traverse City, Mich., has been the midway provider of the revived state fair.
The fair's entertainment will also echo the ‘Focusing on Michigan' theme with a unique State Fair Superstar competition. According to Masters, there will be several weeks of try outs for unsigned acts from across the state, the finalists will perform on the two entertainment stages, and then the winner will be the headline act of closing night.
In addition, the fair has what Masters describes as a "unique relationship with the Detroit Shriners." Detroit's Moslem Temple Shriners, the founders of the first Shrine Circus back in 1906, had long been associated with the Michigan State Fair and a third of the proceeds of sales of an all-inclusive pass to the fair is donated to the Shriners, whose charities include the Shriners Hospitals for Children. "The Shriners have the second largest circus tent in the world at the fair, and they will have additional exhibitions that include animal experiences for our fairgoers."
It is likely not hyperbole that fairs are in the blood of the new executive director of the Fifth Third Bank Michigan State Fair. He grew up in a carny family - his family owned a small, 12-ride midway, Master Rides. After attending college, earning a degree in Journalism & Public Relations from Central Michigan University, in the 1990s Masters returned to the carnival circuit, worked as Operations Manager with Skerback Brothers Shows, and was Assistant Controller for Wade Shows, before "getting off the road," and becoming Director of the Escanaba Convention & Visitors Bureau. "Running the CVB is all about relationship building, which is prefect training for running a fair. The skill set is very similar."
As the CVB director, he also was on the management team of the Upper Peninsula State Fair and in 2010 was on the transition team from state-funded fair to a more-localized revenue stream. The success with that fair was also a deciding factor for the downstate fair board to select Masters for this current assignment.
Michigan may still be suffering economically and the recovery may be sluggish at best, but the revival of the state fair indicates that the public support for this essential tradition remains strong. From his work and life experience, this annual celebration of everything Michigan will succeed because of his adherence to traditions. "We are carrying on the values of a fair," said Masters. "It's about your partnerships with the community. As long your work hard, are honest, and not afraid to get your hands dirty doing the hard work that needs to be done, than in spite of all the challenges, you will have a successful state fair."