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Harvest the Fun!: Missouri Wins with Farm Focus

9/22/2014

By Timothy Herrick

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This year's marketing tagline for the Missouri State Fair - "Harvest the Fun!" - exemplifies the mix of fun and farming this agriculture-centric Show Me State celebration offers. The 11-day event ran from August 7-17, and while the midway and concert series were highly successful, the core of this fair is the agricultural events, youth programs and livestock championships.

In fact, a new exhibit for 2014 was "Thank a Farmer for the Harvest," highlighting the work of agriculture professionals and showing how we get the food we eat. "Our focus is on agriculture," said Mark Wolfe, Missouri State Fair Director. "We have strong 4-H programs and youth programs and those are growing."

Healthy Attendance
Wolfe's first year as fair manager was in 2009. "The economy was not good and our attendance had been pretty bad," said Wolfe. "But we've had steady increases in attendance. Our live auctions are doing well. We are excited about this trend."
The fair is also a working vacation for a many farm-based families. "Even when people tighten their belt straps because of the economy, they can still afford the fair," he said

Although final figures were not available, attendance hovered around 336,000,  about on par with last year and the initial feedback has been overwhelmingly positive. "We had a great fair," said Mark Wolfe, Missouri State Fair Director. "We had tremendous, cooperative weather throughout, although rain made us cancel one tractor pull. There were nice crowds and the reports from vendors and other revenue streams are very positive."

Two Buck Opener
The Missouri State Fair boosted attendance from the get-go. Opening Day is Two Buck Bonanza Day. Price promotions are common in today's fair industry, especially in an era of a soft economy and value-oriented consumers. At the Missouri State Fair, opening day has been the customary price promotion extravaganza. "It has been a long-standing tradition to offer a deep discount on opening day," said Wolfe.  "It always draws a huge crowd and is a fun way to kick-off the 11 day event."

Until a few years ago, it was "a $1 promotion, it has carried through and is hard to reverse," said Wolfe. "We had to double it. It is voluntary for the vendors to participate, but most of them jump on board and they make the promotion felt throughout the fair. We may lose revenue on it that day, but it brings people into the fair."

The concessionaires were "seeing the attendance day to day, and they were all very happy," said Wolfe. "Opening Day attendance is high. We hope the cost of admission of opening day, they can't get around to everything,  encourages  them to come back a second day. We get a lot of repeat visitors."


A working vacation attitude is prevalent among some ag professionals, leading to multiple visits at the fair. The Missouri State Fair has too much to see and do in only one visit, which is another reason why a price promotion can be effective on opening day. "They see what we have and want to come back," said Wolfe.

Campers Increase
An indication of the fair's escalating popularity has been the large public campground. Camping makes the fair more affordable for fairgoers traveling long distances, but it is also a way for attendees to go more than one day. Throughout the length of the fair, the campground has been "maxed out," said Wolfe. "Campers are put on waiting lists."

For many of the campers, the public campground - which can fit up to 1,200 - has also become an annual tradition. "There is great comradery, and all the groups are close together."

In fact, People can "dry camp," he added, which means no RV hook ups, basically tents and sleeping bags. This area holds about 300 campers - "But even that is getting filled up," said Wolfe.

Missouri does not have a large population, especially  Sedalia (population: 20,000) where the fairgrounds are located; many fairgoers have to travel several hours, making multiple days at the fair likely. "Each year, more people are coming multiple days," said Wolfe.

Marketing Missouri
The fair has a marketing budget of $315,000, which includes a mix of radio, television, online advertising, print and outdoor advertising. "We are getting more local news coverage in Kansas City and Columbia," said Wolfe. "We have spent more money in these markets. It is hard to draw people without the lodging, but there has been more awareness of the fair throughout the state. We are reaching those markets."

Radio and television remain the strongest media. "It does depend on the age group, but we can reach more farmers through television and radio," said Wolfe.

Social Media has become more of a marketing tool. The Missouri State Fair has 33,000 Facebook Friends, "it has been a very active and successful site. We have a lot of youth programs and young professional farmers and they are using social media and connect with the fair. These are small communities, but even in these towns Facebook and Twitter are the way to connect."

He added, "you have to monitor social media. You do not want questions to go unanswered. You have to know what is being posted on your page."

Promoting Agriculture
The Missouri State Fair is not just supported by state government - it is a State Agency - and it is not just an election year photo-op for state and local office-seekers, the second day of the fair is Governors/Judges/Legislators Appreciation Day. The day begins with the Governor's Ham Breakfast, a traditional gathering of Missouri elected officials, leaders in agriculture and supporters of the Missouri State Fair, proceeds of which go to the Missouri State Fair Foundation, funding fair activities and scholarships for agricultural students. "It is a great promotion," said Wolfe. "It also highlights farm families and all Missouri Ag products."

Another popular promotion this year was Celebrating Women in Agriculture; the 2014 edition was its second year at the Missouri State Fair. Held on a Thursday, the promotion is also  the fair's version of Lady's Night -  free admissions for women of all ages - the promotion has a Monsanto-sponsored essay contest, two winning essays are selected - a Missouri Woman in Agriculture Award and a Missouri Woman in Agriculture Rising Star award - and a $1,000 donation is made to a school or nonprofit chosen by the author of the winning essay.

The contest highlights the fact that women have been and are an increasing segment of the agriculture professions while encouraging more women involvement with the fair. "Farm families are still important to the agriculture and the women work as hard and are as professional as the men," said Wolfe. "This promotion recognizes that and has been well received."

Buyer's Market
The Pepsi Grandstand -11,000 capacity - hosted the ticketed concert series, and according to Wolfe, this year's line-up surpassed last year's in terms of audiences and profitability. "It was a buyer's market this year," he said. "Our concert revenue and ticket sales were up."

The Pepsi Grandstand concerts included: Scotty McCreery and Kelsey K;  Joan Jett and the Blackhearts and Black Stone Cherry; Sara Evans and Joe Nichols; Beatlemania Live; Florida Georgia Line and Colt Ford; MercyMe; Jake Owen's Days of Gold Tour; Halestorm and Sevendust - Florida Georgia Line and Jake Owen's Days sold out.

Wolfe works with  Triangle Talent Agency, "they created mini-tours this year for the fairs, and we were able to work with the routing," he said. Concert admission ranged from $10 - $45 and Wolfe said, "we had a very profitable series. It brought a lot of people to the fair."

The sweet spot for fair's concerts, said Wolfe, is "to catch the stars on the way up, that way they are not too expensive and then when the summer comes along they can sell out."

Record Midway
  Even more successful than the paid-shows was the midway at the Missouri State Fair. "We have had two record breaking years in a row," said Frank Zaitshik, President/CEO, Wade Shows Inc. "I believe it is a combination of reasons, great fair management, a terrific carnival and of course, milder than normal temperatures."

Wade Shows has been the midway provider for the Missouri State Fair for six years - under contract with the Murphy Brothers - and ride revenue "has doubled  within six years,"  said Zaitshik.

The 2014 Missouri State Fair midway featured 42 rides. "This year was the first one for our Crazy Cat Coaster, which we airmailed from Michigan," said Zaitshik. We have a fantastic crew and they were ready for the fair, especially my foreman of 30 years Bill Degrace."

Zaitshik  added that the Giant Wheel and a Reverchon Super Himalaya were leading rides in the Show Me State this summer.

While this fair is not the largest or the highest revenue stop for Wade Shows' very busy summer, the Missouri State Fair has long impressed this veteran carnival owner. "It is a great fair facility, surrounded by a lot of rolling hills and greenery," Zaitshik said. "It is very nostalgic, with older but well kept buildings as well as some new buildings.  They bring in folks as far as away as St. Louis,. They have strong national acts on their stage and that is combined with a very, very strong agricultural component."

It's the continued health of that agriculture component that Wolfe sees as central to the success of the 2014 Missouri State Fair. "What stands out most to me is that the economy has gotten better and the agriculture industry is healthy," said Wolfe. "Agriculture is the main industry in this state, and the fair showcases what is new in the industry."

He added, "what drives different fairs in different cities is more entertainment, but here in the heartland fairs, we mainly promote agriculture. We give fairgoers a good package, with a lot of great entertainment and it is very family oriented. But most of our attendees are interested in the agriculture."

In other words, the better the family farms do, the better the fair does. Wolfe added, "our attendance has gotten better, and the agricultural industry has gotten better too."


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