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Good Weather and New Changes: Wisconsin State Fair Has Record Attendance

9/26/2014

By Timothy Herrick

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With great weather and a new management team that seems to have finally found its footing, the Wisconsin State Fair had a tremendous 2014 event. For the second year in a row, fair attendees exceeded one million, with 1,030,881 fairgoers this year; in 2013 attendance reached 1,012,552. Both weekends also drew large crowds, including two of the highest paid attendance days in the history of the Fair - Saturday, August 2 attendance reached more than 128,000, and Saturday, August, the crowd swelled to nearly 137,000.

"Wisconsin State Fair has long been considered one of the top Fairs in the United States by many measures, and achieving attendance of over one million two years in a row solidifies this even more," stated Rick Frenette, chief executive officer of Wisconsin State Fair Park. "It is an honor to reach this landmark number again, showing how much people truly enjoy this historic 11 days that celebrates 

Fair Upgrades
While there was a stormy Friday that impeded the fun - although nothing was closed and the midway remained opened - most days were sunny and warm with humidity remaining low. "We had mostly great weather," said Adam Heffron, Director of Event Services, Wisconsin State Fair Park.

Weather may be vital to how successful a fair can be, but record attendance and increase in per-capita spending - which Heffron estimates to be about 4 percent - "although we are still waiting on those numbers" - cannot just be attributed to a favorable mother nature. Four years ago, both Frenette and Heffron came to Wisconsin, both had worked previously at the Minnesota State Fair where Heffron's father was the long-time manager.  Frenette has managed state fairs in Ohio and Utah as well. Since their arrival, there has been a steady improvement in multiple aspects of the fair. "We have been attracting a larger audience, we've had more favorable stories in the press coming out," said Heffron. "We have done really good things with marketing and public relations."

According to Heffron, for much of the first decade of the 21st century, the fair had some difficult times, but in recent years, the fair "had been turned around, financially and programmatically," he added. The Wisconsin State Fair has undergone a steady make-over, enhancing the fairgoer's experience. "We have increased the amount of flowers and added more seated areas and picnic tables," said Heffron. "We improved our front gate presentation and the overall look."

He added, "little things like having garbage cans with a branded logo on the cover, these are little things that people don't always notice, but they make an overall and lasting impression. We have upgraded a lot of details in guest services." 

Much can be attributed to experience Heffron and Frenette brought from Minnesota, but also fair management finally settled on a solid, practical plan as well as personnel. "The fair experienced a transition of leadership," said Heffron. "With Rick (Frenette), we had permanency in the corner office, and he elevated the event over time."

Independent Midway
While the overall fair may have underwent upgrades in aesthetics and safety, the change in the fair's midway was even more drastic. Two years ago, the Wisconsin State Fair created Spin City, an independent midway, which featured 55 rides and 29 games in 2014. The attendance boost experienced at the front gates however, did not seem to fully translate at the midway, where revenue seemed more or less equal to last year. 

According to Heffron, after 2011 when a 30-year contract with a single carnival provider concluded, the Wisconsin State Fair board decided to go independent. Part of the push was the experience both Heffron and Frenette had with the Minnesota State Fair, one of the most high profile independent midways in the country. They convinced the fair board and management staff an independent midway would be better for the fair in the long run, even if the short run pay off would not be as apparent. 

"We had a very hands-on management style when it comes to the midway," explained Heffron.  "When we transitioned, that style allowed us to have more control over safety, aesthetics, layout and our mix of rides. We can also better promote the midway, which we named Spin City. The decision wasn't made to make big bucks right away, but in the long run the midway will be more profitable for us as an independent operation. We will be netting a lot more from the midway down the road. Its revenue will eventually mushroom."

Of course, instead of a sole provider, Heffron must contract with 21 ride owners, which does put "more on your plate," but also spices up the selection for fairgoers. "The experience for the fairgoer is improved, they get a more selection and a better midway," he said.

In addition to variety of rides, there's a variety of ride operators. "It's a mixed bag of large operators and small and local companies. We get Reithoffer Shows with their Sky Flyer and Wade Shows, who brings their Comet II roller coaster," said Heffron. "Most companies bring two to three rides, but some of the more spectacular rides, like the Rock IT, which is owned by Mike Demas, which is one of a kind and a pretty awesome piece of equipment. We get a better ride selection and to me, with  an independent midway, it is just as important to have the smaller operators as the larger ones."

With August being a popular month for Midwest fairs - especially the Minnesota State Fair, which is relatively close and also has an independent midway - ride routing can be more accessible. "We have a lot of large operators who only send us one or two rides, and they wouldn't do it if it wasn't profitable for them," said Heffron. 

To download a list of the top rides & games at the 2014 state fair, click here.

More Winners
In introducing an independent midway format, Heffron also changed the games, reducing them from 35 to 29 and implemented a "stock through 25" policy, which means that 25 percent or "25 cents of every dollar a game generates has to be given back to customers, in the form of a prize. We get daily reports from all the game vendors, we keep track of what percentage of stock is thrown to customers from their game."

In recent years, midway games have declined in popularity and fair industry observers have speculated on the possible reasons for this erosion, such as the need for better prizes or the possibility that the low-tech nature of the contests simply lack appeal in a contemporary milieu where electronic games are available on every phone. But in Spin City, games seem to be holding their own as a revenue generator. Heffron believes the issue is one of fairness - the chance of wining has to be real - and the independent midway format made the implementation of this policy possible.

"Every fair in every part of the country has to be aware of the make up of their audience, and in Wisconsin, people still like games," said Heffron. "People do not feel like they are being cheated, and if they go to the games and never win, that burns out the audience for game. People want to have some sort of confidence that they have a reasonable chance to win,  and they are being treated fairly by the operators."

Even though the new policy is more strict and more strictly enforced, operators have not balked at the increased scrutiny. "Games always start off slow when the fair stars, but if people feel are treated fairly, more people play the games and by the end of the fair, they were very busy," he said. 

Not only is the 25 percent prize giveback policy effective, it also seems the lower-tech contests have increased popularity in our high-tech world. "Our best grossing game is the Bottle Up, which is very low tech. People here do love games, so I guess every market is a little different," said Heffron.

Music & Food
The concert series had a successful run, with tickets ranging from $20 - $59 (ticket prices included sales admission) - all on the Main Stage Presented by Potawatomi (a local casino). Acts ranged from Rain: A Tribute To The Beatles and Happy Together 2014 to major headliners, including Aretha Franklin. Peter Frampton, Summerland Tour, Lady Antebellum, and Alabama. According to Kristi Chuckel, Marketing Manager, the concert series was very profitable this year. The most popular shows were Lady Antebellum, Alabama and Aretha Franklin," she said.

Wisconsin State Fair had more than 200 vendors, and saw revenue up about 1.8 percent, consistent with the uptick in attendance. The concession area also had an upgrade, "We added four new permanent stands this year," said Heffron. "These were new constructions, and gave the area a fresh new look. The appearance of new stands made the food concessions much more appealing.

There were 72 new food introductions this year. Fair cuisine received added attention on July 29th, opening day-eve of the Wisconsin State Fair, the 2nd annual Sporkies Competition (the titular utensil is the one where fork and spoon are conjoined) was held, increasing marketing potential of fair cuisine while also encouraging fair food vendors to add "some flair and pizzazz to their entries," according to a pre-fair press release. The Golden Spork Award was given in three categories: "Best Tasting," "Most Creative" and "Grand Champion." The panel of judges was made up of local celebrities, including Gilbert Brown, Super Bowl Champion and Green Bay Packer Hall of Famer, although this year the public participated for the first time. Fairgoers were able to sample all of The Sporkies entries, then could vote for their favorites via social media or at the Guest Services Pavilion - the people's choice winners were awarded a Golden Spork Trophy. 

According to Chuckel, while no single new food item started a craze, "all of the Sporkies did extremely well." Two stand outs in sales were 10,000 Chicken-n-Waffle Cones and 7,000 loaded Twister Dogs -both Sporkies Food Competition Finalists - from Water Street Brewery, a local vendor. Wisconsin State Fair attendees tended towards the provincial in their food preferences, with their taste buds revealing their state pride. Wisconsin is known for being the heart of America's dairy industry and the largest single selling (55,000+!)  food item was grilled cheese sandwiches from Real Wisconsin Cheese Grill. 
 
Promotion & Marketing
The Wisconsin State Fair implemented several promotion with the most effective based on price - Kohl's Family Value Day - held Monday, August 4 - where 27,049 adults received admission for just $5 and 13,492 children ages 11 and under received free admission. 

In terms of this year's marketing, the media mix tends toward a breakdown of print, radio, TV, OOH (Out of Home, i.e., Billboards) and online banner ads - news sites, blogs, etc. - and social media advertising. "We also distribute more than 300,000 "Fair Deals" and "Fair Preview" brochures throughout the state," said Chuckel. 

The biggest change in 2014 was that the fair invested more money on Social Media Marketing. "We spent more time on creating a social media strategy and implementing it," said Chuckel. "We have a very successful Facebook page, more than 133,000 likes. We also focused more on Twitter and Instagram this year, including running several successful promotions that focused on increasing followers and encouraging engagement."

One social media promotion that seemed to also increase the social media presence of the Wisconsin State Fair was called #PuffLove. "We ordered temporary tattoos that included the hashtag and encouraged people to put their tattoos on, take photos and post them to Instagram and Twitter," said  Chuckel. We had several hundred entries, and our Instagram followers increased by 800 percent." 

Economy Improves
Splendidly cooperative weather patterns, a new management team's policy finally gaining traction and  showing a positive impact, and clever and cutting edge marketing, all combined to make the 2014 Wisconsin State Fair a hit. Another factor though is the economy of the Badger State may have noticeably improved. "Considering that our ag exhibitor numbers haven't decreased drastically, our attendance was up, and our per cap spending was up slightly, these signs seem to indicate that a recovery is on the way," said Chuckel.

"There is a strong upward trend in spending at the fair in the last two years, and with the increases in gate admission, I think that is an indication that things have improved economically," agreed Heffron. "Unemployment in the area has dipped back down, and people are feeling better about their finances."

If Wisconsin consumers have more to spend and the Summer skies are rain-free, they come out to the fair. Heffron added, "Milwaukee is a town of events. People love the fair and their state and this is  one of the biggest events of the year."


CLICK HERE to download the ride and game ranking from the 2014 WSF


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