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West Market Helps Boost Minnesota State Fair to Record Attendance
Midway ride gross up 26% over 2013

10/15/2014

By Timothy Herrick

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A big fair got bigger this year. Record attendance and two record setting days meant that the 2014 Minnesota State Fair ended on a remarkably positive note. 

The Minnesota Sate Fair attendance reached 1,824,830 - marking the first time the Land of 10,000 Lakes main summer event topped 1.8 million; 2009 was the previous record year, with 1,790,497. This year's fair left no doubt that its nickname - Minnesota's Great Get Together - is well earned. Minnesota has a population of more than 5 million, which means that more than a third of the population of the state attends its fair. The Minnesota State Fair is considered the second largest state fair in the country - according to Carnivalwarehouse.com's annual Top 50 fair list.  But the top fair, the Texas State Fair runs twice as long.

In addition, two daily attendance records were set - Tuesday, Aug. 26 with 133,595 attendees, and on Saturday, Aug. 30, 252,092 visitors. The weather cooperated - low humidity, only brief rain - for the 12 days of the fair. West End Market, a renovated and expanded plaza, opened after two years of planning and anticipation - and an improving Minnesota economy, a star-studded line-up of concert headliners and a more focused marketing strategy all supplemented the optimal weather.

Fair Fundamentals 
Last year, the fair was negatively impacted by a heat wave - "we had a six bad days, and when temperatures are so hot they don't stay as long, and who can blame them and a lot people just don't want to drive to the fair," said Jerry Hammer, Executive Vice President & General Manager, Minnesota State Fair. Last year at the 123rd Annual Convention of the International Association of Fairs and Expositions (IAFE), Hammer was officially inducted the IAFE Hall of Fame.

 Lingering cabin fever may also have been a factor.This winter was cold and snowy - miserable, even by Minnesota's standards - which increased anticipation for this year's fair. "This one fair is the big Daddy of Minnesota events," said Hammer. "We get through these winters, and want to have a big party, and we know what is around the corner."

Aside from good weather and the shared feeling that one of the best ways to celebrate summer is at a state fair, the secret to success for the Minnesota State Fair may be no secret at all. Hammer said that fair success "can be reduced to three fundamentals: give people too much to do, make it easy to get here and keep it affordable."

That time-tested truism might be summed up as "giving people value, but value doesn't mean cheap, it means a good return for what you are paying," he said. "If you treat people right, they repeat their visit, they return."
 
Affordability and value are the keys - $13 admission includes parking and Hammer points out that even the free acts offered have a significant fan base. "We have music acts that people come to town to see. Some them play clubs for $30 - $40," he said.

Hammer sums up the appeal of the Minnesota state with an anecdote. On the last day of the fair, he noticed a young man, somebody who was not the stereotypical fair demographic. "He was walking around and he said that 'it was hard to leave this place.' There is something about this fair that goes beyond other fairs. It is a combination of things that are all in one place. We have the largest music festival in Minnesota, and every two days we have new entertainment. For six days, we have completely changed all our free entertainment."

Just as important as exciting entertainment, quality agricultural exhibits and contests, fun foods and thrilling midway, is attention to fairgoer comfort. "There's a whole lot of truth to the saying a fair is only as good as your bathroom," said Hammer. The fair has invested in renovating restroom facilities - Hammer said there are very few Porto-johns - or building bathrooms. Minnesota State Fair restrooms have gotten high marks by local internet sources - a twitter thread @MNSTATEFAIR actually ranked the fair's facilities (a tweet proclaimed: "Best bathroom at the #mnstatefair : Minnesota Farmer's Union. You heard it here". 

For Hammer, "People comment on them as well as how clean the grounds are. Cleanliness is an important part of the experience."

West End Market
The most obvious new highlight of the 2014 Minnesota State Fair was the debut of the $15 million "West End Market," a massive construction project that completely overhauled an under-utilized section of the State Fairgrounds by creating an open-air plaza with a new amphitheater, bazaar-style merchant section, a transit hub and several food emporiums, including a renovated Minnesota State Fair History & Heritage Center, designed and curated by the Minnesota State Historical Society, which added prestige to this new exhibition. "The society being involved made sure the new history and heritage center was done right," said Hammer. 

According to Hammer, the original area was constructed as part of the fair in 1964, and named the Young American Center, a mid-20th century attempt to make the fair relevant to the burgeoning teen market; in the 1970s it was recast as the Heritage Center, to coincide with the Bicentennial. The West Market also incorporated the new Transit Hub - which utilized a restored, 80-year-old "arch" - from a North St. Paul train depot, the main streetcar entrance to the Fair from 1933 to 1964. Twin City busses - the fair's website claims half of all attendees take mass transit - as well as the fair's Park & Ride shuttle busses that take attendees back and forth from the remote parking lots - uses the new Transport Hub. "The Heritage Center had become ramshackle and it was in a far-off section of the fair," said Hammer. "With the Transit Hub we turned it into a major entrance to the fair."

During the past 16 years, the fair has invested $140 million in facility and grounds upgrades, and the West End Market, "is the last of our big projects," he said. 

In keeping with Hammer's philosophy of giving fairgoers "too much to do," the design of the West End Market complimented existing fair components, instead of competing with them by giving fairgoers more of the same. "We had food items there like Lobster Roll and Cajun meatloaf that are different than the deep fried fair foods of other vendors," said Hammer. "The fair is out-sized, and it's not just one thing. The West End Market adds to what we offer, it doesn't detract from what we already have." 

Fair Cuisine
Overall per capita spending was up, although Hammer said most of the final numbers are not in. However, food concessions increased over last year, generating about $30 million this year. The 2014 Minnesota State Fair featured 300 food vendors, serving nearly 500 different dishes. The 2014 fair featured 28 new foods, including the Bacon-Wrapped Turkey Leg, Beer Gelato, Bison Dog, Blue Cheese & Corn Fritz, Breakfast Juicy LuLu, Caramel Apple Ice Cream, Caribbean-Style Lobster Roll,Chicken in the Waffle, Pizza Tots, Pretzel Curds, Prime Rib Taco, Rustic Stuffed Scone, Schnitzel Strips, Shrimp Dog, and SnoRibbons. Vendors served up nearly 500 different types of food, more than 70 were on-a-stick. While the fair offers traditional fair cuisine, like corn dogs, the more extravagant fried items simply do not go over well. "The more wild stuff, like fried gummy bears, never went over well here," he said.

Independent Midway
The Minnesota State Fair has been an independent midway - the Mighty Midway - since 1995, featuring 61 rides - 30 Adult/31 in the Kidway - plus 47 games, and Jim Sinclair, Deputy General Manager, whose main responsibility is midway management, contracted with 26 different rides and a dozen game vendors. The fair has a policy that a midway vendor cannot provide both games and rides, it has to be either or. The Mighty Midway's new rides included Crazy Dance, Hurricane, Rock It and Stinger; Kidway's new rides were Hog Rally, Mini Indy Bumper Cars, Monster Truck, and the Wave Swinger.

The Minnesota State Fair midway revenue was up 23 percent, although some of this notable uptick can be attribute to the increase in individual ticket prices going up from 75 cents to $1.00 - most rides take 5-6 tickets and the midway uses a common ticket: any ticket is good for either games or rides (the Minnesota State Fair does not offer wristbands). 

"A portion of the revenue increase was due to a ticket price adjustment, as well as the fact attendance increased," said Sinclair. 

As they say in real estate, location also made a difference. Not that the midway moved, but with the new West End Market and its transit hub, which is directly adjacent to the midway, attendee traffic suddenly swelled this summer in this area. In addition, the fair improved the ticket box system and other technology a modern day midway require. "We keep track of our customer's habits, and we have a higher use of credit cards," said Sinclair. "The public is much more sophisticated, they want friendliness, cleanliness, quality and value. They want a family environment." 

The common ticket for both games and rides is one of the hallmarks of the Minnesota State Fair's midway. While games may not be as popular among fairgoers in recent times, Sinclair has targeted this midway segment. "We enforce a proper stock through, make sure all the prizes are clearly labeled so there's no bait or switch, we monitor the games daily during the fair," said Sinclair. Fair management developed a list of 25 Bullet Points that clearly outline what is expected at the games, specifying such as things as the number of trade-ups (six), and eliminating double wins. "The public has to have the perception they can win at the games."

With the fair achieving record attendance, midway ridership and revenue being up is not surprising. This year's success also reinforced the independent format of the midway. 

"An independent midway is more work for the fair, and it has to be right for the particular situation," said Sinclair. "There's more risk, but there is greater reward. Our success does not spell the end of organized, single provider midways. The fair has to have resources for an independent midway, and we've able to reinvest, and assemble the human resources for the midway. We are committed to the vision."

The 2014 ride gross was $3,683,411.35, up $768,813.32 (+26.4%) over 2013.  The game gross in 2014 was $2,712,449.48, up $434,693.96 (+19.1%) over 2013.

The top 15 rides and games were as follows:

RIDES

1. Crazy Mouse Spinning Roller Coaster - S.J. Entertainment
2. Sky Flyer - Reithoffer Equipment Co., Inc.
3. Gondola Wheel - Playworld Unlimited
4. Hurricane - Showtime Rides, Inc.
5. Starship 3000 - Laser Fair, Inc.
6. Techno Power - Wood Entertainment Co., Inc.
7. Raiders - Rose's Rides, LLC
8. Rock It - State Fair Services, Inc.
9. Stinger - Reithoffer Equipment Co., Inc.
10. Arabian Daze - Fun Attractions LLC
11. Puppy Express - Prime Pacific Ent., LLC
12. Magnum - Wood Entertainment Co., Inc.
13. Wave Swinger - Myers International Midways, Inc.
14. Alpine Bobs - Blake's Concessions
15. Kite Flyer - Alamo Amusements, Inc.

GAMES

1. Bottle Up - Candice P. Anderson
2. Goblets - Candice P. Anderson
3. Whopper Water Race - Cassata Concessions
4. Goblets - Candice P. Anderson
5. Rising Waters Water Race - Cassata Concessions
6. Star Dart - Diversified Amusements, Inc.
7. Ring-A-Bottle - JBS Concessions
8. Shoot Out The Star - Midwest Concessions, Inc.
9. Fish-A-Rama - Gary Oren Concessions
10. Long Range Basketball - Gary Oren Concessions
11. Skeeball - Magel Concessions
12. Top Glo Water Race - Cassata Concessions
13. Gun Ball - Kimo's Concessions
14. Long Range Basketball - Gary Oren Concessions
15. Break-A-Plate - Trejo Concessions


 
Four Sell Outs
According to Hammer, the concerts this year featured four sell out (13,000) shows - Toby Keith with special guest Colt Ford, Kid Rock with special guest Blackberry Smoke, Tim McGraw with special guest Ryan Kinder, and Journey with special guest Joan Jett & The Blackhearts were sold-out shows. About 9,000 turned out for the Queen of Soul, Aretha Franklin, a similarly sized audience came to Garrison Keillor's Prairie Home Companion, the Minnesota-based NPR radio show, which was broadcasted live; it was a return to the fair after several years, conducted in conjunction with the program's 40th anniversary tour. 
"This year was more of a buyer's market than last year," said Hammer. "It was a tougher last year, where a lot more acts were doing the big music festivals. You always book the best acts you can. The Minnesota State Fair is the biggest summer music festival in the state of Minnesota."
 
Marketing & Economy
 The Fair had a $965,000 marketing budget, with a media mix that included electronic and traditional billboards, bus sides, TV ads, radio ads, indoor restroom poster ads, Facebook ads, newspaper inserts and print advertising. According to the fair's Media department: "We dropped online banner advertising and shifted that focus to Facebook advertising and some specialized Grandstand print ad buys" 

Weather may always be the most important consideration, but several factors contributed to the record attendance the fair achieved this year. One factor that Hammer minimizes is the health of the economy, and dismisses suggestions that attendance and fair spending figures can be seen as economic indicators. "Nothing is bulletproof from bad economic times, but people who go to the fair always go the fair," he said. "The weather is more of a factor on attendance than the economy. If attendance is up, people say the economy is better or if the economy isn't doing as well, they say the fair is affordable entertainment."

However, one sign that the economy is on upswing was the temporary work applications. "It was the first time in a few years that we had to recruit workers," said Hammer. "We have a couple of thousand seasonal jobs and we were getting way more suitable applications than we had jobs for in recent years, but this year around June, I went to the board, because the applications were not coming and we have to go and recruit workers. That hasn't happened in a few years, so that is a little anecdotal piece of evidence that the economy is getting better." 




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