The Kansas Sate Fair (September 5-14) attracted its highest attendance in 16 years, hitting 353,329, up by 4 percent, or about 15,000 people from 2013. And those that came, spent: gross ride revenue was $1,264,153.75, an increase of 3.32 percent over 2013. (The previous record gross was $1,257,238.14 in 2010).
Strong exhibits, a reliable midway, rebounding economy and agriculture industry - all spearheaded by a reinforced SocialMedia marketing effort - contributed to this year's success. Luckily, the one factor outside even the best fair organization's control cooperated to ensure the Sunflower State's annual late summer celebration exceeded expectations.
Good Weather & Upbeat Ag
"Last year, we had some really hot days, 100 to 105 degre
es," said Denny Stoecklein, General Manager, Kansas State Fair. "But this year, mother nature was kind to us, and we had mid-70s, 80 and 90s. We are very weekend driven, both Saturday and Saturday nights were very good. Lots of sunshine and mild temperatures. One day of temps in the 50's with cool north winds, but other days more than made up for it."
In addition to a positive meteorological climate, a healthier economic climate was apparent in the agriculture component of the fair. "The carnival may be a big hook for people coming here, but the ag exhibits are extremely popular," he said. "The fair plays an important role as something of a social event for the agriculture industry, people know their friends and colleagues are coming. The ag business is doing well this year."
Stoecklein added, "The beef prices, grain and corn prices are going up, which is good for the industry. A lot of folks have a lot of wheat to sell. If the harvests are good, the Kansas economy will be good. The mood at the fair was very upbeat."
Signs of an economic rebound were seen by the merchants and other retail vendors. According to Stoecklein, among commercial exhibitors, the Kansas State Fair has earned a reputation as a 'selling' Fair. "Feedback from exhibitors and concessionaires this year was very strong indicating strong purchasing by attendees," he added.
The North American Midway Entertainment (NAME) midway also experienced more fairgoers spending more money than last year. NAME's midway featured 40 rides, generating $1,264,153, an increase of 3.3 percent over 2013, enough to push the revenue for the fair to "a recording breaking gross, although not a huge increase," said Tom Thebault, General Manager, NAME. "This was in spite of a couple of days, where it was in the 50s to low 60s. Both weekends though we had ideal weather."
Midway promotions featured six wristband days, including a special $20 advance sale promotion that Thebault said was an acknowledgement of NAME's 20th anniversary at the fair.
The Crazy Mouse roller coaster returned to the fair after a multi-year hiatus, which along with the Giant Wheel, Starship and Freak Out, were the most popular rides. NAME subcontracted with Luehrs Ideal Rides and Fun Attractions,according to Thebault, "to rotate some rides through."
Aside from good weather and discount-oriented, midway marketing, Thebault noticed that the 2014 marketing by the Kansas State Fair has had a father reach. "The community and the state supports this fair," he said. "We did very well this year and I think the fair was drawing attenders from further out."
According to Stoecklein, the most popular promotion was Dollar Day Monday, which helped boost an otherwise slow fair day. This year, the midway participated by having each midway ride cost one ticket. For Dollar Day Monday, gate admission was just $1.00, or free if attendees showed a shopper card from a grocery store chain sponsor.
The further reach that Thebault noticed and the attendance uptick was also due to an increased role social media had in the 2014 Kansas State Fair. The fair's advertising budget is approximately $200,000, "We are doing very little print, mainly radio and TV," he added.
But more of that budget was allocated to social media, where Stoecklein sees a bigger bang for the buck. "One of the most effective promotions for a fair is word of mouth, and social media accelerated word of mouth," said Stoecklein.
This year, the fair invested in Facebook advertising. "We bought ads for our concerts, and boosted our posts," he said. "We are reaching a broader audience now. We were lucky to reach 500 people before, now we've got over 25,000 likes our Facebook page."
In terms of marketing investments, Stoecklein points out that the relatively low cost of social media is enticing, but expanding your presence requires effort and consistency. "A fair can no longer take social media for granted. It extends your reach, but you have to hire people to monitor your Facebook and Twitter. If you just use an intern, there's a certain level of institutional knowledge about the fair that is needed."
In other words, Facebook, Twitter and other social media, including Pinterest and Instagram, which the fair added in 2014, are no longer a mere stepchild when it comes to fair marketing. "It requires a commitment and an investment in personnel," said Stoecklein. "The investment level is lower than other marketing, but you are reaching potential customers you might not otherwise reach."
With the extra staff members, comment traffic on social media sites could be constantly monitored. In addition, a back catalog of posts was created and scheduled to appear daily throughout the course of the fair. "We scheduled them for certain days and certain times. You you either tell them what they can do while they are here, or tell them what they are missing."
Stoecklein notes the Kansas State Fair long been involved with social media - it is one of the few fairs who pioneered the new technology with a Myspace page - but this year, the fair has become more proactive, adding Pinterest and Instagram, increasing daily tweets and purchasing newly available Facebook advertising opportunities Social Media does work differently than other marketing methods and Stoecklein warns a fair must respond accordingly. "It is definitely a challenge dealing with the instant feedback within social," he said. "Within seconds you are receiving comments and your posts are being shared. It forces the fair to be more diligent. You have to be on top of things, and you need to address the problems instantly."
Stoecklein cited a positive example of that accelerated, two way communication. On a very busy Saturdays, fairgoers were amassed at the gates, experiencing fair entrance delays. Through social media, fairgoers complained. "People were posting that was a heck of line and people, saying things jiminy Christmas, it's taking forever to get into the fair."
Before these posts could go viral, Stoecklein sent over staff members to the entrances and the fairgoer flow was speeded up. Positive posts soon followed.
Concerts and entertainment at the Kansas State Fair are held in its U.S. Cellular Grandstand, with tickets ranging free with fair admission for Aaron Watson/Jack Ingram to upwards of $75 for VIP seating for Hunter Hayes. Other performances included: Cheap Trick; Sawyer Brown/Aaron Tippin; Matthew West/Cloverton; Chris Young/Courtney Cole and 3 Doors Down. For the most part, concerts have become a loss-leader for fair. Some of the events sold better than others, but "The grandstand is important for attracting attendees who will spend money in other areas," said Stoecklein.
Asked if the series was profitable in 2014, he admitted, "Looking strictly at dollars generated by ticket sales versus artist guarantees, it was not."
He added, "it's a disappointment, it is becoming tougher and tougher to book talent."
While he concedes a seller's market predominated in entertainment booking this summer, the Kansas market also has become increasingly competitive. Radius clauses span 50 miles, and in nearby Wichita, there are new venues, including a downtown arena and casino. "The radius clause protects them for 30 days, but even if they play here in March or April, we are not a big enough market to get them back in September."
Fairs were once a valued stop on many entertainment act's summer routes, but the increasingly rigid radius clauses, the proliferation of new facilities and the shrinking pool of fair-friendly talent is causing many fair organizers to consider other options. "A lot of us in the fairs are seeing the same thing this summer and we are looking at alternatives," said Stoecklein. "We are talking about adding more motor sports or something different. The crowds are less but the financial risks are significantly lower and you are not as heavily dependent to the grandstand for boosting overall attendance, especially on weekends."
Expanded free entertainment offerings actually had a better payoff in 2014. "We had great free entertainment this year," said Stoecklein. "It was the first year for the Dare Devil High Dive, which was extremely popular and Comic Hypnotist Ron Diamond returned, who has a following here."
Frosted & Fried
The Kansas State Fair featured 68 concessionaires in 103 locations at the fair and this segment saw the highest, year-to-year revenue gains. Food revenue was $2.6 million, an increase of more than 7 percent compared to 2013. The Kansas State Fair keeps the number of purveyors in this segment constant. "If you grow it too much, then you divide the pie into too many pieces," said Stoecklein. "When you have good year, the people who have been with you benefit."
Stoecklein attributes the munchies contagion to the weather. "The temperatures were not into 100s," he said. "When it is that hot you are not going to sell a lot of food. When it's mild people stay longer and are not hesitant to spend extra time at the fair, and they are willing to eat more."
And the cuisine fair patrons preferred this year was? Frosted Flake Fried Chicken - the cereal is crumbled up and is the main batter ingredient. "It was really good," Stoecklein said.
The other new and notable fair cuisine was a pig-on-pig dish - Bacon Wrapped Pork Chop on a Stick. Stoecklein concedes that while the dazzle of new food introductions gets headline, traditional staples - the Pronto Pup corndog - remain heartland favorites.
Good weather and a promotional strategy attuned to current marketing trends added to a robust 2014 Kansas State Fair. For Stoecklein, this year's performance reinforces his enthusiasm for both his fair and the fair industry. "The Midwest has a long tradition of fairs, and the industry here is strong," he said. "I think in general, the fair industry is healthy. There is a real desire to connect with Americana, and there's nothing more Americana than a fair."
And what could be more Americana than a fair in a state that epitomizes heartland values and tradition?
"We have a very strong connection with our community and I only see that getting stronger."