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Good Weather & Community Support: Utah State Fair Comes Back Strong

3/4/2015

By Timothy Herrick

Photo courtesy of

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The Utah State Fair is one of the comeback stories of the year. Last year, some of its major buildings were crumbling and severe rain fell nine out of 11 days. The losses seemed insurmountable and forced Michael Steele, Executive Director,  to ask the state legislature for $750K in emergency funds to save the fair. 

The legislature came through - although with only $600,000 - which Steele said enabled  business operations to keep the lights,  meet payroll and ensure that the 2014 fair would take place. The funds also provide an unforeseen asset. Steele said that the controversy inspired a wave of "community support. People turned out for the fair. The message had gotten out there and people love their Utah State fair."

Attendance SurgesPhoto By
The Utah State Fair - held September 4-14 - rebounded, solidifying the future of this Beehive State tradition.  Attendance exceeded 301,000 - a significant increase over last year's 259,000 - reaching total revenue of $2.9 million, with per capita spending up by more than 10 percent, Steele estimates. "People were spending, we had great days."

The 2014 Utah State Fair also set a 5-year average attendance record, achieving the second highest total attendance of all time. 

This robust rebound also convinced lawmakers that spending on the fair served the public interest. "A large number of senators and house members came out with their families and toured the fair," said Steele. " I had one politician who came here on Saturday night, and said he was getting bumped and jostled because of the size of the crowds. He told me we were having a good fair." 

Surprisingly, there was very little negative reaction to the fair's request for emergency funding and Steele states there has been wide support for the fair, since 1995, when the state incorporated the fair. "We are getting support from politician from both parties, from rural areas to our cities, they want to know how they can help this institution of the state fair," he said

Electronic Billboards
The Utah economy is improving, said Steele, which certainly contributed to the fair's success. Also, the weather was sunny and comfortable for both weekends and most of the weekdays; Steele said what rain there was fell mainly overnight. "Everything cooperated to make this a good fair, even Mother Nature," he said. 

 The healthy attendance Steele said may have also been due to the fact that last year's torrential downpours meant this year's run of sunshine unleashed "pent up demand for the fair."

In addition, "we had a very good marketing campaign and more publicity, more people knew about the fair, he said.  The fair's 2014 marketing tagline was The Greatest Hits, which Steele described as a play on David Letterman's Top 10 List. The fair had a an advertising budget of $250,000 The Media mix was : TV - 30 percent; Radio - 25 percent; outdoor - 20 percent; Print - 12 percent; and Digital - 11 percent.  In fact, because of technological innovation in this medium, the outdoor segment of the media mix grew compared to last year's allocation. "Electronic billboards have come to Utah and we are taking full advantage of them," said Steele. "They are more effective than just doing the vinyl, because we change it every night, promote the big acts as they roll out at the fair."

The 2014 Utah State Fair also had a "good media buy-in," he said. "We made more of an effort to increase our coverage, and we made sure the media had access and was available. We worked with them on  more stories and made it a top priority. We had television channels doing their morning shows here, and even had an evening newscast from the grandstands. It was a real coup for us."

Official Fair Food
The 2014 Utah State Fair featured 95 food vendors. Overall food revenue was up 25 percent over last year, and Steele pointed out that the other noteworthy measure of this fair revenue segment was that "90 percent of the food vendors came back, which was a real concern for us, because last year, with nine out of 11 days of rain, the food vendors took it hard, but we kept our pricing and percentages the same."

The good weather meant that people who came to the fair stayed longer at the fair and this lingering led inevitably to trying more fair cuisine. "There was a lot of activity, you could smell the food frying and see the smoke from the barbecues wafting through the fair. Food is very big here at the fair, we get a lot of support from the Utah Dairy Council and the Utah Pork and Beef Councils. Food sales are good when you're not selling ponchos."

The Utah Farm Bureau all sponsor exhibits at the fair, which also features a "Utah's Own" Food Court, serving locally grown and prepared foods from around the state. Continuing this Utah edible theme this year was a new food marketing gimmick:  the declaration of an Official Utah State Fair Food, chicken and waffle on, of course, a stick. The fair partnered with a food truck vendor, Saturday's Waffle, to provide this specialty. The promotion did bring added attention to fair cuisines and being a local vendor meant that the dish had a built-in audience. "We're still deciding about next year if we will stay with the Chicken and Waffle sandwich or declare another dish to be the Official Utah State Fair Food." 

Midway: 2nd Best
Midway spending may not have been record setting, but it came pretty near to being so. It was the 9th year that Mighty Thomas Carnival provided the Utah State Fair midway and John Hanschen, president, declared 2014 as the second-best, although technically it might be the 3rd best. The problem is that two fairs - 2008 and 2010 - tied for the number one spot. "We have a tie for first, but 2014 was a pretty close second," said Hanschen. 

Whatever the final ranking. Hanschen stated that revenue was up more than 17 percent. "The Utah State Fair is a really good partner, and they did a remarkable amount of advance sales and they have a remarkable relationships with a local supermarket chain," he said.

All day/every day wristbands increased in sales for the Mighty Thomas Carnival midway, which went as low as $22. The midway also implemented a 2-4-1 Buddy night, matinee discounts and some group discounts. "The fair's two weekends were really strong, the people came out in large numbers," said Hanschen. "There was a pent-up demand for the rides because there was so much rain last year. But I had the feeling that customers knew about the troubles the fair was having financially. It was a news item and people talked about it. But they were all very supportive of their fair. And people were coming more than one day to the fair, there were more multiple visits to the midway this year." 
 
The Mighty Thomas Carnival midway featured 35 rides, with this year's layout consisting of four adjacent but independent sections, each with its own generator. For Hanschen, the most visible benefit of the midway was its centralized location. "A lot of fairs put the midway in an isolated area of the fairgrounds, but in Utah it was in the middle of fair, it was a great location, because people were crossing our path constantly going to different parts of the fair. 

According to Hanschen, the Century Wheel was "the top ride, but that is our top ride in just about any location. The other top rides this year were Thunderbolt, Moby Dick, the Zipper and Pharaoh's Fury. 

For a midway provider, Hanschen was pleased with the weather and the fair's organizers to overcome obstacles to make this year's event a reality. What stood out the most was the enthusiasm among fairgoers. "Fairs are reflections of their community, and there is support for this fair all down the line and it is quite unique. This fair is part of the social fabric of Utah."

Entertainment Cutback
The weather might have improved the attendance but for entertainment, there were no sellouts and the paid admission acts were not profitable. Talent buying has been a tale of woe for many fairs this season, and Steele said, "we did the best we could with the budget we had."

The fair cutback on the number of music shows in the grandstand, because according to Steele, "they were competing with the PRCA rodeo. For those nights, we did free stunt shows."

To mix up the entertainment, Steele "shied away from country acts," which dominated recent year's line-ups. This year, the leading Grandstand Concert Series included The Beach Boys, Grand Funk Railroad, and Zendaya, with tickets (which included fair admission) ranging from $17 -$22. While there were no sellouts and the shows tended to act as loss-leaders, "the Beach Boys attracted the biggest crowd and did a great show and were well received."

Bright Future
The 2014 Utah State Fair basically proved to the state legislature that the fair is a popular part of Utah life and the money invested to sustain this tradition was well spent. In addition to the emergency funding the state gave, it invested $2.5 million in restoring three historical barns -they were condemned prior to last year's fair, impeding some exhibitions. "We were able to rebuild the barns and have them ready for this year's fair."

Certainly troubles are not over for the Utah State Fair, but it's amazing how good weather and enthusiastic fairgoers can inspire optimistic confidence. "People came out for the fair. We're talking to a minor league soccer team about building a stadium here. There's new interest in our facilities. The people were energized for this year's fair. They came out. It's a very interesting time now for the Utah State Fair." 

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