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Two Fairs; One Manager: Illinois Hopes Synergies will Turnaround Ailing Events

5/22/2015

By Timothy Herrick

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Illinois has two state fairs a week apart -the Illinois State Fair, which runs August 13th - 23rd  and the Du Quoin State Fair runs August 28th - September 7th, and the fair manager slot for both events had been vacant since January, after a new governor took office and fired both fair managers. For five months,  interested parties held their breath, waiting to find out who will lead the two major fairs in the Land of Lincoln. 

Last week, the Illinois Department of Agriculture made a surprising announcement.

The two fairs - only three months away - will be headed by one person. Patrick Buchen, who was Executive Director of the Illinois state Fair from 1988-1989, will return as Fair Manager for both the Illinois State Fair, which is in the state capital of Springfield, and the Du Quoin State Fair, which is located in the titular town about a three hour drive south. 

Cost Savings
While both fairs are long established annual events in the state, each have struggled in recent years. Having one manager for two fairs as a cost-saving measure is the official main reason for this unusual approach to fair management. 

"I am confident that Patrick Buchen can effectively manage both state fair operations," said Philip Nelson, Director, Illinois Department of Agriculture. "In this day and age of shared sacrifice, we at the Illinois Department of Agriculture are tightening our belts where we can, but at the same time preserve the traditions that Illinois residents enjoy at both state fairs." 

Buche's long career experience combines farming and event planning. Born and raised on a farm in Fulton County - his family holds an "Illinois Centennial Farm" designation dating back to 1863 - and his ties to the Illinois State Fair go back to his youth, where he logged countless hours in the livestock barns, and was a member of 4-H where he worked with sheep, hogs, and cattle. 

Buchen served as Executive Director of the Indiana State Fair 88-89, was president of President of HSI Show Productions, an event production company and most recently was president of Adjuvantexpo, an exposition and trade show production company. In addition, he is certified in Exposition Management from the International Association of Exhibitions and Events, and the past chairman for the International Association for Exhibition Management Foundation. According to a Department of Agriculture press release: "Buchen has a track record of boosting revenues while trimming unproductive expenditures."

"I love agriculture and the fair business, so becoming manager of the state fairs in Illinois is a dream come true," said Buchen "As an event professional I have dealt with all facets of show management. I truly believe to meet the demands of the event industry, creativity is paramount in order to present something new and fresh year after year while still delivering familiarity."  

Political Impartiality
Gov. Bruce Rauner, a Republican, beat the Democrat incumbent, Pat Quinn last year and upon taking office in January, fired many department heads, including the two fair managers, Amy Bliefnick of the Illinois State Fair, and Shannon Woodworth of the Du Quoin State Fair. The cost-cutting policies began with the Buchen appointment, who makes a reported $100,000 - $120,000 annually. Bliefnick earned $90,400 annually and Woodworth earned $71,000.

In addition to the innovation of one fair manager for two fairs, Buchen said another first is that the appointment was approved by but not made by the Governor of the state, but by the Ag director. "Historically, my position has been someone appointed by governor, and they may or may not have been political appointees," said Buchen. "My appointment was made impartially, so I can focus on the business of both fairs." 

"Patrick has both the agriculture experience and the fair experience that will really help him to showcase Illinois, specifically the state's rich agricultural roots," said Nelson.

In fact, Buchen claims to have "no political ties," and feels that his qualifications in events and agriculture makes him uniquely suited to take on two fairs. "I have fair experience, and exposition experience, so I have a full understanding of the sales and sponsorship that is needed, and the types of marketing both fairs will benefit from." 

Creating Synergies
Carnival Warehouse spoke with Buchen only a few days after the announcement of his taking over the dual helms of both events. There were still "some "i"s to dot and "t" s to cross," he said, and insisted he has no immediate agenda or plans to announce any major changes. "Both fairs have great staffs, and I am getting to know them and the fairs. Most of the fairs have already been planned for this year, so I really will be learning as much as I can for the next few weeks." 

In the longer term - after both fairs - Buchen expects to both consolidate some operational and management tasks and create marketing synergies between the two events.

"We want to maintain autonomy, but we will be able to coordinate some marketing and PR, and consolidate some sales, and eventually have one team that will do both fairs," he said. "But it might also make sense to maintain two different sales teams."

Booking entertainment might be another function that can be consolidated, but "that will probably work better for the ground acts," he said. "They have a circuit they play and often both fairs are on that same."

Co-Booking headline entertainment is more pragmatic - although the distance between them means the two fairs are located in two different markets, nullifying typical radius clauses in contracts - "whether one big act will play both fairs seems to make sense, depending on the routing, but it also depends on the act," he said. "Whether the same act plays both fairs is one issue, but the booking might be able to be handled from one office."

The synergistic relationship and accompanying sales benefits will be most apparent in sponsorships. The sponsor segment that will be initially targeted by Buchen's interconnected approach to sales is the agri-business community. Agriculture is the largest industry in Illinois and it's those business who have a vested interest in the success of both fairs. "There are synergies when it comes to marketing and sponsorships that we have by combining two fairs," he said. "There are several agri-business companies who are germane to both fairs and we can price sponsorships so it makes sense economically to be in both fairs."

Financial Struggles  
The agricultural industry in Illinois may be a booming multi-billion dollar industry, but the fairs have lagged behind its success. Buchen is under pressure to turn around the two state fairs under a new fiscally conservative administration in a state where the economic recovery has yet to fully take hold. "Our goal is to become self-sufficient and not use any tax dollars whatsoever," said Buchen. 

Last Summer, a report form from the Illinois Auditor General's Office indicated the Springfield and Du Quoin fairs lost money in each of the prior two fiscal years. According to a May 4th, 2014 article in the State Journal Register: "Losses at the Springfield fair totaled $3.5 million in fiscal 2013 and a little more than $3.3 million in fiscal 2012, according to the report, while the Du Quoin fair lost nearly $595,000 in fiscal 2013 and more than $630,000 in fiscal 2012."

The Illinois State Fair attracted 847,000 attendees in 2014, while 340,000 went to the Du Quoin fair last summer. Buchen hopes to turn around the downward attendance spiral of both fairs - in 2013, the Illinois State Fair attracted 961,000 and Du Quoin 365,000. 

In addition, increasing revenue and overcoming budget shortfalls is not just about the state fair. The Illinois State Fair finds itself in a position similar to other states - the fairs themselves have established and growing followings - it's the rest of the year where the empty fairgrounds drain state coffers. "We pretty much break even at least with both fairs," said Buchen. "But it's the other 346 days that can be made more profitable, and we can market both locations to some organizations."

Buchen is currently assessing reports on the facilities and infrastructure at both fairgrounds, which range from a new exposition building to aging facilities that Buchen describes as needing "a lot of TLC (Tender Loving Care)." 

Capital improvements will likely take up much of his inaugural year at the dual-helm. "There are lot of ideas on the table. We are seeking private public programs," said Buchen. "There are also a lot of special interests groups who have a stake in both fairgrounds."

He added, "we are exploring a few legislative things to help with the capital improvements, but we also have a big emphasis on obtaining private funds as well."  
 
According to statement released by the Department of Agriculture: "The Department is confident in the management and agricultural experience that Mr. Buchen brings to the table. He is currently evaluating both fairs and working to make resources available to provide agricultural experiences, education, and entertainment available for everyone at an affordable price. Mr. Buchen will be operating under the mission statement of "The state fairs are here to enhance agriculture through education and enlightenment in a safe and fun environment"." 

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