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Iowa State Fair: Presidential Contenders, Social Media & Record Attendance

9/23/2015

By Timothy Herrick

Photo courtesy of

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How do you know the U.S. will be electing a president next year?

This year, the Iowa State Fair was once again the most famous state fair of the summer.

It's a quadrennial tradition. Iowa of course is the first state to hold a primary - technically, it's a "caucus" - in February, so the preceding August politicians seeking national office descend on the Iowa State Fair to meet the early-bird voters, find photo-ops and make news. 

Record Attendance
Attendance reached 1,117,398 in 2015, up from 1,015,902 in 2014, and a record turnout. While the fair failed to break the single day record (116,774, set in 2008), "we broke the overall attendance record set in 2008 by 8,248Photo By ," said Gary Slater, CEO of the Iowa State Fair, 

An improving economy, a more aggressive social media campaign and an effective grandstand concert line-up  Slater claims as the key factors boosting attendance, as was mainly conducive weather.  "The weather was unseasonably cool for most Augusts in Iowa, making it very comfortable for attendees, said Slater. He also said there were two heavy rainfalls during 11-day fair - "for a total of almost five inches" - but mostly the came "all at once, it wasn't stretched out," though the impact included the "loss of the Meaghan Trainor" concert.

Nonetheless, there's no denying that the contest to see who will be the next Commander-and-Chief is major factor of this year's fair. "It is more work for the staff but we take it in stride," he said. "Hillary had Secret Service with her too. It brings more attention to the fair, but that doesn't always translate into higher attendance."

Social Media Connection
In addition to Clinton, Bernie Sanders, Jeb Bush and Donald Trump came and made campaign stops, as candidates do every four years, bringing extra attention to the fair.  But with the rise of social media and fair organizers and staff increasing adeptness and optimizing online networking, there was an actual marketing pay-off this election cycle. "Our marketing department now has a person directly dealing with social media, where five years ago it was just part of somebody's duties, now it's a single person," said Slater. "We use it for awareness and when you get a boost like the presidential candidates, you can use it to get more attention for fair. We get this notoriety every four years,  but this year we were able to bring some of that attention to the fair."

Slater pointed out that 2008 was a record year, with no slate of would be caucus candidates and their retinue of supporters and media in tow. The non-partisan Iowa State Fair makes the most of the marketing opportunity the state's position in the national election cycle enables. The first Saturday of the Iowa State Fair, a heavy candidate visitation day,  the Iowa State Fair was trending on social media. "We were number one on Twitter, all sorts of Social Media, and Yahoo news, among other places. With social media, it ties back to you so the candidates were in the news, but we linked to the news."

The fair capitalized on this increased exposure by expanding its social media presence. "We bumped up the frequency and photos and incorporated regular posts such as Throwback Thursday about past fairs," he said. "We also used promoted posts and tweets for a few concert giveaways. We also had Instagram Corporate and Snap Chat Corporate live on our grounds during the Fair."

He added, "people are really engaged on social media and use social media to ask questions, comment or find information. We like the two-way communications through social media and we think Fairgoers like that we take the time to respond to their comments. Specifically, we had great success communicating any changes we had to daily schedules or programming throughout the Fair on social media."

Farm Tour Marketing
The fair's advertising budget was a little over $500,000, about a 3 percent increase compared to 2014. The media mix included TV- 30 percent, Radio - 30 percent, Print 23 percent and Outdoor/Out of Home/Transit-17 percent. There was only an allocation shift between mediums of about  2-3 percent compared to 2014.
The marketing theme this year was Fair Tour, "and we encouraged people to find a new path at the State Fair," He said "The theme incorporated mascot animals that served as tour guides in all our radio/television and print promotions this year." 

The Iowa state legislature also aided fair attendance. The summer of 2015 had one of the latest labor days possible on the calendar (in 1887, President Grover Cleveland mandated that Labor Day be celebrated the first Monday in September). However, children also have to be in school a specific number of days per year and to gain a week the Calendar otherwise might erase, some school systems started school in August, which negatively impacted fair attendance in some states. The Iowa State legislature passed a bill mandating that the start of school and the annual celebration of everything Hawkeye State not overlap. 

"The law set our school start date to coincide with the Monday after the end of the fair," said Slater. "For the past four or five years, school was starting half-way into the fair, and this year it would been for the entire fair. This is very significant, not just for the kids, but for the teachers and the parents to come out to the fair. It was very significant for our 4-H programs, because those families are here throughout the fair. The law had a huge impact on our attendance."

In addition to the legislative bolstering of younger fairgoers, the Iowa economy has also been improving, which Slater emphasized had a noticeably upbeat effect on family budgets. "Iowa has one of the lowest unemployment rates this year than it has had in the last 10 years," said Slater. "That makes a big difference. People aren't looking for luxury, they view the fair as affordable fun, but when more people are working, the people who have jobs are more likely to spend. There's more consumer confidence." 

Triangle Talent
Perhaps the most instrumental aspect contributing to the success of the 2015 Iowa State Fair was optimum talent buying. According to Slater, this year the fair hit the sweet spot with entertainment, with four sell-outs in the grandstand: Def Leopard. Tesla & Styx; Reba McIntyre; Carey Underwood and Alabama. "It was one of our best concert years," said Slater, adding that he could not remember four concerts in the summer series with such high attendance. 

Talent buying is "hard every year, and it is very hard to book great names, names that people are going to come out to see," he added. 

"There are more festivals, more competition. The county fairs too now have grandstands, and they have professional capabilities and are getting acts of a very high caliber. We are competing with more festivals and fairs and casinos every year, but the stars aligned for us this year."

Slater allowed that some efforts by the fair were a little less cosmic in scope. "We were able to develop a good line up with Triangle Talent, and we strategized together,  looking at who is touring, and we routed with the Kentucky State Fair, Wisconsin State Fair and the Missouri State Fair, all of that helps us."

Fair Cuisine
The fair had about 200 food vendors, and Slater said "the vast majority of sales of food and drink were up this year. People were spending. While the final numbers for food and drink were not available at press time, "the vast majority of food sales were up," he said, based on anecdotal evidence, with "some saying they were up 100 percent compared to last year."

Slater credited the fair-conducive temperatures. "We had more moderate temperatures this year, so people were more comfortable staying at the fair and eating and drinking and that probably helped the per caps." 

The Iowa State Fair is known for its fair cuisine offerings. The state's leading newspaper, the Des Moines Register - in addition to listing a "full list of 75 foods on a stick" at this year's event, -- picked the top 15 new foods at the fair, which included: Apple Pie On-a-Stick;  Bruschetta; Cattleman's Steak Wrap;  Chocolate Dipped Strawberries On-a-Stick; Corn in a Cup; Deep Fried Cherry Pie; Deep Fried Nacho Balls; Donut Sundae; Golden Fried Peanut Butter & Jelly On-a-Stick; Gluten-Free Corndog; Kernel Kluster; Pumpkin Spice Funnel Cake; Toasted Coconut Caramel Cluster;  and the Ultimate Bacon Brisket Bomb

"My favorite was the Apple Pie On-a-Stick, which was deep fried of course, but I think the most popular new food was the Ultimate Bacon Brisket Bomb," said Slater. "The Ultimate Bacon Brisket Bomb was our people's choice award winner for 2015. People love things with bacon. It was an interesting recipe on a stick at a great price."

Noting that the fair had its first gluten-free corndog, Slater added, "we are known for our wide variety of corn dogs. People come out to the fair to enjoy something new and different, they want new twists on traditional fair foods. The fair is known for its fair foods and a lot of the industry look at us for new trends." 

The lists of top new foods in state-wide media is an example of how has been building on its reputation as the epicenter of national fair cuisine trends. This year, the fair introduced a foodie app, which aided fairgoers in "locating any type of food they wanted, allowing then to cross check with all our vendors," said Slater. "Users could enter parameters like where to find new food items. We also had a promotion where fairgoers could find $3 food items." 

Belle City Midway
The Belle City Amusements midway featured 41 rides, with the Giant Wheel, the Rock & Roll and Moonraker being the most popular, "if the weather was better, we would have better per caps, but we did well. They have a great tradition at the Iowa State Fair, and have top family entertainment."

"We had a good run in Iowa, there were a couple of days of rain but they had a record attendance and so did our midway," said Charles Panacek  of Belle City Amusements,. "We saw a slight increase in our advanced sales."

Did the appearances by celebrity candidates have any impact on the Belle City Amusements midway? "Jeb Bush played a pitch game on the  midway," said Panacek. "It doesn't really affect us, but it increases attention to the fair, so that is good,  but it doesn't make a huge difference for the midway. "




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