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Minnesota State Fair: Attendance Dip, Spending Up

10/7/2015

By Timothy Herrick

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Spending up in spite of a slight dip in attendance? This seems to be the scenario for the 2015 Minnesota State Fair, whose organizers feel that this success is attributable to a shared attitude by those who make the largest fair in the Midwest possible.

"We set the bar," said Jerry Hammer, Executive Vice President & General Manager, Minnesota State Fair. "There's an understanding here among everybody who works at the fair that we have to do better than we did every year. But that's because the fairgoers have a real personal ownership of the Minnesota State Fair and we want to exceed their expectations." 

Attention to Details
But setting that bar higher this year meant some more attention to detail and the overall experience. For example, last year the fair reopened its West End Market, a section of the fairgrounds first constructed in 1964, a $15 million project. As a follow up, the fair focused on relatively smaller upgrades. "We had more and better landscaping, we paid more attention to cosmetic changes and details, we repainted, replaced windows," said Hammer Some of our buildings are more than 100 years old and some were built during the WPA program in the 1930s. We take great pride in the history we have here."

This year, one very classic structure celebrated a centennial, Ye Old Mill -the oldest attraction of the fair and touted as the original Tunnel of Love and with a marketing campaign emphasizing tradition but encouraged  "selfies" in front of this classic fair backdrop and hawking commemorative t-shirts. "People come to the fair for the traditions and this has been one of our great traditions."

Community support and being a tradition shared by multiple generations can be said of many fairs, but Hammer had some validation from an international perspective. During this year's fair, he was hosting a party from the Royal Agricultural Society, a group of fair organizers from the United Kingdom and Australia. "They were seeing three different fairs, but they came back twice to our fair because we really promote a sense of ownership by the fairgoer and they said they could feel that. They wanted to come back. The fair is a collection of experiences, and has really earned its reputation as the Great Minnesota Get Together." 

The 2015 Minnesota State is considered the 4th highest attended fair in its history, although the rankings are veering close to entering the too close to call category. This year's fair attracted 1.78 million - last year, they exceeded 1.8 million attendees - but we don't count everybody," Hammer said. "We don't count kids and that probably adds another 100,000."

He added, "we did a record Labor Day, which is the final day of the fair," he said, with the fair receiving 178,000 fairgoers."

The weather was cooperative with very little rain. "We are not as subject to weather this year, we didn't have the extreme heat and high humidity," he said.

Snapchat Sizzle
But in spite of the attendance dip, the fair had sell out grandstand performances and noticeable revenues for food sales and the midway. Perhaps some increases can be attributed to an advertising campaign that combined the old media with a new emphasis on Social Media, particularly the relative newcomer to the platform, Snapchat.

The fair's advertising budget is $965,000, which is little changed form 2014. "We still do a lot of broadcast commercials," Hammer said. "There are 30 radio and TV shows that do a broadcast from the fairgrounds, which helps quite a bit. Probably the most valuable is radio, we still seem to reach the most people with radio." 

According to Lara Hughes, communications supervisor, Minnesota State Fair,  the fair upgraded its online video presentations, which were posted on Snapchat, then reposted on Facebook, Instagram and Twitter. "These short videos gave followers much more flavor of the action or of an exhibit than a photo or even a series of photos," said Hughes. "We panned a wall full of crop art entries rather than showing photos of just some, did a 360 in 10-seconds of the Craft Brewers exhibit and of the Find Arts Center, which may be unfamiliar to some guests."

In addition, the fair also produced "more behind-the-scenes and set-up video and photos to highlight what happens beyond what every fair guest sees. The goals of this was to build intrigue and interest in a larger variety and diversity of what the fair encompasses beyond the more well-known activities and exhibits; to quench people's curiosity about what happens behind the scenes and what goes into planning and preparing for this huge event; and highlight fairgrounds improvement projects so people gain a more concrete understanding of how we are reinvesting revenue into creating a better fair experience."

The fair's expanded its use of Snapchat, the launch of which started a week before opening day. "We filled our story with videos and photos that captured shows, exhibits, displays, demonstrations and fair scenes - more content than what we used on Facebook, Twitter and Instagram," Hughes explained. "We tried to show a "day at the fair" and at any given time, had approximately 15-20 photos or videos posted. We launched this to reach a different and additional demographic from our other social media channels and to give people more than what we felt we could post on our other channels without overloading. By the end of the fair, each snap was consistently viewed by more than 1,400 people."

She added that the reception of the campaign was "particularly successful. We heard anecdotally from many young people, ĎAre you the fair's mystery Snapchatter?', and several let us know that they enjoyed looking at our story each day, because it was gave unique insight into a day at the fair. We also believe that we introduced new aspects of the fair to younger people so they'll expand their fair experience."

Fair Cuisine
Food & Beverage showed a more noticeable revenue increase. Food revenue was estimated at $42 million, an 8 percent increase over 2014. Hammer admitted that there were a small part of that increase can be attributed to an uptick in food prices, although the increase in prices was only about " two to three percent, and seven out of the top 10 foods saw zero price increases."

The Minnesota State Fair opens at 6:00am, and as a result, "breakfast gets bigger every year," with some of the new breakfast food items including Smokey's Breakfast Burger, Minnesota BEE-NICE Gluten-Free Muffin, Minnesota Wild Rice Benedict Muffin and the Pretzel Croissant Sandwich. Hammer admitted, "The French toast served in our Blue Barn was very popular." 

Not that the fair did not have new foods. The Minnesota State Fair featured more than 300 food vendors; organizers claim more than 500 different edible items are available at the fair, including more than 40 new food items. 

Some of the popular new items according to Hammer included Buffalo'd Bones, a "type of grilled rib," he said as well as Butter Chicken Samosas, Chilled Bread Pudding, Grilled Venetian-Style Pizza, Kimchi 'n' Curry Poutine, Limerick Stix, Mac & Cheese Cupcake, Maple Bacon Funnel Cake, Tikka On-a-Stikka, Sausage Sister's Sriracha Sliders, five new flavors of  SPAM Burgers and Caramel Chocolate-Dipped Bacon Ice Cream. "We had a lot more gourmet style food, people come to this fair to eat," he said. "We also had a lot more ethnic food, like the Kimchi 'n' Curry Poutine, which was a Korean deal. It is more than just the typical deep fried foods you see at most fairs;."

If there is one signature food of the Minnesota State Fair it's "Sweet Martha's Cookies, "There's always a line," he said. "People come every year for these cookies, it's the one food item we are really known for."

Sold Out Shows
In terms of concerts, Deff Leppard, Keith Urban and Carrie Underwood were sell outs, and Alan Jackson and a double bill of country music legends Merle Haggard and Kris Kristofferson were near-sell outs, according to Hammer.  In addition, the fair featured a rare fair appearance by the Alternative Country faves, the Avett Brothers and Minnesota's own favorite son, Garrison Keillor, who brought his live radio show of Prairie Home Companion for a stop on his farewell tour. "Garrison is a perfect show demographically and chronologically for the fair, seniors are as into Garrison as hipsters."

While a seller's market still persists, Hammer pointed out that 2015 was actually an easier year for finding the right mix of headliners. "Talent buying was a tougher two years ago, when there seemed to be a large number of festivals," he said. "It hasn't really gotten an easier, but it wasn't as tough. It depends on who is going and doing the fair circuit and we had good names this year who were on tour and within the vicinity of the fair." 

When it comes to talent buying, instead of worrying about issues outside of the fair's control, such as routing, artist price and availability, and competition for acts, Hammer points out that the fair is more attuned to those event issues it can control. "We work really hard to have good relationships with artists, managers and promoters," he said. "We also work had to have as good a facility as we can and an environment where artists like to come and work, which is good place as any. The artists aren't asked to pose for pictures with the fair manager, we don't do meet and greets, we have a very good reputation.  They are very appreciative."

Independent Midway 
2015 MN STATE FAIR TOP 15 RIDES
  1. Crazy Mouse Spinning Roller Coaster - S.J. Entertainment
  2. Sky Flyer - Reithoffer Equipment Co., Inc.
  3. Super Nova Roller Coaster - KB Concessions LLC
  4. Hurricane - Showtime Rides, Inc.
  5. Gondola Wheel - Playworld Unlimited
  6. New York New York Fun House - Myers International Midways, Inc.
  7. Starship 3000 - Laser Fair, Inc.
  8. Rock It - State Fair Services, Inc.
  9. Techno Power - Wood Entertainment Co., Inc.
  10. Raiders - Rose's Rides, LLC
  11. Wave Swinger - Myers International Midways, Inc.
  12. Puppy Express - Prime Pacific Ent., LLC
  13. Kite Flyer - Alamo Amusements, Inc.
  14. Equinox - Laser Fair, Inc.
  15. Tilt-A-Whirl - Playworld Unlimited

2015 MN STATE FAIR TOP 15 GAMES
  1. Bottle Up - Candice P. Anderson
  2. Whopper Water Race - Cassata Concessions
  3. Goblets - Candice P. Anderson
  4. Long Range Basketball - Oren Concessions LLC
  5. Goblets - Candice P. Anderson
  6. Shoot Out The Star - Midwest Concessions, Inc.
  7. Rising Waters Water Race - Cassata Concessions
  8. Top Glo Water Race - Cassata Concessions
  9. Ring-A-Bottle - JBS Concessions
  10. Star Dart - Diversified Amusements, Inc.
  11. Mini Ball - Oren Concessions LLC
  12. Long Range Basketball - Oren Concessions LLC
  13. Fish-A-Rama - Oren Concessions LLC
  14. Ring-A-Bottle - Trejo Concessions
  15. Big Mouth - Potopas Concessions, Inc.
The independent midway at the Minnesota State Fair featured 61 rides, split between the adult rides and the Kidway (the fair had 31 children's rides). The fair contracts with about 25 ride companies, and ride revenue was up 7 percent, reaching $3.95 million. "We had no change in our ticket prices or our promotions," said Jim Sinclair, Deputy Fair Manager.

New rides for the fair included the New York New York Fun House - Myers International Midways, Inc. and the Super Nova Roller Coaster by KB Concessions LLC, both which were in the top 10 grossing rides of the fair. The top three grossing rides include Crazy Mouse Spinning Roller Coaster by S.J. Entertainment, Sky Flyer by Reithoffer Equipment Co., Inc. and Hurricane by Showtime Rides, Inc.

Given that the fair attendance dipped 3 percent - in terms of bodies, Sinclair estimated the decline translated into 45,000 fewer fairgoers than 2014 - while factors like good weather encouraged more lingering at the Midway, the extra spending "shows that the economy has improved, people are spending more this Summer."

Games were also up - about six percent -$264,000. Sinclair is hesitant to note this as the start of a comeback for what many see as a declining feature of fairs. In fact, he points out that the since going independent 20 years ago, Minnesota State Fair organizers have made a concerted effort to improve the game segment, most notably improving the prizes and chances for fairgoers to win. It may have taken two decades, but "we have struggled with the historical perception that the games were fixed, that nobody wins. I think when games are operated smoothly and fairly, people will play. Playing games on your phone is not the same experience as playing them at the fair."

In addition, it's the traditional games that seem to be making the most significant comeback - Bottle Up by Candice P. Anderson was the leading game. "There is more comfort playing the familiar fair games you can only play once a year. If you create the right environment, and have a fair stock through, games are still a very important part of the midway." 

Overall, it was a "very strong midway," said Sinclair who also noted that the concerts, such as Def Leppard, brought the right mix of crowds to the fair. Since the Minnesota State Fair is such a vast outdoor event, attendance is not as dependent on the headline entertainment on any given night. Even so, Sinclair conceded that sometimes the concerts bring in crowds which show little interest in the rides and games, and other times the sweet spot is hit and music audiences become gleeful midway participants. The latter was this year's scenario.

"Some artists have a demographics that just don't like to go on rides or play games, but this year that didn't happen," he said. "Our opening night was Def Leppard and the midway was up 58 percent. You never really know which crowd will be good for the midway, but this year it worked out." 

The 2015 Minnesota State Fair also saw re-commitment to environmental awareness and best practices by the fair. A new exhibit was the ECO Experience, a green stage shedding light on climate change, environmental issues, and other inconvenient truths. Some of the exhibits include a  25-foot high "Bagnado,"a  plastic tornado made of plastic bags -Minnesotans throw away 500 tons of plastic bags and packaging every day, according to press materials, more than 12 pounds every second, as well DIY recycling, a demonstration of green RV practices and free toy made from recycled materials given to the first 800 kids each day who complete the daily kids activity. "We are the largest sustainable fair in the country," said Hammer. "We are very proud of that."




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