Weak start, strong finish is how to best describe the 2015 Evergreen State Fair in Monroe, Washington.
According to Hal Gausman, Fair Manager, bad weather plagued the early days of the event - which included one of the most severe windstorms in common memory - which resulted in some power outages in the region and nearly closed down the fair.
The 2014 fair was a record, said Gausman - an attendance of 348,649 - and this year the fair did 321,322 - and he said as a result of this attendance drop, spending was off 5-7 percent, with the midway suffering more than the food. In addition, the paid admission concerts, like many fairs, struggled through challenges ranging from lackluster interest, bad weather and the last minute cancellation of Pat Benatar, one of the biggest names booked on the fair's main stage.
Lows & Highs
The 12-day fair teetered between highs and lows. The final weekend was record setting - including a Saturday attendance of more than 52,000 "The final Saturday was the biggest Saturday we have in the history of the fair," he said. "The fair is a tradition in this community and the community came to support their fair."
But before the highs, came the lows. On one of the earliest days, attendance was down to 14,000, the lowest attendance figures ever recorded by the fair.
"The fair did amazingly well, considering we had a record windstorm that the governor submitted a request to FEMA to declare it a disaster," he said. "The fairgrounds didn't get it as badly, but there were power outages and trees down in the area, so it was difficult to get to the fair. We had some crazy weather. I think the outpouring at the end of the fair was pent up demand. The fair is important to our community."
Even with the windstorm, the fair did not close down, although there was limited usage of the midway. "People get eating corndogs, and we were tracking the storm for eight hours, we had some very severe gusts," he said. "I grew up in Nebraska, and it was not as crazy as there, but it was bad for here."
For Butler Amusements - a West Coast based Carnival Company - the Evergreen Fair was a rare case of bad weather in an otherwise stellar year. "This has been our biggest year," said Mick Brajevich, Butler Amusements President & CEO. "You have to remember, we are manly in the west, and there's been a big drought, so we've lost zero days until the Evergreen Fair."
Even so, "the fair turned out well," he said. "The first seven days we were down, we had the windstorm but also there were was rain and it was cold, wet damp. The weather cleared up for the weekend, and that was huge."
Brajevich added, "it saved the fair, from my perspective."
Although some rides had to close due to the winds, the midway itself remained opened. "When you get winds above 35 miles, the rides are not engineered to take that and you have to be cautious and not worry about what might have been." Said Brajevich. "We had to shut down four or five rides. Attendance was bad and it really didn't cost us any business, there was not a lot of business that day anyway."
The Butler Amusements midway featured 39 rides, including several new rides, the most prominent being a brand new Rockstar. "We only had it a month, we picked it up the first of August, " he said. "It was very popular."
Also new for the fair was a Freak Out, Safari Coaster, Himalaya and Thunder Bolt. Brajevich added that the traditional Giant Wheel is always the most popular ride at the Evergreen Fair.
"The kid's promotion were kids get in free on Thursday is a great promotion and that worked out," said Bravjevich. "It's a two weekend fair, and when the weather is right they turnout. We were on par with last year, and we were way down the first weekend but the last weekend was the biggest four days we've ever had at the fair. We were up quite a bit. It is a testament to the fair they had really brought in the community. We had the biggest Saturday in our history at the event."
Food revenue fared better than midway revenue at the fair, unsurprisingly - high winds and periods of precipitation may have stifled midway action, but the fair never had to close and so entirely. Even low attended days had people eating. "The number one reason some people come to the fair is to eat," said Gausman. " I've had a lot of conversations with vendors, and they were very upbeat and they felt initially they were going to be down because of the weather, but they had near record days at the end of the fair."
He added, "There is a community celebration here with the food, and we believe in that tradition. We are seeing a real coming together with that tradition and Northwest alternative lifestyles. We are seeing more and more of an interest in the growing local food trends. People care where their food comes from. A lot of vendors emphasize they are using locally grown food."
The Northwest lifestyles are known for its holistic approach and environmental awareness. This year the fair mandated all napkins, plates, and all food serving items were from sustainable products. "Our goal is for all our waste to be recyclable and compostable. We want to be an entirely sustainable fair," said Gausman.
This year the fair mandated that all disposable utensils, plates and other serving items be made from biodegradable materials. "We want to be 100 percent recycling and composting and that ties into both our environmentalist awareness and the agriculture industry," said Gausman.
Towards that end, for the first time the fair went from recommending to mandating the use of biodegradable utensils "all the plates, forks, straws, napkins, pretty much everything and we were pretty successful," said Gausman.
He said there were some issues on some items "with the fork melting or the straw wouldn't hold." But he added it mainly meant a change to another sustainable supplier. The products also added minimal cost mainly due to the proliferation of biodegradable utensils in other industry, which expanded suppliers and lowered prices. "It's only a few percentage points more than other utensils," he said. "We couldn't have done this even three years ago, because they were way more expensive and far fewer suppliers. We gave the vendors a lot of time to plan, four to five months, and a list of acceptable suppliers which were about a dozen. We worked on the front end and the vendors were on board.
Local reports said that the fair used to produce 200 tons of refuse each year, one of the biggest garbage generators in Snohomish County. This year's efforts had the goal of preventing 90 of those tons of waste from going to the landfill. The recycling and composting program included nearly 100 recycling and composting stations throughout the grounds, requesting fairgoers to separate their trash. The fair created a recycling mascot, "Chuck," the can, who wandered the fairgrounds, encouraging fairgoers to participate in the waste-reduction effort.
"We want to be the greenest fair in the country," Gausman said. "I think this is the future for the fair industry and we have a great start."
Economy & Social Media
The strong comeback that weakened the negative impact of bad weather seemed indicative of an improving economy in Washington State. "There had been challenges with the economy but I think people are spending more, there is more consumer confidence," said Gausman. "We are only about 20 miles from Boeing, and they are doing very well and hiring. The economy is doing better, maybe not what it should be but has improved. We are an affordable tradition, so people always come to the fair."
The fair has an advertising budget of $250,000, allocated between 40 percent TV and 40 percent radio, with digital, print and billboards making up about 20 percent "We are doing more billboards," he said. "TV works the best for us, and we have been doing less print of course. Radio is used mainly as ties into our concerts."
Social media of course has been increasing because "it creates the buzz about the fair," said Gausman, adding that at the height of the fair, there are about three staff members devoted to tweeting, posting and other social media activities. One of the fun and effective social media promotions was to find a fair staff or board member. Basically a description was put out on social media about an individual, and the one who found him or her and posted a picture received a prize, such as concert tickets. "We did this about a dozen times, it was very popular and we worked with our sponsors," he added.
What doesn't seem to be drawing attendees like it used to is the paid admission grandstand segment of the Evergreen Fair. Gausman said that the talent buying was still a seller's market. "We've been adding other entertainment, such as demolition derbies. This year we had Casting Crowns, which is Contemporary Christian and did very well with Lee Brice and Vice Gill," he said. "We had a cancellation with Pat Benatar, which hurt us."
The Evergreen gig was one of several cancelled dates when the tour of Pat Benatar and Neil "Spyder" Giraldo was shut down due to health reasons- Giraldo injured his eye and required emergency surgery. Local reports indicated that the fair had already sold 1,202 tickets to the concert when the cancellation was announced, scarcely two weeks before the date. "We focus on different segments, like country, blues and rock and the Benatar cancellation hurt us with the rock crowd. We are revaluating our concert series, we are looking at it with the staff and the board. We are spending a lot of money on the concerts, and there is a lot more competition and that is driving up the price, and we are looking at new ideas."
Gausman added, "we are a dry fair, so we are not making the money up in beer sales or other areas of the fair. We are reevaluating how we market our facility and what types of entertainment we will have in the future."