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Oklahoma State Fair Survives Donald Trump

11/11/2015

By Timothy Herrick

Photo courtesy of

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Sometimes things on paper do not work out so well in practice. Republican Presidential Candidate and Apprentice Show celebrity, Donald Trump made a visit to the Oklahoma State Fair.   Riding high in the polls, always in the headlines, and just prior to the second presidential debate, Trump seemed like a free publicity dream come true. When the local Republican Party contacted the fair, informing them that Trump wanted to attend the fair, there was no way to refuse. 

Actually, legally they could not turn him down and instead accommodated the visit and hope that increased media exposure could benefit the fair.  "Whether we said yes or not, if he wants to come to the fair, he is coming to the fair, regardless" said  J. Scott Munz, Vice President, Marketing & Public Relations. "We worked wPhoto By ith the police department, and made plans accordingly."

Trump Backfires
The fair has had celebrity and politicians visits in the past - Gerald Ford reportedly had a photo-op during his presidency - but it is an uncommon occurrence and being thrust into the spotlight was unusual. "We are not an early primary state," he added. 

Fair organizers made sure Trump's appearance was as non-disruptive as possible, cordoning his appearance to a far section of the fairground, allowing him 90 minutes to make remarks and have a photo-op.  The local production Trump had hired requested modifications be made to the band shell where the appearance was being staged, the fair told them any modifications had to be made during non-fair hours (10:00 pm - 10:00am). The time slot was cleared for Trump, but the other acts performed - the band shell is for free entertainment and generally used for free acts. We cleared the time slot for his appearance, but we still had local acts perform.  "Some of them had bigger crowds than they expected," Munz said.

Trump certainly attracted supporters and the curious - and the fair anticipated that the appearance would boost attendance - along with media attention. Unfortunately, the latter undermined the former. The media reported that between 10,000 and 25,000 were expected to show up just for Trump-that is on top of the usual Friday attendance. "The media coverage increased up to that day, and I never gave as many interviews as I did locally," Munz said.

But the Trump appearance backfired. "All the local news reports were about traffic jams and parking problems," said Munz. "I kept getting questions about capacity, and we've never been close to capacity. One reporter interviewed someone from the police department, who said they would close the fair down if it reached capacity. That became the story."

In addition to people who came out of support or curiosity, there was a bevy of protesters, who had applied for a permit but had to hold their rally outside the fair's gates. There was no disruption of the fair, but the Trump appeal that brought newcomers, which numbered in the hundreds, had the opposite affect on thousands of usually reliable fairgoers. "Trump had a negative impact on the attendance of that day of the fair," said Munz. "We should have better attendance for the Rose Royce show, which the Trump visit affected and the carnival was off. But within an hour of Trump leaving, everything was back to normal, but the damage had been done." 

Fair attendance hovered above 900,000, a few percentage points below 2014's high. Other negative factors hurt other than Trump Friday, which "The Donald" visit became known as,  such as a rainy opening Sunday and  some unseasonable hot days. "I always say that for our fair, I would rather have showers than the real hot days," Munz said "Overall attendance was down by compared to 2014, but only by a single digit percentage."

"My guess is that the media hyped his appearance," said Frank Zaitshik, President/CEO, Wade Shows Inc. "Some were saying that an additional 25,000 people were coming to the fair, and people elected not to come to the fair and battle the crowds. His visit was for between four and seven, and that's prime time for the fair, you cannot make up those hours on that day, and the people he did attract had no interest in the midway. From our perspective, he had a negative impact on ride revenue."
 
Entertainment Strong
Munz claimed the concert series at the Oklahoma State Fair - Adventure Road Entertainment Stage, which features both paid and free-admission acts - was successful and he credits the fairs partnership with Triangle Talent, but he also admits that as a veteran of both the concert business and the fair business, that talent buying has only grown more challenging over the years. "Some of the guarantees acts are asking for are getting ridiculous, and people are accelerating those guarantees. We are facing a lot of competition and that we want to keep the pricing family affordable." 

The luckiest booking was Chris Janson - who fits the ideal of a fair concert headliner-booking a rising talent at a reasonable price who is an even a hotter commodity at show time - his Buy Me A Boat video was #1 on CMT. The fair even had a give-away promotion for a Yeti 110, a cooler mentioned in the lyrics filled with "silver bullets," although the fair had a gift certificate for the beers. "We got creative with the promotion, and it was a great opening day. With booking for fairs, you want to catch an artist on their way up or on their way down, and he was really a nonentity when we signed him and he was taking off when by the time of the fair."

Other Oklahoma State fair shows included: Blood, Sweat & Tears featuring Bo Bice, The Swon Brothers, who have appeared on the Voice and who hail from Muskogee, Oklahoma, La Energia Nortena which headlined an Hispanic night.  Lou Gramm - The Voice of Foreigner, which had standing room crowds and Philip Bauer - The Legend of Johnny Cash, a Johnny Cash Tribute act. 

The Oklahoma State Fair entertained also showcases Xtreme Bulls, which featured opening concerts by Casey Donahew Band and Gary Allan.  "Gary Allan sold-out for the third straight time," said Munz. " The gross from the two performances was on par with budget projections."

Defraying some of the ups and downs of the headline concert shows however was the core show for the fair, Disney On Ice, a perennial favorite that this year had a hit  movie tie-in, Disney On Ice presents Frozen, which had 12 performances. "The show was up considerably due to the overwhelming popularity of the movie Frozen," said Munz. "This was by far our most successful Disney On Ice show in the history of our partnership."

Social Media Promotion
The fair also utilized social media to promote Meet & Greets that accompanied some shows. The Swann Brothers, "had a lot of local interest," said Munz. "But Garry Allen had a ridiculously good response. He was not doing Meet & Greets, but he has loosened up and decided to do one this year and the turnout was great. We promote them with ticket giveaways and mainly through social media, and we give folks a laminated pass on a lanyard,  which makes them feel special." 

Like most fairs, social media promotion has grown in importance for the Oklahoma State Fair, and has become crucial to its marketing. Two years ago, the fair appointed a social media coordinator, officially: Manger of Public Relations & Integrated Media. "We had this position for about three years and it was one of the best things we have done, because you have to be on top of social media constantly, throughout the year. We start doing Facebook posts as early as March specifically on the fair, but only every day until the fair openings. You do not want to inundate social media with posts. But once the fair is underway we do two or three a day, and have a lot of promotions, ticket giveaways, etc. It's an easy sell and an easy conversation to have." 

More Bacon
The Fair featured 140 food vendors and Munz said his "personal favorite was bacon wrapped corn on the cob, which was 'walk around' corn,' which is the best kind of fair food, you can eat it and walk around the fair. Deep Fried Chocolate Covered Bacon was popular, Bacon Wrapped Donut Burger and  a Cave Man Turkey leg wrapped in bacon. If I had to say, the most popular food item was bacon, bacon, bacon."  

Other new fair food included Deep-Fried Coffee (Cinnamon roll dough and infused with authentic Starbucks ground coffee and chocolate chips) Deep-Fried Beer Battered Mushrooms; Banana Split Ice Cream Crepe: Mexican Funnel Cake; Cheese Corn Dog; S'mores Cinnamon Roll; Chicken & Waffles On-A-Stick and Deep Fried Banana Pudding.

Overcoming Hiccups
The 2015 Oklahoma State Fair may most accurately be seen as a fair that overcome some challenges, and only the established customer base and fair traditions ensured that a more disastrous outcome was averted. "I think it was a challenging year for all involved," said Zaitshik.  "We got through three major hiccups this year." 

Trump Friday and the rainy Sunday - "basically we had nobody come until after 6:00," he said - were two of the hiccups. The third challenge was a rearranged midway layout. "The fairgrounds is having a major construction, putting in a new 3000,000 square foot commercial exhibit building, and this meant we have a different carnival footprint than previous years. The midway had to be moved from where it was always was and this was a transition."

The objective was to ensure the new location accentuated and benefited from fairgoer flow. "We were glad to have the midway attached to all of the gates, and we received a lot of foot traffic, and we also made it cosmetically pleasing," said Zaitshik. "Those two things also made it financially palatable."  He added, "we worked hand in hand with the fair to make the best of this new location, and together we mutually decided what the carnival footprint should be; it is a true partnership."

He said that overall, given this new midway alignment - "revenue was about on par across the board," he admitted "that some vendors benefited from the change in location, some vendors didn't quite do as well."

The upside was that "we recorded the best first Saturday we ever had in the fair, and the following Saturday, we had the highest revenue day on record for any day at the fair, bar none." 

The Wade Show midway featured 75 rides, including two Giant Wheels, Rock Star, RC48 Roller Coaster, Crazy Mouse, and Groovy Bus. "There were lots of new rides, probably 12 in all, and that included thrill rides, family rides and four new Dalton children rides," said Zaitshik. 

But in spite of the 'hiccups' that impeded the Oklahoma State Fair. "we had some big hills to climb, losing both a Sunday due to rain and a Friday due to Trump. But we focused on the positives and we embrace the positives at the Oklahoma State Fair, we love the fair." 
 
The economy may have either been a negative or at best, neutral factor, when evaluating the 2015 Oklahoma State Fair. According to Munz, the Oklahoma economy is still a "little suspect," and the regional sluggishness may have been another factor inhibiting fair attendance. While low gasoline prices may have helped some sectors of the economy, oil and energy companies-crucial segments of the Oklahoma economy - have been negatively impacted. "There's been energy industry layoffs and that affects consumer confidence, because even if you have your job you are not so willing to spend your disposable income," said Munz. 

In spite of some of the drawbacks, the Oklahoma State Fair put in a solid performance. "We had a very good fair. They can't all be grand slams. If they were, we would have to rename the grand slam." 


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