The Nebraska State Fair followed a good year by a better year. Fair organizers claim attendance jumped 21 percent over last year's fair, perhaps the largest increase in year-to-year attendance of any North American fair in 2015.
In 2014, the fair had an attendance of at 334,931, including several record attendance days, but this year's growth is a highpoint for this tradition that dates back to 1859, before Nebraska was even a state.
What seems to be the main catalyst spurring this growth was booking Keith Urban - a rare fair stop for the country legend this summer - but Joseph McDermott, Executive Director, also cites a series of smaller but successful events within the events - such as an actual Marathon and other exclusive competitions of athleticism and skill - t
hat thickened crowds for this annual Cornhusker State tradition.
Best Since Move
In 2010, the fair changed its location to Grand Island, "and this was the best fair by far in Grand Island," said McDermott. "All our revenue numbers were up and from that standpoint and very successful. We introduced new activities and moved our concert from an indoor arena, which seats about 5,300 to an open space on the infield of our race course."
This move from indoor to open-air venue essentially doubled the attendance for the show, which sold about 11,700 tickets and contributed heavily to the outpouring of attendance, which reached beyond the usual destination marketing area. According to fair reporting, the Omaha metro accounted for 1,088 concertgoers while Lincoln's contributed 734. The tri-cities of Grand Island, Hastings and Kearney contributed 3,564. Overall ticket sales came from 28 states and three foreign countries
Other concerts included: Tony Orlando (the featured performer for two shows on Older Nebraskan's Day); News Boys; Huey Lewis and the News; Terry Fator and Jake Owen, who closed the fair.
The most effective promotions, according to McDermott, were price discounts - a $2 Tuesday and $3 Thursday - which lowered the admission costs to $2 or $3, respectively, but the savings only began with the entrance discount. "A number of food and beverage and merchandise deals for the respective prices each of these days as well," he said. "The Midway also participated with rides at $2 and $3."
Another discounted promotion encouraged more weekday traffic during early afternoon hours. "The Weekday Lunch Special encourages locals to come out to the fair for lunch," he said. "Guests receive refund for their admission when they come and go between 11:30 - 1:30 Monday through Friday."
But just as sustaining the success of the admission discounts with the $2 and $3 entrances depended upon other sectors of the fair getting into the price reduction spirit, with the Weekday Lunch Special program, "Many Concessions offer a lunch special, many try to get in the $5.00 range for a food and beverage combo," said Shaun Schleif, Marketing & Sponsorship Director.
The fair has an advertising budget of $300,000, which according to Schleif, was broken down to Print: 25 percent; Digital: 25 percent; Outdoor 10 percent, with Radio and other being the remaining 40 percent.
"We are moving more towards digital," said McDermott. "The move from print has been very successful. With Keith Urban we were marketing through digital and radio. With those kinds of concerts, we are moving more towards that cross marketing."
The fair also hired a new marketing firm "that placed a new emphasis on digital marketing," said McDermott. "We did not have the technological knowledge or experience to get it accomplished ourselves. We are able now to grab the interest of the individual through direct advertising to them online and through their Facebook page."
Where's the Beef
The Nebraska State Fair had 58 independent food vendors, plus an additional 10 concessions by Wade Shows, with revenue up about 12 percent, basically in line with the attendance increase, said Schleif. The fair supports its tradition and livestock industry. The leading vendor by far - according to Schleif (the revenues of this beef emporium is more than double those of number two) the Nebraska Cattlemen's Beef Pit. "Their prime rib dinners and sandwiches are an annual tradition for many of our livestock exhibitors and fair guests," said Schleif. " The Beef Pit is run by volunteers as a fund raiser for the Nebraska Cattlemen's Association. Lines creep outside these kitchen and dinning room doors daily
Schleif pointed out that a perennial Nebraska State Fair food favorite, Pineapple Whip, almost didn't make it to this year, but fast thinking and new contracting turned a near calamity into a sales boom. According to Schleif, all was not copacetic last year when it came to Pine Whip and Nebraska. "In 2014, we started to find challenges with our established provider," he said. "In 2015, we made a break from that provider rather last minute. We found a current, reputable vendor who figured out how they could add the product to their menu in a short time. The vendor who added the product was up 169 percent from the 2014 Fair. There was a mild adjustment to their set up that contributed to their revenues being up as well, but a great portion of their newest clientele were standing in line for the every popular, must have it once a year, Pineapple Whip."
New twists on fair cuisine were showcased in the fair's "New & Unique Food Contest," including: Double Bacon Corn Dog, Fried Spam on a Stick, Pork Stickers and Pumpkin Spice Funnel Cake, although taking home 1st and 2nd Place were the Tumbleweed Burger and the Willy Wonka Burger, respectively.
The Wade Show Midway featured 40 rides, including "the Fighter ride, which is the only one of its kind in North America, the White Water Flume Ride, which is always a favorite in Nebraska and switched our Mulligan Wheel this year with our Giant Wheel, to great success and we brought in the Screamer."
All told, Zaitshik said he brought five new rides, with special attention also paid to Kiddieland, including the new additions: Monster Truck Ride from Wisdom Rides, the Beach Shack by Zamperla Rides and an Umbrella Hummer by Dalton Rides. "We have made a conscious effort to grow our Kiddieland," said Zaitshik. "Nebraska does a really nice job with their fairgrounds and how they present the midway and we saw an opportunity for growth in the Kiddieland at Nebraska."
For Wade Shows, it was the third year at the Nebraska State Fair. "We had a record year," said Frank Zaitshik, Wade Shows president.. "We missed our goal by inches, due to some rain on the last Sunday, but we are really happy with the Nebraska State Fair and happy with the relationship we've built with the fair."
He added, "word is spreading about rides and about the fair. We have 60 percent growth over the three years, we've grown by leaps and bounds. You can't keep up that level of growth, but we have reached a level where we can grow in increments at the fair."
At the Nebraska State Fair, Wade Shows also introduce an upgrade on their pre-fair sales program. "We enhanced the operation of our advanced sales," said Zaitshik. "We now offer the Mega Pass for the entire week. They can upload their information and print their ID ahead of time. It cuts the wait time for Mega Pass customers, they don't have to wait in lines and the lines get shorter. It's a customer benefit."
For Wade Shows, a record year only makes the company more ambitious. "The beat goes on, we don't sit on our laurels and we continually try to improve the product," said Zaitshik. "Today's public has a lot of competition for their entertainment dollar, and that hasn't leveled off, so we continue with our eyes wide open and our ears to the ground, to keep finding things that are new and different and how to keep making this company better."
Snagging a Keith Urban means a marquee event for any fair's annual edition, but McDermott also cultivates the niche marketing approach to the fair with smaller events that engender loyal followings and bring new populations to the fair. It was the second year for State Fair Marathon, which is a full marathon (26 miles), and now a qualifier for the Boston Marathon. Participation grew 47 percent, from 530 to 860. The fair also hosted a Firefighters Challenge and a Utility Linemen Challenge, where teams from those professions compete. "We had one of the largest spectator crowds that we've seen in a long time," said McDermott.
He acknowledges that these new events fit into the community-oriented, pro-family atmosphere and ties into the health and fitness awareness that is not just a popular cultural trend, but helps counteract the image of the fair being just about deep fried, high-calorie concoctions. "A couple of years we tried bringing in aerobics with a sponsorship by a local health club, which tried to get fairgoers to exercise at the fair, and that didn't go over well," he said. "There is a major trend towards healthy activities and the fair can be a main driver for that trend, and the marathon and challenges promote that."
The niche marketing aspect also is a crucial factor. "We introduce new people to the fair, those 860 runners all brought their family and friends to cheer them on and watch them compete the same is true for the firefighters and linemen, and it creates a lot of buzz," said McDermott.
The ironic aspect of the Nebraska State Fair buzz is that creating it happens on a wide scale - like having the leading Country Music superstar and legend perform - and on a small but effective scope, having an event that will increase attendance by more modest multiples. Paying attention to the big and smaller numbers is a workable strategy by the simple fact, all numbers, no matter their size add up. "It's not just about who participates, but those participants the event will bring in," said McDermott. "Our attendance was up 20 percent, and we had a lot of buzz, and that buzz was from Keith Urban and other performers as it was from people in the community who knew firefighters or marathon runners. People kept hearing about the fair in many ways. They had to come to the Nebraska State Fair."
According to fairgoers, the combination of superstars, community events and fair traditions of unique cuisine and midway rides results in widespread positive outcomes. "With the marked increase in attendance we are staying on track with keeping all of our fairgoers happy," said Ed Kruse, Chairman of the Nebraska State Fair Board. "Each year we survey our fair guests and use the data to adjust what we do to enhance the fairgoer experience. As an example, those taking the survey gave us a 4.5 out of five points for family friendliness, and 4.5 out of 5 points saying this year's fair is even better than 2014."
He added, "The number we keep a close eye on is the likelihood of those who have attended the fair to enthusiastically refer the Nebraska State Fair to friends and neighbors. Right now, 88 percent of fair attendees are likely or very likely to refer the Nebraska State Fair to others and we are very excited about that."