The Iowa State Fair is unique. Few states are as identifiable with America's heartland as the Hawkeye State or as synonymous with American farming as Iowa, whose name seems to instantly invoke lush verdant fields of corn.
The Iowa State Fair is committed to agriculture programs and headline entertainment, but is also forward-looking, always ready to improve upon the fairgoer experience.
"We had a very solid fair this year," said Gary Slater, CEO of the Iowa State Fair. "But our public is not going to going to be satisfied if we just rest on our laurels and they see the same thing every year. The Wow Factor has be part of every year."
This year, that Wow Factor included the return of Meghan Trainor - she cancelled last year's show - as well as concerts by Heart, Joan Jett and the Blackhearts and Cheap Trick, and KISS with Dead Daisies. In terms of attendance, however, the Iowa State Fair still exceeded one million but saw a dip from last year, a record year for the fair.
In 2016, 1,031,278 attended the Iowa State Fair - which fell short of 2015's 1,117,398,- but was just above 2014 attendance of 1,015,902.
Of course, 2015 was the attendance blip that comes every four years for this fair. It seems hard to recall a time when 22 candidates were vying for the office of the presidency, but at the 2015 Iowa State Fair they all of them came for a photo-op. Such is the unique position of the Iowa State Fair, during the year before the election year, national politicians visit the fair because nothing says Americana more than the premier event of the heartland.
"We're the first caucuses, and politicians come out in force for the Iowa State Fair," said Slater. "We had one day when we had Donald Trump, Hillary Clinton and Bernie Sanders at the fair. We always get a push in attendance every four years, but last year was a record year and the election was a reason it was a record attendance on the fairgrounds."
However, Slater insists "The 2016 Fair was great. New attractions, traditional favorites - it is what we plan for and work for, so it is our favorite time of year."
Weather & Economy
The weather wasn't perfect for the entire run of the event, but Mother Nature cooperated more often than not. The still being calculated revenue numbers are expected to be in a positive direction, "We had a few rainy days mixed with some heat and humidity, but we also had some nice weather that was reflected in the attendance numbers," said Slater. "Spending was good. A number of concessions were up from last year, even with less attendance. That also shows, that people, came out in nice weather, enjoyed themselves and stayed a long time."
The general economy in Iowa also seems positive. Slater pointed out two indicators. "Construction is good, there's a lot of construction in the Des Moines area, so that is a very good sign for the economy," he said. "Also, this was the first Summer since before the recession that we had to search for workers. We had a somewhat difficult time getting the quantity of part time workers we needed in some of our areas, such as admission, parking and regular security."
Of course the state of the agricultural industry has an outsized impact on this state. "It's huge, it affects the whole economy," he said.
But the farm economy is based on cycles and expectations. A good crop yield can also mean a lower commodity price, cutting into the farmer's bottom line. Apparently, that is the situation this year, with drops in corn, beans and soy bean prices, said Slater. "Some farm families are not doing as well as they were last year. Prices are not as good, but those families still come to the fair."
He added that among this population, "there's a more of a staycation mentality. We're they're Disneyland."
While year to year fluctuations have their impact, the overall agricultural business - and it role at the fair - is strong. "The Iowa State Fair is based on agriculture, that's the backbone of the fair," he said, Without the Ag piece, we're not anything more than a festival. It is hugely important, it is our identity."
He added, "we had 4-H and participation in record numbers. We gave out more than 150 scholarships from our Sale of Champions, which were all up this year. The scholarships were in all Agricultural fields, mostly at Iowa State University. We had more cattle, hogs, sheep, and rabbits. Poultry was able to come back this year. We suspended all poultry exhibits, because of the Avian Flu ban. We were happy to have all those great exhibits back at the fair."
A violent incident on the closing day of the fair somewhat marred an otherwise upbeat Iowa State fair. An 18 year old male was stabbed, the result of an altercation between two men - and as the Slater pointed out, "not a random act of violence."
While a review of security protocols followed, the reality was it was an isolated incident - essentially a dispute between two young men that turned violent - and not a symptom of an unsafe fair environment.
"There is nothing more important than Fairgoer safety," he said. "We work with the Iowa State Patrol, the Des Moines Police Department, Polk County Sheriff's Office, and the Iowa Department of Criminal Investigation in updating and maintaining our safety standards."
He added that after the review, "we are not going to change the procedures. I don't expect there will be repercussions going into next year's fair."
A highlight of the Iowa State Fair is its entertainment, with Meghan Trainor being the sole sell out. The most popular shows favored classic rock, including healthy sales for Heart, Joan Jett and the Blackhearts and Cheap Trick. "We had a good concert line up this year, but last year we had four sell outs and this year we had one," said Slater.
The fair remains committed to headline entertainment at the fair, but Slater admits it is not getting any less challenging. "It's not easy when you are an outdoor venue," said Slater. "It is difficult, there's a lot of competition, with a lot of large companies, like AEG, that own venues. If you go back 50 years ago, fairs were one of the top rungs of the entertainment ladder, now I'm not sure we're even a rung on that ladder. It does seem we are waiting longer for confirmation. Entertainers are taking longer to say yes and so booking is harder."
For the Iowa State Fair, coping with the rising costs and fickle audiences has meant working with other fairs and creating an enticing Midwest route for headliners to find a series of midwest stages. "We work with a lot of booking agencies who still have the vision to bring entertainment to fairs, with divisions who handle working with fair routes," said Slater. "We are able to get the stars who route through Missouri, Kentucky, Wisconsin and Indiana. We are still able to route with fairs that are close to us. Many acts still jump on the chance to play that route, as a package."
While profitability of the actual show may be waning, "it is still cost effective to bring in headliners. The acts can set a tone for the fair, and sells tickets to the fair. They certainly set the tone for the day. When you bring in a Meghan Trainor, you have a lot of young girls, with their moms and dads, so the overall fair has a high attendance day, and some of those people may never have been to the fair before, so they will come back."
The bottom line? Part of the Wow Factor inherent in the Iowa State Fair is their line up of entertainment. "Headline entertainment gives you a buzz. When you talk about the Iowa State Fair, one of the first questions you get is, who is coming to play the grandstand. It may account for just 10 percent of the total crowd you actually get, but everybody wants to know who is in the grandstand, whether they are getting tickets or not. It affects the buzz of the entire fair, it draws in people, and it's important for the Iowa State Fair to continually associated with the cutting edge of big name entertainment."
Food & Marketing
About 200 food vendors were at the Iowa State Fair - and at such a high profile fair, the offerings are often seen as archetypal examples of fair cuisine, with new concoctions annually generating headlines. The Fair conducts a People's Choice Best New Food contest and 26 entries this year. The winner was Not Your Mamma's Taco, with runners up being Pride of Iowa Wrap and Ice Cream Nachos. Slater described the Pride of Iowa Wrap as a "Pork Wrap, and was just tremendous and very popular."
The Iowa State Fair is known for its cuisine and is a pivotal promotional tool for the fair. "We do a lot of social media on the food, and it always gets a lot of intentions. People love the ingenuity of the food vendors, they create new combinations every year, and everybody coming to the fair feels like a connoisseur of fair food."
Food revenue was higher than last year, he added. "Considering the attendance dip, the fact food spending was higher than last year shows how well these vendors do. Vendors have a saying that a bad day at the Iowa State Fair is better than a good day at any other fair. I don't know how true it is, but we are known for the food, it is still a major draw."
The advertising budget exceeded $500,000, about the same as 2015. The media mix was: TV-32 percent, Radio 30 percent, Print 20 percent, Outdoor/Out of Home/Transit-15 percent and 3 percent online. The biggest change was an increase in television advertising, mainly placed during Summer Olympic broadcasts.
In addition, the fair revived its tagline, "Nothing Compares". "We have used this tagline since 2011, so we are building brand awareness and were able to create something new by using MY Iowa State Fair following "Nothing Compares,"" Slater added.
The fair's marketing also created content to be used throughout the year. "We purchased a GoPro and shot lots of video this year and hope to create some great memory videos to share in our off season," he said.
The fair's best promotions included discounted admission promotions -- Canned Food Day, Veterans Day, Older Iowans Day, and Extreme Sunday. "These are not new promotions, but they are successful enough that we continue to repeat them," he said. "The Canned Food Day on opening day was successful as it collects food for our local food bank and gives people an opportunity to enjoy the first day of the Fair at a discount."
Belle City Amusements provided the fair's midway, which included 40 rides. This will be last time this company is the sole carnival company for the fair. In May, the Iowa State Fair issued an RFP call and the 2017 Iowa State Fair will have an independent midway, with the expectation to contract with a number of different ride companies, changing the ride mix, bringing in new attractions, and upgrading the entire midway. "It's about capacity, so I can't say if there will be more rides or bigger rides, with more seats available," he said. "We are talking with ride owners and game owners. This fall we will announce our ride line up. We will be doing some capital improvements to the midway, and looking at some new ideas, like separating the kids rides from the adult rides and creating their own midway."
He concluded, "the quality of the entertainment on our stage is as important as the quality of the entertainment on our midway or the exhibits. We continue to improve the fair. People want to show their kids and their grandkids the stuff they saw at the fair 20, 40 years ago. A fair needs that balance of tradition. To some degree, all Iowans take it for granted they have a great fair. There are things we can't control, like the weather. But the things we can control is surprising our customers. We want to have the Wow Factor every year."