Optimum weather and an 8.5 percent increase in attendance might be enough for any fair, but the Minnesota State Fair even did that achievement one better.
Minnesota's 2016 Great Get Together gained international attention by recognizing one of her most famous Sons, Prince.
Beloved music legend Prince passed away on April 21st and while only few short months before opening day, the Minnesota State Fair knew they had to pull out the stops and celebrate the life and music of the Purple One.
Unite In Purple
"Unite In Purple," held on the first Friday of the fair, celebrated Prince. The state's native son was celebrated with music tributes and cover songs, a Prince with music and dancing led by Generation NOW's DJ Dudley D, Prince's personal DJ, at the fair's Carousel Park; Lavender lighting on iconic fair buildings and carnival rides; A one-night-only Lasertainment's Laser Hitz show featuring a Prince finale; Unite in Purple glow bracelets distributed to 5,000 attendees, and 7,500 Unite in Purple buttons were given out.
The evening concluded with the Minnesota State Fair Fireworks Spectacular, set entirely to Prince music and featuring a special pyrotechnic Prince tribute.
The Prince Tribute was by far the most successful promotion of the fair, said Jerry Hammer, setting a record Friday with 182,926 in attendance. Tributes to Prince had taken place around the world, and especially at music industry settings, Hammer pointed out "It was the first and only public event that gave Minnesotans a chance to acknowledge the passing of our famous favorite son," said Hammer.
Luckily, the grandstand booking for the night was Charlie Wilson and Fantasia, "both of whom were influenced by Prince, and Charlie was in Chic. It was a good night, everyone was involved. We staged a large Prince dance party and scores of vendors joined in with a variety of Prince-themed promotions."
He added, "we knew we wanted to do something grounds-wide for Prince, and by having people wear purple, it was just very cool. You saw a lot of purple on the fairgrounds, although some people were wearing Viking Jersey's, which are purple."
Otherwise, putting together this sort of tribute in a scant short months after most of the fair and related promotions had already been planned out - was possible only because of a dedicated and professional staff, all fully understanding the importance for the state's single largest entertainment event to recognize perhaps its most popular entertainer. "We pulled everything together within a few weeks, and it was really no problem at all," said Hammer. "We have an outstanding staff whose SOP (Standard Operation Procedure) is to make things happen. Perhaps the most gratifying aspect was to see Prince's family here taking part in the events, that was the icing on the cake."
He noted that while Prince never played the fair - "we tried several times, and came very close to making a deal last year" - he was a frequent attendee. "He loved the Minnesota State Fair, mentioned the fair in interviews and he was spotted at the fair several times," said Hammer. "He was known to attend the fair, and more than once in years past, ride operators would tell me that they spotted him riding their rides - I saw him ride my Ferris Wheel, that sort of thing. Coming to the fair is a difficult thing for a guy like Prince to do, it would be a mob scene. He was generally reluctant to make a big deal of coming the fair. When he did come, he just wanted to come out to the fair and enjoy it, be treated like anybody else."
This internationally acknowledged tribute to Prince seemed a fitting capper to a remarkable edition of what is one of the largest fairs in the U.S.. The 2016 Minnesota State Fair - the first one was held in 1859 - Hammer said, was "the best I've ever seen at every level. Our departments did outstanding work in coordinating the many facets of our operation. Things went extraordinarily smooth."
Smooth is an impressive compliment when one remembers that the Minnesota State Fair had a record year. "We'd only cracked 1.8 million once, and this year's attendance was 1,943,719 ticketed," said Hammer.
"When we add in free kids and employees, we easily topped 2 million in 12 days."
To put that number in perspective, consider that the total population of Minnesota is 5.5 million; in other words, an equivalent of more than a third of the state's population attends the annual event.
The Great Minnesota State Fair get together is no mere idle boast, indeed. The 2016 fair also include three record days: Friday Aug. 26 (141,023); Friday Sept. 2 (182,926); Saturday Sept. 3 (260,374, the largest day in State Fair history). Per capita spending was $56, about on par with last year, said Hammer.
The crowds were certainly enticed by the optimum fair weather, which he described as " Beautiful. It rained some off-and-on the first Saturday, but it was inconsequential to everybody but the operator of the Giant Slide, who has to close with any moisture," said Hammer.
But weather - and even the Unite In Purple tribute to Prince - was not the main motivating factor pushing this year's fair, according to Hammer. Instead, the bad news prevalent in the recent headlines fueled demand for a respite from today's troubled world.
"Bits of everything we do add to the attendance, but the biggest factor is that the news hasn't been that good anywhere in the world for what seems like a long time," said Hammer. "Some of that tragedy happened real close to home too. There was a young kid shot in the city and that led to unrest in the Twin Cities, and then there were the mass shootings in Orlando and elsewhere.
People really needed some state fair, they needed to go someplace where they know everything is where it should be and hangout with everybody, spending time together. There are zero tensions at the fair, and people really needed that this year."
Regardless of the exact reason for the increase, the fair prides itself on being able to handle the uptick seamlessly. "All of our systems are in place for public safety, sanitation, and other services, and we keep improving them," he said. "We keep adding restrooms and amenities. You can really tell how well you treat your customers by how clean their restrooms are. The fair was crowded, but it is not really crowded all the time. I've been to Disney parks, where it is tougher to get around because of the crowds."
The fairgrounds incorporated more green space, and in 2014 opened West End Market, which both attracted fairgoers and served to better distribute crowds. "Moving around the fairgrounds, you are moving around a lot of different neighborhoods. We have a lot of green, a lot of trees, and a lot of cool architecture to look at."
"The total advertising budget was $1.8 million, about 4 percent of total operating budget. The media mix was across the board, although "traditional media, like print and broadcast media is going down and we continue to do more with electronic and social media," said Hammer. "Our web page is something we are bringing a lot of info on, and making it easier to use. We've raised the bar on the website this year."
Entertainment is still a cost-effective draw for the fair, said Hammer. While other fairs have reduced and even eliminated paid tickets, the Minnesota State Fair remains a prime Midwestern summer stage.
When asked if it as a buyers or sellers market when it came to headline act booking, Hammer replied, "as usual it was a little of both."
There are no lack of competing venues, including arenas and casinos, in the Market but he pointed out, "we've had that competition for 20 years now. Our philosophy is give the acts a good environment, a very special environment, with a good audience and they will come back to the fair."
Entertainment at the fair included Don Henley, Weezer and Alabama. Garrison Keillor, a perennial favorite and Minnesota celebrity, newly retired from his NPR live program, PrairieHome Companion, came back to the fair with a special The Minnesota Show, which was a sell out. "He gets a kick out of performing at the fair, which he has been going to his whole life," said Hammer. "He is also very prolific and did a variety type show."
For Minnesota State Fair, booking may not be getting easier, but the special environment approach and booking acts that appeal to the market is key. For example, the Dixie Chicks had two back to back shows, which sold out in 20 minutes when they went on sale. "They hadn't been on tour for a while, so it was a comeback tour, and that was exciting," Hammer said. "But it was also the only state fair they were playing. That made them an exclusive act for us, which boosts sales."
So why does paid ticket headline entertainment work continue to work so well in Minnesota? "We give audiences something they can't get anywhere else," he said.
Food & Beverage sales at the fair hit an estimated $46.9 million in sales, "which is more than $4 million ahead of last year's former record for food and beverage sales." In addition, there were 34 new food items, which Hammer estimated accounted for an additional $1 million in sales.
While Hammer didn't notice any specific food trends dominating the 300 food vendors at the fair, there is a move towards quality food. "There are fine dining vendors that do very well, serving food you could get in the best restaurant, but it is served in a paper boat," said Hammer.
The 2016 Minnesota State Fair midway, booked independently by the fair, featured 61 rides (31 in the Midway; 30 in the Kidway) and 47 games. A total of 37 different companies provide rides and/or games for the Minnesota State Fair Midway.
The top rides and operators included:
- Crazy Mouse Spinning Roller Coaster - SEJM. Entertainment
- Sky Flyer - Reithoffer Equipment Co., Inc.
- Starship 3000 - Laser Fair, Inc.
- New York New York Fun House - Fair Ride Entertainment LLC
- Hurricane - Showtime Rides, Inc.
- Super Nova Roller Coaster - KB Concessions LLC
- Gondola Wheel - Playworld Unlimited
- Puppy Express - Prime Pacific Ent. LLC
- Rock It - State Fair Services, Inc.
- Tilt-A-Whirl - Lauther Amusements
- Flipper - S.J. Entertainment
- Equinox - Laser Fair, Inc.
- Kite Flyer - Alamo Amusements, Inc.
- Magic Maze - Wood Entertainment Company, Inc.
- Arabian Daze Fun House - Fun Attractions LLC
The total Midway and Kidway ride and game gross revenue was $7,344,048.40 , an increase of $514,340.57 or 7.5 percent over last year.
The Minnesota State Fair like other organizations always strives to top itself every year, but breaking records is not always planned. "We always expect every fair to be better than the previous year's in terms of program and operation," said Hammer. "We never expect record attendance, though. There are too many variables - any one of which can hold attendance back at least a little. Having said that, two of our last three years have been record attendance, and that says a lot for our hard-working team. They're committed to presenting the best fair in the world, they make things happen, they exhibit beautiful teamwork and they always go the extra mile. When you do these things, revenue and records take care of themselves."