A sold-out, high-profile concert by Reba McEntire and new kiddieland layout highlighted a robust Kentucky State Fair. But the real break-through is was a new ticket scanning system, fully automating the admission ticketing process for the fair and resulting in a more accurate attendee count in the fair's history.
"Our goal is to attract more people to the Kentucky State Fair, with lower prices and a higher quality of experience," said Dr. Mark Lynn, chairman of the Kentucky State Fair Board. "Because of our robust sponsorship program, we were able to offer free admission to our military families and seniors on their respective days, and it paid off in noticeably large crowds on both of those days."
Lynn also said t
he accurate attendance reports are critical to growing the state fair audience and building on the fairgoer experience in the future. "The new scanners this year gave us numbers that are solid and reliable."
"We say the most accurate because in the past, the tickets had to be hand counted," said Steve Kelly Interim CEO, and Executive Director of Exhibitions. "Now, we are all electronic and we feel these are more legitimate numbers. We attempted it last year, but we had to go back to the tickets. But this year we were all automated, completely, 100 percent."
An improved system was not just about better attendance counts, but it helped to further expand online presales-which increased as high as 67 percent on the second Saturday - "last year's average was 20 percent," said Kelly.
The presale, which was not just online but also through Kroger's stores, offered a considerable discount - $6 instead of $10 - and this affordability is key to Kentucky State Fair marketing.
"With the advanced ticket discount, a family of four can afford to go to the fair and will have more money to spend," he said. "I think the economy is obviously improving. We sold our vendor spaces, and they were also very pleased with the spending by our attendees. But people are still conservative in their spending, and people still want the value of the fair, and so discounts are still driving our demand."
The other perhaps more noticeable positive impact of the fully functional, fully automated admission system was the alleviation of pedestrian congestion. "The numbers did go up form last year, so there were more attendees," he said. "But there were no traffic issues, it made a huge difference with the flow of traffic. The admission gate didn't have to deal with money as much, which slows down the process. It was amazing how much smoother it is with the automated and scanning systems."
Reducing if not eliminating snarls in fairgoer flow also made more effective the new Kiddeland area by the Kentucky State Fair midway provider, NAME (North American Midway Entertainment). The company brought 56 rides to the fair, up from their usual 48, according to Kelly, but both fair and NAME created a separate Kiddieland area almost directly in front of the entrance gates. A less congested admissions area served well the purposes of what was essentially a satellite midway within the fairgrounds.
"It was one of the biggest high points of what we've done this year, moving the Kiddieland front and center," said Kelly. "We added more visibility to the area, which had food vendors for kids and some games. We also moved it closer to a commercial building, and for the days that were in the 90s, the families could go into the air conditioned environment."
Kelly added that the midway had a 10-year record revenue, adding that the extra rides and second midway "boosted sales and were a hit with our guests."
"What we've done was added a new midway, a separate Kiddieland," said Danny Huston, President, NAME . "We did all the things, with landscaping and adding shaded areas, to make it a very customer friendly."
Huston said the new midway was being planned for some time - and that it was both his and the fair's idea to augment but not replace the main midway. While expanded and separate Kiddielands has been an ongoing trend in the fair industry, having a remotely located Kiddeland is still a unique development. While Huston pointed out that the "parents loved it," what genuinely impressed him was the positive feedback from grandparents. "I never thought about it before -- how important the Kiddieland is for grandparents. It was very accessible to grandparents, accessible to everyone, and because it was away form the thrill rides and loud music, it was more quiet. I used to listen to rock and roll but you realize as you mature, the real important thing in life is for families to be together, and the new Kiddieland was an area where these grandparents could relax and with be with the younger kids."
He added "reality is that the younger parents, maybe the noise doesn't bother them, but having a midway for kids away from the loud music and roar, creates a more relaxed area."
What about the challenge of having two separate midways to be operate? NAME was prepared for those contingencies, according to Huston, who pointed out that the extra generators were not an issue, the new rides ran on city electric, he said. "There wasn't a real problem with ticket boxes, each midway had their own. There really wasn't a problem with two different groups of rides in two different locations. We had more rides than we usually have at this fair, but when you add more rides, you add more employees."
Opening day of the fair received an added boost with a sold out concert by Reba McEntire at the fairground's Freedom Hall, the best selling of the three ticketed acts that included Jeff Dunham and Chris Young, Brett Eldredge and Chris Lane. Other headline acts included: ABBA: The Concert; Ashanti; Kentucky Headhunters, with Black Stone Cherry; Oak Ridge Boys, with Martin Family Circus; Newsboys, with 7eventh Time Down; Happy Together Tour 2016, starring The Turtles; Chris Janson, and Brooke Eden; Blood, Sweat & Tears, with Bo Bice and Stephen Bishop.
"With booking, we try to reach different audiences, try to have something for everybody," said Kelly. "With our free concerts, we had a good variety."
But booking entertainment has become increasingly challenging. "I feel it has been a sellers market and it is not getting any easier. A lot of your top name acts, it is becoming harder to make the math work out."
Like other fairs, the Kentucky event is faced with daunting competition from other venues, driving up the costs. "It is harder to find affordable acts, the competition keeps the ticket prices high and it limits who can play the fair. You make your decisions based on routing schedules, and you have to work with a contractor who understands the routing schedules, where you find people who haven't been in this area for a long time, or they are traveling through or nearby."
The Reba show Kelly sees as a classic fair act where all the factors aligned for a successful performance. "It was a great show for the fair," he said, while admitting that organizers are reevaluating the future of fair entertainment. "We will continue to have our free entertainment," he said. "But we are looking at other plans. It is harder to get the paid shows, and you have to get the best acts and it is more difficult, especially getting them every night of the week. We are looking at other alternatives."
The Kentucky State Fair itself has undergone some cutbacks, beginning with the elimination of government funding three years ago, making the fair entirely self-funded, according to Kelly. In his new position, Kelly oversaw budgetary cuts - virtually removing $100,000 in the budget-by "cutting from the bottom."
This budget slashing philosophy is basically cuts that are small but numerous. For example, "we offer free entertainment in several tents, but one of those tents was basically a picnic area with the large expense of the tent. Nobody missed it. The tents we have are all sponsored tents. We also made labor cuts that were needed and relied more on volunteer help."
He added, "The fair is not a money maker, it is an economic driver. It is not profitable but generates revenue."
It can be a problematic endeavor, but even with a lack of government support and a belt-tightening environment, the 2016 Kentucky State Fair was able to achieve the balance. "You want to balance the history and traditions of the fair with the budget cuts we are working with. We have room to improve on because we are so technology driven. This year we did have a fair App in place, and that appealed to some millennials.
But one aspect that was achieved was what Kelly calls the Agriculture Method. "We promote Kentucky agriculture. There is a lot more urban people in the state, and more people who come to the fair are far removed from the farm. We want to bring not just the history of the fair to people, but the farm so people know where their food comes from, and who brings the supermarkets and restaurants."
In fact, the agriculture elements of the fair had a robust 2016. The 4-H and FFA Sale of Champions held during the Fair raised $118,500; the champion country ham was auctioned off for $600,000 and the World's Championship Horse Show awarded $1.2 million in prizes and premiums.
Kelly's interim position at the helm of the fair was the result of the April departure of Clifford Rippetoe, President & CEO, Kentucky State Fair Board, when Kelly was promoted to the interim position. Kelly said that later in the fall, the process of filling the position on the more permanent basis will begin. It will be a national search, he said, and a contract with a search firm had already been signed. The interviews and vetting process should be completed by the end of the year. Kelly said he is one of the candidates under consideration