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Overcoming Heat & Volatile Farm Economy, Missouri State Fair Continues Upward Trend

10/17/2016

By Timothy Herrick

Photo courtesy of Andrew Mather Photography

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In spite of some high heat - not exactly uncommon late summer weather in this part of the U.S. - the Missouri State Fair saw an attendance increase of about 4,000, reaching 356,000, with three record admission days, according to Mark Wolfe, State Fair Director. 

Wolfe pointed out that the fair doesn't have hard numbers yet about spending and revenue, "we have not finished yet, but spending was up and I think we are going to have  record revenue, he said, estimating that spending was up approximately 5 percent "We've been in very good shape," he said. "We had some cooler temps at other fairs, and we had a very really hot opening day."

Extreme warm weather plagued the fair, but even the opening day had a boost - discounted admission of $4.00 - and once the sunset cooled thingsPhoto By Andrew Mather Photography down, "people did flock to the fair at night, we did much in the nights."

Delay Visits 
The $4 figure became the magic number. "A lot of the vendors played along, offering food items for a $4 discount," he said. 

Frank Zaitshik, President/CEO, Wade Shows - Wade Shows along with the Murphy Brothers provides the fair's midway - estimated that the spending was up compared to last year, but not quite near the level the higher attendance might indicate. The weather was the impediment, not because it kept folks away, but delayed their visit. "A lot of people held off coming to the fair, and with daylight savings time, that cuts back on time. We need hours to have the capacity to gross money, the more hours, the higher capacity. When people come later and later, because of the heat, it affects revenue. We like for them stay with us for a while." 

The Missouri State Fair has been on an upward trend in recent years, following some thought times. "We were not doing well a few years ago, around '08 when the economy was really down the tubes," he said, adding that soon thereafter the Missouri government eliminated the remaining funding. The Missouri State Fair went on a belt-tightening crusade, making the fair more efficient. Also, they started reemphasizing its agricultural roots and targeting new families. "We have started targeting the young families, the young moms and dads who are starting their own family traditions with the fair. We've been in good shape, and we've gotten really good attendance for a town of 20,000.  The economy is what it is, but things aren't bad as they were."

Perhaps also impeding spending has been what could be a tough year for the agricultural industry. "The farm economy can be volatile, and the farming community is struggling," he said. "The prices last year were good, but there was too much rain according to a state agency, so the corn harvest may be diseased. There a lot of people worried."

But farmers  are "resilient," he said, adding that "we are the biggest showcase for farming in the state. The youth side of the fair, the 4-H is a very big deal, and very successful. We had more than 15,000 different entries"

Rural Accommodations 
This fair's virtues can also be seen as obstacles. The fairgrounds is in a very rural part of the state, a remote location with pastoral splendor and a direct connection to the agricultural industry and farming community. But there are only about 600 hotel rooms - and about 1,200 campsites.  

Camping is especially popular among attendees, with long lines for camp sites (no reservations are taken, and it's a first come, first serve situation for fairgoers who prefer outdoor lodging. 

Zaitshik noted that the fair's recent success has been the ever widening customer-base. "People come from all over the state and beyond," he said. "It gets support  from as far away as Kansas City and St. Louis. It's a very rural area, but people are willing to drive long distances because they love the fair. We've seen the fair grow dramatically and we're proud of the role we play in that growth."

The Missouri State Fair had 40 food vendors - with about 100 differed stands. While Wolfe couldn't pick out a single food item that soared in sales and/or captured media attention, healthier options were more popular due to the overwhelming success of the Missouri Market & Bistro. Started by the state's agricultural department, the bistro features a professional chef hired by the department, who heads the kitchen, and all the food and food products sold in the market and/or prepared in the kitchen come from the namesake. "It has really gotten popular, and at times were nearly overwhelmed. But they are also selling a lot of healthy foods, it wasn't the typical deep fried things, which of course you could find at the fair. But this was probably our most popular food this year."

But aside from their local preferences, Wolfe said the Food & Beverage segment of the fair  did well. "Overall food spending was up," he said. "The food vendors were pretty much all smiles."

Crops Up
The fair's marketing theme this year was See What Crops Up," which of course tied into the agricultural mission of the event. The marketing budget was about $350,000, which included a video that Wolfe said was the fair's "best one yet."

He added that the shift has been away from print and radio, and more towards social media. "We saw this change about three years ago and it continues," he said. "Social media has become more and more important."

The Missouri State Fair provides a mix of paid entertainment - augmenting the free entertainment available throughout the fair - including eight days of concerts, two days of auto racing, three nights of rodeo, as well as a tractor pull and bull riding. 

He said that Lady Antebellum, with  Kelsea Ballerini was the best selling concert; other headliners included 3 Doors Down; Brett Eldredge; and a classic rock lineup of  John Kay & Steppenwolf, Foghat  and  Molly Hatchet. While still a draw, entertainment is the "fair's biggest expense," and he estimates that the fair 'lost about $50,000."

In recent years, the bite has even bigger. "We do work with a talent agency that books fair routes with other fairs, like Nebraska and Kentucky, and that has given us some buying power, and they create mini-tours." 

But the rising costs of entertainment has impacted the way the fair is booking. The fair is buying weather insurance so if there is a rainout - "we don't get as big a loss," said Wolfe. Like many fairs, Missouri is also booking earlier - or at least attempting to. "Country acts do better here, so that is who we want to book," he said. "We already have two nights booked for next year's fair, so we're ahead of the game. We start earlier and earlier. But country acts are waiting longer and longer to commit ever year. They wait for the awards show, and if they win awards they can drive their asking price up." 

Rising entertainment costs and making difficult decisions on what headline entertainment draws best has been an ongoing conundrum for most fairs. Entertainment is similar to a loss leader - it brings people into the fair - but the challenge is determining how much loss in ticket sales worth versus the overall impact on all fair elements including midway, food and beverage sales.

Zaitshik  insisted that it was "presumptuous" for him to recommend what sort of entertainment a fair should feature, however he said that the entertainment choices at this year's Missouri Fair were very effective. "I find the midway benefits differently from some of the acts," he explained. "When there's a buzz and excitement, it adds credibility to the fair, and that appeals to teenagers and young adults who are fairgoers we want on the midway. Lady Antebellum made a significant impact for us and did very well. It's a great advertising tool. But indirectly, we probably do better with Monster Truck and some of the spectacle entertainment, because those people seem to stay longer after the show." 

Flume Ride Fun
Wade Shows has been the midway provider for the Missouri State Fair for seven years - under contract with the Murphy Brothers - and the 2016 midway featured about 40 rides, which included Wade's new Mighty Mouse Roller Coaster - "there are only three of four of these in North America., and the response was incredible."

The Missouri State Fair also saw the return of Wade's Water Flume Ride, which he said that "to the best of my knowledge," is also an uncommon ride in the mobile amusement industry this year.

The record heat of 2016 may have had a negative impact. "We've been blessed with mild temperatures at this fair in recent years, but this year we were not quite as fortunate. I think it hurt spending and the time people stay on the midway, and the weather was very debilitating to our employees and our audience."

But when an oppressive heatwave coincides with a fair, the Water Flume become  an - excuse the pun - a hot ride. "It's a great ride irrespective of the weather, but it's not as popular at the early spring fairs for example, or if it's too cool or cloudy," he said. "But where it can get very warm, even if its' not oppressive heat, it's a fun and exciting ride. The water element helps with the heat, people get wet. It's fun."

Both the debut of the Mighty Mouse Roller Coaster and the return of the Water Flume were so well received - that following the perennial  favorite, the Giant Wheel, they were the top grossing rides at the fair. In addition, a new Zero Gravity made its Missouri State Fair debut.  

He added, "It is one of the great fairgrounds in the country. "It is very picturesque and reminds me of the fairgrounds of my youth, when I started as  a game concessionaire. There's beautiful rolling hills, a relatively new grandstand and modern facilities, and a combination of older buildings and architecture." 

Wolfe added, "We some hot temperatures that made start difficult. But we were up, people enjoyed themselves, we always want to do better but the fair exceeded our expectations."


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