A management transition followed last year's Kansas State Fair and rainy weather plagued a few days of the 2016 edition of this 104-year-old event. But a new advertising slogan, improved communications and a more focused approach to increasing the numbers of younger fairgoers helped nullify the impact of weather as a new general manager and staff taking the helm.
The 10-day fair achieved a gate attendance of 359,808 - a dip compared to 2015, which had 369,322. But last year was a record year, which beat the previous record set in 1995 at 361,647. Both fairs - 20 years apart - were also renowned for having ideal weather conditions for the state fair.
"The weather on the first Friday was less than desirable, but attendance
was high over both weekends," said Susan Sankey, General Manager. "Even the potential of rain can keep people away. We work to communicate the many alternate indoor venues and activities available before fairgoers make a change in plans."
Sankey pointed out that while no fair can do anything about the weather, but by using social media to fairgoers and a texting system to fair personnel, the negative effect of weather predictions can be minimized. "You cannot control the weather, but we had predicted weather that didn't come or storms that passed through," she said. "In Kansas those weather systems can change very quickly. We've developed this very good tool, which we used actively this year. We communicated to the fairgoer mainly through social media but the texting to the staff, alerts them about the fair and they can in turn alert members of their circle."
Getting out the youth was a top priority for this new head of the Kansas State Fair and social media played a key role for this initiative. "We increased our following on all social media platforms," she said. "We utilized social media to especially target first time fairgoers and those who may not have been to the fair in a while. These were mainly young people, and we focused on ticket giveaways."
Sankey, who had been with the fair since 2014, was promoted to general manager in November of last year. The 2016 Kansas State Fair had management stability following a somewhat tumultuous period of uncertainty at the top. About seven weeks prior to opening day of the 2015 Kansas State Fair, Denny Stoecklein, General Manager of the fair for 12 years and with the fair for 20, gave notice, leaving the organization amicably, if abruptly. The fair appointed Lori Hart - who was Assistant Manager and with the fair 17 years - as Interim Fair Manager, a position created specifically for the 2015 fair. Sankey said that after the 2015 fair, the Kansas State Fair Board conducted a national search before deciding to promote from within.
Hart left the Kansas State Fair in December to become Director of Education for the International Association of Fairs & Expositions.
The new regime also included a restructuring of the fair - almost half of the management staff needed to be replaced - and a new system of coordinators were put in place, including marketing coordinator, competitions coordinator and an education coordinator, essentially new positions. Perhaps the most crucial turned out to the be the education coordinator position, who in turn launched an intensive outreach campaign to schools, civic organizations such as the Boy Scouts as well as the 4-H organization. This community outreach grew this segment of the fairgoer population. "We were up in every area of our youth programming. We needed someone who focused on positive change, and make sure that the youth would have a positive experience with the fair."
This new initiative ranged from facilitating youth group attendance to customizing special programming, working schools and teachers to fit in programming with their curriculums and lesson plans, and making sure visits to the fair included stops at the elaborate agricultural exhibits, such as the milking parlor and birthing center. "We had a record number of twin calves born on this fair, and it is quite an experience to see the birth of an animal," she said, estimating that "we had twice the youth attendance at this fair than our previous fairs."
The fair's marketing plan coalesced around the tagline, "Blast Call," a play on the term, Last Call, and imagery for the marketing featured a corn rocket, that tied it into the auricular mission of the fair. The logo was accompanied by a space suited swine, known as Astro-Hog. "We had our own icon, a pig-stronaut," said Sankey.
Sankey explained that the fair plans its marketing in three year increments - each has its own distinctive tagline and marketing images - and Blast Call was the final year of the last three year plan. The plans are contracted with a single advertising agency and developed for a three year implementation. Sankey said this format will not be changed for 2017 and one of her tasks in the upcoming weeks is to select a new ad agency and develop the next three-year marketing plan for the Kansas State Fair. "Historically, we've done three year plans and we will soon move ahead with next year's plan," she said. "We will make some adjustment, there will be changes and I will be more involved with the plan as general manager. I would like to emphasize our economic impact and the audience we attract.
Entertainment has become one of the most expensive components of the fair and "traditionally, we do the best that we can to provide entertainment, but it has become very competitive in this market," she said.
She added that the fair is creating a "master plan," a far reaching makeover of the fair that while still in in its embryonic phases, may result in widespread changes, including this very expensive line item. "We are on a very tight budget and our funds are limited," she said. "We are looking at entertainment, and it really depends on the scale of our master plan where headline entertainment will be. But, I will say we are already doing some of the booking for next year, that is already in motion, but it is increasingly difficult to find a mix that works. We have an outdoor grandstand that is covered, but weather can impact the grandstand and that is a consideration."
This year, the most popular shows included Jake Owen with Old Dominion, Lynyrd Skynyrd, and comedian Gabriel Igelsias, which Sankey categorized as near-sellouts. "I think they drew people to the fair. Our mission is trying showcase the industry and culture of our state and provide commercial activities. We can keep things moving in that direction with entertainment. We work closely with the entertainment committee of the board, and that helps us focus on entertainment."
Sankey said there were upwards of 600 vendors overall, and while she was unable to specify the number of food vendors, last year the fair had 75 food vendors in 203 locations. The hot food item was the most traditional, the fair's signature corn dog. "Pronto Pups at the Kansas State Fair are always in big demand," she said.
Among newer food trends, the fair saw a dichotomy of both traditional, off my diet cuisine, and a rise in healthier options. "Bacon-wrapped deep fried pickles and purple cow floats, which were at Kansas Dairy bar," were the most popular new items. "But I also saw Watermelon Gazpacho and Stuffed Cucumbers, so people here are appreciating the healthier food at the fair," she said. "But people come to the Kansas State Fair for the Pronto Pups."
As first time fair manager, it was also the first time for Sankey to have direct interaction with the fair's midway company, NAME (North America Midway Entertainment). "I found them to be great partners to work with and very professional," she said.
The midway featured 40 rides, including, after several years of hiatus, the return of the White Water Flume, she said. Other popular rides included Giant Wheel, Zero Gravity Freak Out, Sizzler and Pharaoh's Fury. Stormy and rainy weather negatively impacts midway revenue more than any other sector of the fair. Sankey wouldn't say by how much the midway was down compared to last year's record year, but she said "it's understandable that ride gross was down. But I think they were still happy with the revenue. NAME had terrific people, and they are committed to making the fair a success and that everything was a win-win."
Midway safety was a much bigger concern for the fair this year. In August, just weeks before the opening of the Kansas State Fair, a 10-year-old boy was decapitated while riding the Verruckt (German for "insane"), a water slide at the Schlitterbahn WaterPark in Kansas City. The incident made international news and being so close to home, put the midway on edge and made midway safety and security uppermost in the minds of fair organizers, fairgoers and NAME personnel.
"The accident in Kansas City had everybody worried, so I would say I had a lot of questions for NAME," said Sankey. "But they assured me the midway was safe and protocols are followed for all the rides. The focus was on what it should be, communication, well-trained people, follow-up and adhering to protocols."
Not every fair can have ideal weather and record-breaking attendance like the 2015 Kansas State Fair, but third best for your first fair is still a noteworthy achievement. Sankey credits her staff for much of the success and echoes a pragmatic management philosophy. "My focus was and is still on being prepared, helping staff be prepared, and to make sure things go as smoothly as possible," she said. "I value providing quality and good customer service."