Hot weather and thunder and lightening storms on key days, plus a downturn in the local economy hurt the 2016 Oklahoma State Fair, which was coming off a strong 2015.
When it wasn't raining - like it did for a two hour stretch on the opening Saturday - there were forecasts of rain, persuading would be fairgoers to stay indoors for the night. Daytime temperatures reached into the high 90s, creating another impediment to a repeat of the record breaking fair of the previous year.
Attendance reached approximately 800,000 attendees, a drop of 10 percent from last year's turnout, although fair organizers point out the event generated more than $92 million in direct spending into the Oklahoma City economy.
"It wasn't the worst fair, but it was not the best fair, said J. Scott Munz, Vice President, Marketing & Public Relations. "We had been lucky the last couple of years, and saw some increases each year."
Munz emphasizes that the fair is on sound financial footing, enabling them to withstand a down year. The Oklahoma City economy - so based on the energy and fuel industry - has been in a downward spiral due to both the lingering aftermath of the Great Recession as well as a more recent plummet in gas prices, which caused widespread layoffs in the region in 2015. "Those people had severance packages, but it's been a year and unemployment is still high so bad weather or not, people are pessimistic about spending," said Munz. "This was compounded by the weather on the opening days."
Munz divided fairgoers into three different categories, the day crowd, early evening crowd and the night crowd. When the storms came - for example, one swept through between 4:30 and 6:30, effectively knocking out the evening crowd and the night crowd - as well as any of the daytime fairgoer contingent who might decide to stay longer at the event.
Because weather can be unpredictable and severe, the Oklahoma State Fair follows strict severe weather protocols - they have two onsite meteorologist during fair time who issue advisories and updates. "We do due diligence, advise people to go inside buildings," he said.
Just withstanding adverse conditions and achieving results better than could be expected seemed a testament to the Oklahoma State Fair and it's growth pattern of recent years. "It happens to be one of my favorite fairs," said Frank Zaitshik, President/CEO, Wade Shows Inc. "Basically, the 2016 Oklahoma State Fair validated just what a great event it really is, and what a great product that Tim O'Toole [President & CEO Oklahoma State Fair] and his management staff have put together. Despite lightning strikes, rain, unusually oppressive heat, and bad weather on both Saturdays, and a softening of the local economy, they had a very credible turnout."
Zaitshik added that the fair follows a very strict bad weather policies - "that determine when they're going to shut down, sometimes lightening strikes in a radius that is unacceptable to their policy" - and the result was the midway had to entirely shut down "several times."
The Wade Shows crew, however is made up of "seasoned professionals," said Zaitshik, enabling the midway to swiftly "get up and running again," minimizing the negative impact of severe weather events on total ride revenue. "The ridership was good," he said.
According to Zaitshik, the Oklahoma Midway had 72 rides, including new additions Super Cyclone, Street Fighter Revolution, Jungle Twist and Bobby Myers' New York New York Funhouse. "This was really a hit with our fairgoers, it went over really well," said Munz.
Zaitshik added that the top grossing rides were the usual roller coasters and Giant Wheel. In addition, due to the resolution of a scheduling conflict, Wade was able to subcontract with Wood Entertainment Company for the Oklahoma State Fair.
"Michael Wood and his equipment were able to return to the fair after a two year absence," he said. The reunion in the Sooner State meant that Oklahoma State Fair fairgoers could enjoy Wood's signature thrill rides, including Magnum, Techno Power and Daytona.
Munz would not disclose the advertising budget for the Oklahoma State Fair, but stated it remained essentially unchanged from the previous year, as did the allocation of where the marketing dollars were spent: Television: 30 percent; Radio: 33 percent: Print: 28 percent: Outdoor: 6 percent; and Digital: 3 percent.
He added that there was a shift towards slightly more digital. What is unusual among fairs is the level of commitment Oklahoma State Fair still holds towards the print medium. "We are using more online magazines, but admittedly we have long standing relationships with Oklahoma publishing," he said. They give us a lot of coverage and we produce a special section on the fair, so there is an underlying motivation to how much we spend on newspapers."
Social Media has also become a larger segment of marketing, with a growing number of followers on three key platforms: Facebook 76,000,( which grew from about 56,000 before opening day); Twitter 14,000 and Instagram 3,800. "We started running social media promotions every Wednesday in July and August," said Katelyn Kelly, Media Relations and Integrated Media Manager, Oklahoma State Fair. "The promotions that worked the best were free ticket giveaways and contests."
Munz added that the mobile app, which the fair has had for a couple of years, "was pushed a little bit harder this year and we updated it, we also made our website more mobile friendly, so users could use the app or the website on the mobile device."
The fair features two different ticketed events - Xtreme Bulls with concerts by Montgomery Gentry and the Eli Young Gang, and a host of free headline acts, including The Kentucky Headhunters, Michael Ray (a fill in for Leon Russell, who cancelled due to illness), The Oak Ridge Boys, La Energia Nortena, Dennis DeYoung: The Music of STYX, Elvis Extravaganza, and Beatle Mania LIVE!
Into the first decade of the 21st century, the fair offered four nights of rodeo with concerts and other ticketed shows, but the exorbitant costs of headline entertainment forced fair organizers into the current more limited offerings. Without the ticket sale metric, "it is skewed, so it is not a true gauge as to who really can draw in more fairgoers."
A number of factors from more elaborate production to casinos and other venues competing for the same acts and driving up cost costs made 2016 a very extreme sellers market. "The prices have gotten ridiculously high. There needs to be a market correction, talent buying and the music industry is not like it was, and the guarantees have gotten too high. I suspect we will see more acts not have such big production and theater gigs. I think a lot of acts are going to do a George Strait, and just come out and with a guitar and play the music the fans want."
The negatives however still do not come close to outweighing what Munz sees is the major positives of having as much headline entertainment that is economically feasible. "Concerts provide added-value to the fair, it is one of those components of the fair that people may come for, but if somebody is here at the fair and they realize they can see the Oak Ridge Boys at 8 o'clock, there are going to stay longer."
Fairs are in competition for people's entertainment dollar—and especially in a soft economy - the bargain aspect attracts families and few events offer as many components as the fair. "For the same price as bringing a family to the movies, you can come to the fair. The entertainment is part of the added-value we offer families."
In addition to the concert acts, other value-added grounds entertainment include Junk Rock Drums, which was new to the fair, Martial Arts LIVE!, Zoppe Italian Family Circus, Dale K Comedy Hypnotist, Extreme Raptor Show and The Magic & Illusion of Kid Davie.
The Oklahoma State Fair had 133 food vendors in 2016, new foods included: Bacon-Wrapped Asparagus; WonderStick Ice Cream (ice cream in a gluten-free J-shaped cone, which unlike other cones claimed not to get soggy as the ice cream melts) and the Asian Bulgogi Crepe, which was a crepe topped with beef rib eye.
The 7th annual Great Taste of A Fair contest was held - where 15 concessionaires submitted dishes to a local panel of judges. Submissions were separated into three different categories: Sweetest of the Sweet (Winner: Gringo's Mexican Funnel Cake); Slice of Savory (Winner: Ragin' Cajun Chicken On-A-Stick) and New to the Scene (Winner: La Gumbo Ya Ya Red Beans & Rice). First place in each category received $300, a trophy & a Great TASTE of A Fair t-shirt. Munz said he thought that standard cuisines, Cinnamon Rolls, Indian Tacos and Corn Dogs, "were always the best sellers."
The contest, combined with a reputation for quality fair cuisine, "gets a lot of media coverage, people come out to the fair for the food, it is part of the value-added package we give to our customers."