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Top-50 Fairs: Enhancing the Basics Strengthened Best Fairs in 2016

12/19/2016

By Timothy Herrick

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Everything is bigger in Texas and in 2016 that familiar Lone Star state boast could easily be applied to fairs. The top three fairs in North America were all Texas events with the Houston Livestock Show & Rodeo, Texas State Fair and San Antonio Livestock Show & Exhibition earning the one, two and three spots, respectively - which also makes four out of the top 10 fairs (Fort Worth Stock Show & Rodeo was #10) - and the combined attendance means that more than 8 million people went to a Texas fair in 2016. 

Texas may have the population and economic growth - and lucky weather - to place their major fairs firmly at the top tier of 2016 North American events - but what seems apparent is that headline entertainment, a midway with rides and games, and an utterly unique cuisine-on-stick continue to be a popular combination for fairs to succeed. 

Unique Entertainment
Fairs are one-of-a-kind entertainment events in terms of both content and community support. As Joel Cowley, President and CEO of the top fair of the year explained, "the Houston Livestock Show and Rodeo offers a unique mix of entertainment options that draws a highly diverse audience from the nation's fourth largest city and beyond. The Show celebrates its agricultural roots and Western traditions with the world's largest livestock show, championship rodeo action, and a variety of music, food and educational exhibits. Backed by over 33,000 volunteers and an incredibly supportive business community, the organization is able to keep ticket prices low, create great family value, and contribute to the education of thousands of Texas youth."

Texas may be winning the fairgoer numbers game but consumer interest in this outdoor entertainment event is by no means limited to Texas. Carnival Warehouse's annual top-50 Fair list - which complies the top North American fairs by attendance - found that more than half of the top fairs in U.S.and Canada - 26 in fact - experienced an increase in attendance. Even more enlightening is that nine of those fairs had a record year. In other words, one third of North America's largest fairs experiencing increased attendance also set records for that attendance. The Record Year Fairs on the 2016 Top 15 list included: San Antonio Livestock Show & Exhibition; Minnesota State Fair; San Diego County Fair Georgia National Fair;  New York State Fair and  Mississippi State Fair.

The San Diego County Fair both set a new record and moved up a notch to 5th place amongst the 2016 Top 50 Fairs. "It was the biggest fair we ever had, the highest revenue we ever had, the highest attendance," Tim Fennell, CEO.

Fennell emphasized the fair is very safe and that the economy has improved, but the uniqueness of the fair experience is the main advantage of the fair. "Where else can you get the entertainment we have at a fair for a $12 admission fee? We have 10 stages of entertainment, and all the food, rides, and exhibits. That's why we got 1.6 million this year, but a better economy helped. Still, going to the San Diego County Fair is a much better value and cheaper than going  to the movies.  Plus we offered a variety of discounts and passes, which increases the attendance and makes the fair available to more families."

High Attendance
Nearly 52 million people attended the top 50 fairs in 2016. Considering that there are dozens of other smaller fairs throughout North America - the Nebraska State Fair had an attendance of 361,107, making it the 50th fair on the 2016, and its first appearance on the  Top 50th list - that attracted tens of thousands  additional attendees. Many county and local fairs - especially when it comes to agricultural and livestock exhibits and 4H and FFA programs - act as feeder fairs, creating what is tantamount to a kind of fair infrastructure in many states and often regionally. 

Attendance may slip or uptick from one year to the next - and the larger fairs often trade rungs on the Too 50 ladder from one year to the next as well - but overall, 2016 indicates that the fair industry is in a period of sustainable growth.

Fairs are an entrenched component of North American popular culture. "Fairs are one of the few things today that celebrate the American way of life at its best," said Eugene J. Cassidy, president and CEO of Eastern States Exposition. The Big E experienced a 5 percent increase in attendance and was the 7th best attended fair in 2016, and the largest fair in the Northeast. "There are fewer and fewer places where you can do that today, our society has become so segmented. Fairs uniquely share that experience with their customers."  

The Great Minnesota Get Together was one of the handful of fairs on this upward trajectory: an attendance increase that also set a record. The largest Midwestern Fair - and alongside perhaps the Iowa State Fair - the fair with the largest international recognition as an event emblematic of America's heartland. 

This high profile fair featured a tribute to Minnesota's favorite son, Prince, a revamped marketing campaign, and infrastructure improvements ranging from new walkways to additional restrooms. "Our departments did outstanding work in coordinating the many facets of our operation," said Jerry Hammer, Executive Vice President & General Manager, Minnesota State Fair.  "Things went extraordinarily smooth."

Traditional Escape
But Hammer offered another observation that might have pushed attendance for both his and many other fairs. 

The 2016 presidential election was bitterly fought, razor thin close and relentlessly controversial and from war in the Mideast to the numerous violent incidents in the U.S., the rest of the news this year was often filled with reasons to despair. People were yearning for escape from the headlines they were seeing on their TV and/or smart phones and what better oasis of wholesomeness than the state fair? 

"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 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. There are zero tensions at the fair, and people really needed that this year."

Government Support
Fairground improvement also was a factor pushing many fair attendance. Fairs retain a perennial attraction as pop culture events and part of the attraction are fair traditions - agricultural exhibits, the food on a stick, the Ferris Wheel - people come back for these traditions and nostalgia, reviving the happy memories created when they first came to the fair as children. But there's a big difference between vintage and dilapidated. 

Case-in-point: The Great New York State Fair not only had a record year - with 1,117,030 attendees - but the largest year-to-year increase of any record breaking Top-50 Fair, 23.1 percent. 

The Louisiana State Fair had an increase of 62.2 percent in attendance. While this enabled the fair to again achieve a Top-50 ranking - #41 - no records were broken and this jump is indicative of a comeback after the 2015 fair, which was plagued by severe rain that frequently shut the fair completely down.

The attendance uptick for the New York State Fair pushed this fair's Top-50 ranking from 20th in 2015 to 13th. This ascent on the Carnival Warehouse Top-50 list provides a lesson for states eager to keep fairs on the state budget chopping block. New York is an example of how restoring and increasing fair funding - and having a political leader ready to offer genuine support - results in enhancing the viability of its state fair.

"The Great New York State Fair truly lived up to its name this year with record crowds, record sales, and a new sense of excitement fueled by our $50 million investment to modernize the fair's facilities and better be able to showcase the very best that New York has to offer," said N.Y. Governor Andrew M. Cuomo. 

The 2016 New York State Fair was the highest attended state fair in its 175 year history. Improvements included a new Main Gate, a new Empire RV Park, the removal of a race track and the grandstands, resulting in 66 more acres of land which expanded the Midway, growing the Kiddieland, widening walkways, and adding more seating areas. The fair also increased its advertising budget, expanding its marketing throughout the region and even crossing the Canadian border. 

But according to Troy Waffner, Acting Fair Manager, the news of the upgrade turned the curious into committed fairgoers. "People had heard about the renovations... it drove a lot of the excitement about the fair, there was local and regional buzz."

The Mississippi State Fair may not have had the governmental support of New York, but many aspects of the fairgrounds were improved, including building restorations, and new safety and sanitation protocols. In addition, the staff was vigorously briefed on the new direction of the fair by Rick Reno, Executive Director - 2016 was his second year at the helm. "I told the staff, the changes we will be making, the only people who will notice will be the people who come to the fair every year and in three years, we will have a cleaner fair, a livelier fair, and that will be accepted as the new norm," said Reno. "I told everyone when I took this job, to have the patience to bear with us, and if this fair is going to grow, we have to make it more of what we want it to be."

Full Fair
Another ascent on the Top 50 list showing a successful direction occurred with the New Mexico State Fair, which had a 7.9 percent increase in attendance that nudged the fair several rungs - from 40 in 2015 to 34 this year.  

For 2016, the fair had forward looking new policies, such as a partnership with Uber, a reinvigorated free and grounds entertainment content with more and more new acts, and - bucking the trend of many fairs who are looking for more affordable options to headline entertainment -, more effective entertainment booking, which included Dwight Yokum, 38 Special, Tracy Lawrence and Neal McCoy - that were all featured with the PRCA Rodeo. According Dan Mourning, General Manager of the New Mexico State Fair, "Patrons seemed to be spending money at the fair, with the many vendors reporting increased sales over previous years."

Many different segments of the fair this year were pushing attendance upwards. Mourning sees these initiatives as enhancing the overall fair experience, not replacing it with something merely more trendy.  "We had a very full fair feel with spectacular entertainment throughout the fair," he said. "You pay your admission, and you know that you will be thrilled. We added more free entertainment...  it was a very exciting fair, and you want the people who come to move around the fair, to stay longer and find something exciting."

The Top-50 Fairs may not be the best of the best, but this annual listing can be seen as the best of the biggest. The one trend that seems clear can not be summarized simply as a return to the roots. 

The upward attendance trend of many of the fairs clearly indicates the foothold this unique form of outdoor entertainment maintains as an entertainment option remains strong among a growing number of consumers. The best of the biggest fairs seemed to have found a way to enhance the basics of the fair - infrastructure upgrades, paying more attention to the fairgoer's actual experience, and rejuvenating entertainment and exhibits.  They made the fair tradition feel fresh again because it's that tradition remains at the core of a large fair's appeal.

"A successful Fair allows us to fulfill our mission of celebrating all things Texan by promoting agriculture, education, and community involvement through quality entertainment in a family-friendly environment," said Mitchell Glieber, president,  State Fair of Texas - a close # 2nd this year, dropping from #1 in 2015. "Our goal each year is to produce a high-quality State Fair, and the people will come."





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