Longer and more days turned out to be better for the Washington State Fair. The 2016 edition of this Northwest event expanded by from 17 days straight to 21 days over a 24 day period, going dark on Tuesdays and adding an extra weekend.
The plan had been discussed for at least 15 years and according to Kent Hojem, CEO, but made three years ago. Implementation was a lengthier process, in order to give concessionaires, the midway company and other vendors sufficient time to adjust their scheduling as well the local community, who would have to confront traffic issues with a longer fair.
"We've been talking about adding a weekend, and we looked other fairs who had been running a similar format and length, Hojem explained. "
Then we get serious about two or three years ago."
The main objectives were clear: more attendance and higher revenue. "But more than just that, we want to improve the fairgoer experience by spreading out crushing crowds and long lines on the weekends. We are at a disadvantage because school is in session, so with weekends we would could get more people that age. Also by having an extra rain insurance, which was prescient because the middle weekend was down by more than half, because it was cold, rainy and miserable. So we did have extra days to catch up."
Catch up they did. The additional overhead costs incurred by adding days and going dark on others were more than off-set by the additional weekend. "Our per-caps were up 15 percent. We had better numbers than we've had in years, and as we look ahead, the extra weekend has given us a tremendous ability to grow."
Fair attendance increased 5 percent, exceeding 1.1 million. The fairgoer growth was robust on the weekends, but the midweek periods were soft. Compared to consecutive days, going dark on Tuesdays (the Fair has found that Mondays are a strong day), at least anecdotally "seemed kind of difficult to crank up the fair again on Wednesday, but by Thursday it was fine. So we may be thinking of some promotions that we can do for that day, that is certainly something we will be working on."
The extension of this Northwest event would not have been possible with the instrumental support of the fair's midway provider, Funtastic Rides. "We are fortunate to work with a fair board who listens to your ideas," said Ron Burback, owner, Funtastic Rides.
This carnival veteran was convinced that adding extra high revenue days would more than compensate for the cost of having a dark day. "When do you make the most money?," said Burback. "Weekends. The more weekends you have, the more money you can make, so by extending the fair to four weekends, it worked. We had the biggest year I've ever had there."
The Funtastic midway featured 70 rides and 65 games and according to the fair, revenue was up 11 percent. "Ron was one of the first onboard in the new schedule," said Hojem. "Some vendors were skeptical, and others had to work out scheduling, we had to be careful with some livestock shows because of other fairs."
In fact, Funtastic Rides actually had to cancel their run at the Oregon State Fair in order to accommodate the new Washington State Fair schedule. "Ron was very opinionated about the new schedule, he was the first to give us feedback and was always willing to work with us."
For the midway, the extra weekend actually exceeded expectations. "Here's the thing that surprised me," said Burbank. "I had a great opening weekend, my wages were up and I had a gross I never had before. I wondered if the increase was not an increase, that I was over my head and I was waiting for the other shoe to drop. I expected our grosses on the other weekends would be lower that I had before. We caught some rain, which was traditional, but the other weekends were also good, there wasn't a downturn in the spending or attendance for those days."
Three Wheel Midway
Burbank also insisted that the 2016 Washington State Midway "was the prettiest midway we ever presented.
The midway featured a new children's ride, "Fun on The Farm," which was a complete rebuild of an existing ride," he said. "We changed it from what it was before, with extra buttons that would make different sounds, it was very popular. It outgrossed many of the major rides."
It was also the first time the Funtastic Midway had three Ferris Wheels, which included a new Grand Wheel, which stood 108 feet and the premier of the company's refurbished iconic Ferris Wheel. "We redid our wheel, and all three wheels had a tremendous LED presentation."
Sillyville - the kids ride section of the Funtastic midway - had an adjacent space for children, highlighted by special graphics, selfie stations, face painting and Super Hero Headquarters complete with a Meet & Greet with Marvel and D.C. superheros. "Kudos to my staff for making this very decorative set up next to Sillyville," said Hojem. "It was a very busy place and seems to have some ongoing legs."
Just Got Bigger
According to Hojem, the fair's marketing department came up with the phrase "Washington's Biggest Party Just Got Bigger," which not only promoted the extended schedule but the fact "we are the biggest outdoor event in the Northwest," said Hojem. "And our mascot is Big Foot."
The famed sasquatch was adapted as the official fair mascot last year, and became easily associated with the extended schedule. "Frankly, our mascot, Big Washington was a great tie, and our ad company really capitalized on the mascot and the additional days that made us bigger."
They ended a partnership with a third-party for the fair's social media marketing, according to Stacy Howard, Public Relations Manager, and expanded its presence on Facebook, Instagram, Twitter, YouTube. "Leading up to the Fair we did lots of contests to get people ready and excited for the Fair," said Howard. "On social media, people love contests and the chance to win free admission passes, concert tickets, season passes, value packs, etc. We even did an event during the summer, leading into Fair, where we invited people to come onto the grounds for free and play Pokémon Go. This was all promoted through social media, then picked up by media who covered it. About 2,000 showed up."
She added that another social media promotion was a Free Kids weekend - held on opening and closing weekend, sponsored by Boeing Employees Credit Union.
One most expansive challenges going from 17 to 21 nightswas the entertainment. Paid ticket headliners included: Dierks Bentley; Tim McGraw; King & Country Fiestas Patrias (featuring Voz de Mando Proyecto X and Mariachi Divas); Chris Young with special guest Cassadee Pope; Train; Jeff Foxworthy and Larry the Cable Guy; and Alan Jackson's KEEPIN' IT COUNTRY Tour.
Having dark nights for the grandstand was not an option, said Hojem, who described adding more entertainment as a "big challenge." Super stars and fair stalwarts, such as Tim McGraw and Alan Jackson sold faster than other shows. "We are doing more experimentation," he said. "Comedy is a market new to us, but it doesn't pull the same " he said.
Entertainment costs have escalated, and Hojem admitted the fair is considering different options for some of the nights in the new, expanded fair schedule. "Those acts are getting perilously high," he said. "Tim McGraw is going to sell out and that will mean 10,000 additional folks, but you can't count on 10,000 for every act. But there's ancillary revenue with bringing in the music acts. Our entertainment committee is looking at it, and I think it behooves fairs to look at the costs of distributing tickets and running the costs and the fair experience. There are ways to tweak that experience."
Hojem doesn't expect booking to become cheaper or more simple any time soon. The fair remains committed to headline entertainment, but finding suitable acts is more of a challenge. "People's tastes change."
While entertainers might come in and out of the spotlight, having hits that create a fan base but then are unable to sustain significant followers when their music fails to chart, at the Washington State Fair has one attraction that keeps growing in popularity - Fisher Scones - with more than 1.3 million sold. "Before closing there are long lines of people wanting a bakers dozen to take home."
Hojem said that food sales were up by 10 percent. It was this segment of vendors that had the most difficult transition to the expanded schedule. "It did not work perfectly for everybody," he said. "Some food vendors tore it up, and a few didn't keep up with the additional costs of more days. It wasn't perfect for everybody, but I can't say we had any significant fallout."
Some newer items that caught attention were alligator burgers and Rabbit and python sausage. Another vendor specialized in everything bacon "from bacon on a stick to bacon donuts to bacon funnel cake."
But the most popular Washington State Fair Food cuisine? "It's always the scones," said Howard. "It's what we are famous for, every year we sell more than a million.