A record setting attendance is not a bad for his second fair as the Executive Director of the Mississippi Fair Commission, but since Rick Reno took that position he implemented several changes and upgrades to the event.
These improvements - including a new grandstand, expanded kid-zone, new ground acts and an overall re-commitment to best practices - led to the successful 2016 fair, boding well for the future of this annual Magnolia State tradition.
According to Reno, the changes he implemented took the long view, "I told the staff, the changes we will be making that 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. The fair is more clean and more lively and I didn't see a lot of staff leaving, they were on board. 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."
An attendance of 733,151 fairgoers attended the 2016 Mississippi State Fair, an attendance approximately four percent more than the previous record set in 2014 and an approximately 13 percent increase over the 2015 attendance.
Reno noted that 12 days of ideal, rain-free weather was key to success. "We looked at the weather forecast and realized that in theory, we would not have rain," he said. "But with 12 days of no rain, we started to talk about having a chance to set a record. But our main goal is to have a safe fair, a fun fair, which I feel we did."
Many of the ideas for the new policies, programs and upgrades implemented so far during his tenure at the helm of the Mississippi event, Reno learned at industry conventions, meetings and trade shows.
"During my first fair here ,last year, I observed and saw what things could be improved. I attended many industry events, where the latest in best practices and industry standards are presented. I wanted to institute those changes not because of anything that happened here in the past, but you want to be proactive. I've had two fairs, under my direct management and have implemented some modifications to the fair which I feel have been very positive, which have been reflected in attendance and spending. We created a very enjoyable experience, and a very safe experience, for fairgoers."
He added, "we improved the overall appearance of the fair, and made the atmosphere more family friendly, and created more things for fairgoers to do."
A major priority he followed was enhancing the safety of the fair. "In cooperation with the sheriff's department, we had added viewing towers, which are above the fray so law enforcement was able to view all the activities on the grounds," he said.
One improvement was the establishment of radio communication between fair staff and security staff, "so we were able to talk to each other in current, real time."
Reno also created a more detailed layout schematic, numbering and charting all parts of the fair. "We went around and numbered the pavement on the booths in the midways by Ferris Wheel and all the rides, and in Kiddie Zone. We charted all these areas, so if there was a call for an ambulance or security, instead of saying some spot, we could say go to 312 on the chart, and that cut our response time way down."
While there were no serious incidents at the fair, the new system "paid off. There were times the temperature hit 100 degrees, and some folks were overcome with the heat, and they were able to receive assistance."
In addition to implementing new safety measures, Reno adapted new sanitation protocols to improve the overall fair experience. Teams with individual dollies were formed, and instead of emptying trash receptacles one liner at a time at the location, they would replace the receptacle and empty it elsewhere. "We didn't have any overflow and if a food vendor needed the trash can empty, they would notify us and we would be there and replace it," he said. "We also staffed up on electricians, so if anyone needed a breaker fixed we had somebody there right away."
These and other new procedures were not created in a vacuum, but with the full knowledge, cooperation and input from the fair vendors. An ad-hoc committee was formed, which negated some suggestions to augment the new initiatives, and in March a meeting was held to go over the new rules and protocols, which included some new regulations about the appearance of their booth or stand as well as an increase in vendor costs, which was less than 20 percent. "We took everything they said and their feedback into consideration," he said. "Most everyone agreed with us on what we thought were improvements."
The fair expanded its Kid Zone which features children and rides by Midway provider, North American Midway Entertainment (NAME) by adding more rides in this category, but expanding the area with kids friendly attractions. Reno also deliberately intensified his focus on Ground Acts, which he said has been "pretty minimal and we had no walk around acts." He expanded the number of ground acts and other new attractions, but positioned them more strategically, using many to augment the enlarged children's area.
In addition to Kid Zone standbys like the petting zoo, pig racing, and Great American Ag-Ventureland, Reno added Camel Rides and the Magician Kid Davies, "He's a very interactive act, people were taking pictures with him," he said. "It was the first time we used a magician and the people really responded."
Another Kid Zone improvement was the addition of than 50 tables and benches, and around this new section, he removed visual barriers, giving the area a less cluttered appearance and unobstructed sightlines. "There were clear views so parents could send a child of a certain age to get a funnel cake, they could watch their child all the hole time."
Reno also made other positioning decisions for the 2016 attractions. Circus Maximus, a beloved attraction, moved to the other end of the fair ground near the Trade Mart section, which showcases commercial exhibits, arts & crafts and other merchandise vendors, and added Fetch-N-Fish Tank, featuring Labrador retrievers with extraordinary fetching skills.
The vendors in the Trade Mart and nearby food vendors previously had the lowest volume of any vendors at the Mississippi State Fair, but this year "everyone had upticks. They did better than they had in years."
Reno's philosophy was built on the theory that by having more entertainers and spectacle attractions in the general category of grounds acts, fairgoers will have more reasons to visit different areas of the fair they may have overlooked, stay longer on the grounds and even come back on other days. "The grounds acts, especially those willing to walk around, makes the whole fair more interactive, and that helps food vendors," he said. "People want to see the acts, and that is going to build traffic in different areas, and the people not only experience the act, they see some food or vendor they may have not seen before."
For fair organizers, the increase in ground acts and re-designing the layout the fair to accentuate their effectiveness is really about keeping an eye on the details that make up the fair experience. "There's no question in my mind that the ground acts help all the vendors, because the people love them. It's an ongoing process, it's about finding the right acts."
Now that the fair has increased the number of grounds acts, Reno is intent on rotating them on an ongoing basis. "With the grounds entertainment, you constantly change it, every couple of three years," he said. "You want to keep surprising the fairgoer with new attractions."
The Mississippi State Fair's midway -which featured 62 rides - was provided by North American Midway Entertainment (NAME). "They are a first class carnival company, and they brought in new kiddie rides, major rides and spectacular rides," Reno said. He particularly pointed out the collaboration between the carnival company and the fair as especially crucial in creating the new and expanded Kid Zone. "They brought in new kiddie rides for this section, and helped us within two years, to completely transform this entire section of our fairgrounds."
Best in Show
The concerts at the fair - a mainstay in Mississippi - underwent the most visible make over in 2016 The Budweiser Pavilion was transformed into an open air venue.
"For the first time we had an amphitheater set up with outdoor festival seating."
The Budweiser shows at the Mississippi State Fair are free with admission and the fair is committed to entertainment - which includes both nationally known headliners and more regional performers - as both an attendee draw and part of the value of going to the event. But tweaking the concerts only began with overhauling the physical stage.
The sequence of the line up underwent what Reno describes as a "repositioning of acts."
Reno used the big names to quicken slower times of the fair, so he switched the bigger acts to the weekdays and let more regional acts take the weekend stage. For example, Boyz II Men played on a Tuesday and Old Dominion on a Wednesday, while the Jesse Robinson Blues Band performed on a Saturday (Robinson, a Mississippi native, was a long time musician with the B.B. King band and his band is made up of B.B. King's former touring ensemble; B.B. King was also a Mississippi native).
"We took a chance," he explained. "We put the regional acts in on our largest attended days, the weekends, and the attendance stayed high for those days, and even increased. We didn't suffer any downturn. Don't forget, a lot of these acts have their own followings and they add to the attendance."
For the bigger names, "we use them to beef up our weak nights, which are weeknights."
Probably the most significantly innovative - one might say risky - move was putting Travis Tritt, arguably the biggest name on the 2016 entertainment docket - on opening night. "A lot of fair mangers don't think opening nights will be strong, they are a weak night and a weeknight. By moving Travis Tritt to that spot, it exceeded our expectations."
Reno is honest about overall attendance - "if we didn't have 12 days without rain and without rain the forecast we might be having a different conversation," he said. But achieving a record attendance was a culmination of several factors and far from the least of which was using entertainment- and the handful of big names they could afford to book - to bring in people.
"We keep our admission gate at $5, we are one of the most cost friendly fairs. With a hard ticket, you can track how many people paid for the show and see how many came to see the act, but how that translates with is how many people went to see the show, and I personally observed a lot of bleed over, that people will stay after the show and enjoy the fair. A lot of the food vendors were up on the weekdays where they weren't before in previous fairs."
He added, "I was more than amazed how deep the crowds were for some of the regional acts, and there's no telling where some of those acts will be in two or three years. But they already have a following and those are people who may never been to the fair before."
The fair also caught lightning in the bottle, booking Shawn Mendes, a Canadian singer-songwriter and teen heartthrob. Mendes, who at the time of the fair had a #1 Billboard hit, just completed a tour as opening act for Taylor Swift and recently appeared on The Tonight Show.
Reno didn't consult a crystal ball for this booking. "You never know how some artists are going to do when they're young like that," he said. "They may explode and they may not, and he has."
The food craze this year at the Mississippi State Fair was the biscuit booth - sponsored with Kroger Foods, Kroger, Blackburn Syrup and Prairie Farms and manned by volunteers from the Mississippi Department of Agricultural - at the booth - a record 108,000 biscuits were distributed.
The advertising budget increased about 5 percent. Digital advertising has seen the biggest increase, and "we've been decreasing print. It's amazing that radio still does very good in this market."
The fair added a dedicated person to social media - mainly Facebook - during the fair. "You need the paid staff to keep it current, which we did. We mainly did little contests, and reminded people about what is happening at the fair, and to take selfies at the concerts and the grounds."
With marketing, Reno admits the fair still has more improvements to make, "but compared to what we had been doing, I feel we made real progress this year."
However, new advertising and marketing initiatives in the past two years were also tied to increased sponsorships. In 2015, Reno said the fair increased its sponsorship revenue by 200 percent and then this year, increased it another 20 percent. These advertising partnerships "allowed us to seal more sponsorships because now we have more to offer," he said.
"For a lot of people, this fair is their vacation and they do come three or four times, it is their vacation. So it is a big deal that we keep prices low."
The local economy does seem "a little better than last year. I think there is a little more discretionary spending than they're was last year. We didn't hear any complaints from the food vendors, and even when it is good they may still complain."
He estimated that that food sales increased in the neighborhood of 20 percent, although cautioning this figure should "be taken with a good-hearted grain of salt."
Reno also redesigned the layout of the fair, creating a kind of tick-tack-toe board (think: #), with four lanes. "People noticed some things, and this way to spread out the fair, and part of the reasoning was that with the old layout it got very crowded, you couldn't stir it with a stick sometimes. We took areas that were really crowded and relocated some food booths, and we added seating areas and those people who came and used those areas stayed at the fair."