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Increased Attendance & Spending at Utah State Fair
Mighty Thomas Carnival beats all-time midway record

12/30/2016

By Timothy Herrick

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The biggest story about this year's Utah State Fair may be next year. Coinciding with opening day of the fair was a groundbreaking ceremony for the Days of '47, a 10,000-seat rodeo arena at the State Fairpark, a $17 million project, due to be completed in July of 2017, well before next year's fair

Having a brand new, state-of-the art arena on your fairgrounds will boosts the bottom line by having another venue for events year round as well as for the fair itself. However, the new arena meant that the old arena had to be demolished before the fair, making the 2016 event arena-less, resulting in a hiatus of the annual PRCA rodeo, demolition derby and horse show (all three will return in the new arena 2017).

Fairgoers Grow
The loss of important events caused trepidation and an expected negative impact on attendance. Instead, the opposite occurred. Attendance at the Utah State Fair reached 261,750, a 4.7 percent increase over 2016. 

"We were wary because we were unable to offer certain entertainment options that have been a mainstay of our Fair," said Jeff Kooring, Sales & Marketing Director, Utah State Fair. "The rodeo, demolition derby and horse shows were taken out due to demolition of our rodeo arena. We felt we would take a hit, which we may have, but overall we saw increased attendance and revenue."

That last point - revenue - is particularly telling. Even with less, the Utah State Fair made more. Revenue was up 11 percent, and per capita spending soared 16 percent. "We are encouraged by the excitement of our fairgoers and the quality of the product, and the value of the experience the guests received," said Larry Mullenax, Executive Director, Utah State Fair. 

While the quality of the content and a new marketing campaign that echoed fair traditions contributed to the success of the event, two factors outside the control of the fair played even more crucial rules - weather and the economy. The weather was "excellent weather throughout the 11 days," said Kooring.

And the economic climate? "Our economy is extremely strong," said Mullenax. 

But the energy sector - gas and oil - isan important segment of Utah's economy - may be doing poorly. "We have one of the most highly education populations, and we are one of the most bilingual states," said Mullenax, who noted that the state is consistently ranked as #1 (sometimes #2) in business and job growth and other economic indicators by Forbes Magazine, Moody's Investor Service and other economic ranking entities. "Our population is expected to double within the next 10 years. Young millennials and their families are moving here. We have a robust economy and the state and other partners are providing the fair the opportunities to expand." 

He pointed out that not only was fairgoer spending was up, but sponsorships as well. In addition, under the state's complicated appropriations system, the legislature awarded the fair $675,000, $425,000 of which is being invested in maintenance and renovation of other historical buildings that are on the grounds and integral to the fair. Record setting attendance and outpouring of support augurs well for the future of the celebration of the everything Utah.

"The quality of the product we present allowed us to exceed our attendance goals," said Mullenax. "The arena will allow us to increase the offerings at the fair and during the non-fair times of the year."

The capital improvement investment by the state will, among other things, be used to repair roofs, add new blinds and shades, repaint and upgrade the fiber optic network. "We want to improve the quality of the buildings and grounds, but also add additional ground entertainment and improve the overall quality of the entire product. It is a priority that we improve perceived value of the fair business as we expand, so that we can exceed expectations." 

Mullenax divided fairs into three categories: 1) Regressing; 2) Flat and struggling to stay relevant; and 3) a Position of Growth. "We are without question in the position of growth," he said. "We are getting support for this growth from our audience and the community. In addition to the facility boom on the premises, Mullenax said that Fairpark is in also in acquisition mode, looking to annex surrounding properties "we are introducing more development and with more property we can add more rides and attractions to the fair."

Mighty Thomas Midway
Mighty Thomas Carnival was the midway provider for the Utah State Fair, featuring 35 rides. According to John Hanschen, president of Mighty Thomas Carnival, new rides for the fair included Moby Dick, Wacky Cowboy and Monster Trucks. The highest grossing ride was the familiar standby Century Wheel. Hanschen said midway revenues were up more than 8 percent compared to 2015, breaking a pre-recession record. "We had a record year," he said. "We finally beat the 2008 number, which was before the recession. For a few years after that, all the fairs were hurting. But this was the highest revenue we've had at the Utah State Fair." 

One reason the midway is so successful at this fair is the positioning. "The carnival is right in the middle of everything," he said. "The fair is divided into four sections, and there are a lot of historical venues and it's pretty cool to walk around, and they have a lot of historical buildings and a historical layout, but it draws people into the midway."

Hanschen is excited about next year with the coming of the Days of '47 arena. "If we had a record this year, with more events they will draw more people," he concluded.
 
But even if the arena pushes the fair to another level, he is quick to point out that the Utah fairgoers already keep this carnival operator on peak performance. "The customers love coming to this fair," he said. "It's an inner city fair, but they have a lot of animals to see and people just love coming. They are very demanding, they are smart and educated and they want us to perform at our very best, which is what we do. They tell us what they like and don't like and make us do our best." 

Marketing Blues 
With an advertising budget of $250,00, which Mullenax said was increased over last year, with much of the extra funds being directed to developing the creative side. One of the new marketing projects was creating documentary clips spotlighting a FAA participant that "chronicled everything about the experience, from acquiring the animals and leading up to the livestock competition." 

While this particular video "drives the connection with animals and livestock," that is so critical to the mission of the fair, Mullenax pointed out that the Utah State Fair created a "fairly substantial library of video clips, of everything at the fair, the rides and exhibits. We did a really good job of maximizing the opportunities for social media promotion. We are competing with other venues for customers, so we showed what makes the fair so unique, and put that in front of the people, these experiences that you cannot obtain anywhere."

The use of video, transmitted through social media, "was very appealing to the young. You can't pet a pygmy goat or milk a cow anywhere else but here. We really focused on what our product is, and made our message warm and welcoming. It exuded fun. The value of our entertainment and the quality of excitement of the fair appeals to all age groups, but when it is driven through social media we reached more millennials."

"Social media is very effective and has been for the past few years," said Kooring. "We put a lot into it and run daily contests that build engagement and 'likes.' We switch-up the creative every year to stay consistent to some extent with the overall campaign. However, we have much more liberty to do more and different types of creative when using social media."

The fair essentially stuck with the social media platforms of Twitter, Instagram and Facebook. Instead of adding new platforms, the fair "essentially became more active, none of the platforms were new for our fair, but the way we used it was new."

Targeting Generation-Y and the young families moving by droves into the area was a major priority of this year's marketing campaign.  

"We made a lot of improvements, to the fair, including things like the petting zoo, which appeals to younger families," said Mullenax. "We wanted to make the fair more fun and appealing to millennials. With our campaign and with the social media, we were able to find a new way to introduce old exhibits to young people. They are not exposed to agriculture or livestock anywhere else and they are very interested in it when presented to them in the right away" 

The main marketing theme for the fair was "Get The Blues," which tied into the iconic fair image of the blue ribbon. The fair identified three "key drivers" to the fair, which were the farm animals and related exhibits; midway rides, and food. "We are very proud of agricultural roots, and embrace them," said Mullenax. "Then the carnival food and the rides, that is what people want to see at the fair, so we created taglines for different segments, putting a blue ribbon on a deep fried Twinkie or one of the rides. The food was more of a challenge, because we didn't want to emphasize one vendor over the other." 

In addition to increasing the social media and internet marketing, the fair's media purchase grew for digital billboards. "We put a higher concentration in the billboards," said Mullenax. "We also put more time and energy into selecting the location of the billboards, so we were able to reach where our guests are going and driving by. There is new technology available that enables us to better access who we want to reach with the billboard placement." 

The fair also made a change regarding the purchasing of ad space. "We switched media buying agencies and saw a significant increase in added-value due to the agency's buying power," said Kooring.

Limited Entertainment
Because of the loss of the arena, "we limited our grandstand acts this year to two paid acts and two free concerts, but did add more than last year," said Kooring. "Last year we did not host any grandstand acts. Our top performer was Luis Coronel."

For 2017, Mullenax said the fair plans to expand its entertainment budget by 30 percent. Fair booking is just starting and he acknowledged that Salt Lake is very competitive with no shortage of other venues, a real sellers market when it comes to headline concerts. "The fair has a built in audience, and because we will be a new stage, and a way to reach new audiences, I think we will have artists consider the fair that didn't in the past. We are going to provide a great atmosphere, and performers want to reach new crowds and play new stages."

There were 60 food concessionaires, and this year the fair added food trucks, a first for the fair cuisine offerings. One of these Korean barbecue truck vendors, Cupbop, was among the fair's top selling food items, according to Kooring. Other top sellers included Sweet Cheeks, Vilo Vilo Chicken and Steve's Concessions said Kooring. He added that other hot food items this year include the deep fried pickles, corndogs, turkey legs, and deep fried Oreos. Kooring added the fair recorded "a significant increase in food sales revenue." 

Mullenax observed, "we put a lot of emphasis on the value of the product and fairgoers responded favorably, which was shown by the increased revenue throughout the fair. We are in a great position for more growth next year with the new arena."





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