Is big name entertainment still a viable option for state fairs?
A grandstand-filling fair staple for decades, more recently rising costs ranging from musician fees, commissions and improved production values – a scenario compounded by increased competition for similar acts by festivals, casinos and other venues have caused many fairs to reconsider how best to utilize their grandstands.
There remains hope that the ticketed grandstand shows can still be financially viable as well as augment attendance. Some fairs have found that fairgoers either balk at the extra ticket price, find that free shows featuring local acts and/or tribute bands are a lower-cost alternative, or that the motor sports and other spectacles, given the unrelenting seller’s market dominating todays concert booking environment are better alternatives
The Iowa State Fair decided to go in the opposite direction, reaffirming its commitment to headline entertainment as part of its overall package by a comprehensive renovation of its grandstand. The overhaul included modernizing of concessionaires, restrooms and the stage in addition to expanding from 10,500 to 14,500 seats and improving sightlines throughout the venue.
“Some entertainers were passing on our offers because our stage was antiquated and smaller in size,” said Gary Slater. “There wasn’t enough room for a lot of the production by some acts with the level of audio and video and props and instruments. Upgrading by itself doesn’t work, we needed to improve the stage and add seats because of the rising costs of entertainment. That allowed us to amortize the costs of the project while attracting higher priced acts. We can now get those acts and not have to apologize for our production values or raise the cost of the ticket to the customer.”
A motivating factor has been the increase in festivals in the area as well as the Wells Fargo Bank Arena across town, a Live Nation venue. But instead of moving away from headline entertainment, the grandstand enhancement was done with the Iowa Fairgoer in mind and the fact that fair entertainment is a unique and viable entertainment in today’s concert going landscape. “We have a lot of competition, but people still appreciate the Iowa State Fair Grandstands. We needed to enlarge for the comfort of the customers, and they appreciated it.”
Construction on the grandstands continued throughout the summer, overcoming some weather delays and even a sheet metal worker strike. Concrete was still being poured two days before opening day, according to Slater, the new grandstands were ready.
The 11 shows at the fair were well attended, and they even had one sell out ;Thomas Rhett with special guest Danielle Bradbery (15,775). The other top selling shows were Reba McEntire with special guest Chase Bryant (14,102) and Florida Georgia Line with special guest Jillian Jacqueline (11,817).
But even with a bigger and better concert venue – and what is tantamount to a reliable followings for Iowa State Fair shows by both audience and performer – booking fair entertainment remains challenging with a persistent and apparently worsening sellers’ market. “This was my toughest year booking shows,” said Slater. Those difficulties included rising costs, intensive negations and delays in acts committing to dates. A fair – especially one with the prowess of the Iowa State Fair, emblematic of heartland USA – is competitive with amphitheaters and other venues, said Slater, “but we are putting out more offers and getting more turndowns. We are a tried and true concert venue, but it is has truly gotten more expensive.”
The improved and enlarged grandstands may have made the fair more competitive as a live-music stop, and enhanced profitability with the addition of more paid ticket seats, but another objective of the fair is to maintain affordable ticket prices, a prospect that has become more uncertain considering the worsening sellers’ market plaguing the fair industry.
Attendance at this year’s fair was 1,130,260 – an increase of 189 fairgoers compared to 2017. The main weather impediment was humidity, not precipitation. “We were hot to begin the fair, but only had a little rain,” he said.
While the fair is still examining data and crunching sales figures, spending at the fair showed increases over last year, indicative of a dramatic economic upswing. “All preliminary discussions with vendors indicate that sales were up,” said Slater. “The Iowa economy is booming.”
This resurgence is partly due to residual upticks from tax cuts and a very robust agricultural industry, a surprising development considering all the bluster surrounding the Trump Tariffs. “We don’t know how that will affect commodity prices next year, but for all the rumors of trade tariffs, the agricultural industry is doing very well, especially corn and the hog prices. It’s all good. We also are seeing construction across the metro area and large employers giving employees bonuses because of the tax cuts.”
Nothing Compares to the Iowa State Fair was this year’s marketing theme, with the Media mix coming in at: TV-32 percent, Radio 30 percent, Print 20 percent and Outdoor/Out of Home/Transit-15 percent with 3 percent online. The biggest shift in this mix was the addition of more social media advertising and streaming services.
In fact, the newest marketing program was Monday Moments, a live streaming show hosted by none other than Slater. Beginning on that unofficial start of the summer – Memorial Day – and leading up to the fair, the general manager held what was tantamount to a talk show about the fair with each episode focusing in an aspect of the fair, including its mascot, the butter cow, concerts, the new grandstands, and food contests etc. “We had different features, from new things for the fair to the tried and true traditional,” he said, adding that video shares for Monday Moments were upwards of 20,000.
This year was the second for the fair’s independent midway – and the first for the fair being a cashless midway. The fair splits up its midway into adult – Thrill Ville, with its own Thrill Zone, which had 22 rides and the kiddie section, aka Thrill Town, which has 17 rides. Midway ridership was up said Slater, who also pointed out that the transition to a cashless midway was likewise smooth, mainly due to the plentiful abundance of kiosks for transaction. “It’s second nature for this new generation of moms and dads to charge up their phones, they took to it instantly,” he said.
In addition, the separation between adult and kiddie rides was also a well received. “People continue to thank us for this,” he said. “Parents with younger children like not having to deal with the older kids and teenagers in the same lines. When they are in Thrill Town, they can ride every ride with their kids. That makes them very happy.”
The full midway revenue is still being accounted for, but Slater pointed out that they did achieve a one day record for credit redemption – in the cashless system, rides typically have an admission of 4-6 credits.
Top grossing rides in Thrill Town were the Wisdom Metro Maze (Raiders), Jungle Twist and Kiddie Bumper Boats. In Thrill Ville, the most popular rides were Crazy Mouse, Giant Wheel and Hang Glider. New rides included Majestic-Scooter; Zamperla-Rock N Tug; Prestion Barbieiei-Wave Swinger; a Lamberink 33-meter Giant Wheel; Wisdom-Raiders (re-themed to the Metro Maze), Fireball and Roundup.
Carnival companies contracting with the Iowa State Fair independent midway included: M&C Attractions, Luehrs’ Ideal Rides, Rio Cristiani, Sams Amusements & Carnivals, Top Scan, RDM Independent Rides, Mid American Carnival, Wood Ent Co, State Fair Spectaculars, SJ Entertainment, Kennys Funland, Lauther Amusements, and Lowery Carnival Company.
The fair featured about 200 food vendors, including three Iowa food vendors- Waffle Chix, Eat It’s Chicken City, and Jada Smith Concessions. Top sellers at the fair include Pork Belly on a Stick, Belly Up Burger and Apple Egg Rolls. “The Apple Egg Rolls were voted on by Fairgoers and selected as the Top New Food for 2018,” said Slater. “Early estimates are that they sold over 50,000 of them.”