The Nebraska State Fair had the kind of record a first time fair manager would prefer not to accomplish – record rainfall. An estimated 5.74 inches in 14 days, preceding and including the fair. The severe precipitation – heavy at times, intermittent other days – thoroughly soaked the fairgrounds, raising the water level. Final attendance and revenue, unavailable at press time, will not be released until September 21st, but expectations are realistic.
“We’re going to take a hit on attendance as well as revenue,” said Lori Cox, who became Executive Director of the Nebraska State Fair in April. “We had a lot of rain. It was very tough on our vendors and concessionaires.”
In 2017 fair attendance reached 379,108, which has been about the range of the typical Nebraska State Fair, although still approximately 10,000 less than the record of 389,171.
Venues Wet & Dry
Perhaps the most dramatic evidence of the impact of the deluge was in the headline entertainment at the fair. Concerts are held on an outdoor track, which has a capacity upwards of 13,000. Two separate concerts – the major entertainment for the 2018 — Kelly Clarkson and Sugarland were affected. The amount of rain “so dominated the surface of the track that it was unsafe,” said Cox. “Our production crew said stage was sliding right of the track.”
With the only other option cancelling the shows entirely and refunding tickets, the fair decided to move the concert into the enclosed Heartland Event Center. Unfortunately this venue only has a 7,500-seat capacity. The good news that less than 5,000 tickets were sold for the each of the acts so switching venues was relatively easy. The bad news of course was that ticket revenue plummeted by approximately half. “It was a bittersweet pill to swallow,” said Cox.
The “water issue” also impacted other events. On one Friday 2-inches of rain fell, flooding out the track, prohibiting a tractor pull, demolition derby and other events.
The downsizing to stay dry and avoid a concert cancellation brought to the forefront other financial issues related to separate ticketed grandstand events at the fair. Like many fairs, the Nebraska State Fair has been hit hard by the competition and the unrelenting seller’s market in entertainment. In addition, the drawing power of national known acts has become increasingly questionable.
While Cox would not go into detail, she said that fair stakeholders are reevaluating the role ticketed entertainment will play in 2019. “We will be rolling out an entirely new business model,” she promised, adding “the concerts have a very big overhead.”
Livestock Bright Spot
A highlight of the fair was the livestock auctions and other livestock events, such as the Cattle Dog drive, which were held in the enclosed stadium. “Hands down, it was one of the most incredible fairs, the stands were filled. We had full barns this year, It was a really our number one activity.”
Cox added that equine events were filled to capacity, such as the first Dash for Cash Barrel Bash Race & Rodeo. “It was huge, all the feedback we got was great.’
The silver lining of a positive livestock component of the fair was not just in the dark clouds of the rainy fair, but in a depressed Agriculture industry in Nebraska,. “There’s no question we are in an agriculture recession. A lot of the industry is having a tough time, Dairy has taken a hit. We lost some sponsors this year because of the troubles in the industry. For examples, a lot of crops were hailed out in August. Farmers and ranchers are having a very tough time this fair.”
Even before the deluge, the Nebraska State Fair went on an austerity kick. “We budgeted very conservatively this year. Our team really worked together to lower expenses on many line items.”
Fair Flag Freak
The one budget category saved from the knife was advertising and marketing, which increased 25 percent. The fair implemented what Cox called a permanent tagline – “Let Your Fair Flag Fly’ – a counterculture slogan (back in the day, it was the Freak flag today’s retirees flew) Baby Boomers fondly recall but has also found a retro popularity among millennials.
The media mix saw a dramatic increase in social media, to about 24 percent – with the heavy emphasis on music, radio took a lion’s share of about 50 percent. The remainder went to outdoor and guerrilla marketing, which included a relatively new medium of Pump Toppers, where ads were wrapped on gas pumps and gas stations, and other outdoor advertising include wrapping buses. The fair expanded its reach by increasing its advertising scope in urban areas such as Omaha and Lincoln. The escalation in awareness in these outlying areas was undermined by the weather – even the days that were not a downpour, bad weather was forecasted and even if it didn’t arrive, gloomy weather reports caused would-be fairgoers to decide not to take the drive to the fair.
The midway was provided by Wade Shows, and experienced some closures. Cox praised the professionalism of the company during some trying fair times. “Their ability to respond to our predicament for all the water was very impressive. We had so much water under the Sky-Tram that it was threatening, but they put in some temporary mobile systems. They had a very a tough go and mechanical issues. The midway here like all fairs is a very critical component, and Gary Zaitishik did a great job.”
“We had a lot of weather challenges in Nebraska,” said Frank Zaitishik. “One storm at 3 AM, we lost our Office top, but we were able to replace it by our next fair. We sustained damage in some of our concessions, people were really getting hammered. But I think we were fairly lucky. Fortunately the midway is on asphalt, so we didn’t have flooding . We had some challenges with the move out, we had to use forklifts.”
Compounding the weather-related problems, Zaitishik said that prior to the fair, one “we lost one of our major distribution partners which hurt our presales and that had as much impact as the weather.”
Rain of biblical proportions may have negatively impacted Cox’s inaugural fair, but it did little dampen her enthusiasm for the celebration of everything Nebraska. “I love this fair. There are so many growth opportunities that we have nowhere to go but up. Our team has gelled, we learned a lot. Nothing like a test like this year to put is in a better place for the future.’
She added, “Bring on 2019!”