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Thursday, August 30, 2007 11:07:41 AM

From today's Venues Today enewsletter

August 29, 2007 VOL. VI, Number XXVIII ISSN 1547-4143


“And they don’t fuss about that. Barack Obama got off his bus, bought his own ticket for him and his kids and wife, and walked through the gate. And John Edwards kind of did the same thing.” — Gary Slater, General Manager of the Iowa State Fair, on the presence of Presidential candidates on the heels of the Iowa Caucus.

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Investing $65 million in infrastructure in the past 10 years at the Iowa State Fair in upgrades that included adding air conditioning to some major buildings paid off when a heat wave resulted in just a minor attendance drop.

Attendance at the Aug. 9–19 event was 1,003,210, a one percent drop from last year, when the weather was much nicer, said general manager Gary Slater.

“The temperatures were in the low 90s, and the humidity was so high, it sent the heat indexes up into the low hundreds,” Slater said. “I’m sure that took a toll on attendance, and especially on food vendors.”

Whenever he had the chance in the media, Slater made sure to emphasize the number of air-conditioned buildings the fairgrounds has, and suggested that fairgoers rotate their time among indoor and outdoor activities. “I’m being truly honest when I say that, versus 10 years ago, we didn’t have any big, air-conditioned buildings that you could tell people they could go to,” he said.

That is because the fair, aided by the Iowa State Fair Ribbon Foundation, has put $65 million into upgrades that included air conditioning many buildings. In the case of the Varied Industry Building, it was enclosed, renovated and air conditioned, which gives the fairgrounds 120,000 square feet of comfortable space for events.

“Now it’s a heated and cooled building that we use every weekend all year round,” Slater said.

Jim Murphy’s Tampa-based Mighty Blue Grass Shows placed 41 rides on the midway, but Slater did not know if the carnival was up or down. However, he did note that when Illinois Sen. Barack Obama, one of several visiting Presidential candidates, stopped by, he rode the Big Ben drop ride with his two young children.

“I think he was the only one that did that on the midway, but he’s got the smallest kids,” Slater said.

In addition to Obama, other candidates taking advantage of the fair because of Iowa’s early caucus were Republicans Fred Thompson, Rudy Giuliani and John McCain, and Democrats Hillary Clinton and John Edwards, whose wife also attended a cancer survivor event at the fair.

The Des Moines Register offers a “hay bale” stump speech area for the candidates, each of whom gets 20 minutes to make remarks, Slater said. Other than that, the candidates pretty much just walk around and meet the public. When asked if the candidates pay their own way to the fair, Slater replied, “You bet, and all of their people with them.

“And they don’t fuss about that. Barack Obama got off his bus, bought his own ticket for him and his kids and wife, and walked through the gate. And John Edwards kind of did the same thing.”

No musical acts sold out the 10,500-seat grandstand, but several did well, Slater said. Drawing the best crowd was Christian group Casting Crowns with Tree63, selling more than 9,000 seats, Slater said. Joe Walsh, Alice Cooper with Blue Oyster Cult, Gary Allan, a rock ‘n’ roll review featuring Little Anthony, Percy Sledge and Gary “U.S.” Bonds, and the “American Idol” tour featuring the top 10 contestants from the most recent installation, all did well, drawing in the 5,000 range, Slater said.

Concert tickets ranged from $25 to a high of $42 for the “American Idol” show, and that does not include admission, Slater said. The budget for the artist guarantees was $990,000 and Slater expects to at least break even.

The fair’s Web site featured audio clips of each artist, so a customer could double click on that act’s photograph and hear a snippet of music, Slater said.

The marketing budget remained similar to last year’s at about $500,000, Slater said, but the effort was streamlined. More was done statewide, more was done in print with bigger ads, and the television advertising was very targeted to appear only during the local news.

“Traditionally, ratings in the summertime are the lowest all year long so we just used TV news spots,” Slater said.

Sponsorships were up 10 percent to $800,000, Slater said. The budget for the entire fair was $14.5 million, he added.

A carnival megapass cost $25 in advance and could be used any day, all day long. Pay-one-price wristbands also were available on the grounds for $22, but were only good until 5 p.m. Otherwise, coupons cost $1 and most rides required three to six coupons.

Adult gate admission is $10 or $6 in advance, and Slater noted that advance tickets are very popular. “They’re a huge promotion,” he said. “We probably sell more than 50 percent of paid admissions in advance of the fair.”

Next year’s dates will be Aug. 7–17. – Mary Wade Burnside

Interviewed for this story: Gary Slater, (515) 262-3111.
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