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1 Million Attendees: Wisconsin State Fair Returns to Pre-COVID Stature
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The 171st Wisconsin State Fair shook off the COVID doldrums by rejoining the 1 million club – that rarified collection of two-dozen —  give-or-take-depending-on-the-year  --  fairs attracting in excess of 1 million attendees. An iconic event in a state emblematic of the heartland and America's dairy industry, the fair had experienced a steady growth trajectory by sustaining its membership status in the 1 million club throughout most of the previous decade.

Then came COVID and the myriad of economic and social disruptions that are still being felt. During the 2020 lockdown, the Wisconsin State Fair kept the spirit of the event alive in the hearts and minds of its quarantined community with Wisconsin State Fair Necessities, an innovative hybrid of online programming and an onsite Drive-Thru fair food event, spotlighting of course the fair's signature cream puff.  The comeback year, 2021, restored the fair in all ways, except its million attendee club membership was revoked.

Last year,  an oppressive heatwave and severe thunderstorms ruined seven out of the 11-day run, causing attendance to plummet to 841,074. This year, Mother Nature was more cooperative and the annual celebration of everything Cheese State attracted 1,003,450, a 19 percent increase over 2021 and a triumphant renewal of its million attendee club membership.

First Fair

“After 171 years, the Wisconsin State Fair remains a time-honored tradition for our community and state,” said Shari Black, chief executive officer and executive director of Wisconsin State Fair Park. “The noteworthy attendance of the Wisconsin State Fair is proof that fairs continue to be a mainstay in Wisconsin summers. With another phenomenal State Fair in the books, together as a staff, we look forward to 2023.”

Weather was generally Midwestern ideal summer weather and it turned out the weather that was threatened but never materialized caused more problems than any actual downpour. “We had good weather for the 2022 State Fair,” said Tess A. Kerksen, Director of Public Relations, Wisconsin State Fair Park. “The Wisconsin State Fair is 11 days long, so of course you are going to run into some inclement weather - for us it was a forecasted flood that never came to fruition in the beginning of the fair run. “

For Black, 2022 was her first fair as at the helm after serving as an interim fair manager.  A professional with deep roots in the fair industry, she first joined the State Fair Park team in 2016 and prior to the interim position, she held the key spot of Chief Programming Officer, an executive leadership position overseeing Spin City, the fair's independent midway. But she actually started far earlier and far away from Fair Park as a young girl exhibiting livestock at the Waukesha County Fair, a fair where she eventually worked for  nearly 20 years, including 15 years as Executive Director.

As ringleader of this quintessential Americana event, she credits most her team for navigating through the COVID crisis and restoring its turnout.  “I am proud of our team for pulling together and having a fantastic fair.” Black said. “I can tell you I have had 24 fairs as an employee. That's between Waukesha and State Fair. This was by far the smoothest fair I've ever been a part of. That just speaks to our team and working together.

She added, “We always have various challenges arise but nothing that we haven't or couldn't handle.”

Revenue Up

Revenue was also up, another indicator that consumer confidence levels experienced in 2021 have continued into this year. Black was unable to speak yet to the extent of the spending uptick, but her first fair restored the financial wellbeing of the event. “It is too soon to tell. I can tell you we are finding the profitability to be high,” she said. “We're still working through some of those numbers, but we know that it was a profitable fair.”

The heart of the fair, its independent midway – SpinCity – according to an official press release – “with record-breaking thrills at the State Fair from fan-favorite games and rides in SpinCity to the Wonder Fair Wheel - more rides were provided than ever before.” (Spin City presented 48 rides in 2019).

What the 2022 Wisconsin State Fair firmly reestablished was its reputation as an entertainment destination. “We had some fantastic shows on the State Fair Main Stage, presented by Potawatomi Hotel & Casino,” said Kerksen.  The biggest draws were for Charlie Berens, Jeff Dunham, and Nelly with Ginuwine.

The fair also continued its ongoing Bank Five Nine Amphitheater, the largest free entertainment venue at the Wisconsin State Fair. “We work diligently to build lasting partnerships like the one we have with Bank Five Nine,” said Jen Puente, Chief Marketing Officer. Wisconsin State Fair Park. “This brand alliance has been truly enriching in providing a platform for Bank Five Nine to further serve the community and connect with our fairgoers.”

The Bank Five Nine Amphitheater  showcases local, regional, and national headliners. The 2022  lineup ranged from The Boy Band Night and  Too Hype Crew to the Milwaukee Bucks official DJ, DJ Shawna and the ever-green Herman's Hermits starring Peter Noone.   “Bank Five Nine is proud to support the Wisconsin State Fair, as our two organizations are deeply committed to supporting Wisconsin businesses and families,” said Jeff McCarthy, VP, Marketing Director of Bank Five Nine.

Something For Everyone

With the attendance increase came an increase in appetites. The Wisconsin Bakers Association served 320,000 Original Cream Puffs – barely 300,000 were reported sold in 2021.  Another fair staple – corn-on-the cob – sold more than 100,000 ears of corn. Sporkies, the Wisconsin State Fair food competition, continues to grow in popularity. Gertrude's Pretzels served nearly 13,000 Peño Pretzel Popper Brats as the first place Sporkies winner at this year's fair.

“In 2022, there were 133 food and beverage vendors, some with several locations,” said Kerksen “Our Sporkies food competition is always motivation to keep innovating with new food items.”

With the return of a full fair this year, marketing the event required a tagline that invoked both the diversity and array of entertainment while directly appealing to the fairgoers desire to “own” their fair. Kerksen and the marketing team developed the tagline “Something for Everyone” as a welcoming invitation to a fair that has returned to form. “It is something that we want to live up to each and every fair – making sure we offer something for everyone,” said Kerksen.

The fair also reached out to Gen-Z with a heavy emphasis on TikTok. “In 2022, we really leaned into using TikTok as a great platform to get or message across. In addition to that, we did a deep dive into our brand voice this year and it really paid off in creating a comprehensive and cohesive communications strategy.”
Chris Walden & Tom Atkins oversee the Spin City Midway at the Wisconsin State Fair
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