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2019 Top 50 Fairs: Larger Fairs Rediscover Community

Minnesota State Fair

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Not only did six of the largest fairs in North America experience record attendance in 2019, but more than half of the top-50 fairs in North America saw attendance increases over last year.  Tens of millions went to the largest fairs in 2019 – and when one considers that the plethora of county, regional and local fairs that not only attract thousands and are crucial components of communities across the continent – the fair segment of the outdoor event industry had a particularly robust year.

By all accounts, fairs have become effective in straddling that often delicate balance between sustaining the traditions associated with the fair and developing programs, exhibits, attractions and entertainment that will appeal to contemporary audiences and changing demographics.

Texas Draw

The major development among the top fairs was a switch among the most attended fairs between first and second place.  It's been a Texas fight to the finish and for the first time in at least five years, The State Fair of  Texas pushed The Houston Livestock Show & Rodeo out of the first place slot. If the saying second place always tries harder is true that means in 2019, trying harder finally paid off for the Texas State Fair, which increased its attendance a whopping 22.7 percent over 2018.

Granted, the race may be nothing more than boasting rights – attendance at both Lone Star State events typically exceed 2.5 million and only a relatively small number separates the fairs (8,374 in 2019) each year. Still, the State Fair of Texas has made a determined effort – and had some weather breaks in 2019 – to continue its relevancy to the community it serves.

When informed his fair was the 2019 # 1, Mitchell Glieber, President, State Fair of Texas, pointed out that the State Fair of Texas has been a top attraction in the Lone Star State since its beginning in 1886 and that weather is a “determining factor for any outdoor event or festival, the 2018 State Fair of Texas experienced 12 days of rain during our 24-day event, which had an impact on overall attendance that year.”

However, he emphasized that better weather was not “the only reason for the success of the 2019 State Fair, but it's hard to pinpoint one thing that lead to the increase in attendance. We have an incredibly talented team that strives to put on the very best event each year. Adding to our annual offering of more than 100 free attractions, 70 Midway rides, countless options for tasty and unique food, the Texas Auto Show, and endless activities across the fairgrounds every day, the State Fair of Texas had several new attractions lined up for the 2019 event. We seek to have plenty of options to not only extend our fairgoers' stay, but also to hopefully bring them back to the Fair more than once during our 24-day run.”

The Houston Livestock Show & Rodeo also showed an increase over 2018 and it seems that the current second place holder did try harder – for example, big stars like George Strait and Cardi B – drew in the crowds, also proving that big name headliners still like the fair stage. But for Joel Cowley, president/CEO Houston Livestock Show and Rodeo, the measure of success is all about community. “We keep this a very community event. We have more than 35,000 volunteers. We maintain our tradition of rodeo, but we draw new people in a community and raise money for education. We have a major economic impact on our city, but it's something everyone takes a lot of civic pride in.”

Agricultural Support

After grabbing the #3 slot on the list in 2018 – edging out the San Antonio Stock Show & Rodeo, The Minnesota State Fair continued its winning streak with back-to-back record-breaking attendance numbers. It should be noted among the top four fairs, the Minnesota State Fair is the shortest, 12 days, about half the length of its upper echelon peers. “The irony is we're not trying for growth,” said Jerry Hammer, Executive Vice President & General Manager of the Minnesota State Fair.  “We create a powerful experience for people built on the framework of a traditional American agricultural fair. You make people comfortable, give them value, make it affordable and give them more they can do in one day.”

The Minnesota State Fair is officially the highest attended traditional American Agricultural fair on the continent. But as such, there's an irony in their robust standing because between tariffs and crop damaging weather, American farmers had a downbeat year in 2019, yet it seemed the best way to evade the gloom and doom was to participate in the annual tradition, which may have also added an extra boost to the Minnesota attendance.  “Farmers are being clobbered,” Hammer said, “The weather is getting a lot of the crops, and the tariffs are killing some of them. But what I also heard this year, that we really need this fair. Coming to the fair  helps them through the rough times. Farm families have been coming to the fair for generations.”

Government Support

Perhaps the most basic objective for a fair is to maintain its core following while also building and expanding that following. In 2018, the Great New York State Fair cracked the top 10 with a record attendance, and this year aided by ideal late summer weather, the fair had another record breaking year, increasing attendance by 3.9 percent for its third record breaking year in a row.
The lesson for other states is that financial support of its fairs pays off in dividends. New York government has invested $120 million in infrastructure, which includes a 136,000-square-foot Exposition Center, a new Main Gate, a full-service RV park, an enlarged midway with heavy-duty pavement, renovations to major exhibits areas including the famed Indian Village, and a $27 million renovation of a 65-acre parking lot, the fair's largest.

But the lesson for fair organizes may be that knowing thy business means knowing thy customers. As the state funded infrastructure and marketing support – previous governments in the name of austerity basically neglected the state's fairs – the fair itself changed programming, marketing, and outreach. “Seven, eight years ago, we were happy to draw 900, 000,” said Troy Waffner, Fair Director. “The challenge is for a fair, how to do you grow? You can't be afraid of change, but change can be your biggest friend, and your biggest foe. We've focused hard on the visitor experience, making sure to add more seating every year and to keep the grounds clean. We've surveyed our customers to find out what they want at the fair, what they liked and didn't like, and we listened. We looked at our programming from top to bottom. We diversified our acts, brought in more national acts, diversified and expanded our food & beverage. We did outreach to groups all across the state. We offered a Pride Day for LGBT groups; we reached out to Latino, Asian, and other ethnic groups. This is New York, we're diverse. We want to draw in everybody. We looked at all our fairgoers to find who we are attracting and who we need to attract.”

This fairgoer-centric approach to the 2019 fair was shared by the Empire State's other large fair – the Erie County Fair, with a record-breaking attendance of 1,238,456, moving this fair up a notch into the #12 slot, which included a three record ridership days for the Strates Shows midway, celebrating its 95th year with the fair in 2019.

“People love the outdoor fair experience,” said Jessica Underberg, Chief Executive Officer & Fair Manager, Erie county Fair. “When I talk to people, especially those who come back multiple times, it's about the guest experience. They come here and have a good time, they become a fair person. That's more important to me attendance numbers.”

Marketing Trends

Some other trends ascertainable by analyzing the 2019 Top 50 Fairs are a marketing shift towards digital.  This trend may no longer surprise, but a deeper look into the specifics of some fairs 2019 marketing strategies indicate at the very least, the shift is includes an upgrade in social media content.

The Wisconsin State Fair had an increase of 8.9 percent over 2018, and its 2019 edition marked the seventh Wisconsin State Fair to consecutively break the 1 million attendee milestone. Kristi Chuckel, Communications Director, Wisconsin State Fair Park, attributes the sustained growth to a more focused marketing campaign, now driven by social media. “We spent significantly more money on social media advertising in 2019 and used it for targeted campaigns as well as general awareness campaigns,” she said. “We also used social media as a staff recruitment tool for our seasonal employees and increased promotion of our Ag Programs to the general public.”

The Miami-Dade County Youth Fair increased 20.9 percent in attendance over 2018, moving up to the 34 from 36 on the Carnival Warehouse rankings. At least some of the jump can be attributed to a more focused, social media-centric marketing campaign implemented for the 2019 event. “The theme for the 2019 Fair was value, promoting affordable ways for a family to attend and enjoy their community tradition,” said Claudia Hernandez, Director of Marketing & Entertainment. “We did some adjustments to the media mix breakdown in 2019. Radio, Digital & Outdoor increased whereas Broadcast/Cable & Print decreased. We did more stories on Instagram We continued to buy promoted posts on Facebook & Instagram; we continued doing contests to create excitement about the Youth Fair and engage people on our social media platforms.”

 Even with the greater shift towards digitized marketing, old-fashioned content still framed the fair messaging last year. “The theme for the 2019 Fair was value, promoting affordable ways for a family to attend and enjoy their community tradition,” added Hernandez.    

Entertainment Issues

One of the most contentious discussions among fairs has been about ticketed entertainment. Citing high costs, undependable drawing power and rampant talent buying competition by festivals, casinos and other venues, many fairs have cutback or eliminated concerts from their grandstand entertainment lineups. But two 2019 fairs with significant leaps in attendance might offer a counter argument to this trend.

The York Fair doubled down on its entertainment lineup, with its opening day featuring Brad Paisley, the first time the fair's opening had a ticked concert. While the fair's shows had no sell outs, according to Bryan Blair, CEO, York Fair, they all made money. “I think it is most notable that we paid for all six of our nationally recognized concerts on the Bobcat of York Grandstand Stage with ticket sales. I've always believed that if you bring acts to the Fair that the public wants to see they will buy tickets and we proved that theory with a very solid concert lineup that covered multiple genres of music.”

The Georgia National Fair,  had a 13.9 percent increase over 2018 and attracted 565,533, a record attendance for the event. This fair implemented one of the most radical changes only attempted by a handful of the top 50 fairs – book national names, but offer them free of charge to the public. The 2019 Georgia National Fair was celebrating its 30th anniversary and the free concerts were ostensibly as a fairgoer appreciation gesture, but with such a bounce in turnout going back to ticketed is still under discussion.

“All of our concerts this year were free of charge,” said Keaton G. Walker, Chief Marketing & Business Development Officer. “We gave our guests More than $750,000 of entertainment with admission, in conjunction with all the entertainment. We have tentative plans to keep it free, but we really wanted to offer a thank you to the community.”

Walker did recognize however that the move to free shows was also a result of the complicated talent buying market, the diminishing roster of typical fair entertainers and the undependability of the drawing power of available stars. “It was a not a key factor but every year it's a challenge to book who you want for the price you can pay,” she said. “It often depends on the person and the routing. I think we had as good a lineup this year. We work with a company who does a really good job and many artists recognize the Georgia National Fair name and like to play here.”

Whether its improving social media outreach or realigning your entertainment to be more conducive to your audience, the top fairs in North America  regardless of size, are listening more to their communities. Case-in-point, the Evergreen State Fair which moved up to #49 – last year, it just edged onto the list at #50 – saw a record year in 2019, attributable to new areas within the fair that emphasized locally grown food and other artisanal products as well as community-oriented revamped marketing campaign. “We had two records breaking days and an overall record breaking year,” said Jeremy Husby, Fair Manager. “Fairs are a way to engage your community Fairs are also a way to discover you community, and that really enhanced who we are. I feel good about what we achieved this year and now we have a lot more to achieve.”

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