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2021 Top-50 Fairs: Pandemic Shakes Up Industry Rankings as Fairs Recommit to Communities

Arizona State Fair posts record attendance in 2021
Fair attendance was up 25% over previous years. Photo by Christian Vega.

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Last year was a reversal compared to 2020. When COVID first hit, like other sectors of the economy, the fair industry went on lockdown. About 90 percent of the fairs – including the vast majority of fairs that usually rank among the Top 50 Fairs of North America, as ranked by attendance on the annual list compiled by Carnival Warehouse –were canceled.

But 2021 saw a reversal of that cancel culture, with an estimated 10 percent of fairs cancelled. Finally, the midway was back in town and fairgoers flocked back to the annual tradition – but did they flock in record numbers? In general, attendance showed a softening compared to 2019, a robust year for the industry with many fairs reporting attendance increases, including six fairs achieving record attendance.

With a few glaring exceptions, such as The Great New York State Fair and the Calgary Stampede, both of which had restrictions which saw declines high into the double digits, most declines seemed to hover in the range of 10 percent. Even so, many fairs experienced record or near-record setting days and revenue in many cases broke all time highs.  Some speculate that those that stayed home were the senior part of the fairgoer crowd, causing slight attendance declines without impacting spending.

Reshuffling Rankings

In terms of the actual rankings, the top spots saw a reshuffle due not to sharp attendance declines, but cancellation of major events – San Antonio Stock Show & Rodeo; Houston Livestock Show & Rodeo; and Canadian National Exhibition – all of which saw steep attendance increases pre-pandemic. Their exclusion likely accounts for new entries into the top five fairs, such as Eastern States Exposition moving up to #3 from #5 and  Arizona State Fair moving to #2 from #11.

Holding on to the #1 spot was the State Fair of Texas, despite sustaining a 12.7 percent drop in attendance, but still attracted 2,202,689, one of the largest gatherings – albeit spread out across 24 days– of any kind in North America last year.

“While we weren't quite sure what to anticipate for attendance, the fact that more than 2.2 million people came out to safely celebrate our 135th anniversary with us absolutely blew our expectations out of the water,” said Karissa Condoianis, spokesman, State Fair of Texas. “We know that not everyone was able to, or felt comfortable, returning to the fair this year due to the ongoing pandemic. After more than 700 days without the State Fair of Texas, the opportunity to come together safely again this year was the celebratory reunion we all longed for, and finally rejoiced in, for 24 fun-filled Fair days.”

Throughout this ongoing crisis, resilient has been an apt descriptor for fairs who weathered the lockdown, and then the reopening. Most fairgrounds not only cancelled their annual fairs, but most of the other events and rentals that create their yearly revenue stream.  Furloughs and layoffs, as with so many industries, were the rule, not the exception.

With often a skeletal staff, fairs went into all hands on deck mode, with many managers performing duties that are normally delegated to staff.  Fairs are an essential part of many communities, a fact reinforced as many facilities were utilized for testing and vaccination centers. While the IRL fair was postponed until 2021, most organizations implemented virtual and drive-thru events – fairgoers may not have had the rides, but they were able to eat their favorite cuisine – which both enabled youth programming to continue in some form and the opportunity to remind followers that fairs would be back.

Regional Variables

Keeping the fair relevant to the community during the chaotic and uncertain 2020 seems to have resulted in residual benefits come 2021. The Wisconsin State Fair had an attendance decline of 25.6 percent, reaching an impressive 841,074, yet halting this iconic Midwestern event's 7-year streak of attendance exceeding one million. But in the COVID-suppressed event environment, the fair went from #15 in 2019 to #10 in 2021, indicating at least that lockdown efforts did keep the brand alive in the hearts and minds of the community.

“The 2020 State Fair Necessities program, which included the Fair Food Drive Thru really showed us the intense loyalty our Fairgoers have for the Wisconsin State Fair,” said Jen Puente, Chief Marketing Officer, Wisconsin State Fair. “We could not be more grateful for the opportunity to host the fair in  2021.”

The pandemic has changed nearly every aspect of our lives, and perhaps analyzing fair industry trends is no exception. Jerry Hammer, General Manager of the Minnesota State Fair is not alone among his colleagues who question getting caught up in the numbers game, always being pressured to beat last year's numbers. The Great Minnesota Get Together had an even steeper decline that its Midwestern neighbor – 38.8 percent, down to 1,301,584, and pushed the fair out of the top three  – although #4 out of 50 isn't shabby – for the first time in recent memory.

COVID or not, Hammer is realistic. He has shepherded this iconic, time-honored event into six consecutive record breaking years, pandemic or not “We were on a trajectory that couldn't be sustained,” said Hammer. “Compared to last year, we up infinity percent.”

Of course, it's preferable to be open with lower attendance than not to be open at all. In analyzing the shifting in rank among most of fairs, one must also look at the course of the virus. Even as the vaccination rolled across the country, new outbreaks and spikes occurred. Minnesota – which like the rest of the country, particularly the Midwest, experienced an uptick of COVID cases in the months of July and August. “There were regional factors, and I think fairs before July or after October did better. It also mattered where you were in the region. Attendance was down at the big fairs, but they tend to be urban fairs. Some of the county fairs had some of their best years ever.”



Community Relevance

The bottom line is that for 2021, fairs were about resiliency, more than just attendance figures. That ability was surely tested in many ways – most fairs planned to open in 2021, but if, when and how was not up to them, but local officials, many of whom waited until the last possible moment to give the anticipated greenlight. Hammer said his fair had barely two months to plan due to state officials delaying decisions, a frustrating but common scenario.

“We never actually had a “green light,” said Eugene J. Cassidy, President/CEO, Eastern States Expo. “We simply pressed forward, trying to influence our own outcomes. The two year delay was a curse not a blessing. All of our plans for 2020 were dashed, and while we were able to carry-forward a fair amount of our entertainment, the insecurity as we approached 2021 caused tremendous stress. Nothing was easy.”

Crowds gather at the Calgary Stampede - photo by Scooter Korek

The Calgary Stampede – one of only a handful of large Canadian Fairs to be held in 2021 – had to contend with strict capacity and other protocols – as well as severe travel restrictions – that negatively impacted attendance, dropping 58.5 percent to 528,998, pushing this major North American event from #10 in 2019 to #19 in 2021. “Stampede 2021 was quite a ride and we are so thankful to our community for riding with us,” said Kristina Barnes, communications manager. “Our measure of success for 2021 was in smiles and laughter and in great memories made with family and friends. Success was also local businesses getting a much-needed boost, and our economy a kick start. Our community celebration was the first step in the safe return to live events for our city – and our country.”

Downs & Ups

The Great New York State Fair, which had a record year in 2019, reaching #9, was able to reach  #14 this year, suffering a 39.9 percent attendance decrease due to heavy NY governmental restrictions. After a one year 18-day run experiment,  the state's new Governor announced the fair would return to its 13-day run in 2022.

Mere numbers were only the statistical chapter of the story. “The most important thing is that we got it opened, and we opened safely and it was not a super-spreader event and guests had a good time,” said Troy Waffner, Fair Director.

Arizona State Fair Midway - photo by Christian Vega

The Arizona State Fair was one of the largest fairs that achieved the anomalous in 2021, racking up a record year with an attendance jump of 25.9 percent over 2019, reaching 1,589,951, an achievement surprising even fair management.  “With the pandemic changing our entertainment and spending habits, we were modest in our expectations,” said Brianda Martinez, spokesman. “We were surprised our attendance and revenue records were exceeded, and grateful for our marketing team and their efforts. With challenges like reduced staff and compressed timeframe, we managed a successful year.”

This year, looking at the lower portion of the list is likewise instructive on how fair metrics need to be redefined. In 2019, #50 was the Kansas State Fair, with 337,400. This year, the same fair was #44 but with 281,000. Coming in at #50 in 2021 was Eastern Idaho State Fair, which attracted 249,892 – an increase of 1.2 percent. Because of shakeups and fallouts, the fair never or very rarely made the Carnival Warehouse Top-50 before, the same being true for the Allentown Fair #48 and the Clay County Fair #45.

But the amazing newcomer was Frontier Days in Cheyenne, Wyoming, which had an attendance of 267,369, making its first Top-50 appearance at #47. This represented an astounding increase of 121.9 percent, most likely the highest attendance increase of any pandemic fair. In a season of comebacks against all, why did this western fair see such a surge?

The fair was celebrating its 125th anniversary, and booked a star-stellar lineup for its night shows that included Blake Shelton and Garth Brooks. More tellingly, this July fair is the first PRCA Rodeo event of the year, which had a truncated season due to cancellations of the Winter/Spring competitions on the annual circuit. “The biggest reason for our increase was that we were the first rodeo out of the chute,” said Brad Westby, Chairman. “That drew a lot of interest. Plus, people really wanted to get and do things and they had the stimulus money to spend. We didn't realize we were up 121 percent until after the fair. But our folks were ready for the crowds and people were excited to be here.”


VIEW THE 2021 TOP 50 FAIRS

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