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2022 Top 50 Fairs: More Record Days than Record Fairs Restores Industry
Carnival Warehouse Announces the Top 50 Attended Fairs in 2022
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The 2022 South Florida Fair Makes the List at Number 50
The fair, up 5.5% over 2021, rounded out the bottom of the 2022 Top 50 Fairs list, based on attendance. Photo courtesy of the South Florida Fair.

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Judging on the basis of the annual Top 50 Fairs, as compiled by Carnival Warehouse, 2022 saw a remarkable rebound for the fair industry. This yearly quantification looks at the highest attended fairs of the year and for the time since 2019, California and Canada fairs are back on the list, pushing some fairs further down than their 2021 standing, which caused some havoc with industry statisticians.

Overall, the industry had a very strong year. If 2021 was a recovery year, 2022 was a restoration. Hundreds of thousands, if not millions, more people attended the largest fairs in North America in 2022 than they did in 2021.

Higher Bottom

As a somewhat sideways piece of evidence, look at the bottom of the list – #50 – in 2021 the smallest of the big fairs was Eastern Idaho State Fair, with  249,892, in 2022 the caboose slot was filled by the South Florida Fair, (335,579), when a prerequisite to make the lowest tier grows by 85,687 in one year, it's an indicator of the special place fairs hold in the cultural landscape of a community . 

Like many fair managers, Victoria A. Chouris, President/CEO of the South Florida Fair & Palm Beach County Expositions, was taking advantage of the increased news coverage this year, but this celebrity experience actually revealed a sentiment common among fairgoers this year.

“Every year I talk to fairgoers about the fair, but this year I was getting stopped by fairgoers who recognize me from the news. They were going out of their way to thank me for holding the fair again. They would tell me how they have been coming to the fair since they were kids. I could really feel how much meaning the fair has for the community. They're why we do the work we do.”      

At the top of the list, the State Fair of Texas was #1, hitting 2,547,289, a 15.64 percent jump over 2021.  To stay at the top, the fair found a way to move forward with a re-emphasis on community relevance. “This year, we added several new shows, additional rodeo performances, and brought back fairgoer favorites,” said Karissa Condoianis, Senior Vice President, Public Relations, State Fair of Texas. “While the 2021 State Fair of Texas was still celebrated by millions of people, we were emerging from the cancellation of the 2020 fair. This year's fair brought a degree of normalcy, reminiscent of pre-pandemic times, back to our community. This incorporates many facets of our organization, including both our entertainment and food lineup. By diversifying what live music, shows, and attractions we offer, in addition to the continued creativity of our food and beverage vendors, we are fulfilling our goal of providing a place where all Texans can find something for themselves, and in turn, we strengthen our fair.”

State Fair of Texas, photo by Steve Hinz

New Energy

While hard to qualify, some interesting peculiarities, could be found elsewhere in the listings that might reveal other pandemic era changes. The Calgary Stampede was one of the few fairs to be held in Canada, but under such severe COVID restrictions that it was #19 with 528,998.  This year, the event galloped to #9 with 1,216,859, a whopping 130.03 percent increase, restoring the event to its pre-pandemic glory, not just in the annual pantheon fairs, but in the hearts and minds of stampeders. 

“The 2022 Stampede was, in many ways, the best ever,” said Kristen Anderson, Communications & Media Relations Manager, Calgary Stampede. “The energy and enthusiasm could be felt across the city, and we know our tourism industry partners enjoyed a tremendous boost from Calgary's annual celebration. The measure of success in 2021 wasn't in the attendance numbers, but how many people enjoyed their experiences after a tough 16 months. This year's Stampede was about moving forward and returning to a “more traditional” Stampede, filled with all of the celebrations of western heritage and cultures that people know and love.”

Of the top 50 fairs, only 18 recorded declines in attendance. Also, only two fairs had a record year, the debut of the newly conjoined Wilson County Fair / Tennessee State Fair (#23) and the Illinois State Fair (#25).  In 2019, five record attendances were achieved and in 2021, four, but many fairs saw record days of attendance – and a few fairs were on target for record breaking years.

Jerry Hammer, Manager of the Minnesota State Fair, was one of the pre-pandemic record-breakers but whose attendance figures, while not plummeting, still fall short.  “You can't plan a record-breaking fair. I knew the 2019 numbers are unsustainable. I am perfectly fine with our income and revenue this year.”

More Normal Year

This year, as people returned to the fair, the work environment was noticeably less stressful. If 2020 and 2021 were trials by fire, 2022 saw the resiliency of the industry return to more predictable business patterns. 

“Things seemed to come together easier this year, and it seemed to be a more normal year,” said Gary Slater, CEO, Iowa State Fair “We had one evening with severe weather and heavy rains, but people stayed in the buildings and came back out after the rain to enjoy the Fair and the concert that night. The 2022 Fair felt more normal, or getting back to normal, compared to the hesitation and anticipation for 2021.”

“Last year felt muted,” agreed Hammer.  “People were treading lightly heading up to and during the fair [this year]. People were realizing that COVID beat the hell out of us but we got through. I was constantly hearing that from people, that they were so glad to be back in their happy place. People that didn't come last year came this year and while this is totally anecdotal, more people were visiting multiple times this year more so than last.”

Minnesota retained its #3 spot, after the #1 Texas State Fair, and #2 – the 2,417,248 - Houston Livestock Show and Rodeo. “We did not have any record days in 2021 although several days in 2022 were among our top 10 in attendance all-time,” said Chris Boleman, Houston Livestock Show and Rodeo president/CEO. “Preliminary numbers show that per cap spending proved that fans spent more time on the grounds enjoying activities and events that they have not seen in two years. As a staff, we were not focused on records, but much more on hosting a successful and full event.”

The 2021 fair industry, coming off a lockdown year, was a year of recovery. The majority – but far from all – fairs were being held, but constraints were apparent. Key fairs in California, Ohio and the entire nation of Canada – were either cancelled or closely resembled the drive-thru and Zoom events of 2020 than the recovery fairs of 2021. This year would be different in other keyways that shine a light on a unique outdoor event that not only has time-tested staying power but coming out of COVID found new ways to reposition themselves to younger demographics.

Obstacles such as shorter planning times, smaller midways due to shortages in the carnival labor pool, and disruptions in entertainment and food vendor sectors that had to be overcome created significant challenges for every fair reopening in 2021. By and large, the 2021 outpouring of support from the community both replenished the coffers of fairs, virtually all of whom were financially strapped even with governmental support funds due to  the lockdowns, and reaffirmed the vital role fairs have for a community, at the local, state and regional levels.

Did these positive trends of robust attendance and spending continue into 2022? Would fairs still retain their unique appeal even though stimulus funds were phasing out and nearly all entertainment activities, from theaters to concerts were now opened? Last year, the annual fair was in many instances the only show of its kind in town. The question going into 2022 was, were the upticks of 2021 a fluke, or would fair attendance and spending patterns be maintained?

Minnesota State Fair

Inflation Navigation

Inflation and supply chain disruptions may continue to plague all sectors of the economy. Consumers and businesses seem to have adapted and there's a general sense that we've at least seen the worst.  The labor market is an issue. On the positive side, the H2B visa system is at its most stable since the pandemic, which was good news for midway providers and the fairs they service. But seasonal and part times workers are harder to come by for both the carnivals and the fairs. Not surprisingly, volunteers were also harder to obtain for most fairs.

In terms of inflation, food & beverage saw the biggest upticks, in keeping with the price increases being seen in supermarkets and restaurants nationwide. Some fairs and their carnival companies strove to have no price increases on admission and/or ride tickets, giving fairgoers some relief. “The N.C. State Fair and our midway provider absorbed all those increases and did not raise any admission or ride prices this year,” said Kent Yelverton, Fair Manager, North Carolina State Fair, #17 in 2022, with a 16.89 percent increase in turnout. “We did see an increase in food and product prices this year, but nothing out of the realm of what all small businesses are feeling presently.”  

Attendance was robust industry-wide for the top fairs, and while pent-up demand and return to normalcy seem the most obvious reasons swelling turnout, most top fairs also pumped up their marketing and promotional profile. Increasing the marketing budget was the rule and not the exception last year. In addition, the march towards digitization not only continues unabated but social media now drives most marketing programs as larger fairs continue to expand their platform reach.

A case in point was the Oregon State Fair, which after not making the Carnival Warehouse annual registry of top fairs in 2019 and 2021, saw a 65.4 percent increase in attendance over 2021.  “Oregonians were in a festive mood, and our attendance and revenue numbers reflect that,” explains Oregon State Fair CEO Kim Grewe-Powell. “This was our strongest showing in the 14 years I have worked here. The entertainment industry has been hit hard, and our vendors, performers, and attractions really needed this financial rebound.”

An essential ingredient in the mix fueling this rebound was a shift in marketing.  “I think in 2021 people were still a little weary… [Our marketing budget] increase came from our re-introduction of Pavilion events, special entertainment events like rodeos, monster truck shows, and the demolition derby. We shifted more dollars into digital.  We focused our content production on our two most popular channels, Facebook and Instagram, while also introducing a TikTok account to our fans. TikTok turned out to be a really fun way to produce visual video montages that really illustrated special fair features…Our TikToks had more than 95,000 impressions.”

The top-50 list measures attendance, but it seems not only was the more the merrier, but the more that came the more they spent. Fairs and midways are reporting record revenue, indicating that despite inflation, consumer confidence remains high.  Eugene J. Cassidy, President/CEO, Eastern States Expo, the largest fair in the Northeast, which came in at #4 on the Top 50 List, said, “it was our second biggest (fair) in terms of attendance, but fair patrons were spending with abandon, so sales volume exceeded every other fair.” 

Canadian National Exhibition (CNE), photo by Scooter Korek

Per Capita Spending

“Per capita spending was significantly up,” said Darrell Brown, CEO, Canadian National Exhibition.  The largest fair in Canada, the CNE returned to the Top 50 List at #5 with 1,603,354. “Some vendors were reporting to me that they were anywhere from 30 percent to 100 percent over their 2019 numbers. We did extremely well this year. That said, one fair cannot make or break the CNE. We need a series of successful events.”

The most unique entry on the top 50 List was the merged Wilson County Fair-Tennessee State Fair, hitting # 22, with  776, 195.  The fair saw double digit increases in attendance and spending, achieving one of the highest year-to-year jumps in both data categories of any North American fair this year. “The Fair had a record year in every way as our attendance was 776,195 which was an increase of 295,568 (38 percent) from the previous year and 186,966 (24 percent) from previous record year set back in 2013.,” said Helen McPeak CEO.  We had visitors from all 95 counties in Tennessee, 37 different states and 14 countries. Fair attendance broke records every day but the first Friday!”

This fair is unique – now both a county and a state fair, and the event rebranded itself in order to achieve this wider reach. The fair also is a beneficiary of another key factor in almost every large fair's success – governmental support. In 2022, the state legislature, previously one of the more austere when it comes to financially supporting their fair – dedicated in excess of $14 million to the fair.  “The 2022 Wilson County Fair – Tennessee State Fair was a huge success,” said McPeak. “Great weather and fun for everyone made for a wonderful fair and created memories to last a lifetime!”

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