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2023 Top 50 Fairs: A New Generation of Fair Managers, Record Number of Record Breaking Fairs
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The State Fair of Texas Ranked #2 in Attendance in 2023
Photo by Chris Vega

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Perhaps the paramount question on everyone's mind when 2023 began was whether or not consumer spending would sustain its 2022 rate. The economy may now have record low levels of unemployment, and even inflation cooled somewhat midyear, but for much of 2023 consumer confidence saw consecutive months of decline. Everyone in the outdoor entertainment industry worried that the post-lockdown surge was a fluke and 2023 would be a dust-settling year.

Those apprehensions proved not to be the case for fairs and their midways, which bounced after a rebound. The annual Top 50 Fairs, as compiled by Carnival Warehouse, ranks the top fairs in North America and 2023 contained very positive indicators for the continued success of the fair industry, cementing its place in popular culture and the North American economy. It's an outdoor business, and with climate change disrupting weather patterns worldwide, many fairs saw attendance downticks, some as high as 26.8 percent, such as K Days (Edmonton), knocking this Canadian event down from 23 in 2022 to 31 in 2023 – but a slight majority saw increases over 2022.

The top five fairs: Houston Livestock Show & Rodeo; State Fair of Texas; Minnesota State Fair; Canadian National Exhibition and San Antonio Livestock Show & Rodeo retained the same order except the CNE, which ranked #5 last year, just behind Eastern States Exposition, whose rainy 2023 pushed it down to #7 from #4 in 2022. Arizona retained the #6 ranking, Iowa moved to #10, up from #12 in 2022. The Calgary Stampede held firmly to #8 two years running, as did the #9 Fort Worth Stock Show. The Tulsa State Fair dropped from #10 in 2022 to #12 in 2023, virtually swapping rankings with Iowa.

Record Breaking Record Breakers

Photo by Scooter Korek

But a more telling metric than the horse race is the number of record attendances. Eight fairs – an astounding number in this context – broke their attendance records in 2023. It was the highest number of record-breaking fairs in recent memory – only two fairs broke records in 2022, only six in 2019 – but a closer look at the actual fairs reveals an unexpected development sure to shape the fair industry for years to come.

The majority – five out of eight – of these record breaking fairs were managed by recently hired fair managers. A statistical anomaly, most likely… but, a changing of the guard is occurring throughout the economy as baby boomers retire and Gen X, Y & Z assume leadership positions. This expected generational shift has been accelerated by the global pandemic, which for many entities fast-tracked attrition and early retirement for aging staff members. Whether a trickle or in droves, younger professionals always arrive with fresh ideas. It bodes well for the fair industry's future when fairs led by the industry's newest managers are attracting more fairgoers than ever before.

The CNE, the biggest fair among the 2023 record-breakers and the only one in the top 5, had a record year, attracting 1,604,000 to what is essentially Canada's largest outdoor event, and its fair manager, Darrell Brown, CEO, admitted that going into the year he was apprehensive. “2023 exceeded expectations. We feared that people would not be as anxious to get out and enjoy the CNE as they were in 2022. We were just coming out of an extended COVID lockdown in 2022. People had savings and were desperate to socialize. With inflation, high interest rates and worrisome signs of a potential recession, there was a distinct risk that people would hold back in 2023. In fact, we saw more people come out and spend more.”

Brown's prepare-for-the-worst-but-hope-for-the-best-attitude sums up a common attitude going into 2023. Having those hopes realized also seemed more common in 2023, especially from the record-breaking newbies, which included The Illinois State Fair (#24 / Attendance: 707,613) – Rebecca Clark, General Manager; Florida Strawberry Festival (# 27 / Attendance: 606,116) – Kyle Robinson, President; Arkansas State Fair – Tiffany Wilkerson; (#30 / Attendance: 559,677) ; North Dakota State Fair (#45 Attendance: 356,53) – Craig Rudland, General Manager.

2023 started strong with the South Florida Fair in West Palm Beach, FL

Economy Healthy

While the 4th quarter of 2023 saw low unemployment and record stock market gains, the outlook was not so rosy earlier in the year, when price-but-not-wage inflation, bank failures and layoffs in the tech and other sectors dominated economic news. These issues seemed at best contained come fair-time, where consumer confidence remained strong. Not only did hundreds of thousands turn out for the record-breaking fairs, the people were spending.

“You could really feel the excitement and energy this year,” said Robinson of the “Berry Fest” .”People were spending, I would sit outside the main gates while everybody was leaving and I'd see nearly everyone carrying souvenirs, plush, crafts and food. Their spending habits haven't changed and the vendors and concessionaires I talked with were having record years. The economy is good. I guess as the saying goes, a rising tide floats all boats.”

Clarke of the Illinois State Fair was actually in her second year as fair manager, but the record she broke in 2023 was the one she set as a freshmen fair manager in 2022. The record attendance resulted in record revenue ($7.6 million), but Clarke credits the 2023 boost to “strong Grandstand ticket sales which generated record-breaking revenue figures, an 86 percent increase in ticket sales for our ticketed arena events and record-breaking carnival revenue led by robust sales of unlimited ride passes.”

Not Neophytes

Can the 2023 trend of record-breaking fairs be just a spurt of collective beginner's luck? The fact though is none of these beginners were beginners at all. Most rose through the ranks at their fairs, some with decades of experience. Most may be from a younger generation, and having grown up in a higher-tech environment, more adept at the social media driven age of marketing and communicating than their forbearers, but this new guard are no neophytes to running iconic outdoor events.

The Arkansas State Fair – after years of underperforming, has pulled out of its slump. But immediately following the pandemic lockdown, its reinvigorated marketing, promotions and operational initiatives were almost derailed by the sudden departure of its fair manager. Wilkerson – who at 39, local media noted was the youngest fair manager of the state's largest agricultural festival – served as interim fair manager in 2022, and has worked at the fair more than 20 years, including stints as Commercial Exhibitor Coordinator, Box Office Manager and Director of Administration. She's also the first African American and female manager of this 83-year-old tradition, emblematic of another industry trend – there are now more women fair managers running the Top-50 Fairs than at any other time in the industry history.

But if you're going to break a glass ceiling, nothing shatters like helming the highest-attended Arkansas State Fair ever, and a 17 percent attendance increase over the previous fair.

“I was very excited to be recognized as the first woman and African American to be appointed as general manager of the Arkansas State Fair,” she said. “However, I don't think either of those glass ceilings were challenging to break through. The fair industry has welcomed several young women in recent years as fair managers and I'm happy to be a part of that group. I'm not sure how many African Americans serve in the management role but I'm sure that will change as well.”

Craig Rudland assumed the role of general manager for the North Dakota State Fair, although he'd been at the event for 42 years. While on the older side of the spectrum compared to his other 2023 record-breaking newbies, this upper Midwest event is this year's Cinderella story. It is the only record-breaking fair not on the 2022 list to make the 2023 top 50.

“It's a lot of factors,” Rudland told Carnival Warehouse. “We are getting more people from outside of North Dakota, coming from many states away. We also had a fantastic entertainment lineup, the stars aligned on our stage. We had big headliners,. I believe our grassroots marketing, and our focus on family, and 4-H and FFA programs, keeps growing. That's not the trend you see in a lot of the other major fairs.”

Swan Song | Also bucking the record-breaker youth trend was Virgil Strickler, who announced that he was retiring earlier in the year, making the 2023 Ohio State Fair his swan song. He's held this top position since 2004, one of the most successful tenures of any current fair manager, turning the annual celebration of everything Buckeye State into a Midwestern powerhouse. Realistic about the role weather plays determining any outdoor event's success and modest about his personal impact on creating a record-breaking fair, he does note the importance of both collaboration and a strong grandstand lineup.

“We were so fortunate to have beautiful weather almost every day of the Ohio State Fair,” said Strickler. “The great weather, coupled with increased entertainment, great concerts in the WCOL Celeste Center, outstanding exhibits, new partnerships, and so many other factors, led us to breaking our attendance record with more than one million fairgoers over the course of the 12-day fair.”

The Minnesota State Fair, one of the most iconic and highest attended outdoor events in the Midwestern United States, may not have tallied up record attendance – the late summer heatwave was the bane of many fairs this year – but did experience a single record day of 164,741 (total attendance: 1,835,826 the 6th highest attendance in its 160+ years). Its new fair manager, Renee Alexander – the first woman CEO of the Minnesota State Fair – had served as deputy general manager for the last 13 years and responsible for grandstand booking and talent.
Record days at the Minnesota State Fair

How did it feel breaking the glass ceiling of the Great Get Together? “As the first woman of the Minnesota State Fair, it's certainly humbling, but everyone is super supportive and excited. We are seeing more of that in the industry, more women are leaders, role models and mentors and I'm grateful to all of them.”

Alexander may be one of the young guard redefining fair management in the third decade of the 21st century, but she's philosophical if the actual job is any different. Record breaking attendance is an admirable goal, but balancing tradition and change has always been part of the job description regardless of era. “80 percent of what we do are the traditions and the 20 percent is the change up. We are stewards of the fair, which belongs to the people of Minnesota. There is such a sense of pride in stewarding what is an institution and everyone doing what is in the best of interest of the fair.”

2023 Top 50 Fair List
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