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Magic Money
Illinois State Fair: State-Funded $58.1 Million of Fairground Improvements Enables Consecutive Years of Record Breaking Attendance & Spending
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The 2023 Illinois state Fair broke attendance and revenue records, making it one of the most successful post-lockdown comebacks in fair industry. A 45-ride NAME (North American Midway Entertainment) midway, an expanded digital presence with a new marketing program highlighted by discount-promotions, and a stellar array of headliners, including Tim McGraw. Nelly, and Alanis Morissette, certainly helped entice fairgoers to turn out in droves. 

Apparently however, nothing inspires a community about its fair more than governmental leadership. Reversing the previous administration's cutback mentality towards one of the largest outdoor events in the state, last year Governor JB Pritzker announced a multi-million dollar renovation project for the Illinois State Fairgrounds, proving long needed infrastructure improvements. The $58.1 million project renovated the multi-purpose arena and the coliseum, upgraded roadways and parking, and replaced the roofs and HVAC systems in many of the site's buildings. "For too long, our fairgrounds didn't reflect the magic of the Illinois State Fair," Pritzker said. "My administration is turning that ship around."


Turnout & Spending 

“The Illinois State Fair continues to experience steady growth following the devastating shutdown of the worldwide pandemic,” said Rebecca Clark, General Manager. “This year, the Illinois State Fair welcomed a record 707,613 fairgoers to Springfield, Illinois.  The previous record was set in 2022 with 636,700 attendees.” 

Proving the veracity of the dictum if you build it they will come, what has changed for the state fair scenario in Illinois is a governor motivated to revitalize the fair by reinvesting in the fairgrounds.  Not only did the buildings attract attendees, but those who came were eager to spend. “The 2023 Illinois State Fair's record attendance numbers were also reflected in a record $7.6 million in estimated revenue,” said Clark. “These figures were fueled by 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.”

Weather was near-perfect late summer metrological conditions, although what rain did fall disrupted a key equine attraction. “The Illinois State Fair experienced several mornings of rain, which forced the postponement of four of our five scheduled days of harness racing,” she said. “However, the clouds parted in time for wonderful afternoons and evenings.”

A record day – a Tuesday, saw 27,000 attendees more than the same day last year –  “was due in part to a new reduced admission promotion, accompanying carnival promotion, a strong Grandstand concert (REO Speedwagon), and mild temperatures.”

Deciding on a discount promotion was directly a result to counter the impact of inflation that's been disrupting family budgets post-lockdown. “Higher prices outside the gates impacted not only the consumer (fairgoer) but also the provider (fair),” she said. “Recognizing that strain on the fairgoer's available entertainment dollars, the Illinois State Fair staff introduced new campaigns to make the Illinois State Fair even more affordable for families to attend.  This included introducing new reduced admission days, discount admission days, and increasing awareness of our discounted food promotions.”

For the revamped fair, instead of a “branded tagline, we do have a yearly theme that ties in our agricultural programing for this 11-day event.  In 2023, our theme was Harvest the Fun.”

This year, the campaign started earlier, had a wider regional reach, crossed all media with a new emphasis on online sources and emphasized discount promotions. The 2023 marketing campaign “utilized all forms of media to market the 11-day event, including print, television, radio and digital assets,” said Clarke. “In the 2023, the Illinois State Fair increased its digital presence by starting our promotions earlier, to highlight deep discounts offered in the winter/spring months.  In 2023, the Illinois State Fair partnered with the Illinois Bureau of Tourism on a multi-week campaign to promote the Illinois State Fair in major metropolitan cities within the Midwest, including St. Louis, Chicago and Indianapolis.”


30th Anniversary for NAME 

The 45-ride NAME midway – which included the debut of a new Disko and the Raptor Run – reported a record midway, according to Clarke with an increase of more than $84,000 over 2022. Record attendance and midway revenue was even more significant for the midway provider because 2023 marked the decades long anniversary of the relationship between the Land-of-Lincoln's largest fair and the leading midway provider in North America. 

“NAME had a great time at this year's Illinois State Fair,” said Lynda Franc, Corporate Marketing Director, NAME. “This year was also a big year for us, as it was 30 years ago that Steve Thebault and Jeff Blomsness signed a contract with the Illinois State Fair.”

Franc noted the synergy between fair and carnival had never been more effective. “It was an extremely successful year too, the new rides presentation paired with the excellent marketing of the Illinois State Fair drew a great attendance of people who wanted to stay longer to enjoy everything the fair had to offer. Fairgoers are still excited to be coming out to the fair and we hope it stays that way! 

For this long-term carnival company, the new renovations and unprecedented financial support by a high-profile governor certainly grew the population through the admission gates, but ultimately these facts only enhance the unchanging appeal of this event. “The Illinois State Fair has a timeless aspect to its experience that is what keeps people coming back,” said Franc. “There are always the new rides and food, but the Merry-Go-Round and the cotton candy are still essential experiences. That's largely what works about the fair - no matter how many years go by, you still have some of the classics that remain just as popular from one generation to the next.”


Golden Abe

Demand creates its own supply some economists say, and it seems food purveyors overwhelmingly wanted to supply these eager eaters. “For the first time in more than a dozen years, the Illinois State Fair had a wait list of vendors wanting to participate in the Illinois State Fair,” said Clark.

The fair's media and the public's attention on the range of food choices at the fair is bolstered by an annual food competition – the Golden Abe's Fantastic Food Contest – “where vendors are encouraged to enter their best dishes for a chance to win cash prizes,” Clark explained. “These are always dishes that are raved about all year round, and winning vendors always see a boost in sales by participating.  This year the Dilly Dilly Dill Pickle Pizza from Mia Bella's Wood Fired Pizza won the People's Choice Award.”

Clark did not yet have data on the top selling food items, but she noted “fairgoers raved about the Cookies & Cream Milkshake from the Midwest Dairy Association and the Pork Chop on a Stick by the Illinois Pork Producers.”

A visibly improved fairgrounds and a supportive administration in the Springfield statehouse has reawakened interest in this annual lockdown. That support does not end with this year's success. Illinois Director of Agriculture Jerry Costello announced that $80 million earmarked for additional “fairground infrastructure improvements” … “will continue ahead of the 2024 fair.” Even the announcement of the first phase of the improvements that was made by Governor Pritzker last June, helped – along with a run of near-perfect weather – made that fair a record breaker. 

How does these related increases in support and popularity affect a fair manager's expectations? “Mother Nature graced the 2022 Illinois State Fair with nearly perfect weather, so expectations were very high coming into the 2023 Illinois State Fair,” explained Clark. “We are pleased to report that the Illinois State Fair continues to see growth in nearly all aspects of the fair. We are an agricultural fair and to see the number of competitive events entries grow year after year is shining achievement of our state's number one industry.  Add to this, a healthy mix of education, entertainment and family fun and you have a fair full of smiles and memories that will last a lifetime.”

In Illinois, it seems the new direction by the fair and its partners to  strengthen the physical operation enables the fair's intangibles to thrive. ”Fairs bring families, friends, and communities together to celebrate summer,” said Clark. “Fairs are a piece of Americana; they are a tradition and a rite of passage. This is where blue ribbon dreams come true and the passion for agriculture thrives. In a world where there are countless entertainment options literally in the palm of your hand, Fairs create an experience for families to enjoy.”
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