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Iowa State Fair: New Manager, 13 Republicans, Jason Aldean & Its 2nd Highest Attendance
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The Sky Wheel Returned to the Iowa State Fair
Miller Spectacular Shows provided the Sky Wheel, a ride that has not been at the fair since the fair switched to an independent midway format.

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There's no more iconic heartland outdoor event than the annual Iowa State Fair, hence its long-held position every four years as the premier pre-primary presidential candidate photo-op. This election cycle, 13 candidates for the oval office visited the fair in a variety of formats, attracting hundreds of media personnel to cover their interactions in a setting where the realization of Americana is unsurpassed.

Meanwhile, it was the first fair for Jeremy Parsons, named Fair Manager & CEO in January, who succeeded the retiring Gary Slater, who ran the fair since 2001, ushering years of expansive growth and firmly sustaining the event's iconic status. The bad news is that there are likely thousands of photo-ops left before 2024 election and none will take place anywhere as fun as the 2023 Iowa State Fair. The good news is that the 2023 Iowa State Fair had a record-breaking run, a cooperative Mother Nature and an expanded independent midway with exciting new additions, including Lil' Scrambler, Tornado, Super Shot, Eclipse, Musik Express, Top Fun, Flipper and Double Ferris Wheel.

The fair attendance totaled 1,133,958 –  making it the 2nd largest in the Fair's 169 year old history – and up more than 15,000 Fairgoers from 2022. The first Sunday reached a record with 114,937 Fairgoers in attendance; the old record was 112,396 set in 2017. “It was an incredible fair – we were blessed with great weather, spending remained very strong, competitive exhibit numbers returned to pre-COVID numbers, and fairgoers reacted positively to our programming,” said Parsons. “The weather was perfect with the exception of the last weekend, where temperatures reached close to 100 degrees.”

In addition, the economy is healthy, consumer confidence is high and people came to spend, to eat and to ride. “There seemed to be no tightening of the belt – fairgoer spending was very strong and above 2022 levels,” he said. “All categories (food, beverage, independent midway, merchandise, attractions) were above 2022.”

13 Candidates

So, what about the 13 elephants in the room during his freshman fair? “The political aspects of this fair – from coordination of the presidential candidate visits to additional media interview requests from national media – made my first fair memorable,” he said. “But otherwise, it was a remarkably smooth fair. More than 750 media representatives from state and local outlets were credentialed to cover the fair in addition to political visits.”

According to Parsons, the photo-ops this year  include the Des Moines Register soapbox with 13 candidates taking the stage and a series of “Fair Side Chats”  hosted by Governor Kim Reynolds, which featured 12 candidates during the fair at the JR's SouthPork Ranch (a food/beverage establishment).  “A few of the candidates chose to speak on both platforms in addition to visiting the Pork Tent, the giant slide and the butter cow for photos,” he said. “Former President Donald Trump also visited the Animal Learning Center, the Pork Tent, and spoke briefly at Steer ‘N Stein on the grounds during the fair. The Iowa State Fair is not responsible for the planning and programming of political events and the fair did not provide space for political meet and greets, rallies or fundraisers.  Fair safety protocols were handled under normal operations and upon request, public safety officers attended presentations.”

The midway, divided by age groups, featured  39 rides in Thrill Ville and Thrill Town – up 5 rides from 2022 – “We contracted more rides from more companies,” said Parsons. “Midway spending was up 7 percent over 2022.” The three top-grossing rides: Flipper, Gravitron, and Jungle Twist.

Try That In A Small Town

As if having celebrity politicians was not enough political spotlight on one fair, Jason Aldean, country music superstar was the closing show of the fair. His controversial song & video – Try That in A Small Town – was both a #1 Hit and banned by Country-focused cable network CMT for what some believe were racists undertones.

On a local note, the song  was co-written by longtime Aldean guitarist and Des Moines native Kurt Allison.  The Des Moines Register reported that Allison received “a hero's welcome from his hometown crowd.” The controversy over the song was still heavily brewing in the news cycle when Aldean performed in Iowa.  The song was the concert's finale, and the paper reported: “Aldean said he is proud of the song, proud of the message it sends and stood by the video. During the song, Aldean grabbed an American flag from the audience and draped it over his shoulder…  He ended the song by tipping his hat before the crowd chanted "USA! USA! USA!"
The concert may have been the most widely covered of any fair concert this summer, but it was not the most well-attended of the year, attracting 12.581, behind “Eric Church and The Chicks, the second and third most-attended respective Grandstand performances in recent history,” according to the newspaper.

Best Days Ever

The fair features over 100 food vendors, about on “par with last year,” said Parsons. The fair is often seen as a the showcase for fair cuisine trends and 2023 did not disappoint. “The Deep-Fried Bacon Brisket Mac-n-Cheese Grilled Cheese won the People's Choice Best New Food award,” he said. “A total of 8,254 people voted in the Best New Food Competition while thousands more enjoyed trying the more than 60 new foods offered at the Fair this year.”

This year, the fair devised an online-rich advertising campaign, centered on an advertising tagline invoking the core appeal of an annual community tradition – “Best Days Ever” . The fair's 2023 media allocation was: TV/OTT Streaming 32 percent; Radio 27 percent;  Outdoor/OOH 16 percent; Print 12 percent; Digital/Social/Streaming 13 percent. “For the first time, digital/social/streaming surpassed print,” said Parsons. “TV/OTT Streaming increased by 1 percent, radio advertising remained the same while outdoor and print decreased by 5 percent combined. That budget was re-allocated into more digital/social and streaming online ads, specifically more targeted ads and boosting posts/events and Facebook carousel ads.”

Last year, Iowa's Governor banned the use of TikTok on all government devices, mildly disrupting this year's social media marketing plans. “As a state agency, we deleted our TikTok account, so we shifted our short videos to reels on Instagram,” he explained. “Our biggest successes were found in giveaways before and during the Fair. Our most popular post was giving away food tickets and admission 50 days before the Fair. It was posted on a Sunday afternoon and 16,216 people entered to win! Our brand new social media manager started the job just 12 days before the fair.”

The rain gods taking a vacation is good for any fair. First times only come around once, and Parson maneuvered through intensive media exposure for his first fair by staying focused on the core values of the community. “State fairs are celebrations of all that is “good” about a state – from youth competitions to entertainment to food, they are showcases of the very best,” said Parsons. “Fairs are one of the few places left in today's world where entire families can come together and make memories together.”
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