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Missouri State Fair Recommits to Agricultural Roots; Attendance & Spending Up
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A return to the foundational concepts of what a fair means to its community spearheaded the 2023 Missouri State Fair, which in spite of periods of humidity and precipitation saw increases over the previous year and a recommitment to the event's agricultural roots. The new ethos was summed up in the tagline selected to lead this year's marketing charge “Where Traditions Grow” which achieved the rare feat of containing two essential selling points for state fairs – especially those strongly linked to agriculture – to be both forward-looking (grow) & nostalgic (traditions).

The long history of the Missouri State Fair – 2023 was the 121st – has been intertwined from the get-go with its beginnings as an agricultural expo – and to strum the proper chord with this celebration of agriculture and emphasize the fair's FFA, 4-H & other youth-centric programming, Mark Wolfe, Fair Director, went back to the obvious – His community.  

“We ask our fairgoers each year to tell us why they come to the fair and year after year they tell us it's because it's family tradition,” said Wolfe, who will be retiring in 2024 after 15 years at the helm of the annual celebration of everything Show Me State. “We asked our fairgoers to tell us their traditions and created several events centered around those, encouraging fairgoers to come take part in their normal traditions and to make some new ones this year, too. This year's theme was “Where Traditions Grow.”

He added, “Agriculture is at the forefront of the mission for the Missouri State Fair and the fair continues to be the showcase for agriculture in the state of Missouri. In regards to the comment above about agriculture, fairs connect the non-agriculture public with agriculture. Whether it's seeing a livestock show, interacting with an exhibitor, watching dairy cattle being milked in the milking barns, visiting the petting zoo or something else, we want our fairgoers to experience agriculture in a fun way while at our fair. In addition, as our theme suggests, it's where traditions are made for hundreds of thousands of people each year. No matter what it is, traditions have been growing at the Missouri State Fair for over 100 years!”


Marketing Shifts 

The Where Traditions Grow theme was the centerpiece of a new marketing campaign that showed an unsurprising migration of budgetary dollars towards digital, but from a very surprising – radio instead of print. The media allocation for marketing the 2023 Missouri State Fair was: Print 23 percent; Streaming Radio 10 percent; Traditional Radio 26 percent; Outdoor 12 percent; Online/Digital 14 percent; Streaming TV 15 percent.” Digital continues to become more and more used, replacing traditional radio,” said Wolfe. “This is the second year we have exclusively just used streaming TV and it has been successful for us.”

The fair utilized multiple social media platforms to proliferate the Where Traditions Grow message, although it took advantage of the targeting power of the medium. “We continue to use Social Media to target certain demographics,” he said. “Concertgoers continue to be a focus – targeting like audiences for various genres; Targeting moms is also a tactic – enticing them to make the choice to visit the fair with their families.

Fair attendance reached 349,048, an increase of 2.5 percent over 2022, including setting gate-revenue records on the first Saturday, first Monday & second Friday. Heat and rain were not strangers to the fair, but generally saved their ire for weekdays, leaving weekends mostly unscathed. “[the fair] started off hot and muggy the first three days, which had been fairly typical for us leading up to the fair,” said Wolfe. “The fourth day (Sunday) brought rain most of the day, which did affect our attendance on that military appreciation day, unfortunately, and did cause us to have to cancel our popular tractor pull). The weekdays were wonderful – with moderate temperatures (low 80s), which resulted in some nice attendance days during the week. By the end of the week temperatures and humidity started to build and we ended the fuair with some pretty hot and humid conditions, just like we started.”

Spending seemed to replicate last year's enthusiasm, although on the weather-impacted days meant fewer buyers. “Vendors and concessionaires were pleased with customer spending this year,” said Wolfe. “The weather definitely affected the sales. Days that are typically busy had the hot temperatures and one day had the rain, resulting in lower attendance those days, whereas the slower days were cooler and more people visited, making the slower day a better day spend-wise for our concessionaires and vendors.”

Inflation was a factor, with price jumps afflicting all segments of the fair. Unlike last year, product shortages were under control. “The price of doing business has definitely gone up for everyone,” said Wolfe. “The costs just to keep the gates open have all increased - minimum wage, fuel, equipment, utilities, materials, etc. The same goes for our concessionaires and vendors – transportation costs and food prices affect their business model, which can in turn trickle down to the customer. In past years, some of the vendors and concessionaires had trouble even getting some of the products they needed, but overall their supply chain issues seem to have gotten better, despite the price tag going up.” 


Entertainment & Food 

The fair's midway was provided by Wade Shows. Grandstand entertainment included a record sellout –Lainey Wilson w/ Jackson Dean, sold out the day tickets went on sale; Nelly w/ Rahzel was a near-sellouts. Other popular concerts included 3 Doors Down w/ Candlebox & Riley Green w/ Randy Houser.  

The fair showcased approximately 100 food vendors/concessionaires (250 non-food vendors). According to Wolfe, new food trends apparent among food vendors included fried deviled eggs & vegetables; Oriental chicken on a stick; fruit smoothies; flavored coffees &energy drinks.

While the fair doesn't track cuisine trends closely, palates favored the tradition invoked in the marketing theme. “We do not have anything official but can confidently say that traditional fair foods tend to be the biggest selling and most popular at our fair –corn dogs, funnel cakes, etc.,” he said. “Our fair prides itself on its partnership with the Missouri Cattlemen's Association and the Missouri Pork Association who run their respective restaurants during the Fair – the Cattlemen's Beef House and The Pork Place.”

Attendance & spending up indicates the Missouri State Fair, with a reinvigorated agricultural emphasis and a community responsive to its marketing and programming, continues its growth trajectory. Last year, the fair acquired 200 acres of adjacent land and next year it has been reported the fair plans to break ground on a new $55 million arena, a two-year construction project and renovate its grandstand, swine building, cattle barns and 4-H building.

With the fair poised for an exciting future, did his 2023 swan song live up to its promise? “We had a great fair this year!,” said Wolfe. “I think people were genuinely excited to come and experience the fair. It was great to see people smiling and excited about coming to the fair. Overall, positive comments from our fairgoers, vendors and concessionaires, sponsors and other stakeholders. I think overall attitudes were up.”
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