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No Longer Interim, Nebraska Fair Manager Stabilizes Troubled Fair & Sees Attendance Grow
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Best attendance post-lockdown, enthusiastic crowds, a Wade Shows midway and a solid grandstand line up, not bad results for a first time manager. But this resurgence was more than just beginner's luck for Jaime Parr, Executive Director, Nebraska State Fair, but a sign that the annual celebration of everything Cornhusker State has sustainable management.

Parr described her first fair in the captain's seat as “Wonderful!  We had attendance comparable to days before COVID.  Opening and closing were quite warm, weather-wise, but we had some near perfect fair weather days mixed in also.”

Financial Trouble

But the trail to the 2023 success was rocky, a scenario only made more complicated by global pandemic.  The Nebraska State Fair has been a struggling fair in the late-20-teens, with back-to-back rainy fairs and financial losses. In 2019, monsoon-like downpours led to cancelled days and steep revenue drops. The Nebraska State Fair was dealing with a financial crisis when the Pandemic hit in 2020, due not just to rained-out fairs but the discovery of the embezzlement of fair funds by Patrick Kopke, State Fair Finance Director, who in October of 2021 was sentenced to 15 years' probation, 30 days in jail and ordered to pay back $150,170.60. Lori Cox, named Fair Manager in 2018, was voted out by the Fair Board, although kept on as a consultant until her contract expired in January of 2021.

Fair industry veteran, Bill Ogg, most recently general manager of the Walla Walla Fair and Frontier Days in Washington state, whose experience includes managing state fairs in Montana, Colorado and Kansas, was hired in March of 2020. Parr, who had 25 years of Nebraska State Fair experience ranging from Front Desk Support to Deputy Director, served as interim Executive Director and was named Executive Director in December of 2022.  “Ogg retired from the Nebraska State Fair  in October, 2022,” explained Parr. “Bill came to Nebraska to help sort out some major challenges of the fair.  He accomplished his tasks and stayed on as a consultant.”
How did being Executive Director compare to the array of stones she stepped around before being the captain? “Pretty awesome!,” she said. “The team, the partners, the people of the State of Nebraska made the ED position one of the very coolest experiences I have had so far, in my 25 years at Nebraska State Fair.”

Attendance Increase

The 2023 fair reached an attendance of 311,909, an increase of 8.5 percent. “We were very close to meeting/breaking attendance and beverage records during the fair.  We did have very high on-site ride purchases on our first Saturday. The fair did welcome our 4 millionth visitor during opening weekend.  The 4 million visitors is a culmination of all attendance since the fair moved to Grand Island in 2010.”

Weather was sporadically bad, including triple-digit temperatures, a Friday night downpour and a closing weekend of humid upper 90s. Otherwise, the late summer Nebraska weather proved pleasant.

Parr noted that not only was the turnout robust, but fairgoers indicated that the high-consumer-confidence of last year continued apace in 2023, “[Spending was] similar to slightly improved,” she said. “I'm wondering about the revenue differences in the $2 and $3 days and how that might have impacted us in ticket sales gross. We have a general idea we grossed less because of activity in the marketplace, but I'm not certain of a “cause and effect thing.”

She added, that compared to 2022, “Concession sales reports suggest similar to slightly improved revenue”

Whatever Your Flavor

The 2023 Nebraska State Fair's marketing tagline utilized personalized marketing techniques to convince fairgoers that the annual celebration was for everyone – Whatever Your Flavor – Parr explained, “We believe the Nebraska State Fair has something for everyone, regardless of what food, livestock, attractions, entertainment, concerts, dirt events, etc. that any one person might prefer.”

The marketing budget was comparable to 2022, but the approach was to target untapped regional markets and schedule specific sales as a way to engage fairgoers throughout the year. “Our budget was steady but deployed a bit differently in 2023,” she explained. “We focused more on outlying areas after feeling we had made increases locally. We focused on the on sale of the major events and had a great start to the year.  Promotions then carried us until the final 4 weeks before fair opened. Pump & Pantry sales were down, but they still helped us advertise.”

Turned out a prime-time to promote summer fun was during winter festivities. “The “HOLIDAY-Flash  -Christmas sale” was the most productive sale for wristbands.  We sold at our best price point from DEC 16 – Jan 01.”

The 2023 media mix saw a renewed interest in the radio format. “We used significantly more radio and less video advertising in 2023 as compared to 2022,” she said. “Our goal was to reach more parts of Nebraska than we had in 2022 while staying on budget and the effort appears to have been successful. Our attendance by distance traveled appears to be up in 2023. As far as mix of media, digital including email (26 percent)  radio (21 percent), out of home (26 percent), newspaper (11 percent), television (11 percent), other video media (5 percent).”

The Wade Shows midway featured 36 rides, according to Parr, which included the Sky Tram and a new ride, Sling Shot. 

The fair showcased 56 food vendors, with new vendors expanding the diversity and upping its foodie-cred with new offerings of “paella, seafood, and new Mexican corn. Peachy Pig (peach cake, whipped cream cheese & bacon) won the New Food Contest and Jack Mac (Mac & cheese topped with BBQ brisket & jalapeno) won the Savory New Food.”

Future Growth

Did the 2023 fair meet the expectations of the former Interim Fair Manger? “Exceeded,” she said. “The Community came out and helped our attendance accomplishments.  While they were here, they had fun:  eating, drinking, shopping, and enjoying some really great entertainment and attractions. All staff have agreed that the overall mood of the team and the guests, exhibitors, and volunteers was positive and accepting, and very pleasant to be a part of.”

Now that the Nebraska has navigated through internal and external challenges, Parr has set the ship on a steady and more sustainable course with the gains of the 2023 success. Her guiding light through the ordeal has been to hold an event that celebrates her state's #1 industry, farming. “Agriculture is critical to the daily lives of all.  Fairs help to educate and to improve, and to remind all just how inter-twined and dependent we are upon agriculture.  One way or another, we are touched and affected by agriculture.   We sprinkle the reminders and the education throughout the guest experience, in events and entertainment and attractions.  The Nebraska State Fair is also our state's largest celebration of Nebraska pride!”

The new fair manager is not only busy planning the 2024 fair, but supervising a massive fairground upgrade that includes an adjusted midway layout, new storm-sewer and other mitigation projects. “The Nebraska State Fair will be underway with some major construction projects this next summer.

She added that fair secured “$20M of ARPA improvement funds.  These will be invested into the Fonner Park campus with completion required by end of 2026.  After the ARPA funds are invested, the Nebraska State Fair looks to begin some major infrastructure and facility builds, using the Master Plan as our guide.”
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