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Optimistic & Proactive, Illinois Fairs Ready to "Do More in 2024"
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No one is better acquainted with weather than fair managers, and that sentiment was tested when a deep-freeze and snowstorm hit the Midwest hard the same weekend as the 2024 convention of the Illinois Association of Agricultural Fairs. With a reported 14-20 inches of snow and wind-chill making the air feel like 20 below freezing, attendance saw a decline of about 10 percent, according to David Hake, the new president of the organization and director of the Washington County Fairgrounds.

Still even with the dip, Hake estimated that 100 percent of the organization's 102 member fairs were represented. True to the name of the association, most of the membership are famers and agricultural industry professionals. “When the temps dropped so low, it was understandable that they took care of their livestock than be at the fair convention, “he said.  “We had 75 Queen Contestants, most of them were here except for one or two.”

The land of Lincoln may have been under a winter advisory, but the convention had the upcoming summer top of its agenda. The state's fair industry declared its optimistic outlook with the catchy theme: Do More In 24!

The sentiment summed up the attitude of the conventioneers. “We are all trying to come up with new ideas,” he explained. “Our fairs want to try different things, add more stuff to the fair.”

Hake pointed out that there was a general “upgrade” to most areas of the convention, especially the exhibition floor and entertainment showcase. “Usually most of the county fairs use just local bands and up-and-coming artists when you can find them. But now fairs are balancing bringing in the bigger acts. We flew in Mark Wills for the showcase. “

Wills, a country music star with 16 singles in the Billboard Top 40 in his career and a 2019 Grand Ole Opry inductee, was a highlight of the showcase. “More fairs are doing things to entice more people to the fair,” he said. “More fairs are looking for bigger name concerts. We've all been amazed seeing across the state license plates from far out-of-state, California and New York. We hadn't been seeing that before, and it's not like they care coming to the state for a county fair, but as they are driving through and use Facebook and social media, they find out about the fair.”

After years of eschewing national headliners in his grandstand, last year his fair hosted Rodney Atkins to tremendous success, attracting more than 12,000 for a day when typical attendance was 2,800. “We usually just do the carnival, tractor pulls and the demo derby, but we had a wild and crazy idea to try and do a concert. We considered it very successful.”'

It's not a move for every fair, but many of the Illinois Association of County Fairs members were certainly considering a concert upgrade. “What fairs can't change is what it is going to cost. There's a lot of different media aspects, like paid Facebook ads, advertising on the day of the concert. You also have the sponsorships for the cost,  but you can make up a lot with just the food and beer sales. We surpassed what we expected.”

North American Midway Entertainment at the Illinois State Fair, Springfield, IL 2023

The expanded entertainment showcase was one component of implementing the “Do More” ethos of the convention. The Trade Show featured several new vendors among its approximately 75-100 booths. “We had a new Demo Derby promoter, and a vendor who decorates for Christmas Lighting because fairs are doing more off-season events. There's new push in the online ticketing sales and we saw more vendors for those systems, with  new scanners. If there's a trend that's brewing it's the shift to strictly online ticket sales for smaller fairs.”

Skinners Amusements hosted the largest tradeshow exhibit, and other sponsors included Burnham & Flower Insurance, Illinois Wine by Tom & Pam Schahrer; and Prairie Farms Ice Cream.

Round Tables, seminars and other educational programming were “very well attended. There were a variety of ideas to pick and choose from. Everything was built towards drawing more people to the fairs. Where before there were naysayers to doing new things, or if they made changes they were kind of wishy-washy, but more people have changed their perspectives on what a fair can do.”

Topics included: Marketing Grandstand Concerts; Grant Writing; Ideas for Sponsorship; Weather Insurance; Marketing Your Fair and Junior Fair Boards “The overall attitude was positive,” he said. After COVID, fairs have picked back up. They were kind of stagnant a little bit before the crisis. People were staying local because of COVID, but they were also supporting their local community. Last year, more people came to the fairs, so there was a revival. It put all our fairs in a better financial position than they were before the pandemic. They were able to recoup losses, and now many are also finding new revenues by additional rentals.'

The entire Illinois Fair network was lifted by the 2023 Illinois State Fair breaking attendance and revenue records. Notably, not only did a stellar array of headliners, including Tim McGraw. Nelly, and Alanis Morissette bolster turnout but the state has invested in a $58.1 million fairground facility and infrastructure renovation. “All our fairs did better and the state fair's success certainly helped. The county fairs are part of the system, but to the state they are a separate line item. We come out of a different appropriation. We have been assured that they aren't talking about cuts in state funding. We haven't lost anything, we have stayed status quo. But yes we would love more funding.”

In addition to Hake assuming the Presidency, Gray Mielke was named Vice President. Charlyn Fargo Ware was named Secretary/Treasurer and Sand Hole Pageant Queen Director
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