The Ozark Empire Fair in Springfield Missouri almost never happened, especially after the cancellation of the Missouri State Fair was announced. But with a good plan, and a committed organization, the Ozark Empire Fair became a reality.
“Our board was always determined to open, said Aaron Owen, General Manager, Ozark Empire Fairgrounds & Event Center. “The city officials were supportive, and gave us guidance. We are happy and proud. I'm not going to say it was easy. Did I worry, yes, I worried a lot.”
There was no shortage of things to worry about, of course. From keeping staff paid, developing a plan and working with the vendors, exhibitors and other fair participants to make sure the show would go on. “You carry a lot on your shoulders,” said Owen, who said he even took a cut in pay to make sure that the organization could pay staff and ensure operations.
But that personal responsibility he felt as a fair manager wasn't just about the commitment he had to the fair, but the crucial role the Ozark Empire Fair plays in its community and the positive impact fairs have on contemporary America. “You look at the crime rate, the suicide and overdose rates, and you just want to do something positive like the fair. We have to be strong to get America going again. You also have to remember that the community, our hotels and our restaurants, they need the fair, they sell the fair. We had to keep doing what we're doing. We did an economic impact study in 2018 and our fair has a huge impact.”
And, that's in a year where businesses haven't been shut down since March and by the summer, were only slowly reopening.
Owen points out that there was no spike in coronavirus following the fair, indicating that a large outdoor event with the proper precautions can be held safely. “We had some bad emails and phone calls about holding the fair,” he said. “But I got a lot more thank yous from the kids and the adults. Making families happy, that's why we do what we do. With the masks, we were not able to see as many smiles, but I know they were there.”
Mask wearing by both fair workers and fairgoers was mandated by the city, one of several protocols in place at the Ozark Empire Fair. Owen said that “we put a lot of effort in the mitigation plan, there were a lot details we had to work through, a lot of thinking outside of the box. We worked very closely with the local authorities.”
Some of the protocols included daily temperature taking of all employees and volunteers, using social distancing at the grandstand concerts, which were only allowed 50 percent capacity seating – only every other row of seats were utilized – and changing the beer sales area into a social safe, spread out seating. Sanitizing stations, signage, stepped-up cleaning schedules were all in place.
Attendance Down, Spending UpFor grounds entertainment, such as a magic show, the fair removed bleachers and instead used metal folding chairs. “This allowed people to take the chairs and sit where they were comfortable. We had a karaoke contest, but we cleaned the stand after each performer and used disposable covers over the microphone so they could sing without their masks.”
The fair also introduced its first new building in 23 years, the Central Building Exhibition Center, which housed most of the livestock exhibits, with entries up about 45 percent, said Owen.
Weather was ideal, the atmospheres positive and energetic. But, attendance was still a disappointing 40 percent down over last year. Some sponsorships and group sales were eliminated which cut into the crowds.
But counter intuitively, per cap spending was up more than 20 percent. “People wanted to be here, I think they just wanted to have fun,” said Owen. “The carnival spend was decent, Wade Shows did a fantastic job. Spending on food was way up, people missed their fair food. Lakeside Concessions leased one of our buildings. A Mexican stand with burritos and quesadillas was very popular.”
“I applaud the Ozark Empire Fair, they did a very good job communicating with the city and state officials and with us, and really did their part communicating what was required,” said Frank Zaitshik, President, Wade Shows. “I in turn was able to do the job we were hired to do. We minimized the risk and there was no spike.”
Zaitshik admits that the attendance dip did take a toll on the midway. “We suffered a bit,” he said.
Adding to the financial pain was the mutual decision to cancel the carnival portion of the Missouri State Fair, whose midway Wade Shows also provides. An already truncated route suddenly became a one off fair, “In dollars and cents, it was not a success,” he said. “But it was a successful from the point of view of morals and ethics, and it is consistent with Wade Shows. It was important to the community for us to play Springfield.”
The Wade Shows footprint was “downsized a bit” and the selection focused on “rides that had the most capacity and the most flexibility to have some have some type of social distancing, those were the two main factors. We also got creative with the layout of the rides so we could keep people socially distanced on the lines.”â€¨
Restrictions included removing the middle horse on the carousal and running only every other car on the Himalaya “People were cooperative, but they still need to be reminded of what they have to do.”
He added, “the guests had a great time, there's a lot of pent up demand and they are grateful. But, we had to rollback what we do and until we get a handle on the coronavirus with a vaccine of some kind, these are the challenges we have to overcome.”