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Record Attendance & Democratic Presidential Candidate Spotlight for Iowa State Fair

Photo by Steve Hinz

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Some records may be unique to a fair, others may be the envy of other fairs. The 2019 Iowa State set new records on both fronts.

Attendance is the basis for the two categories except one is about publicity and the other is about the sustainability and growth trajectory of one of the most iconic fairs in  North America.

Next year is a presidential election year, which means that the 2019 Iowa State Fair was the pre-election summer photo-op for candidates vying to lead the Executive Branch of American democracy. They come to Iowa because that state’s February caucuses is the opening of the selection process. Anyone following politics knows that the Democratic field was overflowing with contenders and to Iowa the candidates came – 24 in all, beating the 2015 number of 22.

Political News
“It was up slightly, but the media attention was way up with a record 836 media badges given out,” said Gary Slater, CEO/Fair Manager.

The Des Moines Register sponsors the Soap Box, where the candidates give speeches and answer questions. The politicians also roam the grounds, interacting with Iowans, pose for cellphone photos, etc., resulting in increased news coverage for the fair.

Politics also brings out the Iowa political machines. Being that the Republicans have an incumbent who will likely run virtually unopposed, the 2019 fair belonged to the state Democrats “and you could see them with their favorite candidates, wearing the T-shirt of the day. They had a great turnout,” he said.

While it’s too early to pick a front-runner, according to Slater’s very unscientific polling, Bernie Sanders, Elizabeth Warren and Kamala Harris drew the biggest crowds.

The Bigger Record

But, more important than the record number of political candidates, was overall attendance. The Iowa State Fair had a tremendous turnout – 1,170,375, an increase of 40,115 from 2018, including a record Wednesday (109,323) and Friday (112,891) and the second highest Saturday at (122,111). In fact, with the exception of one Friday where attendance was essentially on par, every day of the 2019 fair had higher attendance than the previous year.

Good weather and a healthy economy certainly contributed to the record-breaking 2019 edition of the Iowa State Fair, but it must be noted that the success is far from a fortunate anomaly. “We have had four record attendances in the last five years,” said Slater. “It was a great Fair, we crushed our attendance records with multiple one-day records. We had a recipe for success with good weather, new daytime entertainment, livestock shows, an expanded Thrill Town kid area and 50 plus new foods.”

The weather was pretty close to ideal. Like many August fairs, a heatwave preceded the Iowa State Fair, causing some anxiety in the weeks prior to the fair, but luckily lifted by opening day. “We had great weather,” said Slater. “Right before the fair, we had mid-to-upper 90s, very hot weather. But for the fair, we had only a few hours of rain, moderate temperatures, sunshine and blue skies.”

Economic Optimism

The other factor determining the degree of success for any fair is the economy. “The economy is good, people seem to have more money to spend than last year, and unemployment is low,” said Slater. “Attendance was up this year and all preliminary discussions with vendors indicate that sales mirrored the increase in attendance.”

The story was a little more complicated on the agriculture side. There are reports of a slowdown in the agriculture industry, especially in indicators such as equipment sales and drops in soybean and other prices. In addition, the tariff war waged by President Trump against China is expected to negatively impact farm exports. “It was discussed by politicians and questions were asked by national media representatives that attended. I know it was a topic of conversation in the barns with livestock producers,” said Slater. “The farmers are cautious, our state depends on exports. The more immediate concern was with corn and soybean prices.”

On the other hand, Slater said that outbreaks of African Swine Fever that required livestock being euthanized have increased global demand for U.S. pork and as a result, “many farmers are very optimistic this year.”
While the business of agriculture may be more apparent at the Iowa State Fair, the event also celebrates the traditions of the annual get together. “”We really feel the strongest part of the fair is the tradition, and the family time that people come for.”

Stage Consolidation
In fact, the family time aspect was something that Slater enhanced this year by consolidating the free entertainment by cutting out one free stage. “We felt that in some cases in our past, we were competing with ourselves, cannibalizing our audience. We went back to four stages and some major ground acts,” he said. New ground acts included Kachunga And The Alligator, Sea Lion Splash and Wool Riders Only Mutton Bust.

Grandstand entertainment this year sold 40,000 more tickets in the Grandstand than in 2018, including one complete sell out – Slipknot – and near sellouts for Zac Brown, Dan & Shay, Gabriel Iglesias, Luke Bryan, Pentatonix, Hootie & the Blowfish, and Toby Keith. Prior to the 2018 fair, the fair reinvested in its grandstand staging, expanding its production capabilities and seating capacities. A seller’s market still persist when it came to fair concerts, but it seems the improvements made a difference. It was “not an easier year, but this year fell into place, early on, all 11 of our shows were booked by April, and that was good,” said Slater. “It is always a challenge to negotiate entertainment, but with our venue upgrades, it is a little easier to attract the popular acts that people want to attend.

The marketing tagline for the 2019 celebration of everything Hawkeye State was “Nothing Compares to Iowa State Fair Favorites.” The marketing campaign included shifts in media allocations, a more robust social media presence and the incorporation of new technology. In terms of spending, the advertising media mix was : TV-32 percent, Radio 30 percent, Print 20 percent and Outdoor/Out of Home/Transit-15 percent and 3 percent online. “We increased online streaming and doubled social media advertising,” said Slater. “We utilized a text alert program and updated our App for this year. We also increased our use of beacons both on the Fairgrounds and in our billboard advertising.”

To better utilize social media, the fair boosted its use of contest promotions and shifted the marketing schedule. “We increased our use of social media for contests this year from announcement to leading up to the Fair,” said Slater.
“We did a significant push two weeks out from the Fair across social media – Facebook, Twitter, Instagram), text alerts, and e-newsletters.”

Independent Midway

Three years ago the Iowa State Fair adopted the independent midway model, expanding the selection and devising a new layout that sectioned off the rides into three “Thrilling” sections – Thrill Ville, Thrill Zone and Thrill Town – the latter is the fair’s kiddieland and that grew by three rides. “We continue to build Thrill Town, it was filled most afternoons, and had really good attendance.”

New rides for 2019 were: First Class Attractions Inc.- Toon Town; Mid American Carnival LLC- Fire House; Alamo Amusement Inc- Kite Flyer; Ray Cammack Shows Inc- Merry Go Round; Amusements International- Rock Wall; Mid-American Carnival LLC- Carousel Manage; Sam’s Amusement Inc- Scooter; Joy Ride Inc- Storm; Conner Family Amusements- Scat 2; Swyear Amusements- Scooter; Conner Family Amusements- Rock-O-Plane; Conner Family Amusements-Musical Chairs; and Ray Cammack Shows Inc-108-ft Tall Grand Wheel.

The addition of the Ray Cammack Shows Grand Wheel turned out to be an effective choice; it was one of the top grossing rides at the fair. Other popular attractions included: Kiddie Bumper Boats- Del Rio Cristian; Flying Elephants-Top Scan LLC; Fire House- Mid American Carnival LLC; and the Crazy Mouse- SJ Entertainment Inc.

It seems the third time was indeed in the charm and Slater is steadfastly committed to the independent midway. “We’re excited that we continue to grow receipts,” he said. “For us, being independent meant bringing on a whole new department, but we’re in control. We can evaluate each piece of equipment. We’ve heard nothing but positive feedback.”

The fair is also one of the leading fairs – as opposed to just ride companies – who’ve adopted the Magic Money, cashless system. “It works without a hitch, even though we’re working with many different ride operators,” said Slater. “The midway has a real Theme Park feel, which everybody finds enjoyable.”

The fair featured about 200 vendors, which included a new vendor; the Iowa Poultry Association. The fair broke another record in the Food & Beverage segment – the highest number of new food items – 50 – and the highest number of new beverages – 70.

In keeping with the Iowa State Fair’s upgrades to its grandstand, grounds layout and independent midway, the concessionaire presentations were also improved in 2019. “We urge them to improve their stands and that has meant better sales. Upgrades go hand-in-hand with a better product and higher sales.”
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