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Wisconsin's "WonderFair" Breaks Records; 7th Year in A Row for more than One Million Fairgoers
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An independent midway, innovative promotions and an intensive focus on building upon proven programming seems to be the winning formula for the Wisconsin State Fair. For the past seven years, this iconic Midwestern fair has sustained attendance at more than one million, a remarkable run that seems no signs of abating.

Last year, the Wisconsin State Fair had a record attendance and pushed the fair up from 18 to 17 on the top 50 Fair List, the annual ranking of North American fairs compiled by Carnival Warehouse. Turns out that the annual celebration of everything Cheese State broke even the most recent records set, sustaining one of the longest, sustained periods of growth in the industry.


Upper Echelon

“The Wisconsin State Fair has long been considered one of the top fairs in the country,” said Kathleen O'Leary, Chief Executive Officer of Wisconsin State Fair Park. “The Wisconsin State Fair is an 11-day celebration and showcase of everything we should be so proud of in Wisconsin. I'd like to extend a sincere thank you to everyone who came out to enjoy the event, as well as our sponsors, vendors and partners who helped make this a record-breaking year.”

The fair attracted 1,130,572, marking the seventh year in a row that attendance has reached more than one million. The 2018 attendance total broke the 2017 record year total by 9 percent. According to the official press release, the only edition of the Wisconsin State Fair in the 168-year history of the event reporting higher attendance than 2019 occurred in 1948 – but back then the fair was 23 days long – the current fair lasts 11 days – and it was the celebration of Wisconsin's Centennial year. The event that year equated to an average of 77,688 people per day; the 2019 average daily attendance was 102,779. In addition, the 2019 fair set attendance records for five days.

Weather was a favorable factor, and this year the fair got lucky. According to Kristi Chuckel, Communications Director, Wisconsin State Fair Park, the weather was “Great. We did have storms come through on three occasions, but the afternoon one was brief, and the other two were fairly late in the evening, so it luckily did not hurt our attendance too much. We did have to shut down most rides and some attractions during the afternoon storm, and then again had to shut everything down a little early one night.”

 “We are aware that great weather helped us reach record-breaking attendance, but beautiful weather does not necessarily mean people want to attend your event,” said John Yingling, Chairman of the Wisconsin State Fair Park Board. “There are many things to enjoy on a beautiful summer day in Wisconsin, and the fact that more than one million people again chose to spend their time at the Wisconsin State Fair is a testament to the quality of the event and the memorable experiences that our visitors have each year.”

 
Spending Up

Spending was up across the board, buoyed by an economy finally emerging from post-recession doldrums. “While we are still crunching the numbers, signs indicate that people were willing to spend money on admission, rides, food and beverage, etc.” said Chuckel. “Both ride and F&B revenue were up this year. We also had very strong pre-sale numbers for both general admission and concerts, indicating that people were willing to part with their money ahead of time, though this also allowed them to save money on the purchases.”

More than half of the 2019 attendees come from outside of the Milwaukee area and the State Fair event alone is estimated to generate more than $200 million dollars in direct and indirect economic impact annually in the Milwaukee region.


WonderFair Marketing

Since some of the last year's record breaking success can be attributed the play-on-word tagline -- Make your Day WonderFair (i.e., wonderful) – the fair augmented the copy with an extended tagline of “We have 11 days and a million ways to make your day WonderFair”.

The fair's  advertising budget of approximately $900k, according to Chuckel, was about the same as it was in 2018, although it maintained an increase over 2017's $760k. The media mix for 2019 was: Radio (26 percent), Digital (20 percent), OOH (21 percent), TV/Connected TV (16 percent), Print (8 percent), Social Media (9 percent).  “The largest changes came in print and social media,” said Chuckel. “We dropped print advertising by 3 percent, and increased social media by 6 percent.”

 The increased spending on social media spurred the marketing team at the Wisconsin State Fair to rethink how social media had been used. As a result, Social media marketing was expanded both in reach and scope. “We spent significantly more money on social media advertising in 2019 and used it for targeted campaigns as well as general awareness campaigns,” she said. “We also used social as a staff recruitment tool for our seasonal employees and increased promotion of our Ag Programs to the general public.”

The State Fair's website also set a record, reaching more than 5.4 million page views during the 11 days of the Fair.

 

SpinCity Records

In addition to 30 free entertainment stages, the fair featured headliners on its Main Stage. Although the fair reported no sell outs, the biggest draws were  REO Speedwagon, Old Dominion and Brett Eldredge. As one of the leading Midwestern fairs, the Wisconsin State Fair remains a popular touring stop, although like all fairs large and small, rising production costs and increased competition continues to create challenges for far talent buying. The 2019 market was similar to 2018, “[it's still] “more of a seller's market,” said Chuckel, but for fairs it had become “a little better. “

Probably no single component of the fair experience puts the wonderful into a “WonderFair” than the amusement rides and for the Wisconsin State Fair the midway is known as SpinCity, one of the largest independent midways of any summer fair. The rides allotment was 49, down a couple of rides compared to last year. Ride revenue, in conjunction with the record breaking attendance, was up 10 percent in 2019. Fairgoers took more than 120,000 slides down the Giant Slide this year, as well as more than 115,000 Sky Glider trips across the Fair Park.

The fair contracted with a new ride company,  Mr. Ed's Magical Midway, who brought three new rides to the midway –Air Maxx (a KMG Inversion), Family Train and a Dalton Tractor ride. Another new ride for the fair was a Eli HY 5 Rim Drive Ferris Wheel by A&P Enterprise Shows.

Top Kiddie Rides were Puppy Express (Prime Pacific Entertainment LLC); Raiders (Roses Rides LLC); Carousel (A&P Enterprises); Monkey Maze (Alamo Amusements) and Lolly Swing (Prime Pacific Entertainment LLC).

Top Adult Rides: Galaxy Roller Coaster (Reithoffer Shows, Inc.); Wave Swinger (FairRide Entertainment, LLC); Alpine Bob's (B-Thrilled Attractions, LLC); Haunted Castle (FairRide Entertainment, LLC) and New York-New York ( FairRide Entertainment, LLC).


Food Promotion

About 170 food vendors were at the fair, with food revenue increases outpacing ride revenue although the final numbers were not available at press time. Signature items, such as the Original Cream Puffs, exceeded 400,000 sales and the Real Wisconsin Cheese Grill sold nearly 60,000 grilled cheese sandwiches. The Wisconsin Potato Growers served up more than 41,000 baked potatoes; the Wisconsin Cattlemen's Association sold more than 14,000 ribeye sandwiches;

Fair cuisine receives focused attention by the Sporkies Food Competition, which recognizes new food items at the fair. The Champion Sporkie, was the Buffalo Cheese Curd Taco from Poncho Dog, reportedly 20,000 were sold. Other Sporkies Food Champion finalists included:  Brownie Waffle On-A-Stick from Waffle Chix; Chicago Dog Nachos from Slim's PBR Park; Deep-Fried Italian Stallion from Water Street Brewery and Deep-Fried Milk with Cookie Dip from Slim's Lakefront Brew Pub & Eatery.

All in all, the 2019 edition of the Wisconsin State Fair is a stellar chapter in its 168th history of showcasing Wisconsin, especially its agriculture and dairy industry. A report released at the conclusion of the fair indicated the extent of the effect of the fair's promotion of this essential industry – the study found that total economic impact to of the agriculture industry is more than $100 billion.

For the fair though, resting on its laurels doesn't seem to be in the event's vocabulary. When asked if the 2019 Wisconsin State Fair exceeded expectations, Chuckel was emphatic: “Exceeded expectations to some extent, but we have pretty high expectations of ourselves!”
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