Breaking the 1 million mark is milestone many fairs strive for, but not all achieve. An Independent midway, robust headline entertainment and a strident food promotion not only pushed the Wisconsin State Fair over that mark, but this year was the fifth year in a row that milestone was passed.
This year-the 166th year for the Wisconsin State Fair, and its 125th year since the fair was first held at State Fair Park - according to fair officials, 1,028,049 people enjoyed the 2017 Wisconsin State Fair. Attendance topped last year's 1,015,815 (although it was slightly down from 2014: 1,030,881 and 2015: 1,033,053. 2013: 1,012,552). Kristi Chuckel, Communications Director, Wisconsin State Fair, said the 2018 edition of the fair went, "Great!," she said. "For the fifth year in a row we had attendance over one million, and overall the event was very successful
This continued trajectory has coincided with a sustained improvement in the economy and what has become an intensely loyal following. "Our attendance and spending have been consistent for the past 5 years," she added.
While perfect may be too strong a word to describe weather for the fair, luckily the inclement climate came early on. "Opening day was a complete washout - unfortunately it stormed off and on all day," she said. "The second day was unseasonably cold, but after that we had beautiful weather almost every day."
Last year, the fair's closing was marred by city wide protests and while no such incident occurred in 2018, the Ohio State Fair fatal accident less than a month before, "Definitely impacted us this year from a public relations standpoint," she said. "We did many media interviews leading up to and during the fair explaining our ride inspection process, and the fact that we are an independently managed midway."
"It shook the whole industry," said Shari Black, Senior Director of Event Services, who manages Spin City, the fair's independent midway. "It was a horrible accident, and we were worried about safety. We did not have a Freak Out at the fair, which was the ride that was at the Ohio State Fair, so that was good."
Like all fairs post-Ohio - especially those in the immediate aftermath of the incident-the extra media attention could easily have been a negative and fairs made great efforts to reassure the public about the safety of its fair. Black pointed out that Governor Scott Walker - who was accompanied by U.S. Department of Agriculture Secretary Sonny Perdue - attended opening day, and according to Black, made a photo-op of riding the rides, especially the new, Wonder Wheel. An estimated 82,000 rides were taken on this ride during the course of the fair.
"The Wisconsin State Fair brings people together to enjoy the best of the best when it comes to Wisconsin Fun," said Governor Walker. "It's fun and affordable for the whole family. With 30 stages of free entertainment and activities, special events every day, livestock auctions and shows, delicious food, great music, and fun rides, everyone is sure to find something they'll love at the Wisconsin State Fair this year."
As political endorsements go, Walker's support of the fair may be his least controversial. For a fair trying to reinforce the safety of the rides in the aftermath of a tragic accident, this endorsement seemed to do the trick.
SpinCity-the name of the fair's independent midway - featured 51 rides and generated about $4 Million, "on par with last year," said Chuckel.
An inclement opening day may have suppressed to a small degree overall revenue, but Black pointed out that it was one of the best fairs. "We had some rain and one night with lighting," said Black. "Overall, it went very well, we were extremely crowded on the weekends and found the last Saturday, every ride was running at full capacity."
New rides included: Lolly Swing (Prime Pacific), Hampton (M&C Attractions), Galaxy Rollercoaster (Reithoffer Shows, Inc.), Drop N Twist (A&P Enterprises), Scooters (Arnold Amusements, Inc.) and Moby Dick (All Around Amusements)
According to the fair, not only was the Galaxy Rollercoaster new, but it was also the most popular ride, followed by New York-New York (FairRide Entertainment, LLC), Wave Swinger (FairRide Entertainment, LLC), Starship 3000 (Laser Fair, Inc.), Alpine Bobs (B-Thrilled Attractions, LLC), Tilt-A-Whirl (Lauther Amusements, Inc.), Haunted House Dark Ride(International Attractions), Magic Maze (Wood Entertainment), Pharoah's Fury (Rainbow Valley Rides, Inc.), and Raiders (Rose's Rides LLC).
The fair's marketing budge was $760K, which, according to Chuckel, was for both media buying and production. This does not include printed collateral or our extensive trade program for both paid advertising and promotional giveaways." There was no "major change" in the amount budgeted or the allocation of expenditures. Media allocation was : 25 percent radio; 23 percent Digital/Social; 23 percent OOH (out of home); 15 percent TV; and 14 percent other. She added that the fair increased money spent on advertising on social media platforms -Facebook, Twitter, Instagram and the fair "also purchased Snapchat filters for the second year."
The fair featured 200 vendors, with a estimated revenue of $4.5 million. The fair's signature item - "Wisconsin's favorite dairy delicacy - the Original Cream Puff" sold more than 408,000 units, which Chuckel pointed out "broke records."
The Wisconsin State Fair has one of the most effective food contest promotions in the Midwest, the Sporkies. This year was the fifth annual edition of this food competition. In the weeks leading up to the fair, entries are received for new, unique and unusual foods - 31 entries were received this year. Then a panel of local celebrity judges - with some help from the fairgoers - choose the recipients of four Golden Spork Awards, which takes place during the fair. The Emmy-nominated "Wisconsin Foodie" host Kyle Cherek moderated a panel of celebrity judges, including Super Bowl Champion LeRoy Butler, OnMilwaukee.com Senior Food & Dining Writer Lori Fredrich, Milwaukee radio veteran Steve Palec and Fox 6 anchor and reporter Nicole Koglin. A fairgoer also sits alongside the celebrity panel and taste-tested the final creations, selected by a contest on Twitter and Instagram. In addition, fairgoers were encouraged to participate in the judging during the fair by sampling all of The Sporkies entries and voting for their favorites to award a fourth Golden Spork Trophy for the Fairgoers' Fave.
The Sporkies Champion Spaghetti & Meatballs Mozzarella Sticks by Albanese's Roadhouse sold 9,800 orders of this new fair cuisine. The Mela Fritta Gelato on-a-stick (made by La Coppa) took home the "Most Creative" and "Grand Champion" awards. Other finalists included: Cajun Mac-n-Cheese (from Tropics at the Fair), Deep Fried Peanut Butter and Bacon Nuggets with Berry Weiss Jelly (from Saz's), Iced Irish Coffee Float (from Slim McGinn's West), Island Slaw (From Island Noodles), Mac Attack (from West Allis Shrine Club), Rasta Shrimp Sliders (from Tropics at the Fair) and a Thanksgiving Waffle.
This year's Sporkies "received extensive media/social media coverage," said Chuckel.
Wisconsin remains committed to ticketed headline entertainment on the State Fair Main Stage presented by Potawatomi Hotel & Casino. The lineup for this year was heavy on country and classic rock and included KING & COUNTRY, I Love the 90's Tour!, John Mellencamp, Kip Moore with Maggie Rose, The Beach Boys with The Temptations, Pentatonix with Us The Duo, ROCK THE MILE -a star-studded lineup with members of Foreigner, Journey, The Tubes and Asia; Sabrina Carpenter from Disney Channel's "Girl Meets World," Patti Labelle with En Vogue.
Chuckel declined to comment if the booking environment was more favorable this year than previous years, instead emphasizing that the entertainment was one of the many components that continued the Wisconsin State Fair's five year winning streak. The 2018 fair "met expectations," she said. "Overall a great fair."