Campers are arriving daily, venues are undergoing final preparations and anticipation is building for the 2010 Missouri State Fair, which opens Thursday. On Monday, Democrat Editor Bob Satnan sat down with Fair Director Mark Wolfe to discuss this year’s event.
Q: This year you instituted the three-tiered ticketing for the concerts. How do you feel that went?
A: Well, I’ll back up a little bit and tell you our reasoning for that. In the past, usually at the kick-off party and things like that, we would have this big announcement. I know a lot of other fairs had started this process where they would either do early releases … (or) you could get on their website. I think Indiana had their total lineup out back in March or April. We just thought, “Well, maybe if we would try to do it to start releasing ours earlier, that it might help our ticket sales and it also might help folks plan what they were going to do.” If we could get it out there early, folks might say, “Well, we were thinking about going to Florida to take a vacation, but airlines and all that are expensive, and hey, look what the fair’s got for concerts! Let’s go ahead and get concert tickets!”
So that was the thinking behind it, and then of course, you can’t release them until you get all the contractual stuff done, so we realized that we weren’t done booking all of them at that time. We were getting close, but as you get down to the last day or two it becomes a lot more difficult because you have such a narrow window, you may find groups that are available in your price range, but then you find out that the day before they’re in California, so that means, if you want them, they are not routed right. That’s one of the biggest issues finding entertainment is getting the routing right. So, anyway, we decided to do it that way, knowing that that might be an issue, to do it in three phases. We do an initial release of a certain kind of music, and then we would do one that was country and then we would do one that finished up. And, you know, I think it started out good, but that really has plateaued. Ticket sales overall are probably not far from where we were last year at this point in time, maybe down just a little, but it’s pretty close. So, was the overall effect good? You know, we had some phone calls; people called in and said, “Oh!” (after we released that second release) and said, “Boy! If I had known that, I might not have bought this ticket.” And I’m sitting there thinking, “Well, you’re going to have to come twice now!” (laughs)
You know, had we had a fairly mild summer, I think that ticket sales would be better than they are right now, but it’s Missouri and we’re fickle people (smiling). We have a tendency to sit there and wait and try to make that best decision for ourselves.
Q: That said, I know that you had been pursuing Sheryl Crow to come in for a couple of years, that you wanted her to come back home. So I know that you’re happy that she’s in this year. How do you feel about the rest of the lineup?
A: I think that we really have an excellent lineup. It’s very diverse. That’s always a challenge, too; we get contacted by people after the fair, or before the fair asking, “Why don’t you get this entertainer or that entertainer.” Well, as I said before, some of that is due to not only cost for certain entertainers, but the routing. Like I said, you can maybe afford to have them, but if they’re not routed through this area, the additional cost to get them here, if they are even available on that day, is extremely high because you’re flying them in and flying them out.
Shinedown was one of the last groups announced (but) is selling more tickets than anything. So, you know, we were lucky with that. Somebody said the other day, “Maybe we ought to have Shinedown eight different nights in a row since they seem to be pretty successful out here.” (laughing)
The Fair’s history is country, you know that’s what everybody (expects), but country acts don’t necessarily sell any better. We have had rock acts out here before that didn’t do very well. There’s always a lot of clamor to get classic rock; well, some of those work, and you just never know. So it’s a real guessing game. Obviously it’s very risky because it costs a lot to get these folks to come in here and do this, and their money is guaranteed, and if the weather turns south on us, they get paid and you replace the ticket cost, so it’s a very risky thing. We don’t spend the kind of money now that we did just three or four years ago, just because of that, because of the amount of risk.
Q: Last year, there was a free concert with Kansas, and this year there are no free concerts in the Grandstand. Is there a reason for that?
A: You know, nobody took advantage of it. (We needed a) pretty good walk-in crowd of 5,000 or 6,000, and we didn’t have half that. And we did sell the track seats and then gave the Grandstand away, and we didn’t even sell half the track seats for a pretty well-known classic rock group. As we looked at the numbers after the fair last year, it didn’t come out. If we had sold all of the track seats, we could have broken even on the concert and we would have been fine. That was the thinking on the concert. You would have thought there were 15,000 Kansas fans who would have paid for the seats. Evidently there is not. But we did come back this year with three or four concerts which are $10 or $15.
Q: To get back to price points then, you hear a lot about how the economy is tight; we all know that people are watching their dollars. The opening day “Dollar Day” has gone up to “Two Buck Bonanza.” What is your response to the folks who say, “Gee, the fair has gotten expensive, and I don’t know if I’ll be able to take in as much as I have in the past.”
A: Well, I guess that my response is especially to the local community, because we’re going to have more repeat customers from inside this 40-, 50-, 60-mile radius. The cost to put on the fair doesn’t ever stay stagnant, or go down. Our electric bills go up constantly; all that stuff continues to increase. Our fuel costs, all the parts that it takes to put on the fair continues to go up even though we try to keep the prices at one level as long as we can and not raise them. There was discussion about raising the adult fee this past winter, going up from $8 to $9 or $10. After a lot of discussion, and checking with other fairs to see what others are doing, It costs more to go to other state fairs; a lot of them have parking fees if they have any parking on their grounds at all, so you know, as we looked at it we thought, “Well, the Two Dollar Day doesn’t seem like a lot, but if you have 40,000 people out here, instead of $40,000 you get $80,000.”
It costs us nearly $140,000 just for the month of August for an electric bill out here. So you’ve got to be doing something to offset those costs. The economy that everybody else is facing out there … state agencies are facing the same cuts. The fair has been very lucky up to this point; we have suffered some budget reductions over the last two years in the form of withholdings, and this year an actual true budget cut that took place so that is permanent – at least in the near future. Just that one day, the budget cut we took, going from $1 to $2, that doesn’t quite cover the budget cut if we have 50,000 people here. So, we are about 90 percent self-sufficient, which is very good for state fairs – especially one located in a town of 20,000 people, 75 miles from the nearest metropolitan area. It’s expected that we do that and we have a pretty small year-round staff we have to take care of the facility, we have off-season business. If it were not for that, we would really be struggling financially. (We) only get basically 10 percent of our total budget as a state agency supplied by the taxpayers through general revenue. I can tell you for a fact that … we return more back in sales tax revenue from the 11-day fair – twice as much as they give us each year for operating (expenses).
Q: On the last day of the fair last year, you and I sat down and talked about some of the things that you were happy to see and some of things you were hopeful to get accomplished this year. One of them was that you really wanted to go to the capital and try to get some funds for enhanced restroom facilities. Obviously, since you took a budget cut, you weren’t able to secure that, but driving around the fairgrounds, I see that there have been some improvements made. Without having that additional revenue, how were you guys able to get some of those improvements done?
A: A couple reasons: Obviously if we can do them in-house with our maintenance staff, the smaller projects, we can do it with a lot less cost. Then … probably the key to us dealing with some of these issues over the last year, almost year and a half, has been the Missouri State Fair Foundation. If it were not for their efforts and fundraising, you wouldn’t see some of this stuff getting done. We received zero dollars in maintenance and repair funds from the state last year. This fiscal year, starting July 1, we were zeroed out again. We’re not even going to be requesting any capital improvements for that, so the next several years are going to be tough for all the state agencies. The fair is unique to anything else in state government, I’ve got to believe. Are we critical to the state of Missouri? Absolutely not. I understand that the state of Missouri can function without a state fair, but on the flip side of that, if we can do it in a way and operate the facility in a way that makes them money – that wouldn’t be the case if they had to spend a lot on capital improvements.
The campground work that you saw was a capital improvement project, but it was funds from (a previous budget) so it was an on-going project, so there was no new money appropriated last year, won’t be any this year or the next year for sure. Beyond that, we’ll have to see what happens. But we’re in a situation out here where we’ve had to make the cuts, we’ve reduced premiums in some areas, we’ve stopped having certain shows and exhibits that cost us a lot and didn’t return anything, some things like that to offset some of the loss that we have taken. With the help of the foundation, we’ve been able to maintain to the best of our ability most of the equipment, etc. A lot of help came along at the right time; we got some streets resurfaced out here that was much needed. ... It’s a big challenge every year but we try to do what we can to grind things down and make things smooth because people fall and get hurt and that’s not good.
Q: Anybody who looks at the roster is going to see a boatload full of free entertainment. You have brought in some new things this year, some new free entertainment. Do you want to touch on anything of those things?
A: We’ve learned, probably the hard way, that if there’s not a lot of good free entertainment out here, that’s what brings people back to the fair. Not everyone wants to spend an additional $10, $15, $17, $35 to go to a Grandstand show. The affordability side of the fair is what it costs you to get in. That’s kind of what we look at. Once you come into the fairgrounds, there are additional things you can spend money on if you choose, but that’s completely voluntary. So, with free entertainment, your bigger acts, you try to rotate. Most we don’t keep more than two or three years so that we get something new. Some that are really successful that people really like, we’ll keep that third year. For instance, since the (Amazing Anastasini Circus) is coming back this year, we’ll probably do something different there next year. We had the Shenanigans Wild West Show that was hugely popular, but we had them two or three years and this year we have gone a different route and we’ve got a dog show called “Jump! The Ultimate Dog Show.” It’s an act out of Las Vegas. These are all rescue dogs, all rescued from pounds and things. It is neat!
We’ve got the old things that people would expect. If you don’t have pig races at the Missouri State Fair, you might as well not open the gate. So we got things like that. The Mounted Shooters are coming back, Vocal Trash is back. They’re so good that it’s hard to get them. … We’ve got a lot of stuff on the free as far as the music goes. If you don’t go to the Bud Stage and see the acts, if you haven’t heard of them, the next chance you get might be at the Grandstand and you would be paying for it. It’s all free over there. Shotgun Red is going to be there this year at the Bud Stage. Steve (Hall) is a great guy, and the musical talent will just blow your mind.
There’s all kinds of things going on, not all of them are music and acts. The science focus this year went from two days to four days. We’re going to try to attempt another world record here again. There’s some free entertainment you’re not going to see anywhere else probably.
Q: The Science emphasis, the four days of science, is kind of a different thing. What was the generation of that? It looks like something that’s a little more of a departure, but it does seem that as technology weaves it’s way into everyone’s life, it obviously has become a part of agriculture, as well.
A: You know, the level of technology in agriculture has gone through the roof in the last 15 or 20 years, but you’re really seeing it now. I was laughing the other day talking to somebody about how nobody would have ever thought that there would come a time when you would have global positioning equipment in a tractor out in the field, but it’s been in equipment for several years. It sounds far-fetched, but it is very feasible that any time in the near future, a farmer could sit on his back porch and program his tractor and sit there and watch it. The level of technology in agriculture has come so far so fast that it is now just a huge part of agriculture. And we’re a huge ag state, so I think the tie-in to science and technology and agriculture sure is huge. It’s kind of two-fold for the fair; it’s great that we can show that out here, but it also provides us an opportunity at the fair to do something that may be for the more urban folks who say, “Well, I don’t farm, I don’t care.” Well, you know what? Your child in Kansas City might be pretty sharp, may be into the science, may be a future job for that person, and that very thing ties right back in to what agriculture does. So I think there’s a good link.
Q: A lot of folks work during the day, can’t come to the Fair for the whole day, but there are discounts after hours – correct?
A: Several years ago we instituted a $6 after 6 (p.m.), or something like that, and then two years ago, we went to a $5 after 5 (p.m.) special for that very reason. If folks had to work all day and … didn’t come out until 5 or 6 (p.m.); they had missed most the free entertainment acts, all that stuff that you’re offering is not available when I get there. So we redid our schedules a couple of years ago to make sure that all of our free entertainment acts, we had at least one for that evening. We scheduled it that way and changed it to a $5 after 5 thinking that if you came out, you could eat dinner out here if you like. That works well with our concessionaires and everybody else. … This year, we kind of backed that off based on how people took advantage of it, because we monitor that every day. Looking at the numbers, we realized that we were having it on days that it really didn’t matter, it didn’t seem to affect the attendance and so to watch our revenue and how it comes in, we decided that the days when that was most beneficial was the first Sunday through Thursday. On Thursday it is half-price anyway, so it’s only $4.
Q: I know that the thing I’m looking forward to most with the fair opening, food-wise, is the Missouri Honey Producers and get some of the honey raspberry ice cream. Of course, I love Dick’s Corn Dogs and everything else, but that honey ice cream had me coming back regularly. What is it that you just love?
A: You mentioned the corn dog. I’m a carnivore anyway; I always like the steak, and the pork and all that. I try to pick at least one day during the fair to hit those places to eat, but I’ve got to have that corn dog. I think that what’s neat about our food line-up out here is that we’ve got the fair foods that may not be the best on your arteries but everybody loves the taste of, and it’s only once a year, it can’t be that bad for you. And if you’re out here seeing everything, you’ll burn that off.
Q: One of the other new focuses this year is the Hometown Heroes Day, which is kind of an enhancement from what you’ve done in the past. It looks like the fair organization has really reached out to the military community with this effort.
A: That’s correct. We have looked at our schedules over this past winter and looked at the way we did things. There was a lot of conversation when we were talking about Military Appreciation Day and at no fault of the fair or anyone else, schools have backed up their schedules so much that now we’re trying to have a fair while so many school districts throughout the state, other than Sedalia, down in the southern part of the state where I grew up, they’re starting school Aug. 12, the first day of the fair, so that is becoming an issue. We looked at that in terms of Military Appreciation Day and we thought that with all that’s going on in this world and with some of the places where our military folks are defending us right now, that maybe we weren’t giving them the fairest handshake for that day with it being during the week, and spouses back here working jobs and kids in school, that having it on that Tuesday maybe didn’t give them the best opportunity to come out and visit the fair. So we decided that we wanted to move that back onto the weekend. We changed everything that we were doing; we moved it to Sunday, had free admission if you are active military, veterans or delayed entry recruits getting ready to go. In the past, if you also brought family, it was $1 off for each one of them. But we decided to completely flip-flop that, so this year it’s just a $1 for family members if you come in with them. Several high-ranking officials will be coming in and they are going to be doing an official ceremony on that day. Vocal Trash will be performing for them on the stage there, and since they do some military appreciation type stuff anyway, that will be really good. Of course, that night we’ve got Katharine McPhee and Bomshel that night on the stage, a very reasonably priced concert if they can stay for that. We just want to take the opportunity to thank Sprint; they really stepped up to sponsor the whole day. It just is a neat opportunity to do something a little better for (the military) and show them how much we appreciate what they are doing.
Q: What else do you have to add as we reach out to the community and let them know about our annual party?
A: I think that one thing that I would like to see mentioned is that we did not last year have the First Lady’s Pie Contest. It didn’t work out last year with (First Lady Georganne Nixon)’s schedule, but she was very excited about wanting to put one together for this year, and we were able to get with her and her staff and get that worked out. It will be held on the Governor’s Ham Breakfast day, Thursday. The judging will be held at 10 (a.m.) in the Home Ec Building. I think they pay out about $150 for first place. Everybody needs to get involved in that; I mean, if you can bake a pie and win $150, that’s great. And you and I need to go apply to be judges.
The original information said the deadline to enter was Aug.2; we have extended that to Aug. 12. The rules and when they have to arrive is all on the website (mostatefair.org).