Attendance and revenue were both down for the 2019 Nebraska State Fair, Aug. 23 through Sept. 2, according to Lori Cox, State Fair executive director.
Torrential rains impacted both attendance and revenue, and also caused unbudgeted expenses to the fair with the need to shuttle fairgoers to Fonner Park. The heavy rain made parking impossible at the grass parking lots.
Between Wednesday, Aug. 21 and Monday, Aug. 26, Grand Island received nearly five inches of rain. For the entire month of August, Grand Island received nearly 12 inches of precipitation.
While the rain let up for the second weekend of the fair, the parking situation at Fonner Park did not improve. That caused the fair to add more buses to the shuttle route and more unplanned expenses.
During the last weekend of the fair, as many as 20,000 people were being shuttled daily to Fonner Park. In dry years, usually, there would be eight buses employed to carry fairgoers. This year, 23 buses were used. Between 80% to 90% of fairgoers arrived at the gate via shuttle buses from six Grand Island locations.
The loss of revenue due to weather-related problems put the fair in a short-term financial crunch. To address the need to pay their creditors, board member Jeremy Jensen of Grand Island made a motion to apply for a $1.5 million line of credit with Five Points Bank. Jensen explained the action, which is common practice with many businesses, as a short-term loan to help with cash flow.
A large area of Fonner Park used for parking for the State Fair is not paved. The heavy rain made parking impossible. The week before the fair, State Fair officials began preparing for increasing the number of buses and adding additional stops to shuttle visitors to the fair because of the parking dilemma.
The fair board also took action by forming a committee to work with Fonner Park to address the parking problem.
This is the second year State Fair officials had to deal with above-normal precipitation conditions. In 2018, the State Fair had to cancel the outdoor concert series because soft ground created an unstable situation for the stage.
After several presentations Friday night, the board went into executive session for more than two hours for personnel evaluation. After the regular meeting was resumed, board member Doug Lukassen of District 6 announced his immediate resignation from the board. He did not comment on his resignation. Lukassen was the board’s treasurer. He is from Kimball.
But despite the rain, in a report from Swanson Russell, which does the marketing for the State Fair, attendance was 283,468, which was down 10% from 2018 (314,805). That caused a 12% decline in gate revenue from the previous year.
Of the 283,468 attendees at this year’s fair, 45,177 — or 16% — of the total attendance was from complimentary tickets.
Nebraska State Fair staff worked throughout the year in preparation for the fair, which celebrated the 150th anniversary of the fair and its 10th year in Grand Island.
Those pre-fair promotions paid off and were a contributing factor at easing the financial impact. Pre-sales of gate admissions were up 30% from 2018; carnival pre-sales set a record tripling the previous high.
Despite the lower attendance because of the weather, sales for 64 concessionaires were up over previous years, with six vendors reporting increases of more than 50%.
Greg Harder, State Fair chief of business operations and Aksarben Stock Show director, reported the Aksarben Stock Show was well-received. There were more than 900 youth participating from 14 states, showing more than 2,500 head of livestock.
The annual Aksarben Livestock Auction that raises money for youth participants brought in nearly $150,000.
“We want to be as transparent with the public on how the fair did,” Cox said. “And when our attendance is not as good, it is important to report that and tell people where we are. It is also exciting to report all the good things, too.”
Cox said, despite the lower attendance, Wade Shows, the carnival provider, experienced a 25% increase in sales over last year. It was also 4% more than their previous record in 2017, when state fair attendance was nearly 380,000.
Also, revenues were up at the various taverns located on the fairgrounds; campground revenues were up, and equine and livestock entry fees were more than $220,000. There were record entries for both 4-H and FFA exhibitors.
The board also learned the special State Fair Lottery Scratch Ticket had revenues of more than a half-million dollars. There was also a 54% increase in sponsorships that produced $1.37 million.
Cox said Nebraskans are resilient and adapted to the parking situation.
“Although it takes a bit of additional time to get the fair’s results tallied and verified by an independent, third-party auditor, we are pleased to share our current information with Nebraska as we begin plans for 2020,” Cox said.
“The staff and State Fair Board also want to thank the Grand Island community, especially the volunteers, Fonner Park and the six shuttle locations for their tremendous support,” she said. “Despite the weather complications, we had some outstanding — and unexpected — successes.”
Chris Kircher, chairman of the Nebraska State Fair Board, said, “We can’t control Mother Nature, but we can provide an experience for fairgoers that at least competes with the weather.”
“In a year when we were forced to move or cancel events because of weather conditions, it’s counterintuitive to see high attendee satisfaction — yet, according to our on-grounds surveys, satisfaction continued to receive high marks, and some key metrics continued to grow,” Kircher said. “There are always unexpected elements at the fair, but the team responded professionally with public safety first and foremost, taking care of our exhibitors and vendors, guests, and partners.”
This year’s fair had a record 12 concerts that drew 36,373 attendees. That was a 68% increase over last year. Cox said the branding program of selling concert tickets by classification of music, such as Hot Country, Red Dirt, Rock, etc. was successful but still needs to be worked on before next year. The heavy rain also impacted concert revenue.
Little Big Town drew the most with 4,876, followed by Maren Morris with 4,075 and Trace Adkins at 4,034.
The 2020 Nebraska State Fair runs Aug. 28 through Sept. 7.