Thriving Fairs Branch Out From Agricultural Roots
Katrina Dolezal-Mersinger and her family come to the Benton County Fair in Sauk Rapids, Minn., every summer for everything from rides and food to scavenger hunts and making model boats.
Dolezal-Mersinger of St. Cloud, Minn., has attended the fair for the past 12 years and loves the variety of free activities that come with it. Her two oldest children each submitted numerous 4-H entries, including a dress sewn by daughter Katherine and a model space shuttle built by son Johnathan.
“It’s a nice opportunity for them to show off what they have learned and to see what other people are capable of doing, too,” Dolezal-Mersinger says.
Once known mainly for midway thrill rides and livestock shows, many state and county fairs are finding success by adding unique events to attract new visitors and offering low-cost entertainment to families on a budget.
More people are forgoing vacations and looking for things to do closer to home, says Marla Calico, director of education for the International Association of Fairs and Expositions, which has 1,100 members in the USA, Canada and several other countries.
“What we have seen is in difficult economic times, fairs actually thrive,” Calico says.
The Elkhart County 4-H Fair in Goshen, Ind., a nine-day event in July, attracted nearly 245,000 people — up 4% from 2011, marketing manager Kristy Ambrosen says.
Fair organizers have continued to work to honor the area’s agricultural roots but added non-farm events such as rocket launches and three-on-three basketball tournaments, Ambrosen says.
“It’s not necessarily that you have to be a farm kid to enjoy it,” she says.
Like other fairs, Elkhart County’s is trying to shift its focus toward more education about agriculture.
Visitors can watch calves being born or watch chefs from popular local restaurants demonstrate how to prepare dishes using garden produce.
“We always have it in our mind that there are a large portion of fair guests that are coming in the gate that are not regularly exposed to agriculture,” Ambrosen says.
At the Red River Valley Fair in West Fargo, N.D., which drew 105,000 visitors over six days in mid-July, the fair’s Ag Education Center shows visitors “where your food comes from and how it gets to your table,” says Jodi Buresh, assistant general manager.
That includes displaying the many products made from a beef cow, from Big Macs to baseballs to leather belts, she says.
“We’re targeting more of the city folks, so to speak,” Buresh says.
For those who aren’t interested in farming, organizers of the Red River Valley Fair have tried new features such as a salsa-making contest and a wine garden. They’ve also worked to add color to the fairgrounds, Buresh says.
“It’s vibrant. You can feel the energy is much better,” she says. “It’s not the dirty old fairgrounds that everybody associates with fairs.”
The Clay County Agricultural Fair in Green Cove Springs, Fla., attracted more than 98,000 people to its 10-day fair in April, about 40% of whom came from other counties, general manager Pete Sutton says.
The 27-year-old fair tries to offer something for all ages, from strolling entertainers to a historic village, where volunteers dress up in period costumes and cook traditional foods.
“People tend to come and they stay a long time, because it’s got something for everyone,” Sutton says. “We take a lot of pride in being more than a carnival.”
The Benton County Fair attracts about 88,000 visitors every year and doesn’t charge admission, says Joe Scapanski, fair board president. There are fees for grandstand events and parking, but anyone can walk in from the street and enjoy many free activities, Scapanski says.
Fairs are also turning to the Internet and social media to draw new visitors.
Many use websites, Facebook, Twitter and mobile apps to publicize events and create a sense of community.
“That’s what it takes to survive in today’s world,” Sutton says. “We’d better adapt to the way people are communicating.”