The Arkansas State Fair is one of the most beloved annual events on the state’s calendar. Fair fans flock to the midway and exhibits while competitors show livestock, dance, sing, cook, bake and strut their stuff on the pageant runway. They return home stuffed with fair food, the more fortunate also toting a stuffed teddy bear or a coveted purple ribbon.
But while the State Fair is, in fact, all of these things, it is one thing above all else – big business – which is why it is run behind the scenes with a mentality to match. Dan Sawyer, senior director of accounts and business development for GWL Advertising, the fair’s marketing firm, has been involved with the event for 20 years. He said running the fair employs many of the same business principles of a successful Fortune 500 company, from product and pricing to marketing and customer service.
“Over the past couple years, [State Fair leadership] has really made a point to make the product better,” he said. “Everybody is always trying to improve their product, whether it’s a restaurant, Six Flags amusement park, Disney World, whatever. They’ve really taken it from your typical parking lot carnival type atmosphere. They make sure they have quality rides and quality workers.
“The Arkansas State Fair is a nonprofit organization, so all the money they get from sponsorships and ticket sales the year before, they put it into the following year’s budget. They’ve done a good job of planning; for example, given the fact they’re landlocked and cannot expand. They’ve done a good job buying up some of the neighboring vacant, dilapidated houses and turned that into additional parking lots, which generates a little more revenue and gives more secure parking spots for the visitors.
“It’s all part of their image. They’re really trying to protect that image.”
Evaluating the success of these efforts is a little tricky, given market conditions of the last few years. A glance at 2021 numbers would suggest the State Fair’s efforts in management and marketing is spot-on, as last year’s attendance of 539,358 was the highest in the event’s 82-year history. However, that number is tempered somewhat by the fact it followed a 2020 fair that canceled all but the livestock competition and a dramatically altered pageant and talent competition, most of which was done online.
Sawyer admitted pent-up appetite for public events and festivals likely inflated last year’s attendance numbers a bit, but also pointed to new marketing efforts, which reached potential fairgoers on many different social media platforms as well as traditional print and broadcast. Those efforts, he said, are already changing the profile of who is coming through the turnstiles.
“I’ve seen the evolution of how we target people,” he said. “There are the people who are always going to come to the fair. The challenge is trying to evolve and remind people who haven’t been in a while or have never been that there is something there for everybody. Research shows a majority percentage of fair patrons come from probably a 60-mile radius. Our goal is to target that and then expand where we see larger population segments, and disperse the marketing dollars accordingly.
“With the rise of social media and digital media, that’s really allowed us to take the fair’s budget, which really hasn’t changed in about 20 years, to market to whole new groups through the use of social and digital advertising platforms, streaming, OTT, digital radio, Facebook, Instagram, TikTok, things like that. It’s really helped the fair get 10 times the bang for their marketing dollar.”
Pandemic effect or not, the State Fair’s overall economic impact is more than a lot of people realize, Sawyer said. Each day the fair is open it generates purchase of 400 hotel rooms, 3,000 gallons of fuel and burns enough electricity to power the city of Bryant. It also employs 5,000, generates 325 cubic yards of trash and feeds 45,000.
But unlike a company that can adjust its widget output to meet growing demand accordingly, the fair cannot accommodate unlimited growth. Given its finite capacities – space, parking, security personnel – there’s a ceiling for attendance on any given night.
Sawyer said those days are a ways off, but that doesn’t stop organizers from placing a high priority on logistics planning to safely manage the crowds that are showing up.
“It’s really easy after you have a terrible year to increase the numbers,” he said. “But when you have a great year – and if you take away the COVID year, we’ve had two back-to-back fantastic attendance years – when do you reach that max capacity limit?
“Obviously, on any given day where the numbers come in at 70- or 80,000 people, they’re not all there at once. It’s all about the turnover rate, creating promotions for folks from the time the fair opens to the time it closes. We created the Lunch at the Fair promotion several years ago, which gave free parking and admission from 11 a.m. to 1 p.m. That boosts your lunchtime crowd, and if people come for lunch, then maybe they’ll go home, get their families and come back for a second trip on the same day.
“Trying to get people to come to the fair in shifts is definitely something where you can increase daily numbers.”
Within those record numbers come additional potential issues. Safety issues have been quiet in recent years, but more people means more potential issues, something fair management takes seriously.
“The fair must continue to provide a safe and fun environment for all Arkansans,” said Tiffany Wilkerson, interim general manager. “We will have a new PA system that can alert our fairgoers to many things, from what to expect as they are entering the gates to unexpected weather alerts.”
Wilkerson said even with all the effort to attract new attendees, the Arkansas State Fair continues to cater to returning families, those that attend year after year because of the event’s familiarity, sometimes for the third or fourth generation in families.
“The Arkansas State Fair matters to Arkansans because it’s an annual event many families look forward to attending because of the tradition,” Wilkerson said. “Over the years, the carnival has grown, and there’s always new and exciting options, but we continue to focus on the traditions with our livestock exhibits, creative arts contests and fair queen competitions.
“We strongly support the youth of Arkansas through exhibition of livestock and poultry and advocate for youth to develop programs that can potentially turn into a career within the agriculture industry. It is vital that we promote the growth and continued participation of youth at all levels.”
Sawyer agreed, saying as much as the event must continue to operate as a business, there will always be a higher purpose to the Arkansas State Fair than mere numbers on a spreadsheet.
“I think it’s the State Fair’s job to help create a good path for all of the contestants who come to the fair, whether it’s with a cow, sheep, goat or in the talent show or pageant,” he said. “They come from county fairs, like getting through the playoffs and getting to the Super Bowl. I think it’s our job to make it the most beneficial and fun experience that we can once they get here.”
The Arkansas State Fair runs Oct. 14 to 23 in Little Rock. For ticket information and the latest news on events, please visit arkansasstatefair.com.