Night time at the Grandstand, Minnesota State Fair, St. Paul.
The numbers continue to climb at the Minnesota State Fair, St. Paul, with an all-time high attendance at this year’s event that stopped short of hitting the two million mark. The official count at the 11-day fair was 1,997,320, slightly besting last year’s 1,942,000.
The weather was not much of a factor, said General Manager Jerry Hammer, but it did rain on one of the two Saturdays, prompting a slight decrease in the carnival gross.
One part of the equation, Hammer added, is the West End Market that is accessible to a transit hub that were both added in 2013. Fifty percent of the fair’s attendees travel via bus, and most of those fairgoers come through the hub and enter the fair at a location filled with food and beverage options, a free music stage, vendors selling arts and crafts and the Minnesota State Fair History & Heritage Center.
“There are so many factors,” Hammer said.
Hosting so many attendees in an 11-day-fair is doable on the expansive 300-acre fairgrounds, he added. There was one day in which attendance was under 117,000, but the high numbers came on Labor Day weekend, when 254,000 passed through the gates on Saturday and 242,000 on Sunday.
A big draw at the fair is the food, of course, with the local and even national press paying close attention to the new dishes introduced this year with much media fanfare. On opening morning, weather presenter and TV personality Al Roker from the “Today” show spent three hours on the grounds. “Every time they cut to Al Roker, he was here,” Hammer said.
And the food numbers did not disappoint, with an estimated food gross of $39,360,859, compared to $36,491,950 in 2016 and $33,160,829 in 2015, a 7.8 percent and 18.59 percent increase respectively. Daily food and beverage per caps exceeded last year’s by more than a $1, up from $24.16 to $25.21, said Dennis Larson, the fair’s food and beverage manager.
“This year so far, we look to be up about eight percent over last year due to cooler average daily temperatures and an appetite for comfort foods,” Larson added, noting that prices for the “iconic” top 10 foods did not change, so fair officials believe the numbers reflect more purchases at the booths.
In spite of the introduction of a plethora of new food items, many of them featuring bacon such as the Bacon Fluffernutter and Deep-Fried Breakfast on a Stick, the tried-and-true fair throwbacks such as chocolate chip cookies, corn dogs, fresh cut fries, roasted corn and foot-long hot dogs contributed to the top 10 food items.
The fair offered food at 300 locations, Larson added. Vendors pay 15 percent of their total sales net after the Minnesota state sales tax of 7.125 percent, plus utility fees and admission, Larson said.
Gate admission cost $14 for ages ranging from 13 to 64, with ages 65 and up and 5 to 12 paying $12. That was $1 more than last year, Hammer said, and the only comment he heard was following a free concert by George Clinton and Parliament/Funkadelic, when a group of fairgoers discussed how they couldn’t believe they saw the act for $14. “If you see George Clinton at a Twin Cities club, it’s $40-$50 each,” Hammer added.
The fair offers a mix of free and ticketed musical acts. In addition to Clinton, the popular free acts included the Pointer Sisters, Chris Janson, Tanya Tucker, Foghat, Hippo Campus, Heiruspecs, Corey Stevens and The Wild Goose Chase in the bandshell that accommodates 3,000 seated patrons with more standing.
Ticketeted concerts were performed by Nickelback, Stevie Nicks, Jim Gaffigan, Toby Keith, Frankie Valli, John Mellencamp, Pentatonix, Usher and Lil John, Phantogram and Sam Hunt, with an appearance by native son Garrison Keillor of “Prairie Home Companion” fame with “The Minnesota Show.” Ticket prices for those shows, performed in the 13,000-15,000-seat grandstand, ranged from $29 to $90.
Hammer estimates that income for the fair will be around $50 million with operating expenses of about $46 million. About $1.9 million of the expenses went toward marketing, which is spread across print, radio, television and online, including, Hammer noted, ads on YouTube videos that consumers had to watch in their entirety before their programming would play. “We had a really high rate of viewing,” he said.
In addition to the “Today” show, four area TV stations broadcast programming from the fair, along with more than 20 radio stations, Hammer said.
Every year, the fair updates its smartphone app that allows consumers to navigate the grounds and the offerings, including food and entertainment as well as a “merch search.”
Twenty-three carnival operators placed 60 rides on the independent midway, an even split between the kiddie attractions and the adult rides. S.J. Entertainment’s Crazy Mouse spinning roller coaster was the No. 1 ride. In spite of the increases in attendance and food profits, the ride numbers were down 6.4 percent for total ride revenues of $3,823,158.
“Ride and game revenue was down, largely due to rain we experienced during the early days of the fair, making it difficult to recover the lost revenue generated by these types of our outdoor attractions,” said Jim Sinclair, the fair’s deputy general manager.
The Minnesota State Fair does not offer pay-one-price ride wristbands. Ride coupons cost $1 each, $25 for 30 tickets or $40 for 54 tickets, the same as last year. The advance ticket price was $15 for 25 tickets, also the same as 2016.
Next year’s dates will be Aug. 23 to Sept. 3.