Vendors unsure of benefits from more State Fair days

August 6, 2010

Dipping rectangular shapes of frozen ice cream into chocolate, rolling them in peanuts and poking sticks into the tasty treats known as fiddlesticks at the Indiana State Fair can be a monotonous job.

The responsibility falls on Skip Richmond of Daytona Beach, Fla., a retired aircraft mechanic who, with his wife, travels the summer months in a motor home, working for Illinois-based King’s Food Service at carnivals and fairs across the region.

The Indiana State Fair remains Richmond’s favorite event, largely because of the friendly people and its no-alcohol policy. Yet he’s still uncertain about the decision last year to add another five days to the schedule. This year’s State Fair begins Friday and runs until Aug. 22.

“It’s tiring,” he said. “The slow days are well-appreciated during a 17-day run.”

The extended run helped attract a record 973,902 visitors to the annual August event last year, up from 859,619 the previous year. But food vendors such as Richmond maintain the attendance bump failed to translate into noticeably higher sales.

The reason: Additional days caused daily crowds to drop significantly, from an average of 71,634 per day in 2008 to 57,288 last year.

“It just pretty much evened out,” Joanie Monroe said. “It gave people more days to choose when they wanted to come.”

Monroe and her husband, both from Marion, are veterans of the fair circuit, having traveled Indiana the past 25 years, peddling elephant ears and funnel cakes to hungry patrons.

That experience has led Monroe to conclude that fairs mostly are “recession-proof.” Families might skip a vacation but they’re unlikely to miss their local fair, she’s observed.

Indeed, fairs are big business. An independent study conducted by Ball State University found the 2008 State Fair, combining visitor expenditures and operating expenses, produced an economic impact of $61.7 million.

That figure undoubtedly grew last year because of the additional five days, State Fair spokesman Andy Klotz said, although he’s unsure by how much.

State Fair officials hope attendance will break another record this year, but they’ve tempered their estimate at 900,000 to guard against the possibility of soggy weather.

A spate of 90-degree days has warmed Indianapolis this summer and more sizzling temperatures are expected. Forecasters predict highs in the mid-90s next week. But rainy weather remains a bigger threat to attendance than high temperatures, Klotz said.

“They both have an effect, but rain is worse,” Klotz said. “We’d rather have warmer temperatures than all-day rains, no question about it.”

Even so, people won’t eat as much if it’s too hot, said JoDee Barrett at the Dippin’ Dots ice cream stand.

Barrett, of Lincoln, Neb., travels with her franchise annually, starting in Colorado and moving east as the summer progresses, hitting about 10 fairs along the way. This is the fourth year she’s sold her product at the Indiana State Fair.

She prefers the longer, 17-day schedule, if only because it affords her a chance to avoid more travel.

“You sit in one place longer and you aren’t moving from fair to fair,” she said.

Still, she’s not expecting a boon in additional sales.

Instead, several vendors, including Ty Hampe, Indianapolis-based Royal Spa’s director of marketing, agree that one year is not enough time to judge the success of the new schedule. They think they’ll have a better grasp after this fair finishes.

Royal Spa has sold as many as 220 hot tubs during its best year at the fair and averages about 150 sales.

Said Hampe: “This year will give us the answer.”


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