They did the Puyallup, but how many, exactly?

Tacoma News TribuneSeptember 23, 2013 

Tyler Starliper helps tear down the Wave Swinger ride at the Washington State Fairgrounds on Monday. The fair's final day was Sunday.


One day after the closing of this year’s Washington State Fair in Puyallup, fair officials said Monday that they didn’t know the total attendance from this year’s 17-day event and how it compared with last year’s mark of 1.1 million visitors.

The fair prides itself on saying it annually draws more than a million people to its end-of-summer celebration.

Fair officials, who changed their way of reporting fair attendance for the second consecutive year, said Monday that early financial snapshots promised another strong year. But sales and participation at some venues suggest numbers could be down despite a rebranding effort that aimed to attract more statewide visitors.

As vendors and staff took down booths, rides and exhibits, some said that, in many ways, it was the same old fair — but with less foot traffic.

Marlene Smith has worked 15 years with Sales Family food booths, best known for Krusty Pups and onion burgers.

Smith said sales were down despite the relatively good weather.

“This was one of the nicest fairs we’ve had,” she said, referring to the warm temperatures and only a few days of significant rainfall.

At least some exhibitors in the Showplex also struggled with a lack of visitors.

Natalya Crossman of Russian Unique Imports has sold items at the commercial exhibits for about 12 years. She said she saw decreased sales and traffic flow.

In the past, Crossman said it was so busy she often couldn’t take breaks. She said that wasn’t the case this year, even on most weekends.

“We were just standing here,” she said.

Fair spokeswoman Karen LaFlamme said booth sales vary from vendor to vendor. This year, some did well while others didn’t, she said; for example, sales of Fisher scones were strong. (Mike Maher, CEO of Conifer Specialties, which owns the Fisher brand, could not be reached for comment.)

“The economy is still a big factor for a lot of people,” LaFlamme said. “A lot of them are enjoying free stuff and not buying products.”

Fewer visitors at exhibits also pointed to lagging attendance.

Michael Hollins, superintendent of the junior and senior art shows that have long been located at the Pavilion, was hard at work Monday taking down about 900 art entries and sorting them for teachers to pick up.

He said the galleries only saw an average turnout three of the 17 days, and the number of votes cast for contests was down. Typically, the art contests draw about 600 votes per day, he said; this year there were about 100 daily.

Hollins estimated about one-third of the usual browsers came through this year.

“We had great weather, but attendance was definitely down,” he said.

For the second consecutive year, the fair changed how it announces the number of visitors.

Last year, the board of directors decided to stop the decades-old practice of reporting daily attendance. For years, an official would phone The News Tribune each night of the fair and provide the gate number for that day. In 2012, LaFlamme provided the total 17-day attendance on the Monday after the fair closed but no longer broke it down day by day.

This year, LaFlamme said she didn’t know when a total attendance figure would be available.

“A lot of fairs do this,” she said. “We are kind of following suit.”

Several last-minute promotions were announced heading into the fair’s final weekend, an apparent attempt to boost attendance. Those deals included a Dizzy Pass Friday and free admission for kids all weekend.

LaFlamme said late promotions aren’t uncommon.

Overall, she said the launch of the Washington State Fair rebrand went well. Officials received positive feedback on updated areas such as the Gold Gate. 

“While some people were resistant at first, they found that we weren’t abandoning the Puyallup name at all, so it made it easier for them,” she said.

Smith, of the Sales food booths, said those with whom she spoke felt differently.

“A lot of the old timers are truly offended by (the name change),” she said. “They don’t feel like it’s their fair anymore.”

Fair CEO Kent Hojem said the fair continues to be a leader in the industry and believes the numbers will reflect that.

“The Washington State Fair remains on course with its strategic plan,” he said in a statement. “It is our intention to maintain innovation and relevance without losing tradition for generations to come.”

Kari Plog: 253-597-8682 @KariPlog

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