Attendance numbers kept secret at State Fair

kari.plog@thenewstribune.comOctober 7, 2013 

The Washington State Fair made much noise this year about its new name, a new front gate and a $1 million rebranding effort. Meanwhile, another change happened quietly: The fair stopped publicly sharing how many people it draws.

As the fair in Puyallup ended its 17-day run last month, a spokeswoman told The News Tribune that officials were working to release attendance numbers at a later, unknown date.

Since then, they have acknowledged they won’t release the numbers at all. The fair still tracks them for internal purposes, such as to inform sponsors and vendors.

Fair leaders say the new attendance policy is another step in a transition away from the Puyallup Fair and toward its identity as a statewide attraction. They say the fair’s 12-member board of directors decided some time ago to follow the industry standard and not publicly release total turnout.

Fair spokeswoman Karen LaFlamme said the decision isn’t an attempt to hide anything. While she wouldn’t disclose exact figures, she said the fair did reach its traditional benchmark of more than a million visitors this year.

As a private not-for-profit organization, the Washington State Fair is not compelled to share those numbers — unlike fairs in some other states, such as Oregon and California, that are agencies of state government.

And yet for decades the Puyallup Fair did release them. Up until last year, they were provided to the news media every day, allowing people to look for trends, make informed decisions about when to visit the fair and draw conclusions about the event’s success.

Over the last three years that total numbers were available, the fair drew an average of 1.1 million people.

LaFlamme said they have a trustworthy system for tracking attendance, one that uses both electronic and manual methods as well as several checks and balances to account for errors. That process doesn’t account for gate re-entry, she said, which is typical for most fairs.

Jerry Korum, who has served on the fair’s board of directors for eight years, including one year as president in 2011, said the decision to stop releasing total attendance was made in the last couple of years.

He said too much time and energy were invested in the process — especially with day-by-day record keeping — and the board recognized those resources would be better spent on more important tasks.

“We didn’t see where it was relevant,” he said.

Korum said he doesn’t see a benefit in revealing total attendance, and he thinks most people don’t care how many people come to the fair.

“People are most interested in what we are doing and how we are doing it,” he said.

Officials from other state fairs fall on different sides of the issue. Hal Gausman, manager of the Evergreen State Fair in Monroe, said he sees no benefit to keeping attendance secret.

“We are a numbers culture,” Gausman said. Not reporting attendance “is something you can’t get away with for very long.”

He said he’s not concerned about releasing attendance, even when numbers point downward.

After the Evergreen State Fair changed its method of tracking attendance to electronic ticketing three years ago, annual turnout dropped to about half the previously estimated level. Roughly 340,000 visit annually, compared with the estimated 700,000 counted under the previous system.

Despite the dramatic decline, Gausman said officials at the Snohomish County event still track and publicly release detailed daily attendance. That way, fairgoers can plan around crowds and stay informed on what to expect from the experience.

“What we’re really focusing on is throwing the best party in the state,” he said. “The important thing to stress is the quality of the experience. That’s really what fairs are all about.”

Still, he acknowledges that fairs feel the importance of drawing big crowds.

“There’s always a lot of pressure in the industry to be the biggest fair in the country,” he said.

One reason fairs care about growing their turnout is to attract sponsorship, said Marla Calico, director of education for the International Association of Fairs & Expositions based in Springfield, Mo.

Calico said fairs feel competition from other organizations, such as minor league sports teams, for a limited number of sponsors.

Washington State Fair officials have said that bringing in more national sponsorship was one reason for the recent name change and rebrand.

Still, publicly announcing fair attendance is a rare practice in the industry, and when it happens it’s driven mostly by the news media, Calico said.

“Most people don’t care how many people show up,” she said. “They just want to make sure we’ll be back again next year.”

The Minnesota State Fair, which drew 1,731,162 people this year and is one of the largest fairs in the country, falls into the reporting category. Its website prominently features detailed daily and total attendance figures for the past three years.

The State Fair of Texas, by contrast, has not disclosed its attendance for more than a decade yet still enjoys a reputation as the country’s largest fair.

Sue Gooding, senior vice president of communication, said attendance wasn’t a valuable benchmark for measuring turnout in Texas. Many people come to the fairgrounds in Dallas for special events and don’t attend the fair at all, she said.

Instead, the Texas fair releases sales amounts for daily and total coupons — which are used for food and rides — and compares the data year-over-year.

“For us it’s a better benchmark,” she said. “I don’t know that (attendance) meant anything to our vendors if it really wasn’t impacting their staffing or sales level.”

Back in Puyallup, fair leaders say their 2013 end-of-summer celebration was a success. And while they may re-evaluate their attendance policy down the road, they defend making the switch.

“Since we do not receive government monies, and are not publicly traded, we are not required to provide attendance,” LaFlamme said. “I know in this economy many companies are changing the way they do business.”

Kari Plog: 253-597-8682 @KariPlog

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