The State Fair of Texas wrapped Sunday, putting Big Tex back on the shelf until next year and leaving Fair Park eerily quiet and mostly empty.
The fair this week issued an interesting sort of by-the-numbers report card on its 2017 run, with details on how many Fletcher’s corn dogs were sold (615,000 across seven stands) and how many people saw the “Texas in the First World War” exhibition at the Hall of State (150,000, about 75,000 fewer fairgoers than went to see the “Taylor Swift Experience” show at the same site last year.) As for coupon sales, long the fair’s biggest measurement of its own success, it pulled in about $54.5 million, much of which will go toward vendors, as the fair is quick to note. It’s the second-highest total in the fair’s history, behind only last year’s coupon haul of $56 million. That’s worth keeping in mind as debate continues over how much of the fair’s excess revenues should go toward much-needed repairs at Fair Park, or to the community surrounding it.
Coupon sales used to be given even more importance in reckoning with the fair because, for decades, it didn’t reliably track its own attendance, counting on those sales and eyeball estimates to come up with attendance figures. This made it especially hard to accurately gauge the fair’s economic impact on the city and on Fair Park, and those fuzzy numbers were ammunition for many of the fair’s critics. The fair reported its annual attendance as hovering around 3.5 million from 2004 to 2008, and had it closer to 3 million from 2009 to 2015. A damning 2016 Baylor University report had the fair’s actual annual attendance as low as 1.5 million.
The fair’s attendance this year, the second since it started taking a headcount with a new ticketing system in 2016, falls somewhere in between, with the fair reporting about 2.2 million visitors during its 24-day run. That’s down from more than 2.4 million fairgoers last year, and lends some credence to the Baylor report’s suspicion that the fair was previously inflating its attendance numbers.
Here’s how the State Fair’s vice president of public relations, Karissa Condoianis, described the new process for attendance-taking in an email:
Fairgoers now have the option of not only purchasing their tickets at the gates or online and having them mailed to them, but this new system helped us offer the convenience of purchasing them at BigTex.com or through their smartphone. They can pull up their tickets on their phone and have them scanned at the gate. With all tickets now being scanned at each gate, this allowed the Fair to officially report an attendance number starting last year and going forward.
Whatever quibbles one may have with that system, it’s almost certainly more dependable than the coupon-counting eyeball test used for the previous few decades, and should prove more useful in discussions about the role the State Fair of Texas could play in attempts to revitalize its longtime home.
While we’re here thinking about attendance numbers, let’s look at how things went this year for the Minnesota State Fair, held up as one of the most successful, largest, transparent, and well-run state fairs in the country. The Minnesota State Fair, which reports its daily attendance online, welcomed a record-setting near-2 million visitors during its 12 days at the fairgrounds in between the Twin Cities. For comparison, that’s almost as many visitors as the State Fair of Texas, in half the time, in a metropolitan region with half the population of Dallas-Fort Worth. Its daily attendance is the highest of any state fair in the country. (The Minnesota State Fairgrounds are, it should be said, at the risk of offending any size-obsessed Texans, slightly bigger, comprising 320 acres to Fair Park’s 277.)
The Minnesota State Fair does all this while remaining more affordable than the State Fair of Texas, while keeping its fairgrounds vibrant and active year-round. All without a giant talking cowboy and a storied college football rivalry.
There are challenges unique to the State Fair of Texas, to Fair Park, and to Dallas, but we should at least figure out what they’re doing right up in Minnesota.