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Kentucky State Fair a Balancing Act of New Attractions and Old Favorites

2015-08-19 12.24.28

Each year, Kentucky State Fair organizers must plan carefully.

“People want new entertainment. They want to see something that’s new and relevant," Kentucky State Fair Board President Rip Rippetoe said on Wednesday.

Still, longtime fair-goers expect their favorite attractions. This means fair organizers are put in what could be, without good planning, a catch-22: figure out how to create an event that draws new crowds looking for new things, but keeps loyal crowds looking for the exact same experience as one, five or 20 years ago.

Striking the right balance is especially important for organizers to get right today, as the fair returns from a 30-year low in attendance. A particularly rainy August last year is blamed for the decline, but organizers have brought in new attractions to try to boost those numbers.

“Anything that’s been around for a long time has elements of nostalgia, but to stay relevant we have to keep up with technology and what’s important, but along the way never forget who we are," Rippetoe said.

Freddy Farm Bureau, the enormous talking dummy outside Freedom Hall, has to be at the Kentucky State Fair. So do the animals, of course, and the Kentucky Proud tent, where fair-goers can eat foods made or grown in the state.

But the fair also has to change to keep up with the times, just as it always has.

This year, the fair has added a step show, an effort to appeal to the college-aged set. Also, organizers added Peking Acrobats, a Habitat for Humanity house that will be built at the exposition center, and an exhibit about the 800th anniversary of the Magna Carta.

The fair will also have something called Pork Chop Revue.

“It’s like a little bit of a pig circus," Rippetoe said.

As it turns out, Pork Chop Revue is right in line with the latest fair research. National annual surveys consistently show fair-goers want the same three things year after year: rides, food and animals, said Jim Tucker, president and chief executive of the International Association of Fairs & Expositions.

Fair organizers can make small changes in those categories, but you can’t mess with them too much without turning off your base.

"That's the reason the grandchild tugs on grandma or grandpa's clothes and says, 'I wanna go to the fair, I wanna go to the fair, I wanna go to the fair,'" Tucker said.

Evolution is part of every state fair's history, Tucker said. State fairs have existed for about as long as the states themselves. What began as agricultural meetups have become educational events. And most fairs have adapted to meet that new demand.

The IAFE has about 1,200 member organizations, including state fairs, county fairs and other countries' equivalents. Tucker said 82 percent of those organizations last reported either steady attendance or growth.

The Kentucky State Fair's attendance has risen and dropped over the past decade, but it's stayed largely in the 600,000 range.

Ira Hundley has worked for the Kentucky Fair and Exposition Center since 1986, and he's watched as it has evolved.

In his first job at the fair, Hundley swept, mopped, emptied garbage cans. Now he’s the superintendent of the North and South Wings. His job is a little different every year. Just like the fair itself.

That said, Hundley knows there are attractions that fair-goers expect to see every year.

“People come in and they know what to look for," he said. "They come out here and see it, it’s always the same. Some like the change, some like it staying like it was.”

Another change is a price break. The Kentucky State Fair is bringing back carload days on Thursdays; admission will be by the carload before 5 p.m. instead of via the usual individual tickets. Discounted fair admission will also be offered to people who arrive to the fairgrounds using Transit Authority of River City buses.

“We listened to our guests and knew that they wanted something more affordable and wanted something that had value," Rippetoe said.

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When it comes to novelty versus tradition, Hundley said, fair-goers can — and should — have it both ways.

"We add something new every year," said Hundley, walking through the exposition center on Wednesday as workers put the final touches on the fair. "So everything changes, but it kind of stays the same. Which I kind of like, but I don’t mind the change either.”

The Kentucky State Fair runs through Aug. 30.

WFPL Online Managing Editor Joseph Lord contributed to this story.

Laura is LPM's Director of Podcasts & Special Projects. Email Laura at lellis@lpm.org.