State fair aims to please
The Columbus Dispatch – August 03, 2005
Why they go
Ohio State Fair visitors in 2003 ranked these as the top five reasons to go to the fair:
* Fair food 93%
* Commercial exhibits 81%
* Midway 73%
* Livestock 63%
* Classic cars 39%
Source: Saperstein Associates survey
Emily Brinkman, 15, and her brother, Kyle, 11, could barely wait through the summer for Ohio State Fair time.
They knew that after their father finished work, they’d make the 2 1/2 -hour, 130-mile drive late at night from Holgate in Henry County.
Four days of excitement await them — inside a barn.
“We never go over to the midway,” Emily said. “We spend so much time and money to get here, it’s not worth it.”
Emily would rather stay with her Simmental heifers: Perfect, Jasmine, SHeDaisy, Cherry Blossom and Miss February.
At the fairgrounds, she’s a west-side girl.
Other kids will arrive this morning as the 152nd Ohio State Fair prepares to open. Unlike Emily, who works in worn denims and rugged shoes, these fairgoers will come in flashy tops, new shorts, flip-flops and designer sneakers.
And unlike Emily, they’ll head straight for the midway. An animal encounter for them is buying elephant ears.
They are the east-side crowd.
And between the two — the animal barns and show rings of the west side, and the midway rides and concert arenas toward the east — rests the state fair’s biggest challenge.
The fair, a good place to watch people, also offers a great view of changing times, fair General Manager Virgil Strickler said.
“The changes at the fair are mainly because of the world we’re now living in,” Strickler said.
The number of fairgoers who come from the family farm has decreased because the number of family farms has decreased, said Fred L. Dailey, director of the Ohio Department of Agriculture.
Thirty-five years ago, Ohio had 118,000 farms. By 2003, Ohio was home to just 77,600 farms.
But agriculture is still Ohio’s No. 1 industry, bringing in $80 billion a year. Livestock and farming earn their space at the fair.
On the west side.
Meanwhile, Ohio’s big cities have become more urban. People moving to Columbus are as likely to have come from other big cities as they are to have lived in small farming towns.
Luis Perez, the fair’s assistant general manager, said a more cosmopolitan crowd means new challenges for attracting fairgoers.
“Over the years, we’ve gotten competition,” he said. “There’s Kings Island and Cedar Point and Wyandot Lake. We’ve had to find out a way to balance becoming too commercial at the fair with that and our agricultural base.”
The largest chunk of fairgoers, about 45 percent of those surveyed, live in central Ohio. They have many other choices for entertainment.
“It’s definitely something we talk about all the time,” Perez said. “There are so many more theme parks, two arenas, plus an amphitheater. We have to find the right mix of entertainment and show what you can’t see in other places.”
In a world of niche marketing, the fair hopes to attract more customers by offering something for everyone.
“Our base has certainly changed. We see that by looking at our gates,” said Christina Minier, marketing director for the fair.
For starters, the fair is trying to lure more teens. Often, they’ve stopped coming with their parents, and don’t have kids yet themselves to bring.
Radio spots are now teasing Game Riot, which allows kids to play new video games not yet in the market.
Surprise, the commercials note, “It’s happening at the Ohio State Fair.”
The fair also is trying to package its exhibits for newer, hipper generations.
The old horticulture display, which featured tables lined with little plates of tomatoes, has given way to an interactive educational exhibit on Ohio agriculture.
And antiques judging has been modified to mirror the popular TV show Antiques Roadshow.
The fair also is emphasizing value and its traditional people-pleasers that private amusement parks can’t offer. Come eat fair food, watch the slicer-dicer men and see the big animals.
While the Brinkman children will stick to the barns with parents Tim and Peggy Brinkman, they’ll meet plenty of city kids.
Educating them is something the Brinkmans and other farm exhibitors see as part of their job.
“In the past, someone may have had a parent who grew up on a farm, or they knew a friend who did,” Mrs. Brinkman said. “Today, it’s very noticeable that people are far-removed.”