Fairs and Festivals

Iowa Press | Episode
Jun 17, 2022 | 27 min

On this edition of Iowa Press, Gary Slater, CEO/manager of the Iowa State Fair, and Tom Barnes, executive director of the Association of Iowa Fairs and secretary/manager of the Mighty Howard County Fair in Cresco, discuss a summer full of fairs and festivals across the state. 

Joining moderator Kay Henderson at the Iowa Press table are Erin Murphy, Des Moines bureau chief for The Gazette, and Linh Ta, reporter for Axios Des Moines.

Program support provided by: Associated General Contractors of Iowa, Iowa Bankers Association and FUELIowa.



Summer is upon us and that means it's time for fun at fairs and festivals across the state. We'll talk with the managers of the Iowa State Fair and the Howard County Fair on this edition of Iowa Press. 


Funding for Iowa Press was provided by Friends, the Iowa PBS Foundation. The Associated General Contractors of Iowa, the public's partner in building Iowa's highway, bridge and municipal utility infrastructure. Fuel Iowa is a voice and a resource for Iowa's fuel industry. Our members offer a diverse range of products including fuel, grocery and convenience items. They help keep Iowans on the move in rural and urban communities. Together we Fuel Iowa. Small businesses are the backbone of Iowa's communities and they are backed by Iowa banks. With advice, loans and financial services, banks across Iowa are committed to showing small businesses the way to a stronger tomorrow. Learn more at IowaBankers.com.


For decades Iowa Press has brought you political leaders and newsmakers from across Iowa and beyond. Celebrating 50 years of broadcast excellence on statewide Iowa PBS, this is the Friday, June 17th edition of Iowa Press. Here is Kay Henderson.  


Henderson: Our State Fair is the best State Fair. It's the best State Fair in the state. I don't know, you know the lyrics better than I probably and now I have implanted that song in your mind. But today we're going to talk about the Iowa State Fair and all of the county fairs that are happening this summer across Iowa. Our guests are Gary Slater. He is the CEO and General Manager of the Iowa State Fair. How many years have you been there, Gary? 

Slater: This makes 21 as Manager and CEO. I did work for the Fair back in the late '80s, early '90s for five years, so been there a long time. 

Henderson: And our other guest is Tom Barnes, he is the Secretary and Manager of the Mighty Howard County Fair starting on Monday. 

Barnes: Yes, poultry comes in Monday so we're in typical Fair mode right now. 

Henderson: He is also the Executive Director of the Association of Iowa Fairs. Gentlemen, welcome to Iowa Press. 

Barnes: Thank you. 

Slater: Thank you. 

Henderson: Also joining the conversation, Erin Murphy. He is the Capitol Bureau Chief for the Cedar Rapids Gazette. 

Murphy: Gentlemen, a couple of years ago the State Fair, most if not all county fairs, Tom you tell me, had to cancel because of the COVID-19 pandemic. We wanted to ask each of you how fairs have rebounded from that, especially financially? Obviously that had a devastating impact on income. Gary, we'll start with you. The State Fair, has that bounced back from that wiped out year? 

Slater: Well, certainly we're still in recovery mode but we had a great Fair last year, which really, really helped. I was writing my Board a letter last week and I was doing it on June 10th and I said, two years ago on June 10th was probably the saddest day in the history of me being at the Iowa State Fair as we canceled the Fair for that. 

Murphy: For the first time, Gary, since was it World War II? 

Slater: Yeah, since a long time ago, yes. Not the first time it had ever been canceled but in a long, long time. And yes, you still have 450 acres to take care of, you still have employees, full-time employees. And so we did lose in the neighborhood of $13 million that year. But we were able to qualify for a shuttered venues grant through the Small Business Administration, the federal government COVID monies and then last year having a really good Iowa State Fair. It wasn't maybe a record setter like '19 was, but we came back. And so now we're just in Fair mode and we're working hard to give you a great State Fair in 2022. 

Murphy: Tom, broadly speaking, how are county fairs doing? 

Barnes: Very healthy. Last year we learned a lot, as Gary and what he say atripulates to the county fairs too and '20 was of course a year we want to forget but '21 was an amazing year for all our fairs. Everywhere that we visited fairs and the fairs' reports to us was attendance was great, a lot of participation, good income, which is what we want to see. A little precaution in '21 because we were still kind of, my fair of course is next week so we're in June and we were still dealing with the effects of COVID, we didn't know for sure what we could do at the early fairs. So some of the fairs, especially the early ones maybe their static exhibits and some of the livestock were down because extension didn't know until the first part of May whether they were going to do their programming in '21. But this year it's coming on strong. Fairs learned a lot last year in how to better manage themselves. County fairs are all volunteer based and you get into this rhythm of it's going to happen, don't worry people will come, we'll take care of things. Well, last year we had to shift and understand what the risks were. 

Murphy: I was wondering, are there insurance programs in place for something like that? Were you able to recoup any of those losses through insurance? 

Barnes: There's a really, one that I know our Fair is getting into it, it's called a cancellation policy instead of rain insurance. The only problem is there's some exceptions and one of them is if it's a COVID-related cancellation it doesn't cover it. So really there's not a lot out there. We were fortunate in '20, a lot of the fairs were, that if you canceled because of the pandemic and it wasn't something that the fairs could control, it was an outside force that canceled those, a lot of the entertainers honored, said we'll come back next year or don't worry about paying us this year. They had a bad year too when they sat home all summer and didn't play, they had a negative impact too. So it affected a lot of people. 

Henderson: Talking about paying, the Iowa State Fair several years ago was going to go to a cashless system and there was some pushback. But now people are used to paying electronically. Is that going to be what is happening at the Iowa State Fair this year? 

Slater: We have a lot of options for you to do that. At our vendors, it was last year that we went to a system for every vendor to have a cash register to at least take credit cards because not every vendor took credit cards up until last year. And so you had the option of paying cash or debit card or credit card. And at our gates you can, we have QR codes outside of our gates and you can scan that, you can buy your tickets, you don't have to stop at the box office, you just scan it on your way into the thing, in through the gate. So we have those options. We still do take cash, yes. 

Henderson: So, what was your experience? Half and half? 75% and 25%? Do you remember? 

Slater: It is gaining, cashless is coming up and I think it came up at least 15 percentage points over what '19 was. But I also think that COVID helped that as well because we're doing so much more online. We're buying our groceries online, all that is with credit cards now, so all that kind of going together and yes, it's probably more than a 50/50 in favor of credit cards now. 

Henderson: What is the experience of county fairs? 

Barnes: We're seeing, especially with the younger generations that we draw, want some sort of credit card type payment. The problem we have with our county fairs is the infrastructure isn't in place in many areas to accept -- 

Henderson: Because you need Wi-Fi -- 

Barnes: You need Wi-Fi, you need high speed. A lot of the fairs are getting there and it is starting to come into place. But you look at the demographics that the county fairs pull that you've got grandma and grandpa in their 80s and their great-grandkids in their teens and that is quite a wide range of what these people expect and how they're going to pay for their goods. Cash is still king at the county fairs. But there is a big transition to the credit cards especially. 

Murphy: Speaking of things that draw the younger demographic, you're seeing more and more regularly concert events and entertainment events like that not just at the State Fair but more and more local fairs as well. In my history I was employed by the Telegraph Herald Newspaper up in Dubuque in northeast Iowa and Jones County Fair has become very well known for some significant musical acts that they bring. How important is that, has that become, that element become, concerts and other entertainment type events? Gary, I'll start with you. How important have those types of events become to the overall calculus and the bottom line of a fair and its profit margin? 

Slater: You know, I have always said that we're, the Grandstand at the Iowa State Fair probably our best year was 2019. We had 120,000 people go to the Grandstand. But if you look at our attendance, it's 1.1 million. So it's 10%. But a lot of people they want to be associated with the Fair because they may not go to the Grandstand, but they always say who's coming? Is my favorite entertainer coming? They want to be a part of that. I say it's like all of us, we want to be associated with a winner. And so that is the pulse of the Fair. Whether you attend the Grandstand or not, you like to know what is going on and you like the Fair to pull those popular entertainers. Now, along with that we'll spend upwards $2 to three-quarters of a million dollars on free entertainment and our three free entertainment stages and then we have some walk-around entertainers and other grounds like a dog show and other shows that entertain you as well. And so all of those go together to give you, food is number one, people come for the food, entertainment and then of course our livestock shows and they're really up there on par with national livestock shows because of the quality of Iowa livestock. It's just tremendous. 

Murphy: I want to get to Tom on this too but before I leave you, Gary, some of these bigger musical acts are used to when they tour they play in stadiums, technological displays and all this stuff. Is it difficult sometimes to find acts that are willing to just come play a Grandstand, which used to be the norm for musical acts, but in more recent years concerts kind of take on a life of their own? 

Slater: Well, as you've watched our Grandstand, about six or seven years ago we remodeled and of course now we're bringing in a very modern stage. It is a portable stage, it comes in and it's 120 foot wide, it's 60 foot deep, it can fly your sound and your lights from 50, 60 feet in the air and accommodate those video screens that go behind the entertainers. So yes, we have had to get into that business or else they wouldn't come to an outdoor State Fair venue. And so yes, that adds to our cost. Of course, they don't bring that stuff with them. They expect it to be there and they hang their stuff on all of that. So, it's an expensive thing and they always come out ahead on that. But we do get that gate admission when people come through the gate then hope to break even on the expenses in the Grandstand. But it certainly is the pulse of what the Iowa State Fair is all about. 

Murphy: And Tom, how does this all play out at the county -- I mentioned the Jones County Fair, but that is an exception to the rule, right, that that's a big deal broadly speaking? 

Barnes: Broadly speaking there's three or four that are equal. Not too many years ago county fairs were racetrack events and rodeos. When some of the other fairs, not the Jones County Fair per se, but say like my county fair now got into concerts several years ago. Our neighboring fairs saw how popular those were. And what they do is you don't have the typical people, we were missing a group of people that liked music and the wheeled events are one thing, and wheel events at any county fair usually help pay the bills -- 

Henderson: You're talking about tractor pulls? 

Barnes: Yes ma'am, tractor pulls, demolition derbies, stock car races. But what we were missing is that group of people that like music. So about five to eight years ago give or take that started to play in where fairs were seeing what their neighbors were doing and now we're seeing a lot of even small county fairs throwing a small dollar concert in place that draws a good crowd, it gives the community something else to come to the fair for. And it's like Gary said, you look at who is at the Fair and that brings the people. Then there's a lot of other things at the Fair that we want to brag about and we want to push, but we've got to get the people there first and that is what the concerts will do. 

Henderson: You mentioned tractor pulls. Gary, you mentioned livestock shows. In my respects, fairs in Iowa are a showcase of rural Iowa. How do you attract an urban customer and how do you plan for the future as the demographics of Iowa change? We see in every ten year census that more people live in urban Iowa than in rural Iowa. 

Slater: I'll start, if you will. Certainly ag education or agutainment is something that we think about because if you look at our millennials and even below that are now four generations removed from the farm on the average, even here in Des Moines. There are less and less people that can go to mom and dad's or go to grandma and grandpa's and see domestic animals up close and see those big combines and those big tractors and things like that. So that has become a showcase at the Iowa State Fair for our urban folks, here in the metro area, to get a slice of that rural life and that technology that goes into that in this day and age. And it's something that is the mission of the Iowa State Fair to foster ag education throughout because 4-H and FFA are fundamentals at county fairs and certainly at the Iowa State Fair because we feel like that fosters young people that come out and have that responsibility and have that work ethic from that rural setting for their supervised project that they work on all year round. And so we want to showcase that and we think that that's something that we can offer that you're probably not going to see at maybe some of the other entertainment venues whether it's down the road at a theme park or something, you're going to see that ag education in our Animal Learning Center, you see birthing, you're going to see at the Sheep Barn the sheep stop going to tell you all about how rural settings raise sheep, Cattle Corner, Horse Haven, Pig Place, dairy cattle. 

Henderson: Very alliterative. 

Slater: So some to the Iowa State Fair and find those places and we're going to mix in some fun with it with some llama yoga, some goat yoga, bunny yoga and then some other things that you can do. And at the same time in Little Hands on the Farm you can take your kids 2 to 10 and actually get hands-on experience with simulated areas but ag education is number one. 

Henderson: Tom, I was a Platte Peppy Pal and a Calvary Go-Getter and I showed cattle and made baked goods and other things I took to the Taylor County Fair. If you didn't have 4-H and FFA would you have county fairs? 

Barnes: That's why we exist. We are there number one for the 4-H and FFA programs and our second primary focus is to highlight the ethnic diversity and culture of our communities that we serve. That is why we are there. And each fair you can see the differences if you go around the state of what they focus on. But that's why we exist. Everything else, I've always said everything else there gets the people there, the entertainment gets the people there, gives us something to do so they stay and enjoy the youth programs and the open class programs and it helps pay the bills. 

Murphy: Gentlemen, the costs of operating business right now are high and everybody is dealing with inflation we're wondering how that is impacting fairs this year? Tom Barnes, we'll start with you on this one. Is there a pinch? Is inflation impacting counties putting on their fairs? 

Barnes: They haven't complained or commented yet, but in my own instance at ours, yes. We just had our sponsor appreciation Wednesday night and I updated our sponsors and our attendees of what it costs us at the fairgrounds. Small fairgrounds in Cresco, 40 some acres, for years we were around $1,000 a week just for insurance and utilities. That's a lot for a volunteer board to assume. This last winter our utility bills tripled because of the price increases. So where does that money come from? 

Murphy: And how, that was my follow-up, how do you manage those costs without having to raise ticket prices and risk pricing out -- 

Barnes: We try not to. We just do a lot more ourselves. We get a little more aggressive on products we sell at our fair, we run our beer concessions and we have a Moo-mobile which makes homemade malts that are very popular, we push those. I've heard from some of our vendors, I'm sorry but my sandwiches have go to go up a buck or two. We just hope the fair goers understand that it's not people gauging people, they're just trying to come out ahead on this deal. It's kind of rough. We've lost two or three good vendors because they can't get product. 

Henderson: Tom, you mentioned that you're going to have poultry at your fair. The Iowa Secretary of Agriculture recently said I'm going to lift the prohibition on poultry exhibits. Gary Slater, what about African swine fever, which is a concern for the swine industry? Do you have to make a game time decision? 

Slater: Well, certainly African swine fever is a concern worldwide. But it's not in the United States, it's not even in North America. Now, for the first time ever I think it appeared in the Western Hemisphere and so it is a concern. But at this point APHIS, the agricultural inspection service, is very, very rigid on our borders in terms of asking you when you get off a plane from overseas you fill out that form where you've been and at that point that is the first thing because it's not in the United States, it's not in Iowa. But it's something that we're all on alert for and we try to make sure that our biosecurity, we will inspect our pigs on trailer before they get off of the trailer at the Iowa State Fair by our state veterinarian and his deputy veterinarians. And if they find a group of animals that don't get off that trailer then they haven't contaminated the rest. And so that is just one example of all the biosecurity that we go through and keeping those, our animals healthy and safe. 

Murphy: We wanted to ask you both about, so obviously fairs occupy a finite space in the overall calendar for a year and one way that I know that fairgrounds continue revenue in the off-time is through facility rentals. Gary, we'll start with you real quick on this. I know from covering multiple political events at the State Fairgrounds that that's a very common thing. How much has that piece of revenue grown within the State Fair's overall operation, renting out these facilities to events throughout the year? 

Slater: That's a very important part of our budget. It's somewhere in that 10% to 11% of our total budget. I wish it was more than that. So we're always trying to grow that with our facilities. We had the World Pork Expo last week. We have a major swine show. We have over 3,500 market hogs on our grounds from like 30 different states this week. The Good Guys Car Show is coming up, one of our biggest revenue generators in the off-season coming right up. We'll have over 40,000 people on the grounds for those three days. So it's very important and we're always looking at working in concert with the Des Moines Convention and Visitors Bureau, which I'm on the Board and President this year and it is kind of a partnership of bringing those events to Des Moines and to Iowa. 

Murphy: Obviously the State Fair complex is one thing. Tom, are local county fairgrounds able to do this as well? 

Barnes: There's a lot of them that do have some sort of interim activity, not all. A lot of them like ours and I can name quite a few here but I won't take the time, have a community center that brings in that revenue every week with wedding receptions and family reunions and different things. And then you have the concessions, usually the fairs have the concessions from those events and that, as I mentioned earlier, what it costs our fair per week, that's how we can stretch our dollar. But with some of the state funds that we get from the state for capital improvements on our grounds every year, a lot of the fairs have realized that they've got to build for year-round use. It's no longer mow the grass two weeks out, make it look pretty, buy two gallons of paint and five pounds of nails and we'll make it through this fair seasons again. It's more of, it's really the fairgrounds, a lot of the fairgrounds in Iowa are multi-use year-round facilities. 

Henderson: So we haven't much time left. Gary, I want to talk about the campgrounds. So, Erin and his family want to camp at the Iowa State Fair this year. Will they be able to? 

Slater: Well, certainly from a reserved camping site those 2,400 sites hardly anybody let go of them from last year to this year. But we do have spots that come available on, we rent a couple of properties from our neighbors and those are more dry camping. Some have electric, but hardly any of those extra ones have all three, sewer, electric and water. However, if you show up we can accommodate you in those spots. And a lot of those folks come for a weekend or maybe just for a few days. So we'll accommodate another 600 to 700 that don't have reservations. So, load up and come and we'll put you in a spot. 

Murphy: Appreciate that, find a spot for us. Just a real big picture view question for you, Gary. What is the State Fair, for people who may have not thought of it this way? Is the State Fair an operation of state government? Is it a non-profit? What is the Iowa State Fair? 

Slater: The Iowa State Fair is defined by Chapter 173 of the Iowa Code as an instrumentality of the state doing business as the Iowa State Fair Authority. So we have 15 board of directors. I work with them. They are from six different districts in Iowa as well as two from each district, two-year terms, and the President of Iowa State University, the Governor and the Secretary of Agriculture are a part of that Board. We don't get any operating revenue from the state general fund at all. We live and die on what we, let's hope not die, but we live on what we make and we are eligible for capital improvement funds through the infrastructure fund of state government because it is state property. 

Henderson: Gentlemen, I'm going to let you get back to your jobs. We are out of time for this conversation. Good luck with the Mighty Howard County Fair. 

Barnes: Thank you. 

Slater: I just want to say that Tom does a great job. The Iowa State Fair wouldn't be as good as it is if it didn't have wonderful county fairs throughout the state. 

Henderson: Thanks to you for watching this edition of Iowa Press. You can watch every episode at iowapbs.org. For everyone here at the network, thanks for watching. 


Funding for Iowa Press was provided by Friends, the Iowa PBS Foundation. The Associated General Contractors of Iowa, the public's partner in building Iowa's highway, bridge and municipal utility infrastructure. Fuel Iowa is a voice and a resource for Iowa's fuel industry. Our members offer a diverse range of products including fuel, grocery and convenience items. They help keep Iowans on the move in rural and urban communities. Together we Fuel Iowa. Small businesses are the backbone of Iowa's communities and they are backed by Iowa banks. With advice, loans and financial services, banks across Iowa are committed to showing small businesses the way to a stronger tomorrow. Learn more at IowaBankers.com.