Fairs' math can be as fuzzy as the animals
Monroe fair appears to have overcounted attendance for years
Mark Mulligan / The Herald
Visitors wander the Evergreen State Fairgrounds in Monroe on Aug. 24, the second day of the fair.
Dan Bates / The Herald
Ticket scanner Ruth Ericksen checks in kids who have stamps on their arms for re-entry to the Evergreen State Fair on Wednesday.
Joe Dyer / The Herald
Connor Wagner, 8, (center) attempts to ring a rubber duck at the Evergreen State Fair in Monroe.
A record amount of money changed hands. And concert headliners proved more popular than fair organizers expected.
Yet something was different at the Snohomish County-run fair, somehow diminished from years past.
Instead of drawing a predicted crowd of 800,000 over the course of 12 days, the fair's head count for 2011 was less than half that number. Officially, 328,000 people passed through the gates -- a 56 percent drop from 2010.
Why the falloff? Evidence suggests the county has been over-counting for years.
The biggest variable -- weather -- was near perfect last year. The fair also generated an all-time high revenue of $3.2 million, thanks partly to higher gate and parking prices. The biggest discernible difference starting in 2011 was a new electronic ticketing system. Its data-gathering precision was a major selling point.
"That's why we're pretty darn sure the math was fuzzy before," fair manager Hal Gausman said. "We feel that it was probably not accurately counted in the past."
Estimating how many people go to any large-scale event often involves as much guesswork as hard science. That certainly applies to the Evergreen State Fair.
Late last week, with a stretch of near-perfect weather to start the 2012 fair, Gausman was encouraged by initial data showing about 8,000 attendees more than at the same point in 2011.
In the fair industry, there's no accepted standard for counting admission, even though events invariably use big crowd numbers to promote themselves. The Evergreen State Fair has consistently landed on lists for the top 25 most popular fairs in North America. Its 2007 estimated attendance of 882,000 put it at No. 19.
With the pared-down figure from 2011, the Monroe fair has fallen off that list. Still, it's easily Snohomish County's largest annual outdoor party. Among Washington's fairs, it trails only the Puyallup Fair's million-plus annual visitors and ranks slightly ahead of the more than 300,000 who go to the Central Washington State Fair in Yakima.
The Yakima fair's president and general manager commended Snohomish County for changing the way it tracks attendance.
"I think, candidly, fairs have been guilty of overestimating crowds because they're more interested in showing growth in their attendance," Greg Stewart said.
If food sales remain constant at Monroe, Stewart said, that's a good sign the new numbers are probably reliable.
"I guess I'd say good for them saying they want to be more realistic with their reporting here," he said.
Tallying how many people walk through the gates may sound like a straightforward process, but that's not always the case.
Some fairs base crowd estimates on turnstile clicks (the Puyallup Fair) or ticket rolls (the Central Washington State Fair). Gausman said those methods wouldn't work at the Monroe fairgrounds.
For starters, the fairgrounds lack turnstiles. The facility has several points of entry, which are often manned by volunteers. Past counting techniques have involved parking-lot usage or extrapolating from aerial photos.
Clicking everybody through the doors has its drawbacks, too. That technique tends to over-count people coming and going, say, when they need to make a quick trip out to their car.
"There's no standard methodology," said Jim Tucker, president and CEO of Springfield, Mo.-based International Association of Fairs and Expositions.
The group, founded in 1885, has more than 1,200 members. This season appears to be going well, so far, for fairs the association tracks. More than 80 percent are seeing steady or equal attendance compared to past years.
Tucker said other annual fairs have switched to electronic ticketing, with no major impact on reported attendance.
At any fair, the skies above are the biggest factor encouraging, or discouraging, attendance.
"The three things they say about fairs are weather, weather and weather," he said.
Tucker downplayed any financial ripple effect a lower reported attendance might have on fair business. If advertisers and sponsors are familiar with the event and what it means to the community, then the crowd numbers are secondary.
"The best way to evaluate a fair is to see what kind of job it's doing serving its community and certainly attendance is a piece of that," he said. "It's really what's it doing for the community is the number one thing."
The attendance figures, however, certainly hold some sway with sponsors and advertisers. The marketing page on the Evergreen State Fair website, as of last week, still advertised attendance of "approximately 700,000" people each year. The same page also uses the lower 2011 figure, specifying that number doesn't reflect re-entries.
Craig Ohm, who recently stepped down after eight years on the Fair Advisory Board, said the attendance drop might affect businesses trying to reach as many people as possible. That said, Ohm never heard any complaints about business being down during the 2011 fair.
"Last year, I worked the fair and, my goodness, there seemed to be a lot of people there," he said.
In running the fair, the county tries to maintain a healthy balance of agrarian nostalgia and commercial success. The event has stayed profitable in recent years.
In 2011, Gausman's first time running the fair, there was $400,000 in operating surplus.
That also was the inaugural year for using Intelli-Mark Technologies' automated ticketing system, or Etix. The Morrisville, N.C., company has charged the county nothing to deploy the system at the 2011 and 2012 county fairs. The company makes its money by charging attendees "convenience fees" for admission and event tickets.
The county benefited by being able to sell tickets online and being able to gather nearly instantaneous data as people streamed into the fairgrounds. That should help Gausman and others make future choices about all aspects of running the fair, from booking entertainment, to allocating staff and spending marketing dollars.
The drop in reported attendance for 2011 did not hurt the amount of fair money the county received from the state. The $69,000 the county got was $8,000 less than the year before, but the state had less total money to dole out. Other counties saw funding decreases, too.
That money is distributed by Washington's Department of Agriculture, a testament to the fairs' ties to farming.
Community agriculture fairs first became widespread in the 1800s, a time when most Americans made their living off the land. The fairgrounds back then served as a meeting place to learn about new farm equipment and the latest in agricultural science. Along the way, the gatherings incorporated musical acts, carnival rides and other mainstays of the county fair.
The increasingly urban landscape means fairs are one of the ways people are reminded where their food comes from.
"The need to keep that information out in front of our population is even more important now than it was then," said Tucker, from the International Association of Fairs and Expositions.
The Evergreen State Fair traces its origins to 1908, though its history is the subject of some debate. The first fair more than a century ago took place in downtown Monroe. In the 1940s, it moved to its current location and changed its name from the Snohomish County Fair.
This year's Evergreen State Fair began Thursday and runs through Monday.
Noah Haglund: 425-339-3465, firstname.lastname@example.org.
By the numbers
Reported attendance and revenue at the Evergreen State Fair:
2011: 328,000, $3.2 million
2010: 750,000, $2.8 million
2009: 714,500, $2.7 million
2008: 762,000, $3.1 million
2007: 882,000, $3.1 million
The state's biggest fairs
Evergreen State Fair
Who runs it: Snohomish County Parks & Recreation
Total days: 12
2011 attendance: 328,000
Dates: Aug. 23-Sept. 3, 2012
Puyallup Fair (officially the Western Washington Fair)
Who runs it: The Western Washington Fair Association (private, not-for-profit)
Total days: 17
2011 attendance: 1,059,000
Dates: Sept. 7-23, 2012
Central Washington State Fair
Who runs it: Central Washington Fair Association (nonprofit)
Total days: 10
2011 attendance: 302,000
Dates: Sept. 21-30, 2012
Clark County Fair
Who runs it: Clark Fair Association (nonprofit)
Total days: 10
2012 attendance: 219,000
Dates: Aug. 3-12, 2012