Success on a Stick: Lessons From the State Fair

Think your association can’t apply anything from a state fair to its upcoming meetings? Think again. Traditional fair staples like fried anything on a stick, livestock competitions, and, yes, even butter-carved princesses can help meeting planners up the ante at their next event.

Last week I flew to Minneapolis to meet up with some of my college friends. It was the first time in two years that almost all of us had been together in the same place, and as expected, we had a great time. But besides the days of catching up, I finally got to partake in something that everyone I have ever met from the state brags about whenever they have the chance: the Minnesota State Fair.

This fan fair and hype are what all association meeting planners dream of seeing around their meetings and events.

Now you may think I’m joking, but trust me, I’m not. Since freshman year of college, two of my Minnesota-raised friends have been constantly talking about the annual ritual of going to the August fair at least once, stuffing  yourself with fried food, checking out the butter princesses (more on that later), and taking in the various animal exhibits.

To be honest, when I first heard them talk about it, I was skeptical. I mean, I grew up in New Jersey, home of the shore and its accompanying boardwalks. Could a state fair really compete with what I had as kid? But after spending a few hours there last week, I can tell you I’m a convert. Plus, being there made me think that there are lessons in it for association meeting planners. Here are four I took away:

Buzz matters. As I said earlier, I’ve always heard Minnesotans brag about the fair and exude state pride when talking about it. It was noticeable from the time I landed at the airport. There were signs all over, as there were at local businesses. There were also TV commercials, the local news reported live from the fair, and the newspaper gave it plenty of coverage. Also, when I was out around town, people kept asking me if I had gone yet. When I told one waitress I was going and that I had never been, she gave me a list of things to check out, and, of course, food to try. This “fan fair” and hype are what all association meeting planners dream of seeing around their meetings and events.

So does the food. Two words: fried deliciousness—and it’s one of the main reasons why people visit. You name the food—the fair’s vendors are pretty much guaranteed to have it, not only deep fried but on a stick: apple pie, alligator, teriyaki ostrich, Snickers, and tater tot hotdish (that’s Minnesotan for casserole) are just a few examples I came across. (I only tried the fried apple pie, though. It was quite tasty.) Some make it a mission to try all the new and more unusual food choices at the fair each year. This year’s list includes 28 items such as beer gelato, chocolate dessert salami, shrimp dogs, and pretzel curds.  While your association likely can’t have such an elaborate menu or may not want to offer an abundance of fried treats, there is something to be said for creating a menu that attendees are eager to taste test.

One-of-a-kind counts. Personally, I was most excited to check out the “butter queens” that I had been hearing about for more than a decade. Each year a Princess Kay of the Milky Way is crowned before the fair opens. (Editor’s note: The contest is sponsored by the Midwest Dairy Association.) This year’s honor went to to Jeni Haler, who will serve as an ambassador for Minnesota’s dairy farm families. Her first official duty as Princess Kay was to sit in a rotating cooler in the dairy building for nearly six hours to have her likeness sculpted in a 90-pound block of butter on the opening day of the fair. The other 11 finalists also have their likeness carved in butter. Judging by the crowd, I wasn’t the only one eager to get a glimpse. If you’re curious, check out this time-lapse video of a carving from 2010.  Consider what one-of-a-kind experiences you can offer your attendees that will get them talking and eager to participate.

Let your community shine. Another big part of the fair is the livestock exhibits and competitions. Animals and their owners take part in shows to compete for awards like Dairy Cattle Supreme Champion. Families travel from across the state to have the chance to show off what they do day in and day out, even living and camping on the fairgrounds for the duration to be close to and take care of their animals. Think about how you can give your association’s community, whether on the attendee or exhibitor side, the chance to show off a bit about what they do for your industry over the course of the year.

These are just a few elements that contribute to a terrific 12-day event for the state and ones that I found most relevant to associations. Just how successful is the Minnesota State Fair?  It usually welcomes more than 1.7 million attendees each year—about a third of the state’s population—and is the second-largest state fair in the United States.  Does your largest meeting attract one-third of your members? If so, what elements do you think are driving its success? Share in the comments.


Samantha Whitehorne

By Samantha Whitehorne

Samantha Whitehorne is editor-in-chief of Associations Now. MORE

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