New approaches bring record sales to the State Fair of Texas. 

New leadership and a more aggressive social media campaign were among factors that helped the State Fair of Texas in Dallas shatter previous records for food and ride sales, posting more than a $42-million gross, besting the 2010 all-time record of $37.3 million and last year’s $37 million by about $5 million.

“We thought outside the box,” said Karissa Schuler, director of public relations, who took over in the spring for a retiring Sue Gooding, of the Sept. 26-Oct. 19 fair.

“We didn’t just talk about ourselves. We talked about fun facts about the state of Texas and Fair Park and then we also incorporated that with our own content. We would ask questions and we would have fairgoers post pictures of their memories and their favorite things to see and do. We leveraged the grounds to ask patrons to like or follow us.”

Competitors showed off their livestock.

The campaign, “Share the Fair,” encouraged patrons to participate, with signage throughout the grounds “asking fairgoers to share their experiences. We asked them to tag us in the photo and we would reciprocate and repost the great photos and show them on our social media channels.”

In addition to Facebook, the other two main hubs at the State Fair of Texas include Twitter and Instagram, Schuler said.

The State Fair of Texas also has a new leader in president Mitchell Glieber, who was appointed after Errol McKoy, who held the position for 25 years, stepped down in the spring. Glieber, who had been vice president of marketing, had been groomed to take McKoy’s place, Schuler said, and then Glieber was replaced in marketing by Jennifer Schuder.

“She encompasses all things related to marketing and sponsorships,” Schuler said.

Glieber, Schuler added, “challenged the whole team with, 'how can we interact with our fan base differently'? The fair is a tradition, but we can look at how we can modernize it to continue to appeal to all different age ranges.”

The Ebola virus crisis that struck Dallas during the fair did not seem to affect the event at all in terms of attendance and spending. A native of Liberia who traveled to Dallas was diagnosed with the disease, which has become an epidemic in three West African countries. The man was hospitalized and eventually died; the relatives he visited were quarantined and two of his nurses were subsequently diagnosed with Ebola.

Fair officials reacted without mentioning the disease, Schuler said.

“It was definitely in the news here,” she added. “On a normal basis, we have hand sanitizers throughout the grounds and reminders to wash hands on signs. We increased how much we were doing that and increased significantly the amount of hand sanitizers. I think that really helped to comfort people.

“There were a lot of questions of not knowing how you could catch it. As people learned more about it, I think that concern went away.”

The midway housed more than 70 rides.

The fair’s independent midway featured 73 rides from 15 different companies, Schuler said.

As usual, the Texas Star Ferris wheel, owned by Tom and Mary Talley, was the No.1 ride.

The rest of the top 10 and the rides' owners included the Texas Skyway, State Fair of Texas; Crazy Mouse roller coaster, Steve Vandervorste; Top O’ Texas Tower, State Fair of Texas; Fast Trax Super Slide, Tom and Mary Talley; Love Bugs, State Fair of Texas; Starship, Kyle Wisdom; Pirate, State Fair of Texas; Log Flume, State Fair of Texas; and the Scooter, Patrick Sheridan.

Gate admission for adults cost $17, the same as last year, while tickets for children under 48 inches cost $13, and 2 and under were free. As usual, ride and food coupons cost 50 cents.

Popular acts at the free Chevy Main Stage included former “American Idol” winner Fantasia; the Casey Donahew Band; Becky G and La Maquinaria Nortena, who drew the largest crowds.

The Casey Donahew band was part of an event called Red River MusicFest held on Oct. 11 that also included Deryl Dodd, Cody Canada & The Departed and Jason Boland & The Stragglers; while La Maquinaria Nortena was brought in to appeal to the Hispanic market.

Other bands that appeared at the Chevy Main Stage included Kool & the Gang and Collective Soul.

Also, for the first time in 10 years, a paid concert was held in the Cotton Bowl, sponsored by Mattress Firm, Schuler said. The event was called the Mattress Firm Music Fest and acts that performed included the Randy Rogers Band and the Josh Abbott Band, both well-known Texas country music artists, as well as Easton Corbin and Jerrod Niemann.

Tickets cost $35 for stadium seating and $45 for infield, while walk-up tickets cost $20 and did not include fair admission, as those patrons already had paid fair admission, Schuler said.

The Cotton Bowl can accommodate 92,000 people, she added, but Mattress Firm was expecting 10,000-15,000 fans to attend the concert. She did not have final attendance numbers.

Held Labor Day weekend prior to the fair’s opening, the Big Tex Choice Awards celebrated its 10th anniversary and fair officials turned the event into a fundraiser and allowed patrons who paid $100 in so they could taste the offerings created by the top eight finalists.

The funds went to the fair’s youth scholarship fund and in addition to being able to taste the dishes, attendees also were given gift bags that included T-shirts and fair tickets.

“They were the first to try any new food offered at the fair this year,” Schuler said.

For the first time in the competition, a beverage won in one of the categories. Justin Martinez, who also created last year’s award-winning deep-fried Thanksgiving dinner, won Most Creative again this year for a beverage, the Original State Fair Brew Funnel Cake Ale.

“It sold out before the end of the fair,” Schuler said.

In the Best Tasting category, Clint Probst won with his Fried Gulf Shrimp Boil.

As for Big Tex, the fair’s 55-foot-tall mascot that the competition is named for, he underwent some changes after his debut last year. The 60-year-old mascot was destroyed by a fire on the last weekend of the 2012 fair and a new one was created and introduced at the 2013 fair. However, the statue was not quite finished because his voice – recorded messages used to greet visitors – and his arm-waving movements needed to be added. He also now can blink.

The tweaks meant that Big Tex also got a new shirt, courtesy of sponsor Dickies. Usually he gets a new outfit once every three years or so, but the tweaks allowed for a new shirt after one year.

“It was a nod to the Lone Star flag,” Schuler said. “It’s a navy shirt with stars on each shoulder.”

Fair officials do not release any budget figures, but new vice president of marketing Schuder noted the fair had 65 sponsors, with some new partners “as we changed some of our programming options.” The split between cash and in-kind sponsorships is 90/10, she added, although revenues remained flat compared to last year.

Next year’s dates will be Sept. 25 to Oct. 18, Schuler said.  

Interviewed for this article: Karissa Schuler and Jennifer Schuder, (214) 421-8716.