Today was an important day in the history of the Western Montana Fair. The Board of Missoula County Commissioners (BCC) voted unanimously to uphold Free Admission for the Western Montana Fair for 2018 and in perpetuity. This means the event will provide free access to the entire community for years to come, regardless of one's socioeconomic status.
Upon the approval of Free Admission, the 2018 Fair's official poster was revealed. Local artist Josh Quick, who earned three design awards for his 2017 Fair artwork, was retained to design a new poster around the 2018 theme, "Pioneering the Future." It represents both the redevelopment projects that will transform the Fairgrounds and the spirit of innovation, entrepreneurship, and creativity that has always been a part of the Fair.
The Missoula County Fair Event Advisory Committee voted unanimously to recommend Free Admission to BCC during their May meeting. Free Admission at the 2017 Fair was a significant financial risk after years of relying on gate fees to help sustain the event. The proof of the concept is in the numbers, though, as the surge of increased attendance and revenues in other categories exceeded all expectations.
More about Free Admission:
The Fair’s budget is in a much better place with the Free Admission model with the net cost for the program decreasing significantly. Revenues were increased in every category (aside from gate fees, of course) and attendance also swelled from an estimated 66,000 in 2016 to 87,000 in 2017 with an equally significant increase in rodeo attendance. The most meaningful number, perhaps, is the half-million dollars grossed by the Fair’s numerous nonprofit concessionaires. The Fair takes a 17-20% cut of those revenues while the remainder directly supports the programs of those community benefit organizations. When the Free Admission concept was presented in 2017, it stated a 10% increase in concessions, carnival tickets, and other major revenue sources would make the model work. We are happy to report that those increases surpassed all expectations with 20% or higher increases in most revenue categories and more than doubled revenues for parking and beer garden sales.
Free Admission is based on a very simple theory: if you make access to the Fair free, more people will attend, likely more than once, and will spend the money they saved at the gate on Fair food and fun. The model proposed prior to the 2017 Fair included this idea but also other changes to make it work well. Security was increased as the hype for the event built up throughout the summer and large numbers were anticipated. Missoula County Sheriffs Office, Missoula Police Department, and the newly added layer of private security contributed to a very safe Fair with necessary security increases. Overall personnel costs were still significantly lowered, however, as integrating money room operations with the Fair office, increased volunteerism, and careful use of payroll hours by Fairgrounds managers, all brought the cost of labor down.
Other happy problems sprung up with the new model. Vendors ran out of food after only the first few days, the Fair office ran out of cash for change, and many other operational details needed to evolve quickly. Those factors were dealt with adeptly by Fair staff, vendors, and volunteers, and we made it through. In 2018, we feel even more ready. Fair staff continuously monitors expenses and operations to ensure efficiency and a reliably awesome event and will continue to do so with the long-term Free Admission model.
Free Admission was the sensation of the summer in 2017, earning back the Fair’s status as the largest and most important summer event in Western Montana. The event emerged as a regional leader in the industry through Free Admission, too. The Rocky Mountain Association of Fairs (RMAF) awarded the Western Montana Fair four awards at the Fall 2017 conference, including the Barbara Renner Award for Innovation. The award recognized our Fair as an important game-changer in the evolution of fair and festival industry. In an industry so peculiar and full old habits, such an award is especially meaningful and in the spirit of Missoula County’s values.