Iowa State Fair: Nothing Compares to Having One More Line to Stand In

iowa state fairThis summer, the Iowa State Fair celebrates it’s 160th anniversary.   160 years and millions of people attending what has been touted as one of the “1,000 Places to See Before You Die”  In 2004, it was even named as the #2 choice for American summer fun, beating out Disneyland! (iowastatefair.org)

Rather than promoting the fact they are the largest event in the state, as well as one of the largest agricultural events in the United States, or boasting about their midwestern hospitality, wide variety of foods, and days worth of fun events each year, they decided to make headlines about the newest change they are making.  People aren’t talking about the amazing grandstand acts, or which famous people we’ll be able to see on the free stage.  Everyone is talking about change.  A change made to something that wasn’t even broken.

It was recently announced that the Iowa State Fair will go to a cashless system starting with the 2014 Fair happening this August.   This new cashless system will allow fairgoers to purchase tickets (online or at 150 booths scattered throughout the fairgrounds), which can be used for food, beverage and attraction purchases.  I’m still a little unclear as to what falls under the “attractions” category, because these tickets will NOT be able to be used in the Midway for rides.

The tickets will be sold in 50-cent increments and the State Fair Board boasts that the tickets don’t expire.   They also claim this cashless method will cut down on robbery and theft.  Supposedly, they have research that shows these cashless systems used at other fairs have resulted in an increase in spending by fairgoers.

Opening Day of the Fair 2013 (IowaStateFair.org)

Opening Day of the Fair 2013 (IowaStateFair.org)

When I heard about this change, the first thing that came to mind is the long lines for people trying to buy tickets.  If you’ve ever been to the Iowa State Fair, you know what I’m talking about.  In 2012 and 2013, the Iowa State Fair averaged 97,472 people per day.  It’s truly insane.So let’s break this down to see who the cashless system really benefits and why.

How will this cashless system benefit the vendors?

Vendors won’t have to make change, run credit/debit cards, or count money.   They take the exact amount of the fairgoers’ purchase (because everything is in 50-cent increments) and turn in their tickets to the Fair Board to receive their earnings.  The Iowa State Fair has agreed to pay the cost of the credit card fees from fairgoers at the tickets booths or online.

How will the State Fair benefit?

The benefit to the State Fair revolves around one very important thing:  unused tickets. Let’s assume that of the 1,047,246 people that attended the 2013 State Fair, that HALF of them leave with one 50-cent ticket left over at the end of the day.  (It’s highly realistic that this amount could be even higher, because really even $1 buys you NOTHING at the Iowa State Fair).   That’s $523,623 in money the Fair has collected that isn’t being redeemed. Those unused tickets are a 100% profit margin for the State Fair.   Although they claim that the tickets don’t expire and can be used anytime, most won’t.    If you’re like me, there’s not a chance in hell that a measly 50-cent ticket will stick around in my wallet for a week, let alone a year until the next Fair rolls around.

And what happens if the Fair decides to end the cashless system for 2015 because it fails this year? Will they offer cash refunds to any Tom, Dick or Harry that provides a leftover ticket from 2014? Again, the purchase of tickets results in higher profit margins for the Fair.

In addition, the Fair can now make sure that they receive the correct share of profits from each vendor.  Vendors will turn in tickets collected rather than being able to fudge earnings on their cash sales.  I assume it happens with at least a small percentage of vendors.    What really gets me is that the Fair wants to keep food and drink prices down to make the Fair seem more affordable.  They are urging vendors “to keep the prices the charged in 2013 and consider offering ‘value’ items”, BUT the State Fair has already announced that they are increasing admission ticket prices by 10%.  Iowa State Fair, you’re not practicing what you preach– you’re wanting the vendors to keep costs the same, yet in the same breath, you raise your prices.

Now for the most important question of all– How will this system benefit fairgoers?

In my opinion, it WON’T.    I’ll use my family of four as an example.

We drive 35 minutes to get to the shuttle that will take us to the fair.   We go to a ticket booth to purchase tickets.  We take those tickets and hand them to the shuttle bus driver to board the shuttle.   We arrive at the entrance gate with admission tickets to get in.  We then need to go find a ticket booth and stand in line, because one of the first things we do when we get there is EAT.  Of course, I’ll now be forced to carry around a purse because I know I’m not keeping dozens of tickets in my pocket.  Knowing that I’d want to use my tickets up before leaving the fair, I’ll buy low.  Rather than spending my usual $100 in cash at the fair, I’ll probably start by spending $40 in tickets.   (Because that’s EIGHTY tickets to carry around).  We’ll buy our lunch, which will probably use up the $40.

corn dogWe’ll walk around the fair, and decide to get something to drink or something fried on a stick, so we’ll go get another $40 in tickets.  We might have a few left over, and as we’re walking around more, we’ll see something that just looks amazing– those fried pickles or a Twinkie on a stick.  Counting our tickets, we’ll see that we don’t have enough.   We’ll look around for a ticket booth, which could be quite a ways away since they plan on having 150 booths for the 445-acre fairgrounds. (DO THE MATH!)    We’ll realize the trip to the ticket booth to wait in line, to then come back and wait in line AGAIN for the impulse purchase  is not worth it.

If you’ve been keeping track, we’ve only purchased $80 in tickets, and we’ve probably got a few left over.  We end up leaving with $20 in our pocket, and the Fair made $20 less than usual from my family.

State Fair spokesperson Lori Chappell states that this cashless sytem is already being used in the beer tents, where people purchase tickets for their beer outside the tent, and then go in to the vendors, present a ticket, and get their drink.  (WHOTV.com)  While I agree that this system works fine for the beer tents, what Ms. Chappell is not realizing is that people will do anything to get their beer.   If they have to wait in lines, buy tickets, shave their head or crawl through a manure pile… if the end result is a plastic solo cup of not-so-cold beer, it’s worth it.

The average family of four is not concerned one bit with the beer tent.   The average family at the Fair is pushing a stroller, carrying a diaper bag, and possibly toting around at least one other child.  They do not want to stand in line for tickets, then stand in line for their food, only to then stand in line at the Midway to get tickets for their rides, then stand in line at the ride itself.   With temperatures usually in the upper 80s or higher, with humidity levels always horrible, standing in lines with other smelly, sweaty, dirty people is not at all what the Fair should be about.

I searched for any sign of people really catching on to this idea, and looked for any reason as to why this is a GOOD change for the average family visiting the Iowa State Fair. People complaining on social media about the change outnumber the advocates at least 100 to 1.   For the sake of the Iowa State Fair, I hope they prove all of us naysayers wrong.  I hope they can turn this change into something successful– for the fairgoer and not just for the Fair.

Update: Since I wrote this Wednesday afternoon, the Iowa State Fair officials have already announced that they are re-evaluating their decision.

  5 comments for “Iowa State Fair: Nothing Compares to Having One More Line to Stand In

  1. January 9, 2014 at 8:22 AM

    With all of the craziness this summer, we didn’t make it to the IA State Fair but look forward to it next year. While forcing fair-goers to purchase tickets wouldn’t prevent us from going, I very much hate the idea. I’ve always found this very annoying at other events we’ve attended. It’s hard to estimate the tickets you need, and then you have to wait in line all over again to purchase more.

    I think state fairs should just deal with conventional modes of payment. It might be inconvenient but the reality is that people want to pay with credit cards and cash. We’d probably be like your example, where we’d probably forgo purchases than buy a few more tickets near the end of our visit.

  2. January 9, 2014 at 8:52 AM

    Jeni , I agree. I kinda got a chuckle this morning when our news station quoted a fair Official as saying they just want to have a universal form of payment at the fair.

    I thought to myself, isn’t CASH a universal form of payment?

  3. January 9, 2014 at 11:48 AM

    your scenario is so true! I am definitely not looking forward to finding those little tickets booths multiple times throughout the day. And OMG, the math on those leftover tickets, you are so right!! cash right in their pocket and a waste from mine.

  4. Sara
    Twitter: hawkfan5
    February 23, 2014 at 2:06 PM

    I completely agree. Really the only benefactor here IS the Fair. Like you said, most families will purchase like you are and the vendors lose out on potential impulse sales. Plus if they are raising admission again- my family of 5 will skip it altogether this year. I’d love to see family admission discounts and I’d spend more inside. At these rates we can’t afford it!

    • February 24, 2014 at 8:51 AM

      I think they are taking advantage of the popularity of the fair, and using it as a reason to raise prices. They are losing the “small town” feel of it all.

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