Free admission to boost fair attendance, visitor spending

Emily Bentley, director of development for the Missoula County Fairgrounds, advocates for free admission to the Western Montana Fair and closer scrutiny of fairgrounds spending with the Missoula County commissioners on Tuesday, April 18, 2017. (Martin Kidston/Missoula Current)

By Martin Kidston/Missoula Current

The Missoula County commissioners on Tuesday agreed to waive admission to the 2017 Western Montana Fair, giving a nod to advocates who believe free admission will boost attendance.

It could also free up visitors to spend more money on the things they enjoy, from corn dogs to carnival rides. And that could benefit the wider community and the nonprofits supported by concession sales.

“We thought this is something that should be tried,” said committee chairman Jim Sadler. “There’s more advantages of doing this than there are disadvantages.”

The concept of free admission to the annual fair surfaced as last year’s event came to a close. But the idea didn’t gain momentum until recent months when a new fair committee and fairgrounds staff took their seats and began planning for this year’s event.

“The idea of making the fair free, of course, is that it gives access to anyone, regardless of socioeconomic status,” said Tom Aldrich, fairgrounds events manager. “It creates that welcoming atmosphere, and it increases the possibility of return visits, which has the possibility of increasing concessions and carnival spending.”

In a presentation to commissioners, Aldrich ran through a long list of benefits that come with free admission. They include the army of 4-H parents who, in the past, have been required to purchase a pass to see their child’s exhibit.

In years past, fairgrounds staff also has been required to hire nearly 30 outside employees to manage the gates, attend the money room and handle finances. Forgoing the hiring process and the responsibilities around it will enable fairgrounds staff to focus on programming and building a quality fair, supporters contend.

“Plus, as we embark on redeveloping the fairgrounds, there’s huge benefits there,” Aldrich added. “Creating this welcoming atmosphere will increase the community’s emotional and financial investment in the fairgrounds itself.”

While offering free admission has emerged as a popular concept and a way of reviving what some believe has been a languishing event, there are still financial realities that must be considered, according to Aldrich.

On a typical year, the fair generates roughly $100,000 in gate revenues. That money must be found through other means, though supporters believe that increased spending in other areas will more than compensate for lost gate sales.

The Missoula County Fairgrounds will again host the Western Montana Fair this August. (Martin Kidston/Missoula Current)

The bulk of the fair’s revenue comes through carnival and concession sales. Last year, Aldrich said, the carnival grossed around $400,000 while concessions captured roughly $440,000 in sales. A portion of those proceeds go to support 115 area nonprofits.

“If you think about opening the fair up to everybody and the increased attendance that would bring, the increased sales in our biggest money makers should help support it,” Aldrich said. “Plus, I’m on top of fundraising for the fair, and not a single fair sponsor has turned down the idea.”

The new energy going into the Western Montana Fair this year found a spark when Emily Bentley was appointed as the new director of fairgrounds development.

A new fair committee was also seated and has been assigned to handle planning and financial matters surrounding the fair.

Bentley, who also represents Ward 6 on the Missoula City Council, said the new staff has examined all aspects of the fair, including spending and ways to tighten operations and run more efficiently.

In the past, Bentley added, tracking of the fair’s finances hasn’t been great.

“We’re revamping that and tracking it very, very closely this year,” Bentley said. “One of the things we’ve found, in addition to increased sponsorship and money, is that we’ve gotten a lot of media advertising. I believe it’s going to be higher with the increased carnival and concessions sales, because we’re going to have nearly double the advertising.”