The actual number of attendees won’t be known for a while but preliminary figures show a drop of about 4 percent, to 967,000—the lowest number since 1999. Fair officials blamed the decline primarily to the weather and the fact that some schools started fall sessions before the fair ended. I suggest they look elsewhere.
To argue that people stayed away because it was hot or rainy is especially ludicrous. Hot and rainy weather is the norm in Iowa every August and this year was no exception. The early school start date argument has some merit, but attendance has slipped on weekends in recent years, too.
I think a bigger reason for people staying away is the expense. The cost of attending the fair has steadily risen in recent years. Most of us expect to pay plenty for the artery-clogging sludge that passes for food inside the gate, but it’s the ever-escalating cost of getting inside the gate that leaves the real bad taste in our mouths.
Just five years ago, a person could buy an advance ticket to the fair for $5. The same ticket cost 60 percent more this year. The $8 charge this year included a $1 “convenience fee.” For that fee you got a flimsy piece of paper more reminiscent of a grocery store receipt – spit out from an Iowa Lottery terminal – than a “real ticket.”
For those of us who favor the convenience and safety of parking on the fairgrounds, that privilege was a hefty $10 this year. I couldn’t find what it cost in 2005, but I think it was about half that.
Particularly irritating, though, is the convenience fee. I’m sick and tired of getting nickel and dimed by fees everywhere I turn, whether it’s checking bags for an airline flight or buying tickets to a music or theatrical event. Most months I pay more in fees to my water utility than for the water I use. Those service availability fees, solid waste fees, storm water fees, basic sanitary fees and sanitary sewer fees really add up.
I don’t really expect the fair people to drop their prices for 2011, but I strongly recommend that they get rid of that Iowa Lottery convenience fee. If they want people to once again think of the fair as a place for “Nonstop Fun,” they need to nip the growing perception that it’s just another business looking to take advantage of its customers.