Washington State Fair changing dates, hopes to be Labor Day tradition – The Olympian

Officials at the Washington State Fair hope their end-of-summer celebration becomes a must-do Labor Day weekend activity when it opens a week earlier than usual starting next year and extends its stay from 17 to 21 days.

“The fair is a tradition,” fair CEO Kent Hojem said. “The fair could easily become another Labor Day tradition.”

The annual fair in Puyallup will run Sept. 2-25 next year. It also will close every Tuesday in the first major overhaul of its schedule since 1978.

Despite the so-called “dark days,” the fair’s run will increase by four days, which likely will result in expanded entertainment and dispersed crowds, Hojem said.

“We’re excited to see how it will work,” he said.

Some fair workers questioned whether the changes will be successful. They said last week that they’re worried about a drop in seasonal workers due to a holiday-weekend debut.

Other skeptics said attendance may be lower because the fair will compete with other Labor Day weekend activities, such as regional fairs and the Bumbershoot music festival in Seattle. At least one fair, the Oregon State Fair, will overlap with the new dates and may have to adjust its schedule to keep the carnival operator it shares with the Washington State Fair.

Puyallup police and Central Pierce Fire & Rescue officials have said they will face some staffing challenges to provide security and emergency response services for the extended fair, as well.

Mike Christensen, manager and member of the family that operates Sales Family Food Stand, said the changes are innovative.

“I think it is an experiment and a wonderful opportunity,” Christensen said, adding that the Sales stands will increase their staff due to the extended fair schedule. “It’s a good problem to have.”

Many employees and fairgoers acknowledge that nobody will know how the new calendar will work until it is tested — a point that Hojem stressed last week.

“Until you’ve actually expanded the dates, that’s precisely what it is — speculation,” he said.

‘TIME WILL TELL’

The decision to change the schedule was thoroughly vetted, Hojem said.

The announcement was made in January following a multiyear study of other large fairs.

The midweek closures are expected to ease traffic, give vendors and exhibitors a chance to restock or change displays, and provide a day of rest for seasonal workers.

Fair officials also have said the earlier debut may improve the chance of nice weather. However, weather expert and University of Washington atmospheric sciences professor Cliff Mass said there’s very little difference between the first and second weekends of September.

“The climatology doesn’t change that quickly during that period,” Mass said.

Fair officials hope the changes will increase attendance beyond the annual million-plus visitors, providing more revenue that could help fund future projects.

Hojem said last week that the fair is planning to develop at least one new building, a multipurpose Agriplex, and renovate another long-standing restaurant structure on the fairgrounds.

More days will also mean more grandstand entertainment, Hojem said, though everything will remain closed on dark days.

The fair decided to close on Tuesdays since they are historically the slowest days. Over the last five years, Tuesdays averaged about 8 percent of the fair’s total attendance. By comparison, Saturdays accounted for more than 27 percent of total attendance.

That trend appeared to play out last week on the first Tuesday of this year’s fair.

Buildings such as the Showplex, Hobby Hall and the Pavilion — areas that were crammed shoulder-to-shoulder with people on opening day — offered plenty of leg room for people browsing exhibits.

In the livestock barns, crowds gathered around the baby animals with plenty of room to maneuver elsewhere. Several days earlier, fairgoers there were stuck at a dead stop waiting for people to slowly shuffle by one another.

Food vendors such as Sales Family Food Stand, Earthquake Burgers and Fisher Scones barely had lines. The midway, often the busiest area of the fair, appeared to have fewer people buying tickets and waiting for rides.

Longtime fair worker Barbara Vorderbrueggen waited at the the Nutty Dips stand in Expo Hall, where nobody was stopping to buy treats. The Puyallup native who now lives in Dryden travels to her hometown to continue her 40-year tradition of working at the fair.

She said it may be harder to hire seasonal workers next year because they’ll have to sacrifice their holiday weekend. Many employees prefer to have Labor Day free to enjoy the last bit of summer with their families, she said.

“That’s going to be a big compromise on their part,” Vorderbrueggen said.

Going dark on Tuesdays makes sense, she said, since those are always slower days. Still, she said her fellow workers haven’t had positive things to say about the changes.

“Only time will tell,” she acknowledged.

May Sanchez of Tacoma, who works at a Sales Family booth, said she doesn’t foresee problems with the new dates.

“If you gotta work, you gotta work,” Sanchez said Tuesday, stressing that many people participate in the fair for fun. “I think there’s a lot of people willing to work.”

She added that she’s used to working weekends and holidays as an emergency dispatcher, and a midweek day off will be a good break from the hustle.

Sanchez said fairgoers will love the added option for Labor Day activities.

“It’s a great weekend for families,” she said.

Vendors had mostly positive things to say with high hopes that the changes will have positive effects on their business.

Christensen, of Sales Family Food Stand, said more than half of his employees return every year.

“I’m not worried in the slightest,” he said. “I don’t think it will be detrimental.”

Meg Ward of Tacoma worked in the Showplex on Tuesday for a Puyallup-based remodeling company.

She said it was much slower than previous days. Although she understands the fair’s reasoning, she said closing on Tuesdays may not be ideal for attracting new business.

“I know (my employer) is eager to be here at the fair,” Ward said. “That’s one less day to get more customers.”

But the addition of Labor Day weekend is a big plus, she said, because the fair’s three weekends are always busy.

Hojem said the ultimate test will be gauging fairgoers’ experiences following the changes. But it’s difficult to measure subjective opinions of more than a million people, Hojem said.

Some fairgoers last week were indifferent about the changes.

“It doesn’t make any difference to me,” Olympia resident John Wickstrom said, adding that the employees shouldn’t care about the new dates. “If they pay them, I doubt it will matter.”

Others were skeptical.

Linda and Peter King visited the Washington State Fair for the first time last week as part of a road trip. The Massachusetts natives stood below the Extreme Scream, eating an elephant ear and watching the ride shoot into the air.

Peter King said fairs should run consecutive days without breaks.

Linda King said the extra weekend may not boost attendance if people have other plans for Labor Day.

“Most people are away to get ready for school,” she said.

SUCCESS AT OTHER FAIRS

The Washington State Fair’s changes were based on research that showed other large fairs had success with longer schedules.

The study included the San Diego County Fair and the Los Angeles County Fair.

The California fairs’ schedules correlated with increased satisfaction for fair guests, a boost in gate attendance and increased benefits for vendors and partners, Puyallup fair officials say.

The fair in Los Angeles County is most similar to Puyallup’s, with comparable attendance, similar dark days and a Labor Day-weekend debut.

Spokeswoman Renee Hernandez said her fair experimented with various schedules until landing on the 24-day run, with closures every Monday and Tuesday, in 2009.

“We haven’t had any problems with hiring seasonal employees,” Hernandez said.

She also said opening on Labor Day weekend initially was beneficial for families whose vacation plans were affected by the weak economy.

“If they are staying home, staying local, they could have somewhere to go that’s affordable,” she said of the rationale at the time. “We thought it provided a fun alternative.”

That logic has paid off, she said, even as the economy has improved.

“The crowds haven’t diminished as the economy has gotten better,” Hernandez said.

It’s a similar story for San Diego County Fair officials.

Spokeswoman Linda Zweig said her fair is flexible with its June-to-July schedule so it can always include Independence Day.

To maintain the schedule’s sweet spot of 25 days without leaving out the holiday, Zweig said the fair closes every Monday and the first two Tuesdays.

“Not only does it not impact our attendance in a negative way, but it gives our workers an opportunity to recharge,” she said of the midweek closures. “There is a benefit on a lot of levels.”

When Monday closures first started in San Diego, Zweig noted that some fair workers initially were worried about losing momentum.

“It turned out to be just the opposite,” she said. “When you do something for the first time, it’s always scary. It’s been very positive here.”

OREGON FAIR OVERLAP

The Washington State Fair’s new dates overlap with several regional events and fairs, causing a dilemma for one of its most notable partners.

Carnival operator Funtastic provides rides and games for Puyallup’s fair as well as the Oregon State Fair in Salem.

Funtastic owner Ron Burback Sr. said he can’t staff both simultaneously, so Oregon fair officials are exploring new dates.

“It’s a tough decision to make,” Burback said. “They’re going to do a lot of research.”

If those changes aren’t made, Burback said he’ll have to end the partnership and stick with the Washington State Fair.

“I’ve got a lot of investment here with permanent rides and roller coasters,” he said of Puyallup’s fair. “I’d have to protect that investment.”

Hojem said Washington fair officials didn’t speak to Oregon fair officials before making the decision to change the Puyallup fair’s dates.

Dan Cox, spokesman for the Oregon State Fair, said Thursday that no decisions have been made regarding a new schedule in Salem.

“We will be making an announcement about that in the days ahead,” he said of whether the dates or the carnival operator will change.

He stressed that Washington’s changes are “business as usual” in an industry that’s always trying to maintain profitability. There’s no ill will toward the Washington State Fair, he said.

“We’re all in the same business together,” Cox said.

Despite the dilemma, Burback said he supports the changes in Puyallup.

“This is a common thing that’s happening in our industry,” he said of the expanded schedule.

Hojem said it will take more than one year to measure the success of the new dates. The ultimate benchmark will be customer satisfaction.

“That’s hard to measure, but we’re going to be looking at that closely,” he said.

Hojem said he believes adding an extra weekend will disperse crowds and make the fair more pleasant for weekend visitors.

“This is the next step in our evolution,” he said. “It’s a whole new world for us.”

Kari Plog: 253-597-8682

kari.plog@thenewstribune.com

@KariPlog