U.P. State Fair sets record attendance
By R. R. BRANSTROM
The Daily Press
ESCANABA — Wednesday night brought the final count of 2023’s Upper Peninsula State Fair attendance, but it became evident to accountants on Sunday — the last day of the fair — that records had been broken, according to Vickie Micheau, executive director of the Delta County Chamber of Commerce and management agent for the U.P. State Fair. 104,000 people passed through the gates, about 1,000 more than last year, which had set the previous and short-lived record. Micheau reported that Tuesday, Friday, and Sunday surpassed 2022 gate numbers, while Wednesday admitted fewer fairgoers than expected.
Sonja Skerbeck, co-owner of Skerbeck Entertainment Group, believes the success of the U.P.’s most recent state fairs are owed to restructured operations. As Sonja herself has been with Skerbeck — the largely Escanaba-based carnival business on its sixth generation of showmen — for 21 years, she has seen clear evidence of the changes resulting when production changed hands. When the State of Michigan managed the fair, employees who came up from downstate “were not part of the community and did not have the local or even regional connections to agriculture in the Upper Peninsula.” After all 15 counties of the U.P. and the Hannahville Indian Community banded together to create the governing Upper Peninsula State Fair Authority and hired the Delta County Chamber of Commerce to manage and produce the fair, smooth operations and careful planning have been observed and appreciated.
“The U.P. State Fair has set records every year the Chamber has been involved with the fair, and we see it with our carnival behind the scenes in the planning process with them every year,” said Skerbeck. “Vickie and her team collect data, review figures and really listen to our audiences in the U.P. when it comes to what makes people want to attend and celebrate every year at the fair. The amount of local sponsors and local vendors is significant for an event of this magnitude and makes the U.P. State Fair truly unique and wonderful.”
The entertainment group travels to about 30 events between April and October, so Sonja’s words hold weight.
“We set another record for ride revenue and attendance, which is truly remarkable to me,” said Skerbeck. “I think the U.P. State Fair is an event that pulls people from the entire region of the U.P. as well as downstate Michigan and Wisconsin, too. This is a testament to the quality of offerings and diversity of events scheduled at the fair.”
Exceptionally high attendance the second day of the fair may be attributed to the theme — “Chewsday Tuesday” was a new idea employed this year that panned out well. “Aligned with our commitment to provide affordable family fun at the fair, vendors enthusiastically participated by offering smaller portions of their popular menu items at discounted prices,” said Micheau. “Families took advantage of this opportunity to try out a variety of menu choices without breaking the bank.”
She said that Thursday’s celebrations honoring veterans and Native Americans were successful. Also on Thursday was the long-standing Governor’s Luncheon, where food from local Chamber member restaurants was served, and that evening, Ashley McBryde was a hit in the grandstands, being the only performer for whom Gold Circle tickets sold out.
Grandstand entertainment is free with admission to the fair, but 1,000 Gold Circle tickets — which allow closer access to the stage — were also available for purchase for each night. After Ashley McBryde’s concert, the next biggest Gold Circle ticket-sellers of fair week were Night Ranger (80% sold) on Friday and Jackson Dean (60% sold) on Tuesday.
On Saturday, the Junior Market Livestock Auction, always a big to-do, saw animals raised by youth exhibitors sell for a grand total of over $600,000 during the five-hour event.
No event of such a massive scale is without some hiccups, glitches or oversight, but issues that have been identified are already being taken into account for the future. “The 2024 planning document is starting to fill with suggestions on ways to improve efficiencies and enhance the visitor experience,” said Micheau. One major challenge — perhaps surprisingly, given the 144 acres of grounds — was parking. Another that seemed to catch some people by surprise was the lack of wheelchairs for use at the gate. Micheau said they are looking for a vendor to supply and manage wheelchair rentals for next year.
The exception to near-perfect weather throughout the week — there were only a couple short bouts of avoidable rain and the temperature only hit 80 °F one day — was some high winds that were monitored closely by Skerbeck Entertainment Group and Jayson Entertainment Group (producer of the grandstand performances). Skerbeck and Jayson remained cautious and at the ready to stop rides and events in case wind speeds exceeded safe levels, but fortunately, the wind calmed down before any such action was necessary.
Overall, it’s fair to say that an attendance of 104,000 for an annual event in its 95th season is impressive and something to be proud of.
If you ask Micheau: “Many individuals are responsible for the success of the fair — the visionary leadership of the Authority and Chamber Board, the generous sponsors and vendors, hardworking exhibitors, the tireless efforts of the staff and volunteers, and most importantly, the fairgoers who wouldn’t miss the best week of summer.”