Record-breaking crowds attend fair after years of planning

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If you did all the volunteer work with paid staff, you would need an estimated 85 full-time employees working year round to pull off the Elkhart County 4-H Fair, said Monica Gould of the fair’s inner-ground entertainment.

Preparation for the nine day long fair starts more than a year in advance. The fair’s directors and organizers travel to Indianapolis in January for a conference with other fairs and festivals, then some travel all the way to Las Vegas in November for another trade event.

While the Elkhart 4-H fair finds many of their smaller acts through submissions and YouTube searches, Gould says the national conferences serve as a great way to scout talent.

“Conventions are really helpful because the acts actually perform a shorter segment of their performances so we can see them,” said Gould. It’s an in-depth screening process to bring new and unexpected acts to the fair.

Trade shows bring new software vendors for advertisement, commercial exhibits, vendors and up-and-coming entertainers under one roof—making booking talent that much easier.

Gould said sometimes as many as 25 of the board’s 100-plus directors attend national conferences. It’s all part of a larger collaborative effort with fairs nationwide. Gould said she works closely with the Porter Co. and Valparaiso fairs because they share the same fair dates.

“A lot of it is about the routing, so if you can get an artist that’s already coming through Indiana you can get a discount that way as well.”

According to Gould, the director of the grandstand has a nose for scouting talent early. She explained that that’s why the Elkhart County 4-H Fair historically has big-name musical artists.

“She works really hard to see who is up and coming, and she starts watching some of these artists years ahead of time. Lady Antebellum for example, she had her eye on them for a while,” Gould added that the director is able to gauge how the artist is doing in the charts and book them before they become major hits.

This year’s concert lineup included performances by Hunter Hayes, Florida Georgia Line, Jason Crabb, Vince Gill and Credence Clearwater Revisited.

The fair also features several smaller stages for younger artists trying to get their name out there. Gould explained that many emerging artists want to perform there because of the great exposure and foot traffic. The fairgrounds seats about 20,000 concert goers on top of the 10,000 people sitting in the grandstands.

Wednesday was the final night of the 2013 concert series, headlined by country artist Hunter Hayes. Fans started claiming their seats as soon as the fair opened to the public. The combination of the concert and “Kids’ Day” at the fair set a record for attendance with 46,719 visitors.

Mary Nisly, director of ticketing said Wednesdays at the fair typically draw anywhere from 20,000 to 25,000 people, so this year experienced a significant spike. Attendance is measured daily and each day of the week is compared annually. This past Monday night also set a record with more than 39,000 folks turning out to the grounds.

As the third largest event in Indiana and one of the top county fairs in the county, the Elkhart County 4-H Fair generally expects 250,000 attendees.

This year added an element of community service to the festivities. Organizers are collecting food items and monetary donations for the Elkhart County Food Bank at each of the entryways to the fair. The original goal was to collect 250,000 pounds of food—roughly one pound per expected visitor. However, thus far the fair only collected about 40,000 pounds.

Now some vendors are trying to contribute in their own, creative ways.

“We have one food vendor that has picked an item of the day and every time they sell that they're putting a marble or something into a jar; when that's over they're going bring that over and make a donation,” said Timothy Yoder, in charge of vendors and concession at the fair.

Yoder said that they are not discouraged by the lower number of donations. He explained that this is only the first year they’ve done it and that 40,000 pounds of donated items is better than nothing.

“We hope to do food drives in the future, they'll see where it goes, but it'd be great if the community could rally around food banks and church community services by donating,” Yoder added.

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