Fair Attendance Down 60%, But Entertainment Ticket Sales Strong

Livestock auction sets sales record, COVID-19 plan executed with mixed results

By Micah Drew
The American flag is presented in the arena at the Northwest Montana Fair ahead of the rodeo on August 20, 2020. The size and number of activities were reduced at the fair as the result of the COVID-19 pandemic. Hunter D’Antuono | Flathead Beacon

After months of planning, the 2020 Northwest Montana Fair and Rodeo concluded a five-day run on Aug 23.

Attendance for the event was 32,172, 40% of last year’s record attendance. Fairgrounds manager Mark Campbell said early on he had tentative expectations that attendance would be closer to 80% of last year, but the number dropped the closer it got to opening night.

“People just coming to the fair itself really did not occur to the extent we thought it would,” Campbell said during his report to the Flathead County Commissioners on Aug. 25. “You see entertainment carrying the bulk of the load of the fair — that’s a good synopsis of what happened.”

Sales of entertainment tickets made up 87% of total sales at this year’s fair, whereas gate entry tickets were down to just 16% of last year’s numbers.

The first night of fair kicked off with a concert by country artist Lee Brice. The fair report showed that 1,919 people attended the concert. Campbell noted that concert revenue is unlikely to cover the cost of the show.

The three days of rodeo action drew the largest crowds and had higher participation rates by competitors than in previous years. The fields included world champions in every event. More than 6,000 people were in the grandstands for the rodeo over the three days, and the events were broadcast live with an audience of more than 1.4 million viewers tuning in.

“Kalispell, Montana was put on the market and people saw the kind of show and production that happens here,” Campbell said. “It was outstanding.”

The last entertainment event, the demolition derby, had around 1,300 attendees.

In the weeks leading up to the fair, the board emphasized the importance of the 4H and FFA components of the fair, and there was record participation for livestock showmanship. The online livestock auction sold around 300 animals and set a record of $643,568, about $90,000 more than last year. Campbell attributed this to the accessibility of the auction to anyone, including many out-of-state bidders.

The main concern from members of the fair board, health board and community was how to safely put on a fair during a pandemic. Public safety plans for COVID-19 were approved by the health board and revised even as the fair began.

“Our COVID plan was a good plan; I think our execution of it Wednesday night was not good, and that was reset Thursday morning with all of the crews,” Campbell said, noting that the staff wasn’t strict enough on enforcing the mask requirement at the gates the first night. “It went much better the rest of the week.”

Photos captured at the fair show crowded grandstands and clustered groups of attendees without masks, but Campbell said that the images could be misleading. He said photos obscured the crowd spacing in the grandstands that was enforced throughout the entertainment events.

“I watched the spacing very carefully during the grandstand events,” Campbell said. “It never concerned me.”

Campbell also stated that on some occasions when grandstand participants were not wearing masks, they were allowed to stay as long as there were no complaints by attendees in the vicinity.

Both the fair organizers and the Flathead City-County Health Department are closely monitoring any impact the fair will have on cases of COVID-19 in the county. Spikes in case numbers likely won’t be seen or won’t be noticed for around two weeks, as the incubation time for the novel coronavirus is up to 14 days.

“I think in general and in many ways we accomplished what we were trying to do this year,” Campbell said. “We put on a fair for the 4H and FFA kids and the open competition, and we provided entertainment in a moderate fashion for those who wanted to come.”

Stay Connected with the Daily Roundup.

Sign up for our newsletter and get the best of the Beacon delivered every day to your inbox.