Lake County Fair officials Tuesday reported a modest increase in attendance over last year. But the story wasn't solely reflected in the numbers, they say.
"People noticed the difference this year," said Sheri Vyfvinkel, who in her second year as the fair's business manager introduced a number of new features designed to build on the event's traditional agricultural roots to attract a new audience.
A total of 91,548 visitors, up about 2.8 percent from 89,000 last year, attended the annual event, which wrapped up Sunday at the Lake County Fairgrounds in Grayslake. The number is considered significant by organizers given that the fair ran five days this year instead of the traditional six.
While specific figures were not disclosed, officials of the private nonprofit fair organization said revenue was up 9 percent over last year. The annual fair is the single largest revenue generator for the sprawling fairgrounds at Peterson and Midlothian roads, which is open year-round. Proceeds are pumped back into the fair and other operations.
Attendance had dipped each year since 2009 when the fair moved to its current location after 50 years at routes 120 and 45.
"Everyone's eyes had a new light to them," Vyfvinkel said. "Moving to the new fairgrounds maybe wasn't an instant success."
Organizers say issues regarding chaotic finances and operations that lead to Vyfvinkel's hiring in March 2011 have been settled, giving the veteran of Navy Pier and the 2002 Winter Olympic Games a chance to focus on marketing and improving the fair itself.
"We have a team in place all focused in the same direction," said Kelli Kepler-Yarc, fair board president. "There was a game plan in place."
That included rearranging attractions to improve crowd flow, as well as the addition of events, such as the Chicago Flower & Garden Show, livestock costume contest and a digital film competition. And while the rodeo was dropped, monster trucks proved to be a hit, and competitions like pie-eating and sasquatch calling were introduced to personally engage the audience.
"They felt like something was different. We're really looking at the details now. People feel that," Vyfvinkel said.
With the exception of a scorching 100-plus-degree opening day, which limited attendance to 9,600, the weather cooperated. Attendance on subsequent days was much higher, peaking at 28,490 on Saturday.
Still, attendance was far below the all-time high of 250,193 in 1998 or even the 157,705 reported for the final year at the previous location in central Grayslake. Kepler-Yarc noted that attendance had been estimated using a formula but now is based on actual sales.
The numbers probably still are down to some extent, she said, given the increase in competition over the past 10 years or so from community events.
But everything about the 2012 edition of the fair was positive, she said.
"We have a great staff and team focused in the same direction and (they) are so passionate. It's a great atmosphere."