Minnesota State Fair’s New CEO to Prioritize ‘Guest Experience’
Mall of America chief business development and marketing officer Jill Renslow (at left) chatted with Minnesota State Fair CEO Renee Alexander at the Golden Valley Country Club on Thursday. Photo by Grant Erickson, Minnesota Chamber of Commerce

Minnesota State Fair’s New CEO to Prioritize ‘Guest Experience’

Renee Alexander, who officially took over as CEO of the fair in May, talks about her approach to leadership at the Minnesota Chamber’s Women in Business Conference.

The Minnesota State Fair is just about 40 days away, and Renee Alexander is getting ready for her first year as chief executive. She’s hardly a fair newcomer, though, having worked at the Great Minnesota Get-Together for more than 20 years.

Speaking at the Minnesota Chamber’s Women in Business Conference in Golden Valley on Thursday, Alexander said she aims to focus on and improve the fair’s guest experience. Mall of America chief business development and marketing officer Jill Renslow moderated the conversation.

Alexander took over as CEO in May, succeeding Jerry Hammer, who had been the fair’s longest serving chief executive. Alexander got her start at the fair as an intern for free entertainment and was “hooked,” saying she enjoyed being part of something bigger than herself. Before becoming CEO, Alexander was the deputy general manager. She’s using her prior experience to continue focusing on the guest experience.

“It’s looking at what is best for the guest, and that makes decisions really easy when you’re looking at that as kind of your North Star” Alexander told attendees at the Thursday conference.

For Alexander, the “guest” includes the fair’s vendors, volunteers, seasonal staff, neighbors, attendees, and anyone else that has some touch point with the fair.

In the past, guests have come from all 50 states and 30 countries. Furthermore, the fair has seen a 50% return rate for its 3,000 12-day fair employees, who provide helpful institutional knowledge, according to Alexander.

One major part of the guest experience is coming back year after year to experience the fair’s traditions. That means Alexander has no plans to mess with traditions.

“When you have 160-plus-year history, you want to make sure you honor that and you keep those traditions and, we, the staff at the fair, we really look at ourselves as stewards,” Alexander said. “The fair belongs to the people of Minnesota. This is their fair and there’s a tremendous sense of pride in it and we honor that.”

As a result, Alexander is opting for an “80-20 rule” that allows for 20% change each year for the fair to remain relevant. One example is incorporating new technologies while still maintaining human connection.

Alexander said that a quality guest experience also involves safety. This year, the fair has spent $4 million of its $60 million budget on safety and security, according to Alexander. Safety measures include things like the fair’s own police department, security cameras, and emergency medical technicians.

“We all feel very strong personal responsibility for everybody that walks through that gate,” Alexander said. “They are under our care.”

However, Alexander said safety is a national concern and requires community support where people keep an eye out for one another.

More than anything, though, food continues to drive the guest experience. On Tuesday, the fair announced new foods for 2023. Alexander noted there will be 34 new foods, seven new vendors, and 300 total vendors selling food and drink.

“It’s the Year of the pickle,” Alexander said. “There is a lot of things about dill pickle. I think last year the success of the pickle pizza is certainly kind of rolling into this year.”

And although recreational marijuana will be legal in Minnesota beginning Aug. 1, Alexander said guests still aren’t allowed to smoke it at the state fair. But she said keeping out smokable cannabis and edibles won’t necessarily be law enforcement’s primary focus.

Meanwhile, attendance at the Minnesota State Fair still hasn’t quite caught up to record-breaking pre-pandemic levels. In 2022, the fair reported 1.8 million visitors. That was up from 1.3 million in the prior year, but still below the all-time record of 2.1 million attendees in 2019.

Last year, the fair increased ticket prices a dollar to $17, marking the sixth price increase over the last decade. That evidently didn’t deter attendees, though; the fair’s 2022 financial documents show ticket sales of $40.7 million that year, up from $27.2 million in the prior year.

The fair, which reported more than $64 million in operating revenue in 2022, will run Thursday, Aug. 24, through Monday, Sept. 4. As of now, Alexander said there are no plans to lengthen the fair’s duration.