The Future of Fairgrounds: Q&A with Tim O’ Toole of the Oklahoma State Fair

Tim O’ Toole is President & CEO of Oklahoma State Fair, Inc. which operates State Fair Park in Oklahoma City – one of the largest and most successful event venues in the nation. At State Fair Park, Tim oversees the strategic planning and programming as well as managing the operations, including facilities and development.

In turn, we’ve had the opportunity to work closely with Tim for the past decade as State Fair Park has continued to evolve, meet customer needs and further establish its reputation as a premier event destination. We sat down with Tim to discuss the future of the fair and event industry.


State Fair Park is known for its 365-day a year use. What design elements are critical to allow for optimum function of the annual Oklahoma State Fair and non-fair users?

One of the things we always focus on when improving or designing new spaces or buildings is sharing knowledge with the designer about our needs.  We want them to understand what we do, not only during the annual fair, but also the rest of the year.  Once that’s understood – it comes down to flexibility.  As a grounds operator it’s a requirement – spaces that function and adapt for each event regardless of its size or type and also ample parking to accommodate multiple events.  Because we’re in the horse show business, we’ve designed parking and loading/unloading zones with appropriate egress for horse trailers.  Whenever we look at facilities, we think about how traffic will be affected on the site during large annual events …like the five World Championship horse shows hosted between October and December.

We’re also often challenged with multiple events being held at once. It’s a good and unique problem to have.  We’ve had a gun show, dog show and a bridal show all occurring at once – and these are all very different customers with different needs and expectations while on our property.  We’re able to accommodate these events because we have five different exhibition buildings.  And while still on the same property – each group has a sense of its own space and amenities.  Since 2005, we’ve been working to make improvements to amenities – we’ve completed more than $100 million in equestrian facility improvements and we now have 13 separate structures, 900,000 square feet and 3,000 stalls for our events. Those developments mean we have added flexibility to our facility that is unparalleled and incredibly valuable to the industry.

How are fairgrounds reinventing themselves to attract new customers/future generations?

Social media is the focus.  Consumers are no longer passive observers.  They want to engage in conversations and events; they want to touch and interact with way finding elements that provide helpful and educational content.  Customers are pursuing ways to engage with others visiting the property.  It’s about connecting visitors to unique elements and offerings.  We realize we are a large public venue but are in competition with all other entertainment venues in the marketplace.  We continue to be a great place for people to come together and we will continue to better the experience they have when they visit our property.  We pride ourselves on the heritage of the Fair while also enhancing the experience with technology. That’s simply a must as we look to attract future generations to our facility and stay relevant.

Talk a little about how fairgrounds and events centers play a role in the community.

I’ll just say this… Location, location, location.  At the crossroads of Interstates 40 and 44, the State Fair Park is centrally located in the state.  In the past, people gathered to share goods, services and information.  This notion has carried forward into today with traditional events like the annual Oklahoma State Fair held in the fall.  But now State Fair Park is more than just the annual Fair – it’s a year-round operation.  The whole premise that State Fair Park is year-round is a shift.  People make the drive on weekends to attend events.  We are a gathering place for people from all walks of life.  We are an economic engine for tourism – with over 200,000 hotel room nights a year, as well as an increase in restaurant and retail sales. This is central to the impact we have on the community. The more events we host, the more of an impact we can have on what it means to live in this region. State Fair Park has an economic and cultural impact that can’t be quantified – they are truly that key to our community.

To read more about the renovations at State Fair Park, visit http://populous.com/project/oklahoma-state-fair-park/ .

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