The closing Sunday of the St. Lucie County Fair was not just windy. Gusts at 30 MPH may not have closed the midway, but many rides could not be operated and the weather generally discouraged attendees. The poor performance of the concluding day proved to keep a record breaking fair just out of reach for the St. Lucie County event.
But fairs are not just an annual event, they're an ongoing community tradition and sometimes almost can be close enough. "I learned a long time ago that too many expectations bring about disappointment," said Jeanne Keaton, General Manager, St. Lucie County Fair. "Set your fair up the best way you and your committees know how…don't worry about the weather as you have no control over that anyway and have as good of a time as your patrons do and you will have a good event. Don't
sweat the small stuff, it will bog you down."
Down 2; Up 3
According to Keaton, the 2017 fair was on track to be a record, drawing 124,556 - a robust outing for the fair - but when the final tally was taken the fair was actually down only 2 percent. "The fair had a great year again except for a little wind on the last weekend," she said.
Except for the wind, the weather was classic Florida sunshine, "10 days of no rain always makes for a good fair," said Keaton. "Record days were the first Sunday and Wednesday with the wind on final weekend causing a slight drop. We were on track to have a record fair. It was extremely windy and we had shut down many of the ride, but people stayed home."
The attendance dip and windy closing day had little impact on the midway revenue. "The ride gross was up a little from last year," said Cathy Murphy of Spectacular Attractions, more commonly known as Murphy Brothers Exposition. The St. Lucie County Fair midway is a co-production of Murphy Bros and James E. Strates Shows, although the contract is with Spectacular Attractions, who subcontracts with Strates Shows.
The midway revenue increased 3 percent, according to Keaton.. There were 47 rides on the midway, with new rides including the Flying Dumbo, the Enterprise, and Silver Streak. We had a great run again at the St Lucie Co Fair," said Murphy. "Murphy Brothers continues with a good long time working relationship with the St Lucie Fair Association, and Strates Shows whom continues to provide us with a state fair quality midway operation."
She added, "I'm impressed that its a 95 percent volunteer run fair. there's such a good group of people that love their fair and put countless hours in to make it run like clock work."
Spending was generally healthy, especially in food & beverage. According to Keaton, "95 percent of the food vendors told me they were having a good fair and better than last year," she said. "If you have a good showing for food, where the vendors are all making money, than you have having a good fair. Not one food vendor complained about sales or lack of traffic."
Although hesitant to declare it a trend, Keaton noted that there "were more healthy varieties of foods. A new Mac & Cheese vendor seemed a standout among the new fair cuisine offerings at the fair. But the staples sold the best, which for this fair the top two are Beef Tips and Kettle Corn. "I look at the lines, and there lines sometimes 20 deep at these two vendors. They are very popular at our fair."
The fair values its partnership with its food vendors, limiting the number and avoiding repeats of food items. "Our food vendors are part of our fair, we talk to each other, and we listen to their ideas and needs," said Keaton. "We're very protective our food vendors. We want everyone to have a separate food item, you don't want the same food item, that everybody can have a successful fair."
The regional economy does not appear to be better or worse than a year ago, but even if unemployment has not dramatically declined or consumer confidence not fully restored, people have adapted to the current realities. The strategy for the fair is to keep providing value-added entertainment. "As far as the economy, I feel strongly that most of us have learned to accept and or adjust to the economic decline," said Keaton. "When it comes to family fun and something to do with your kids, most will search to find what suits them. It is our job to help them make that decision, so being as diverse as you can with your entertainment and keeping prices reasonable a fair is the best solution to fill the slot of the 'what can we do this weekend?'"
Keaton juiced up slow days by appealing to the value consumer mindset with price-centric promotions including a dollar day, free day, and a car load day. "These special promotions generate traffic, they help your bottom line. The name of the game is to get people into the fair and for them spend money. There's vey little you can do about the economy, but you can make your event bigger, better and a better value for the customers. Our per capita spending is up because we bring people. We may not be ticketing them at the gate, but we bring in them during the midweek."
She added a piece of advice for fair managers: "don't be afraid to have a free day or a Dollar Day amongst your slower days. You will be the winner in the long run."
In addition to the discount day of promotions, the emphasis on increasing per capita spending is that "we do an extremely aggressive advance sales program. Advance sales revenue is key in helping per capita spending."
Tickets go on sale the Monday after Thanksgiving, the first week of sales being an early bird special, "here's an idea for a holiday gift is the idea," she explained. "There's a tremendous amount of people who do buy fair tickets as a Christmas present."
Then the fair "backs off" marketing as to not compete with the annual Christmas sales advertising - which also drives up the cost of commercial time on media outlets -- and then after the holidays the advance sales marketing kicks in again. "You want to create an urgency to have people come to the fair," she said. "What do I get out of it? That's where you are aggressive with your discounts. When they make a commitment by buying tickets for one day. Now it's your job to have that family come back for the following day or another day."
That's where the discounted promotions come in, and the return visits of fairgoers have been rising. The strategy used to be offer a price promotion, such as a senior day. "But we have entertainment that is so diverse, that pertains to all demographics, so we market discounts across all demographics."
While Keaton declined to disclose the advertising budget for the fair, she said "the advertising budget is combination of trade and cash and we have maintained the same level for the last three years." She broke down the spending to 80 percent electronic, which includes radio, digital and social media, a mix that has remain steady for about seven years. 20 percent was spent on other media.
Radio is a dominant medium for marketing the St. Lucie County Fair, and also the most effective way to target consumer segments. "I diversify our radio stations, from adult contemporaries, Latin communities, teenager and the general 25-35 age group. With radio you try to buy as effectively as you can."
Red, White & True Blue
Red, White & True Blue was the marketing theme, with True Blue being a shout out to local law enforcement. "It was a subtle approach showing our support of our local police and sheriff agencies. I focused on pictures of them in some of the marketing, and online we had thanked them on our website. It was a subtle approach to showing the fair's support for the work they do."
The most successful Facebook promotions were contests, especially the chances to win free mega passes. But direct promotions are not the best use of social media. "We have done social media promotions in the past and have found actually just getting the info out there had more responses and share," she said. "I believe people want to know their best deal is rather than mess with a contest or promotion."
It was also the first year for the fair to incorporate Snapchat in their online marketing portfolio. "People had a blast with Snapchat," she said. "It was fairly effective. When you take a picture you want to post, and the picture becomes a frame. So you would see a lot of things like, 'here's a picture of our girls having fun at the St. Lucie County Fair. It was great way for projecting your fair."
The fair took a bold move two years ago by eliminating major national acts from the fair, with no apparent impact on attendance. "We stopped with major national acts and concentrate on more grounds and stage acts. We are able to keep the fair fresh, and we concentrate on the quality acts."
Aside from a windy closing day, the St. Lucie County Fair has been on an upwards trajectory, with an increasing fairgoer following. If there is a secret to success, it's a secret hiding in plain sight. "Pay attention to every day," said Keaton. This philosophy is not just about the work in planning the fair, but understanding that every day of the fair is distinct, requiring a different approach to fairgoers. "You have to look at that particular day and to what works for that day. A midweek day has to be looked at totally different than a weekend."