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Roundtable: Ground Acts & Fairs - Uptick in Booking & Prices

5/12/2017

By Timothy Herrick

Photo courtesy of Mark Wilson

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Carnival Warehouse Roundtable features a virtual discussion by professionals, experts and observers on fair industry issues.

Grounds acts are no longer an after thought for fairs. Fair managers and executives have long taken what may be called a holistic approach to the fairs, looking at the overall fairgoer experience as opposed to just making sure the high profile segments of the fair - the midway, agricultural competitions and exhibits, and headline entertainment - are the best they can be. 

The so called grounds acts category seems to be getting the same scrutiny. In general, fairs are increasing - alPhoto By Mark Wilsonbeit slightly - the number of these acts and recognizing that their inclusion continues to enhance the experiential factor of fair going. 

 Carnival Warehouse surveyed a few fairs, and while an unscientific study, anecdotal evidence indicates that grounds or free acts are a more important component of the texture of the fair. As Andy Cashman, General Manager, Maryland State Fair, explained, "Fairgoers expect something different than they get at a theme park."

Some fairs are using free acts more strategically, because it "helps other attractions by drawing people to them that might not typically see it," said Christy Enderle, Entertainment & Attractions Supervisor LA County Fair, but she is quick to add, "We need to be careful not to interfere with other vendors, exhibits and attractions."

 In terms of the content of the grounds - here broadly defined as "free" entertainment - it seems the content is up to the individual fairs. There's no discernible trend, although many of the fairs are increasing their regional and local music acts, which bring a larger social media following and might have the most noticeable positive impact on attendance. For other acts, measuring how popular they are tends to be word of mouth and general feedback. 

Other significant aspects to this segment of the fair include rising costs - although not as high as other headline stage acts; increasing the number of the acts, better scheduling and positioning, which helps fairs try to increase traffic in additional areas of the fairgrounds, encouraging more vendor sales and longer fair stays by attendees. In addition, fair mangers take a very hands-on approach to grounds acts. Where as outside talent buyers and agencies often book the main stages, the grounds acts are more often than booked directly with the entertainer or a smaller agency specializing in this area. In addition, industry trade shows, especially the Annual International Association of Fairs & Exposition (IAFE) Convention & Trade Show, are where the new acts are being found the most, followed by word of mouth from other fairs. 

In a wide-ranging virtual roundtable, based on responses to a emailed survey, fair managers discussed the current state of grounds acts, including measuring popularity, rising costs, using social media and what are the hot trends in this segment.


Carnival Warehouse: What Grounds Acts are most popular now? 

Andy Cashman, General Manager, Maryland State Fair: Swifty Swine; Rock-IT The Robot; Stilt Man. We've had the racing pigs for 15 years and they are the most popular, I think I would be hung if I didn't bring them back every year.

Brett Chance, Entertainment Director, Ohio State Fair: Petting zoo; pig races; hypnosis shows. We bring back the most popular entertainers for 2-3 consecutive years, but still rotate our free stage and roving acts regularly to keep things fresh.  We do have a pig race and petting zoo every year.  We also have a hypnosis show booked each year, but we have booked a variety of different hypnotists.

Christy Enderle, Entertainment & Attractions Supervisor LA County Fair: Enderle: Pig races, Chinese Acrobats, animal shows. There are some acts that are all time favorites of our guests (i.e.: acrobats, pig races) that we bring back every year, but we also want to bring in new and exciting acts so there is variety and keeps people coming back to see what we do next.

Dave Bullard, Spokesperson, The Great New York State Fair: Our most popular act is Hilby the Skinny German Juggle Boy, who does a comedy and juggling act in his German-American accent. He gets huge crowds. Bandaloni the One Man Band is also very popular. We consider our Sand Sculpture a grounds act as they do the sculpting during the Fair and it also draws large crowds


CW: What entertainment categories specifically are the best draw?

Enderle: Interactive and unique acts, animal shows, stunt shows (acrobats, high wire, etc.), bands that have a strong following.


CW: How do you measure the popularity of act?

Bullard: We know from visitor comments that Hilby, Bandaloni and the sculpture are very popular and have become traditions. Beyond that, we rotate acts to keep things fresh.

Cashman: Watching audience reactions. Social media and email comments. You want the numbers of people. Myself and my staff walk the grounds, and we watch out for the crowds around the acts, if there's a lot of young kids around them. You can see how the entertainment fits into the rest of the fair. 

Enderle: Guest service comments, social media comments, crowds, word of mouth. Crowd size, entertainment department evaluations, social media


CW: What acts created the most excitement last year?

Enderle: Animal shows.

Chance:   In terms, of what creates the most excitement during the actual visit to the Fair, I think the unexpected enjoyment of a strolling act can be very effecting in creating favorable impressions and lasting memories.'

 Cashman: Strolling entertainers. They're all unique and more hands - on. The pig races really get the audiences involved with cheer leaders and interaction. Family acts work best, so they can all be part of it.

Bullard: Mostly the interactive shows, i.e. ones that have sides of the audience competing against each other, audience participation, etc. Also we've had some unique stilt walkers and other strolling shows that have generated a lot of buzz.  


CW:  Are you booking more acts in 2017?

Bullard: We book about 18 grounds acts and they cover the range from solo shows like Hilby to large-scale performances like the Pirates of the Colombian Caribbean to animal-related shows. It's hard to tell which does best, especially since we rotate acts nearly every year. We think the strength is in the breadth of the lineup - there's something for everybody. We've increased the number of free acts and the size of some of them in order to take advantage of the wide open spaces created by our $50 million renovation.

Cashman: Yes, we have increased the number but we've also increased the quality. Fairgoers expect something different than what they get at a theme park, thus the grounds acts are important to fairs. We try to switch them up every few years. You get a good bang for the buck with grounds acts, and we're finding that you get what you pay, so we've increased the budget.


CW: Do you have a talent buying philosophy when it comes to ground acts? 

Cashman: A variety of entertainment works best. We try to provide one or two new free entertainment options each year. We are looking at a new act that are like Transformers. You can't stay the same. We are looking at super heroes because kids can relate to super heros.


CW: Are prices for Grounds Acts rising?

Enderle: I think they are rising a bit but since our Fair is such a long run we are usually able to negotiate a better price. Pricing can depend on the number of people in the group, travel expenses, additional costs (food and care for animals, etc.). Pricing and availability plays a big part in which acts get booked. Sometimes I want an act but the routing doesn't work, they aren't available the dates I need, or the price is too high.

Chance:   Prices may be rising slightly, but I haven't noticed anything drastic with respect to "grounds" acts.  Prices for grandstand entertainment have gone up drastically in recent years.

Bullard: Entertainment prices seem to be following the trend when everything is slowly increasing in price as time goes by, however we have found that you definitely get more bang for your buck. The adventure, sports and animal shows seem to be more expensive, while roaming shows prices stay more consistent. 

Cashman: Always going up, but they aren't rising as fast as headline entertainment, which is now close to out of whack. Prices are rising across the board,


CW: Do you have system for scheduling entertainment?

Enderle: We have various themes throughout the Fair so we book entertainment based on those themes (i.e.: pirates, dinosaurs, circus, etc.). I try to book entertainment so that there is always something going on but there aren't two acts close by that overlap each other. It also depends on the number of shows an act is willing to do and the length of the performance. 


CW: Do you position acts to draw traffic to under-visited areas of the fair?

Cashman: We don't do that. Usually strolling entertainers go around the fairgrounds adding focus to all areas.

Enderle: If we want entertainment to draw people to a specific area then it needs to be something big that they can't see anywhere else. Sometimes the entertainment helps other attractions by drawing people to them that might not typically see it; however we need to be careful not to interfere with other vendors, exhibits and attractions. Placement is very important because you don't want to create crowds that are too big and block other attractions or noise that impedes on a vendor trying to sell merchandise. Signage, word of mouth, and social media all help draw traffic.

Bullard: We promote the entertainment and publish schedules of their show times. We place shows and vendors in proximity to help each other out. We schedule several shows per day and we try to keep them out of each others' way so people can attend as many as possible.

Shoults: It is very important. We strategically place our free attractions and strolling acts, which serve as pop-up performers, to draw fairgoers to particular areas 

Chance: If you have vendors or exhibitors in less-traveled parts of the grounds, then locating a popular free attraction in that area can be very helpful to them.


CW: How do you use social media to promote entertainment?

Enderle: Our MarCom Dept is in charge of our social media outlets. We heavily promote our entertainment on social media with previews, photos, short videos. We ask all acts to promote the Fair and their participation on their social media platforms. Bands tend to promote the most through social media.

Alicia Shoults, Marketing & PR Director, Ohio State Fair:  We post photos and videos on social media of the act performing and engaging with fairgoers. We've also had a great response when we provide our GoPro camera to entertainment acts and have them film from their attractions or while wearing the GoPro. Engaging national touring acts - whether those are free grounds entertainment or grandstand-type acts, tend to have the largest following. Those who post creative and engaging content give us the opportunity to re-post or share their content with our followers

Bullard: The grounds shows have built-in fans but it's hard to say people come here exclusively for that and would not come otherwise. We announce all of our grounds entertainment every year in press releases and post individual items on our social media to introduce fairgoers to the new shows. They help us by supplying raw material such as photos and videos and are good about re-posting.


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