The fair season may not be over, but the winner of the biggest year-to-year jump in attendance so far is likely the Marion County Fair in Indiana. Attendance increased an astounding 44 percent compared to 2016.
This growth spurt was not a fluke, or a bounce-back fair after a rained out prior year, but a tremendous leap in what has been a upwards trajectory in recent years. "We've been going up in attendance in the past three or four for years," said John Gardner, president of the Marion County Fair board of directors. "We had some lean years, but starting in 2013, we have been coming back."
According to Gardner, The 2017 edition of this 87 year old fair was "E
xcellent, it was a record year for attendance and revenue in the new millennium."
Attendance exceeded 67,000 for this regional Hosier State event, and spending also kept apace with the fairgoer turnout. "Attendance and revenues were the highest since revised accounting was put in place in 2008, he said. "We certainly believe it was the best year of the 2000s so far. Data from before 2000 is a bit unreliable."
In other words, the fair is back to its 90s boom-time and shaken off its great recession doldrums. Gardner credited a handful of key factors that added up to this success: an improved local economy, upgraded facilities, a strong midway, new entertainment and attractions and a more concerted marketing effort and social media presence.
Except for a 2nd Friday downpour that left a muddy fairground, the weather was pleasant and in the 80s - ideal Midwestern Summer Days. Total revenue for the event was up 29.2 percent. Nature encouraged people to come out to the fair and this year, they had more money to spend. "The economy in Indiana has been on the rebound," said Gardner. "Maybe part of it is change in administration and there's some optimism. Our former governor is now Vice-president, unemployment is down, the local economy has picked up compared to last year, which was a election year, and people hold onto their money more when it's an election year. I think people have more expendable money than a year ago."
In recent years, the Marion County Fair has also picked up its year-round business, and much of this revenue has been reinvested in capital improvements. "We've made the fairgrounds more attractive and added amenities, and I think the word has gotten around," said Gardner. "The experience of coming to the fair has been improved, and that word of mouth has helped attendance."
He added, "we repaved our main street, worked on the safety issues, upgraded our restrooms and other facilities. That has paid off, people realized that we upgraded, and the overall fair experience was improved from year to year."
North American Midway Entertainment AID
Much of the upgrade program - which has been ongoing - was done in collaboration with Danny Huston, President of North American Midway Entertainment (NAME) - and focused on the midway area of the fairground. "Danny's been very helpful and he has directed some of the improvements," said Gardner. "We have improved some drainage, but we are working more in that area, and are looking to expand the midway so we can get a roller coaster next year. Danny's been around a lot."
In keeping with the increased attendance, midway revenue was up 35 percent. The lineup was "very similar to last year," said Gardner, which included about 20 rides, evenly split between children/family rides and thrill, spectacular rides. While one of the smaller fairs on the NAME route, Gardner noted that this leading carnival company 's headquarters is "just up the road from us." In addition, NAME has been the fair's midway provider for six years, which coincides with the recent growth trend for attendance, culminating in the 2017 44 percent attendance leap.
"NAME worked with us on marketing, and did a lot of promotional work on their own as well," said Gardner. "Our online wrist band sales were way up this year, and we had great dollar ride nights."
Marketing and promotion Gardner also pointed to as being key to putting the 2017 fair over the top in terms of attendance, spending and fairgoer enjoyment. "We've gotten better at it," he explained. "We've gotten better at targeting different customer groups, and using social media and reaching our target audience."
The fair has a modest adverting budget - approximately $40,000, about the same as last year, and allocated in near-identical proportions: 40 percent local radio; 20 percent zoned cable TV; 15 percent print / coupon ads; 10 percent Facebook boosts; 10 percent billboard; and 5 percent miscellaneous. "The media mix was similar to years past" he said. "We continued to lean heavily on local radio for their live broadcasts and promotional partnerships."
The Marion County Fair featured more live coverage of its events, including six live television broadcasts and two radio remotes.
The fair's grandstands are used mainly for ticketed motor/spectacle sports, including Monster Trucks, Demolition Derbies, and Truck Drag Races. This year, the fair collaborated with the promoters for these events for social media marketing and surprisingly, followers of those types of events have become major social media users, which supplemented other marketing efforts, such as promotions on the TV Motor Sports Network. "We've learned to be more efficient and to work with our promoters," he said. "The grandstand attendance was up, and we were getting people who had never been to the fair before, but were coming because of how we marketed our grandstand entertainment. Partnering with promoters helped a great deal."
Generally the fair "created more posts" on Facebook, as well as other compelling content. "We created a lot of slideshows using photography from years past and this year's features," he said.
Gardner used the term Real Time Marketing to describe how the fair used Facebook Live in 2017. "We highlighted major events as they were happening and invited people to come and join the fun."
But that day of outreach through social media also may not have turned rainy days into clear sky nights, but it effectively enabled the fair to get the message out that the fair was open. "One day we had a lot of rain, which was remnants of a hurricane that affected a lot of the Midwest. It rained all day, but the night was clear and we used Facebook to tell people that events were going on, that we still had the Demolition Derby, and we answered a lot of questions about the fair."
The fair's marketing theme was "Meet You at the County Fair," and even hadn't its own song. "We have rights to a song recorded by The Elms called "County Fair" that we used as the musical background track for our commercials," he said. " We feel this helps us stand out amongst other commercials and gives us a consistent identity each year. We've been using it for three years, and people recognize it and that recognition helps build attention."
Although the fair's grandstand motor sports entertainment was paid, the music entertainment was free, which was heavy on country but "we had everything ranging from classic rock to blues, and we had a Caribbean music night and a gospel night."
The surprise big hit was not music, it was Twiggy the Waterskiing Squirrel. "We didn't generate the pre-fair publicity on news media via Twiggy we hoped for, but on social media and for those attending the fair, it was our most talked about and shared feature," he said. "Crowds during the performances were huge with bleacher seating and standing room only patrons lined up 10 plus people deep all around his circular pool."
Other entertaining critters drawing large crowds include Elite Performance K9s (Frisbee & obstacle course dogs) and the Swifty Swine racing pigs.
More than 50 food vendors were at the fair, and while data wasn't available on their sales, anecdotally, "they had great sales, and I had a lot more vendors wanting to sign up for next year before the end of this year's fair. I would ask them how's the crowd and how are the sales every day and this year I only got positive responses."
The new addition to the line up was a pizza vendor, who along with sausage, mushroom and other pizza toppings, added more exotic items - crickets, mealworms and scorpions - which grabbed attention if not outselling the pepperoni and other more traditional toppings.
Marion County fairgoers enjoyed the traditional fair cuisine, such as corn dogs, alligator bites and funnel cakes. "We also have the Original Elephant Ears, the woman who runs the stand claims her grandfather invented Elephant Ears, she's been here for years."
The Marion County Fair now has an enviable problem - topping not just a record year, but a record set by a high margin. Gardner and his staff appear inclined to stick with a winning strategy: Keep learning and keep getting better.