Helped by a streak of good weather and an improving - albeit slowly - Michigan Economy, the Iona Free Fair had a successful 2017 event.
Metrics are hard to come by for this fair because as the name of the fair states - free - which refers to admission. A cost-free gate impedes accurate statistics on the number of fairgoers who attend - the fair does generate revenue through parking fees, but that does not help in creating a fairgoer count - but according to Becca Usher, General Manager, fair attendance was about 440,000 making it one of the largest free fairs in the country.
In fact, the fair bills itself as the Largest Free Fair in the World.
"This year exceeded a
ll my expectations," she said. "We had made improvements on the grounds, black top on the midway. Our fairgrounds are old, 102 years old, and we have really focused on those capital improvements. We are looking at the numbers still, but our parking numbers are up and other numbers are up."
The 2017 Iona Free Fair is Usher's last time at the helm of the Michigan event, one of the largest county fairs in Michigan, although technically it is not an official county fair.
Usher's background is in marketing and promotion, and when she took over as general manager five years ago, her emphasis was to improve the marketing of the fair ranging from enticing fairgoers to improving sponsorships. Previously, the fair outsourced most of its marketing, but Usher brought the process in house, and injected new creative energy into the telling of the fair's story. This included more vibrant graphics, more aggressive campaigns and even obtaining a Fair Mascot - Kelsey - a dairy cow.
"We changed the marketing process and focus by handling it with staff," she said, adding that that attendance is about double now than when she started, and "We are having great local sponsorship. We partner with a lot of local companies."
The Iona Free Fair is a nonprofit organization, and Usher expanded the sponsorship program to include in-kind donations, such as CL Trucking & Excavating, an Iona firm who "does all our grounds keeping. We don't always get a lot of outside money, but we do get a lot other partners, who are great."
Memories Made Here
The Iona Free Fair utilizes two marketing themes or taglines - Memories Made Here and 10 Best Days of Summer. "My concept always been to engage the 4-H with the carnival and food and things about the fair. So we have graphic design images of farm animals eating fair food or riding rides. We do a quite a bit of billboards, the graphics we made are great designs, and we use them in our print brochure."
The marketing budget is about $100,000. She estimated that Radio, TV and Billboards make up more than half the budget, and about 20 percent goes to online advertising.
Social Media has proven a cost-effective component of the marketing mix, and she said that 70 percent of the traffic on social media has been "interaction with our customers, answering their questions and concerns. We get a lot of feedback."
In addition, social media creates new audiences and a second life for many of the commercials. "We work harder at capturing more people through social media, and we share the great commercials we make with our graphics, it's very impactful."
What also is effective are videos. "People like videos of the food, or a new ride. They can interact with the video by liking and sharing"
Usher was born and raised in Iona, and was always involved with the Iona Free Fair. Her mother was a board member and she even took a board seat in 2012, prior to being named General Manager. Although now moving on to new opportunities, she will "miss the intensity of it. There is always a risk factor, because you plan all year and all your money comes in only a matter of days. You have a plan but it is also every decision you make impacts every other decision you make."
In 2017, Usher's decisions seem to have had a very noticeable impact on the midway. The Arnold Amusements midway - the fourth year for the company as the fair's midway provider - was up nearly 15 percent, a record year for the carnival company at the event.
Joey Even, Office Manager, Arnold Amusements said that the weather was "beautiful," and that part of the reason for the increase was that last year's fair was plagued by a Midwestern heat wave that negatively impacted economic activity at many outdoor events last summer.
But, Even emphasized that "they did a really great job with their marketing in 2017. Their advertising branched out, and we did a Super Fun Pass this year, and that was sold months in advance. We were happy with the carnival and the entertainment."
Free Admission - the Ionia Fair is the midway company's only free admission fair - is also a positive. "This is the only county fair we do that is free. We feel it works out because people come and with free admission they spend more money on the rides and vendors. We feel it helps the carnival.
Arnold Amusements featured 40 rides, introducing a new Equinox and Zero Gravity at the fair. Even said the top rides include The Giant Wheel, Equinox, Freak Out, Flying Bobs and Scooters.
In addition, the midway was redesigned. Going against the recent trend of segregating children rides in a Kiddieland, Arnold Amusements mixed the children rides with the family and bigger rides. "We were only getting the younger kids and their families when the rides were apart, but mixing them we get the teenagers and bigger kids together with their families," she said. "We had more foot traffic."
"Arnold Amusements had a beautiful midway," said Usher. "We were thrilled with the appearance, the amount of rides, and the quality of rides. I think aesthetically, the new layout worked extremely well."
The midway was further augmented by increasing amenities, such as more hospitality tents and seating areas. Arnold Amusements, based in Traverse City, Michigan, plays a mainly Michigan route and says that the economy this summer is finally showing signs of improvement. "We've seen slow increases in spending. The economy took a real dive a few years ago, but our route this year we have seen that things are better. The state is bouncing back. The auto industry is starting to pick and that is good. We count our blessings."
Ticketed Entertainment Up
Most of the grounds entertainment at the fair was free, which included concerts - mainly tribute bands - and a new stationary grounds act - the Amazing Arthur, a magician and hypnotist. "He was very popular and we had a new tent for him," said Usher.
Main ticketed entertainment for the fair was motor spectacles on the grandstands, including Monster Trucks, Motor Cross and a Duro-Derby. Grandstand music entertainment had become too financially unfeasible and was done away with in the early 00's. This year, ticket sales for the grandstand events were up 7.5 percent. "Our Monster Truck event was close to a sell out, and the other events were close to capacity."
The fair featured 30 food vendors, a number that was down a "little bit from last year," she said, attributing the dip to the fair dates coming a little earlier this year and causing scheduling conflicts. A flat fee is charged to food vendors, so again metrics are hard to come by. "But there were many lines so the food vendors all seemed to be doing well," she said.
A popular new piece of fair cuisine was a new twist on an old staple: Fried Chicken on a Stick, which boasted a crispy coating made with Frosted Flakes.
The Ionia Free Fair - first started in 1915 - intends to remain forever free. As Usher prepares to step down from her positions, she said that her last fair "Exceeded all my expectations. We have made a lot of improvements on the grounds, our marketing. We've kept our expenses the same and learn to run a lean machine and our attendance use to be literally half of what we had this year."