Revamped marketing, a top notch entertainment lineup, new exhibits and an improving economy are all tangible factors the Eastern States Expo can point to as contributing to a record number of visitors for The Big E, in West Springfield, MA, breaking the Fair's all-time high attendance figure, with a final tally of 1,525,553. The previous record, 1,498,605, was set in 2014. Closing day attendance was 137,208, a new record for the final Sunday of the 17-day Fair.
In addition, the all-time highest single day attendance record was also broken when 171,897 visitors attended Saturday, Sept. 23. Three additional daily attendance records were set: Sept. 21, 85,019; Sept. 28, 89,905; and Sept. 29, 109,871. "I am humbled to see the incredible support of Eastern States Exposition by our loyal fair patrons," said E
ugene J. Cassidy, president and chief executive officer of the Exposition. "The 2017, 101st edition of The Big E broke records again, recording for the first time in history over 1.5 million guests."
But there may also have been an intangible factor that helped the event shatter previous attendance records. While the Big E did many things right this year, Cassidy pointed to an overriding factor - fairs themselves. "The fair is wholesome, Americana," he said. "Society is desperate to return to that. Of course, we feel we produce the best fair with the Big-E. But the reality is that the economy is improving and consumer confidence is improving. People want to return to normal, and fairs represent that. I really believe that to be the case, that fairs are the place where you can bring the family and take a respite from all the problems in society."
One thing that can certainly be ruled out when it comes this bigger than ever Big E is that 2017 weather may not have been horrific, but it was far from optimum. A late summer heat wave had temps in the 90s, and then a rainstorm caused temperatures to plummet into the low 60s. "Patrons of New England's Great State Fair braved days of punishing temperatures that pushed the heat index to above 100 degrees, they endured a 55 degree drop in temperature accompanied by rain, and yet they came in great numbers to participate in, enjoy and support this organization and all it stands for."
Like other large fairs, challenging of course is the key word for booking entertainment at the Big E, but Cassidy feels he hit a sweet spot in terms of "diversity of talent," he said.
The ambitious entertainment line-up this year included ticketed and free concerts at the Xfinity arena including: Cole Swindell, KING & COUNTRY, Grand Funk Railroad, Smash Mouth, Cam and Night Ranger.
Swindell and the other paid acts, "sold very well," said Cassidy. "I honestly feel that we met all the challenges when it came to talent buying this year. We didn't really not get anyone who we didn't go after, and we wanted a real diversity of talent, and we are pleased to get the talent we did."
Cassidy said there was a cut-off guideline in terms of paying for acts, which determined what acts the fair booked, "we stayed within that range," he said.
The fair further diversified musical offerings with covered seating of a free stage, the Court of Honor Stage, creating what the fair called "a musical oasis" in the center of the fairgrounds, and featured such acts as Vintage Trouble, Village People, Ten Years After, the Lovin' Spoonful, The Red Hot Chilli Pipers (a bagpipe ensemble), "American Idol" winner Nick Fradiani, with Carly & Martina and Machine Performs Pink Floyd. "We had a big cross section of talent," said Cassidy.
Another musical feature at this year's fair was a mini-country music festival the Twin-E Country Fest, with the new "E" Stage, which hosted a Songwriters Series, up-and-coming artists and the Masters of Music competition, showcasing local and regional artists. "We want to think we are becoming a music festival."
Two new exhibits also grabbed fairgoer attentions as highlights of the 2017 Big E, A Walk Through History debuted in the Hampden County Building's auditorium, an outgrowth of last year's 100th anniversary of the fair, which featured memorabilia and other items for the century of Easter States Expositions. The building is now a permanent fair museum, featuring history of the fair as well rotating exhibits outlining the rich agricultural and educational history of the Exposition. "Last year was the first time we really had our own archive created, so we are now making that permanent part of the fair," said Cassidy.
Another new exhibit, Michelangelo's Sistine Chapel: The Exhibition, sponsored by Uncommon USA, recreated one of the famed ceilings through photographic reproduction. The exhibit made a splash earlier in the year the Oculus/National 9-11 Museum & Memorial in Lower Manhattan. "It was a great exhibit," said Cassidy.
The Big E also made a complete overhaul of its marketing, with a new theme - Free Bird, which accompanied a new mascot - "Chick-E" - a chickadee type creature who visited various scenes of the fair. Chick-E was used in some print and online ads, but was mainly the star of various animated spots. "We worked him into the advertising campaign, and you saw him playing among farm animals and having various fair experiences. He really acted as the fairgoer. He was a really fun image, very clever.
The fair media allocation for marketing in 2017 was: Television, 27 percent; Radio, 35 percent; Print, 8 percent; Out of Home, 15 percent; Online, 15 percent. "We redirected more money into social media, and we increased that budget by 25 percent.
The new social media focus was primarily on ticket sales. "Social Media was driving a great deal of our ticket sales. We stole an idea from the Wisconsin State Fair were we ran a flash sale in June, which we discounted at $8 (tickets were usually $15). We sold 90,000 tickets in less than a day."
He pointed out that the redemption rate for flash sale tickets were 80 percent. "There were a lot of them that went unclaimed, and so the deep discount wasn't as great, it was only $10 instead of $8."
The social media makeover and heavier emphasis also reaped a stronger millennial following for the fair. "Our social media expanded substantially, and we really increased the 25-35 year old demo. With the music and the social media, there is really a party and festival atmosphere, and we had younger people, and our alcohol sales also increased."
The Easter States Exposition midway was operated by North American Midway Entertainment (NAME), and Cassidy said the revenue was a record, up 11 percent over last year. The midway featured 50 rides, with the debut of The Bullet Train Roller Coaster highlighting the ride selection this year."
The fair featured 145 food concessions, with the most popular seller being the signature item for the fair, the Big E Cream Puffs & Eclairs. The also had a two-level Bud & Burger Pub, featuring the specially created Big TastE Burger for the fair. "We found double decker tents," Cassidy explained, "It was a quite a big attraction, people could come and sit under the tent, and we had a small stage nearby, where local talent played. The tents had a great view of the fairgrounds."
Another food vendor The Deep South Company, whose specialty was Waffle Chicken Bites, also added a second floor with the new double decker tents.
Other foods at the Big E included the Deep Fried Holy Cannoli, Gourmet Candy Apples and gourmet tater tots at Tots-A-Lot. In addition, the "Spencer Trappist Beer Bar and Experience" featured a newly created Reserve Ale (a Trappist 'Quadrupel'), putting an old world spin on the hand-crafted bear movement.
"I talked to a lot of vendors whose sales were up as high as 20 percent compared to last year. I think people are feeling more confident in the economy, and they're less afraid to spend money. We also know more about our customer and did a better job reaching with our marketing and our programming. The weather was like a last gasp of summer, and people came out despite the heat."