For most new fair managers, the first year is a transitional year, as operations begin to adapt to a new captain at the helm. By the same token, that new manager is more of an observer, seeing what it is working and making sure she doesn't fix what isn't broken. The second year is when the new captain begins to steer the event into a new direction.
Sarah Cummings came to Colorado State Fair after working her way up through management positions, most recently at CEO of the Sonoma-Marin County Fair. The 2017 Colorado State Fair was her sophomore year, and she admits that most of her first year was spent "evaluating," after which she implemented significant changes to the fair, including a more robust social media presence in the fair's marketing and the addition of more grounds acts into the entertainment
"The first year I spent watching, analyzing and evaluating," said Cummings. "In the second year I focused more on upgrading our operations and marketing program.
It's Your Fair
The overarching marketing theme - Colorado's State Fair-was simple and direct, appealing to Coloradoans sense of pride in their state and the annual statewide celebration of everything Colorado. This year the fair added another tagline "It's Your Fair," which encouraged a connection to the fair then "toggled them back," to the entertainment and other attractions of the fair. "It's Your Fair was a sub-tagline we used in conjunction with our overall tagline, which is Colorado State Fair. We wanted people to have that personal connection to the fair, then combined that with discounts and promotions, encourage people to come to the fair."
This new marketing campaign was bolstered by key promotions, including a $10 Pop Gate Wednesday, which included all-day rides and admission, First Responder and Military Appreciation Day.
The Colorado State Fair spent an estimated $400,000 on advertising, a figure that included agencies and production. Cummings estimated that about 40 percent was spent on TV 30 percent on radio, and 20 percent on outdoor, with 10 percent being spent on social media, which now dominates the online advertising. The fair still uses print advertises, "but that that is leveraged with our partners. For social media, we work with Noise New Media, We also partnered with the IAFE (International Association of Fairs & Expositions), where we did a social media takeover and posted through the IAFE."
She added, "We had a variety of new efforts with our social campaign and readjusted how we typically put out our information. We reallocated our funds to try and reach a greater audience through social media."
Free Acts & Attractions
Cummings also increased the number of free acts, which provide educational and entertainment opportunities at no additional cost. This year, the free attraction list included sea lions, Budweiser Clydesdales, science games, and antique tractors.
"We added more free attractions and free entertainment this year," said Cummings. "We added three more strolling acts, other grounds attractions and new indoor attractions, like the Butterfly Encounter."
Other new free attractions included: Swifty Swine Pig Races, Wild Science (an exhibit of highly interactive, fun, and visually captivating displays and activities). Stilt Circus (stilt walkers) and Snap Boogie - high energy combination of multi-disciplinary dance, pop and lock, tap dance, audience participation, comedy, and physical stunts.
"We were very mindful on where we placed the new attractions," she said. "We used more thoughtful placement so they would not impede traffic flow. We used them as guiding tools to bring more traffic to under-utilized areas."
One objective of adding more roaming acts and other free attractions was to refocus on the family friendly atmosphere of the fair. The other objective was to "create an opportunity where we added value to the ticket purchase."
A range of free concerts, mainly local and regional artists were presented at the American Furniture Warehouse Amphitheater. Another free concert venue, the Coke Stage, featured Tribute Bands, such as Fab-4 and the Long Run (Eagles)"We elevated the entertainment," said Cummings. "We added more music acts."
From the roaming acts to the musicians, whether they be local starts or tributes to superstars of yesteryear, also had a significant social media component. "We wanted more for our guests to see, and in our marketing and social media we highlighted the grounds acts, new exhibits and the free concerts," she said. "A lot of the acts, definitely had their own social media followings. That extended our viral reach and we were able to compound our message. It was great working with our partners in social media, which included food vendors and Crabtree Amusements."
The makeover of the marketing and social media presence not only coincided with an expansion of the roaming acts, exhibits and free concerts, but Cummings made sure these two initiatives worked in conjunction with each other, creating a synergy that positively impacted attendance. The 2017 Colorado State Fair attendance reached 480,204 a healthy jump from 466,576 in 2016. She admitted, "weather was much better than last year. We had one rainy day, and some days were very warm and quite hot."
Cummings also oversaw a midway makeover, which essentially "tripled the square footage" of the Crabtree Amusements Footprint. "We had relocated the carnival," she said. "We expanded the Kiddie Land by three rides. Crabtree also brought in a trestle structure that was a new entrance to the midway, it looked great."
Crabtree Amusements provided 56 rides and 32 games .The new Kiddie Land - the expanded fun zone area for children-- included the Century Wheel, Grand Carousel, Wacky Worm, Rocktown , Bear Affair, Dragon Wagon, Jump Motorcycles, Looney Airport, Wet boats, Granny Bug, Swings. The most popular rides were the Giant Wheel, Power Booster, Freakout, and Pole Position.
Paid entertainment for the fair included seven nights of PRCA Rodeo as well as Gabriel Iglesias, Gary Allan, ZZ Top, Hunter Hayes and Celebracion de Los Charros with Los Invasores de Nuevo Leo. In addition, there were two nights of Monster Trucks and one Demolition Derby.
"Entertainment is an important part of the fair, said Cummings. "We have been producing rodeos at the fair for a long time, and the Rodeo is a long standing attraction and we intend to keep the rodeo."
But when it comes to other entertainment, the Colorado State Fair is suffering the same pressures as other fairs when it comes to the rising costs, increased competition and often undependable audience draws.
"There is a ton of competition, not just from other venues, but for the entertainment dollar. We had some internal challenges booking headline entertainment this year. We had to make a lot more offers. There was also a spring storm that impacted our outdoor stage and there were more time delays in confirmation by the acts. We did lose some original offers, and with some bookings, we had to start from scratch. We are working on a fairly tight budget, and we are not considering increasing that budget. But we are looking at places where we can get more bang for the buck. There is a board retreat in November, and they will be weighing the pros and cons of booking entertainment in the future."