"The Ex" isn't an annoying ex-lover or a location on an old map where treasure is buried; it's actually a nickname for the Canadian National Exhibition (CNE), an 18-day fair that has been taking place in Toronto, Ontario since 1879. This year's fair ran from August 16 to September 2 and drew more than a million visitors.
The CNE sits on 192 acres of land referred to as Exhibition Place. In the off-season, Exhibition Places is utilized for 150 event days, during which trade and consumer shows take place.
CNE General Manager David Bednar started working with the exhibition 15 years ago and just completed his 16th event. He oversees a full-time staff of 26 employees.
"I came to the business from the outside. I didn't have previous fair experience but was hired as general manager. I look after virtually everything that has to do with running the 18-day event," said Bednar.
In March 2012, the CNE became independent of the Board of Governors of Exhibition Place, a committee of 13 members formed in 1983 for the purpose of operating and managing the grounds known as Exhibition Place.
"We're independent from the city of Toronto but a provincially chartered agricultural society, a private non-profit. We have a very small annual grant from the Ministry of Agriculture, but the vast majority comes from internal sourcing, which would be gate, concessions, and rides, sponsorships, and exhibit rentals. We also run a temporary casino," said Bednar.
The CNE doesn't release attendance numbers until they are reviewed in October, "but it looks like we're going to be somewhere between 2011's attendance, which was 1.3 million and 2012's attendance, which was 1.39 million," said Bednar.
Bednar attributes the drop in attendance to several factors. First, parking and traffic were troublesome when the CNE lost 2,000 parking spots due to construction. "I know there were people who were stuck in traffic so long that they gave up and went home," said Bednar.
In addition, the weather forecasts kept people from visiting the CNE. "Last year, we had almost picture-perfect weather: 17 - 1/2 sunny days," said Bednar. "But this year, rain was forecast for three of the most popular days. You lose your marginal customer in those circumstances."
General admission was $16, but $12 tickets were available for seniors and children between the ages of 5 and 13. Children 4 and under were admitted free, and family passes were available for $48.
"We've repeated for the last three years now an opening day promotion, which is half of the normal admission, and it has been successful. Also from Monday to Thursday after 5 pm we do a $5 gate admission that's been enormously popular," said Bednar.
The marketing team is always looking for new ways to determine and target untapped demographics.
"All aspects of life, all of life happens at The Ex. You have to tailor the experience to each of those demographics," said Bednar.
This year, the team made a big push to cater to young professionals by offering appearance by celebrity chefs like Nadia G. from the Cooking Channel and a Food Truck Frenzy, which was a gathering of food trucks. The Frenzy included names like Beach Boys Food Truck, Sandwiches with a Twist, Fidel Gastro, Texas Tornado, Food Dudes, and Frankie Fettuccine.
Acts for the the concert series - which included USS with III Scarlett, Frankie Avalon, the Beach Boys, and The New Pornographers - are also deliberately chosen to target select demographics.
"We've had a lot of success partnering with radio stations for our concert series, and we're sort of deliberately split between young adults and boomers. The band Walk Off the Earth absolutely packed the park on our final Friday in the rain. I have never seen so many umbrellas," said Bednar.
The CNE's annual advertising budget is approximately $1 million. The main focus of he advertising campaign is print and radio. Between those two media alone, the CNE spends between $500 and $600 thousand. The advertising theme builds a 30-second radio spot to the tune of "At the Hop" by Danny and the Juniors.
"We moved out of television about a half decade ago. We redirected our TV ad money into outdoor. We're also had a big push in the last three years in social media and do pay for some online ads as well," said Bednar. "The timing of the ads has to be right."
Midway rides are provided by North American Midway Entertainment (NAME). NAME services over 15 million fairgoers yearly in 20 states and four Canadian provinces, including 10 of the top 50 fairs in North America. This year, NAME provided 64 rides.
"Two this year in particular were popular. This was the second year of the sky ride, which is a ski lift ride across the grounds, but it was the first year for Mach 3, a carriage on the end of a rotating arm," said Bednar. "From open to close, that ride was running constantly, whether the rest of the fair was busy or not."
Bednar can't provide exact numbers, but he believes the midway revenue tracked this year's attendance: down from 2012 but up from 2011.
Each year, more than one million people visit the Toronto Star Food Building for the local restaurants serving international cuisine at varying price points. Dining options even included halal, dairy free, gluten free, peanut free, vegetarian, raw and other healthy alternatives. In addition, a succulent Ribfest took place every day of the CNE. Rib masters competed to win the "best rib recipe."
Visitors also had plenty opportunities to shop. The Arts Crafts and Hobbies Pavilion showcased 63,000 square feet of distinctive Canadian collectibles, including art, crafts, clothing, hobbies, specialty foods, housewares, jewelry and leather goods. The At Home Pavilion featured 105,000 square feet of home-related products and services, and it was home to the Food Network celebrity chef stage. The International Pavillion was a 110,000 square foot marketplace with international and exotic wares. Finally, an Outdoor Marketplace and Shoppers' Market had more of flea market atmosphere.
Other fair-wide events included an acrobatic show, an air show, animal exhibitions, international performers, lectures and presentations, parades, talent shows, and street performers.
Next year's CNE is scheduled for August 15 to September 1. The team is already brainstorming new ways to target the demographic between young adults and Baby Boomers.
"We brought a zip line this year, and it wasn't as successful as we thought. We'll have a debate about the zip line for next year. We're also having discussions about major attractions and about how we can goose up our bandshell lineup," said Bednar. "We think there's still some room in the middle, growth potential in market segments. We may or may not adjust our programming based on that research."