The Big E broke the previous attendance record set by this 17-day event in 2012 by more than 100,000. Nearly 1.5 million attended the 2013 edition of this regional New England Fair, which ran September 12-29. "This was the biggest Fair in our history and its success is attributable to a wonderful staff of volunteers, employees and a supportive community, "said Eugene J. Cassidy, president and chief executive officer of the Exposition.
Another positive factor: the weather " was very good," said Cassidy, who has been fair president for 20 years and CEO for the last two - meaning he is now also is in charge of the year-round Eastern States Exposition - a 175-acre complex, including a 5,000-seat coliseum, located in the Pioneer Valley of Western Massachusetts.
The 2013 Big E all-time high attendance figure was 1,481,917. The previous record, set in 2012, was 1,365,896. That figure was actually surpassed by closing on Saturday, Sept. 28. On Sunday, Sept. 29, attendance was 105,121, the final day of the Fair.
Aside from optimal weather, a seasoned crew and community support, the 2013 game-changer for The Big E attendance was the new marketing approach Cassidy implemented. "We used more social media than ever before and we did more outreach to smaller communities throughout the region," explained Cassidy.
According to Cassidy, the approximate marketing budget for The Big E is $700,00, an amount that remained unchanged from recent years. Cassidy expanded The Big E's social media platform, creating "a really dynamic presence on Facebook and Twitter and other social media outlets. We were able to engage a younger demographic with competitions, contests and promotions."
At the close of the Fair, The Big E had 146,109 fans on Facebook and 5,743 Twitter followers. Among the more successful of the social media driven contests were "two scavenger hunts," added Cassidy.
Cassidy complemented this new media by simultaneously bumping up advertising in selective traditional media outlets. This included the use of Ad-Vans - essentially mobile billboards - that drove in populated areas throughout the region - "from Rhode Island up to Maine" - and placing ads in more local newspapers. According to Cassidy, for costs comparable to a single ad in a large daily, such as the Boston Globe, several "ultra-local" media sources, i.e. - local "Town News" newspapers that serve the rural and semi-rural towns throughout the region - could be purchased, resulting for their limited bucks a more widespread bang. "With the smaller newspapers, you hit the normal demographic for the fair more effectively than any other newspaper," he said.
The radio and television broadcast strategy was also altered this year. Instead of 60-second commercials, The Big E bought 15-second bookend commercials - these are the "bumper" segments that play at the start and end of a commercial break. "The focus was more on television, but the bookend ads gave us more penetration," he said.
BACK TO SCHOOL
One aspect that made this melding of old and new media marketing strategies more cost-effective was that it both lengthened the typical promotional window for The Big E and made the promotions conducted within that time frame have more impact. "The main promotion begins after Labor Day, and you can burn through your ad dollars pretty quick. With the social media and the Ad-Vans, you can start teasing out the fair earlier in August. We became more creative with our marketing, and this brought us new efficiencies."
In addition to the increase in attendance, fair spending was up by 11 percent, higher than the uptick in attendance. "More people are coming and they're spending more," Cassidy said.
One of the growing consumer groups fueling this growth seems to be college-age adults. With dozens of colleges and universities, New England has one of the highest concentrations of college students. A road-trip to The Big E is becoming one of the rites-of-passage of students embarking on their New England higher learning experience. "The semester isn't in full swing yet when the fair starts going. We have been targeting that group with our marketing."
Another direct out-reach to the consumer segment of 17-25 year olds, The Big E featured an appearance by DJ Pauly D of MTV's Jersey Shore fame, who presented an electronic dance party, which Cassidy claims "was very popular."
Aside from the marketing, the other factor causing the attendance boost that Cassidy cites is entertainment. "We had more free entertainment this year", he pointed out. Hunter Hayes - the popular country superstar with chart-topping singles like "Storm Warning," and "Somebody's Heartbreak." - was the rare paid ticket performer (Tickets $39/$29), at the xFinity Arena, the main stage at the Eastern States Exposition. The "free" performers ranged from new country superstars Randy Houser and 17-year old Austin Mahone to classic rockers: the former Eagle, Don Felder, ("An Evening at the Hotel California") Tommy James & the Shondells, Darlene Love and The Beach Boys, who closed the fair.
The abundance of free-with-admission concerts this year is mainly due to the concert business being more of a buyer's market. "The amount of free acts we have is dependent on how much we have to pay for the act and there were more affordable acts available this year," said Cassidy. "Oldies acts like Darlene Love have a strong connection with their audience too, and she brings in people from all age groups year in and year out. Nostalgia acts have more of a following than a lot of people realize."
In addition to the concert stage, Rock & Roll History was a popular fair attraction with an exhibit presented by Hard Rock International - the popular music-centric restaurant chain - that featured rarely seen items from music history, including John Lennon's eyeglasses, hand-written lyrics to "Help," Kurt Cobain's 8th grade yearbook and a 90s stage outfit worn by Whitney Houston. Cassidy describes the Hard Rock Exhibit as "incredible, people were streaming through constantly."
Adjacent to the memorabilia exhibit was the complex featuring farming livestock and other agriculture industry oriented attractions - the core attraction of most state fairs. The fairgrounds were founded in 1916; the first multi-state fair known as The Big E was held the following year. Cassidy has been determined to keep alive and relevant the agrarian beginnings of the event. "This place was created as a focal point for New England Agricultural industry, to share best practices. We still fill the needs of New England agriculture." The Big E still features about 1,00 4-H and FFA participants, and 1,100 open show exhibitors.
A large group of attendees come for the Eastern States Exhibition Horse Show, one of the largest northeast equestrian competitions. "I want our horse show to be the biggest horse show among state fairs and fairgrounds." Towards that end, the show featured celebrity Carson Lee Kressley of Queer Eye for the Straight Guy and a committed equestrian. "The horse show is the biggest equestrian event in New England and the following for it is intensely loyal."
The New England farmer emphasis coincided with the foodie and locavore movement in The Big E Wine and Cheese Barn, a new, 30' x 60' structure which also hosted competitions for locally produced-artisanal food products. "We introduced the Wine & Cheese barn this year. It was filled with artisanal foods, boutique cheeses and farm wines, food that is hand crafted, produced in small batches and filled with flavor. The response was great, and when people exited the barn they went to the Mallary Complex, which featured agricultural exhibits and competitions."
Popular new "fair-food" food item includes the Chocolate Baconana (banana dipped in chocolate and wrapped in bacon; an estimated 5,000 were sold) ; Deep Fried Strawberry Shortcake, and Three Pigs in a Bun: ( 6" grinder roll filled with grilled pork sausage, bacon and pulled pork). However, the new stand out was The Big E Craz-E Breakfast Sandwich -- bacon, egg and cheese served between a grilled glazed donut. "The breakfast sandwich was popular, but they also did a hamburger between the donut and I heard that 6,500 were sold. I think the most popular item though are the fried cheese curds, we've become known for them."
The Big E features 140 food vendors, ranging from the traditional eat while walking on-a-stick delicacies to sit-down dinners at Storrowton Tavern and the Italian Pavilion. "We keep the number of food vendors consistent and we try not to have too much repetition," said Cassidy. "We get a lot of return vendors."
NORTH AMERICAN MIDWAY ENTERTAINMENT
The Big E midway provider was North American Midway, with 49 rides including the debut of the brand new Mach 3. Figures were not available at press time from North American Midway, but Cassidy claims that "the midway was very successful and what North American has is a clean, professional operation. They are safe and the workers are courteous and professional, it is really a change from the midway worker image of the past."
Like other state fairs, the Big E is self-sustaining and a not-for-profit organization, but the event is unique in that the state part of the state fair is definitely plural. In many respects, The Big E must be a state fair x 6. The challenge is to create a regional event with relevant appeal throughout the upper Northeast. A crucial component of The Big E is the Avenue of States, a complex comprised of replicas of original capital buildings from each New England state - Massachusetts, Rhode Island, Vermont, Maine, Connecticut and New Hampshire - showcasing native foods, products, crafts and tourist information. Similar to an embassy in a foreign nation, each building is the property of, and supported by, the state.
"We serve all of New England," said Cassidy, who grew up on a diary farm only a few miles from the Eastern States Exhibition property. "People come for that tradition because they can't really get it anywhere else."