Big Tex came back and led the Texas State Fair to not only one of the highest grossing runs in its history, but became a reminder to both fair organizers and fair attendees of how essential the fair is to the community and culture of the Lone Star State. A late-season fair founded in 1886, the 2013 Texas State Fair began on September 27 and concluded October 20 and the return of this beloved icon proved to be a rising promotional tide that lifted the entire event.
Decked out in a 75-gallon cowboy hat, and equally enormously sized western shirt, blue jeans and boots, Big Tex - perhaps the most famous giant cowboy droid in the United States - has been greeting fairgoers since 1952 (he was also a featured in State Fair, a 1962 film co-starring Pat Boone). A statue of metal and fiberglass, Big Tex is known for his drawled "Hoooowwwdeee, fooolllllks" as well as other fair announcements, which came from a 75-watt speaker in his head, although his jaw was hinged so he seemed to speak.
Blaze & Rebirth
On the morning of October 19, 2012 (the final weekend of the 2012 State Fair of Texas) an electrical short-circuit caused a fire inside the framework of the then 60-year old Big Tex. In minutes flames engulfed the icon. The incident was "very disheartening, for everyone, our staff, our volunteers and the fair goers," said Mitchell Glieber, Executive Vice President. The degree and tenor of the emotional outpouring was both surprising and motivating. "We really didn't realize how emotionally attached people were to Big Tex. We went to work immediately."
A new, bigger (he grew from 52 to 55 feet) Big Tex was built and ready for the 2013, but in the best making-lemonade-out-of-lemons tradition, Glieber - his previous background for his 15 years with the fair was marketing - took full advantage of the promotional opportunity a resurrected Big Tex offered. Not only did the Texas State Fair promise a "bigger & better" Big Tex, but they suppressed details about the new Texas, such as who was creating the new electronic statue (SRO Associates and Texas Scenic Co), until the unveiling at the opening of the fair. Through a sponsorship agreement with Clear Channel Communications, there was a constant message stream through various media. "It was a unique program, with taglines such as 'biggest return since JR' and were always referencing the fair," said Glieber. "We released intermittent updates throughout the year but especially during the weeks leading up to opening day. It got people talking about the fair in ways they had never done before." In addition, a popular local television show - Dallas Morning News - "provided daily updates and covered the unveiling live," he added,
The Texas State Fair marketing campaign for 2013 was built entirely around of the return of Big Tex, and the combination of provocative marketing and official secrecy - no official images were released prior to opening day - aided by an expanded social media platform, "increased curiosity and piqued media interest in the fair," said Glieber. During the fair, an estimated 125,000 visitors came to a special "Life & Times of Big Tex" exhibit at the Hall of State, which celebrated all things Big Tex and was presented by The Dallas Historical Society.
The unveiling of the icon was scheduled for 9/27, and a large ceremony was held on that day, but prior to that event, Big Tex was in place, but concealed by drapes - the unveiling was meant to be literal. On 9/26, high Texas winds blew those curtains up and gave an unintended but newsworthy sneak peak. This accidental uncovering led to more unexpected, extra media coverage for the fair.
This extreme generation of anticipation paid off. The Texas State Fair calculates financial success through coupon sales, the State Fair currency for food and rides - the fair does not release attendance figures, although Glieber claims attendance was very strong, stating the 2013 edition of the fair was one of the highest attended on record. Gauging the fair's strength through these coupon sales, $37,186,519 was spent on food and amusement rides in 2013, which came close to 2010's all-time high of $37.3 million. The top coupon grossing day in State Fair history - $3,711,656 - occurred on this year's closing Saturday
In addition to the revenue generated by the uptick in coupon sales, Glieber said, "It was a record year for sponsorships. The return of Big Tex got us out front and center, and companies capitalized on that." According to Glieber, sponsorships were up "several hundred thousand dollars" compared to 2012.
Besides the added attention the Big Tex publicity generated, the fair implemented a rate increase for exhibiting at the fair, especially at the high traffic spots, which added to revenue enhancement. In addition, the fair "increased its footprint" on the grounds, increasing the square footage available to exhibitors, which also allowed more exhibitors to be accommodated. "There have being a growing number of mobile marketing units for exhibitors, which made exhibiting easier. We expanded the perimeter of the fair so we could have more exhibitors."
Marketing & Promotion
By actively promoting to local news outlets and encouraging fair promotion through their sponsors and exhibitors, Glieber maximized what is an admittedly limited marketing budget. "We get very generous coverage, from local print and electron media, and the Big Tex story generated a lot of editorial, which you couldn't place a value on. We do all the social media in-house, and we reach perspective fair-goers. The sponsors are very proactive promoting the fair."
Glieber cited as examples McDonalds and Dr. Pepper, which included "in-week" promotions that reached millions of consumers throughout the region. In addition, the fair promoted discount admission programs and had Monday and Friday school day programs, offering complimentary admission. "A lot of school districts now have fair day", said Glieber.
Another Texas Fair custom that boosts attendance is utilizing sponsorship to ensure that all concerts are free; this year all the music acts were presented on the new Silverado Main Stage (courtesy of a Chevrolet sponsorship). The concerts featured a diverse range of attention-grabbing headliners, from rising country-star Kacey Musgrave to classic punk rockers Blondie and X. The programming addressed all the segments of Texas's multi-cultural community, and included Kelly Rowland (Urban) and Duello (Latin). One surprisingly successful show was Molly Ringwald, the actress from such 80s-era movies like Breakfast Club. Ringwald recently launched a second career as a cabaret/jazz singer, and this was one of the rare state fair dates on her summer tour. Her renditions of classic songs from the Great American Songbook won over the crowd. "The audience response was great. We try to touch every base, but we also throw in a wild card and it works."
The celebrity name recognition has been a drawing card strategy the fair has used in the past, citing recent concert appearances by Kevin Costner and Gary Sinise, well-known actors who also moonlight as musicians. "It's part of our concert mix, to include a big movie star marquee name if they're available."
The Midway at the Texas State Fair is independently operated, a rarity among fairs but one that Glieber pointed out has its advantages as well as challenges. "We have more control over the rides, although it can be more complicated because we contract with 20 different ride operators. Fairs who operate their own midway have to be better at communications with all the different operators involved."
Glieber described the 2013 Midway revenue as "flat," holding steady with last year's figures, but not showing significant increases. While the weather "generally good," there were some days of rain, which shut down the rides. The Texas State Fair midway features 72 rides, highlighted by the 212-foot Texas Star Ferris wheel, considered the largest in North America, which debuted in 1985 in conjunction with Texas Sesquicentennial celebrations. This year saw a new ride installation - the Top O' Texas Tower, a 500-foot observation tower ride - a glass-enclosed, air conditioned circular cabin, which fits about 100, rises up through the structure, providing stunning views of the Texas landscape.
Fletcher's Corn Dogs remain the leading favorite cuisine for fair goers, according to Glieber. Big Tex also provides promotional opportunities when it comes to Food & Beverage - The Big Tex Choice awards - is a pre-fair food contest that received media coverage, this year's winners included: "Most Creative" to the Deep Fried Thanksgiving Dinner, and "Best Taste" to the Deep-Fried Cuban Roll. By fair's end, 50,000+ fried Thanksgiving Dinners and 72,000+ Fried Cuban Rolls were served. "Many of our vendors report increased sales this season," said Glieber. Other food promotions included discounted entry fees on Wednesdays for attendees who donated three cans of food. According to a fair press releases these donations made by fair patrons to the North Texas Food Bank "translate to 162,303 meals. A grand total of 194,763 pounds of canned foods were collected."
More Urban Fair
The Texas State Fair is a 501(c3) non-profit organization. While it showcases the agriculture industry of the region, this late-season event features attractions not often found at other state fairs such as a Broadway show, the Lion King, and the largest Auto show in the southeast. The auto show - the Texas State Fair claims to be the only state fair with an auto show - dates back to 1904, features 300,000+ square feet, including a new model vehicle showroom, a Truck Zone (Texas has more pick-up truck owners than any state in the union) and a Test Drive Track.
The Texas State Fair is only two miles from downtown Dallas. "We are certainly more urban than other fairs, and we still have the livestock shows and other agricultural events, but we have broadened our offerings to also appeal to a more multi-cultural audience."
This was the last Texas State Fair for the retiring Errol McKoy, who was President of the Texas State Fair for 26 years. Glieber will be named President of the fair early next year, and while replacing a gigantic mascot will not be on the 2014 agenda, he is reluctant to disclose his plans for his inaugural fair in this new position. "We will be tweaking some things for next year, but we will mainly be building on the success we had this year. Our attitude is if it isn't broke, don't fix it."