On April 16th, Mitchell Glieber was officially named the new president of the Texas State Fair, the annual 24-day Dallas-based annual extravaganza that celebrates everything Texas. Glieber joined the marketing department of the fair in 1999, after a 10-year stint in the marketing department of the Mavericks, the Dallas NBA franchise. While the Mavs have won two division titles in the 21st century, during the last decade of the 20th century, to say this team did not excel on the court would be an understatement. For example, during the 92-93 season they finished 11-71 which was the 2nd worst record in NBA history.
How does the major basketball league business differ from the major league fair business?
"The one thing I learned in sports is that there is a big advantage in selling a winning product," said Glieber. "With the Texas State Fair, we have a winning product, it's an extremely popular brand with a loyal customer base. There's a lot of people with a passion and love for the fair. That was different for the Mavericks, the team never went to the playoffs, it was a really tough run."
Glieber's promotional luck changed when he joined the Texas State Fair organization. The Texas State Fair has become one of the most successful fairs in the southwest, and one with a sustained pattern of growth. Although attendance figures are not released by the fair, according to its annual report on the 2013 event: "Fair officials report that patrons spent $37,186,519 on food and amusement rides in 2013. This amount represents revenue from coupon sales (State Fair currency for food and rides) and came close to 2010's all-time high of $37.3 million. The top day (in 2013) for food and beverage sales occurred on Saturday, October 12 with sales of $2,761,655. The top coupon grossing day in State Fair history was the closing Saturday of the season and totaled $3,711,656."
Meeting records and beating records - on one hand there's a honest "don't screw it up" anxiety that comes with stepping into the leadership position, but on the other hand, Glieber has the confidence of taking over a dependable and proven fair, crediting the former president, Errol McKoy, who retired last year following his 26th state fair.
Glieber praised his predecessor's priority for the making sure the 277-acre facility always look it's best. "Errol came from an amusement park background and he took the fair to a world-class level. His emphasis on safety and security was extremely important for family-friendly entertainment. When large numbers of fairgoers first come here as children with their parents, you get them as fairgoers for life."
Glieber is intent on continuing McKoy's emphasis on fairground aesthetics. "Our landscape program has really grown in the last 10 years. We have a small army of clean teams, who constantly go through the grounds and keep them pristine."
In addition, Glieber pointed out the continued success of the fair's adopt-a-bed program, where landscaping companies adopt their own "flower-bed," -the garden patches on the grounds. "We have over 50 companies taking care of over 100 beds and at no cost to the fair."
Every year, fair managers face the same dilemma - how can I make this year's fair better than last year?
Having inherited what by all measures had been a stellar state fair, Glieber does not anticipate implementing any major changes, just some "tweaking around the edges."
Burning Man Marketing
But even maintaining last year's levels will be a challenge because in 2013, the Texas State Fair pulled off a remarkable, if counter-intuitive feat - the aftermath of tragedy became a marketing bonanza.
In 2012, fair mascot and icon - Big Tex - a giant metal and fiberglass statue with a 75-watt speaker in his head who had greeted fairgoers with a"Hoooowwwdeee, fooolllllks" since 1952 - perished in an electrical fire. In 2013, a new, bigger (he grew from 52 to 55 feet) Big Tex made a triumphant return, which the marketing machinery at the Texas State Fair was quick to make the most of ("Biggest Return Since JR!").
As attendance, customer spending and sponsorship numbers indicated, few marketing programs succeed as well as a resurrected icon. "We had an advantage last year, with the return of Big Tex," said Glieber. The Big Tex is back campaign meant 2013 was a record year for sponsorships, exceeding by several hundred thousand dollars, according to Glieber, the previous year's amount.
As of April, Glieber says the sponsorships are "very close to last year's figure. We are almost right there and a lot of sponsors we got last year because of Big Tex are coming back. Jennifer Schuder, who heads our sponsorship department, has done an outstanding job."
Sponsorships will remain key to the fair's success during Glieber's tenure as fair manager. "Sponsorship is extremely important and as a fair you want to get into the budgets of local businesses."
Sponsorships are crucial for underwriting key attractions of the fair such as the entertainment on the Silverado Main Stage (courtesy of a Chevrolet sponsorship), which had its debut last year. "A good sponsorship base helps brings fairgoers out to see us, because you are more visible in the community," said Glieber. "But sponsorships also serve as weather insurance. In the fair and outdoor event industry, you are dependent on the weather. In the time period of our fair, late September, the fair weather is generally consistent but out of 24 days, there will be some days where the weather is not so good. One of the benefits of being a longer fair, is that if you miss a few days, you still have an opportunity with sponsorships to make it as favorable as you can."
This year - in the months preceding the official announcement of his promotion - Glieber oversaw the upgrade of the fair's website (bigtex.com). "We just launched bigtex.com 3.0, and the improvement are a better way to reach our customers. We have more content for fairgoers, it is a very user-friendly platform with more video capabilities."
Coinciding with the enhanced internet presence, has been a bolstered social media presence on Facebook, Twitter and Instagram. "Social media is very cost-effective marketing, but also you get to hear directly from your customers. You get complaints, but you are also to become aware of problems much sooner and solve them quicker. I have to say, the problems that we have heard about we were already aware of, but we were able to promote they were fixed quicker and to a wider audience."
Few incidents made more clear the power of the internet than the demise of the original Big Tex. "That whole Big Tex fire of 2012 was huge. People caught the fire on video and the video went viral. As a result, we got coverage across the state fair. You have to be on top of your game when you get that kind of potentially negative publicity. But we not only turned it around, we also noticed an outpouring of support. We really hadn't recognized before how strongly people identified with Big Tex. We finally saw it as a great opportunity to brand our state fair."
The branding process continues in 2014, inspired by the return of an icon that seemed to epitomize both the Lone Star State and the Texan Pride of its residents. The theme for Glieber's inaugural year as president is "Deep in the Heart of Texans!"
"Big Tex made us understand how strongly people who live here feel about Texas, and the affection they have for the fair as one of the important Texas institutions. We are planning a unique blend of Texan events. Big Tex rekindled the love for all things Texas. We now want to take that to a new level."
Setting the tone for his administration, Glieber seeks an effective balance between the time-honored and the contemporary. "Texans are diverse, and some of our most popular nights are our African American and Hispanic cultural celebrations. We are a mile from downtown Dallas, so our fair is very urban, but the Texas State Fair was founded on education and agriculture, and those two things are still very important part of the fair. This year, we are building on the pride people feel about their Texas heritage and we hope to find the right mix of traditional and modern elements."