After two early, New York-state fairs of the season under his belt - the 9-day Hudson Valley Fair in Fishkill and the 12-day Brookhaven Fair in Farmingville - Brian Schuman president of Fair Productions, was guardedly optimistic.
"I think people are spending a little more this year," Schuman said, but that doesn't mean value isn't critical in the current market. In fact, price promotions are more appealing than ever.
What 2014 seems to be about for Schuman is finding a happy medium between the noticeable if modest increase in consumer confidence and determining the optimum price to charge consumers for attending a fair. Fairgoers seem more willing to spend, but "value is still important," said Schuman. "We instituted dollar nights on Fridays, which was new to the fair. People turn out for the lower prices. The discount promotions are the most effective."
Fair Productions is an event management and production company. Unlike most state or county fairs, Schuman is a private entrepreneur, handling all aspects of the fair, including contracting with the midway and other vendors as well as all marketing and promotions. While he is tightlipped in offering figures to explain how successful this year's fairs have been, the insights he did offer to Carnivalwarehouse illuminate new and growing trends within the industry.
"I am not a public company," said Schuman. "Many fairs are public, organized a government agency or a nonprofit entity. Fairs entertain a lot of people, but I don't necessarily want to say everything that I am doing that has been successful because I'm a private company. Why should I give away my ideas to my competition?"
Regarding the general attitude among fairgoers, he has noticed a qualified but upbeat attitude this year. "I think people are always looking for a deal," said Schuman. "Even with the economy getting better, people are still looking for a deal, maybe even more so. As a producer of fairs, they are our customers and you have to give them what they want. They want a deal, so price promotions are working the best right now. The fair is always a good value, it is family friendly, affordable entertainment."
For Jimmy Strates, Director of Operations, James E. Strates Shows, this was the third year at both fairs, providing a mid-size midway - 32 rides at Brookhaven Fair and 24 rides at the Hudson Valley Fair. "These are good events, although they were pushed up a little earlier this year, and we had a wet spring so that was a factor," he said.
Because of the Easter Holiday, the Hudson Valley was extended over, and the added days coincided with warmer and more spring-like weather. "The extra weekend made a difference, there was more demand. But our costs were higher, adding that time. The grosses were higher, but our expenses were higher too. But we came out ahead."
Strates is cautious in how much how reads into the positive results of two early fairs. "There is nothing to indicate this year is any better than last year, and you cannot really predict an entire season from any one or two fairs. We are not setting any records, but things are better, they are incrementally better."
Whether it's merely an observation about the current state of business or an indulgence in soothsaying, Strates insists that the determining factor for any fair or fair season is the weather. "Bad weather on a fair weekend even in a good economy will not be good for the fair," he said. "There are a lot of other factors, such as fuel prices or instability in Iraq that can affect how much people feel like spending on the fair. Overall, things are better than five or six years ago and maybe the same or a little better than last year."
According to Strates, Fair Productions is a company that " understand the brand, they know how to build value and what special promotions to have," he said. "They build on their success. We've been providing their rides and our customers know what to expect. Together we deliver value-added entertainment."
The most undeniable trend affecting all fair promotions in 2014 has been shifting mix of media on which advertising dollars are spent as well as the ongoing explosive growth of social media.
"TV doesn't do a lot anymore," Schuman said. "We still do a lot of radio. Social Media is obviously more important. We run contests on Facebook, promote the fact of the fair and the contests on Facebook we are running and draw people to our website."
Print - both newspapers and direct mail - are used sporadically, but still serve a purpose. "Print reaches an older demographic, which you want at a fair," said Schuman. "We still use print, not as much, and it's very targeted."
While Schuman declined to discuss the specifics of trends in this social media fair promotions, "I'm not sure it is any one specific thing, but the presence has to be constant, to get the buzz out there."
Why Facebook contests accomplish their goals is that the format panders to one of the strengths - and appeals - of social media, especially Facebook -interactivity. "Contests gets the buzz out of there on Facebook," said Schuman. "In today's world, marketing is much faster. Now there's only nanoseconds between sending out a promotion and getting a response. It may be easier to create a buzz, but that buzz disappears faster. With social media, you can keep the conversations going, you are communicating with one person at a time, but it grows exponentially."
One trend that is new for 2014 that Schuman does reveal appears to the culinary influence from the Food Truck. Popular in more urbanized areas, the foodie lunch rage is a vendor truck that serves fresh, gourmet food - comparable to a fancy restaurant, Food Trucks serve up high-quality food, but only offer a very limited menu, making the business model practical as well as profitable.
Going against the traditional cuisine custom at fairs of meat that is deep fried and/or on a stick, Schuman featured at his fairs a gourmet styled, limited menu vendor. A student from the Culinary Institute of America approached him with the concept. "He is an awesome young entrepreneur. He made delicious hamburgers and steak and chicken tacos, but the twist was the quality of the food used and the extensive preparation, which used more spices and ingredients. It was high-quality, only a little more expensive, but affordable and extremely reasonable. It was a really good product."
He added, "there were lines at his stand. It was extremely popular. I haven't seen this sort of food at a fair before and the response was tremendous. I think he is on to something."
The midway by Strates featured two rides at the fair, a "bigger than most" Giant Wheel and a new Carousel. "We have expanded our Kiddie Rides, so the new carousel was probably more popular than the wheel," said Strates. "There seems to be an increase in new families with young kids, especially at these two New York fairs and we are catering to them."
But the bigger Giant Wheel also enhanced the 2014 Strates Marketing program. "A bigger giant wheel is a great big bill board that you can see from the Interstate," said Strates. "anytime you do exit surveys, the number one source of attracting fairgoers is visibility. People will come if they can see there is a midway."
Strates also added that the smaller private events like those organized by Fair Productions have their own set of obstacles with which to contend. "The smaller fairs can be a challenge, especially with higher fuel costs, the government increasing regulations and paper work and DOT (Department of Transportation) check points," said Strates.
The issue is that the smaller fairs mean reduced revenue, but the costs for the carnival can be as high as higher revenue events. "It is getting harder to put them on your route, especially in the Midwest where the distances can be fairly long," said Strates. "But in the northeast, the they are easier to manage and these two fairs are profitable for us."
For Schuman though, whose Fair Productions have been organizing fairs for two decades, business is most dependent on mother nature. "When it is sunny, it is great," said Schuman. "We promote our events well, and things seem a little bit up, but when it rains on a Friday, it's down."
The smaller fairs may not have the wide support of the agriculture industry, the simple fun of outdoor amusements seems to increase in importance in today's culture. "People seem to be enjoying themselves, and fairs seem to be getting more popular because there is a sincerity to the enjoyment of the fair," he said.
In fact, this simplicity was the most reassuring aspect of the start of Schuman's season. "Everywhere you go now, you see people with their faces buried in their smart phones, they are looking at their texts, their messages, the internet. People get together for dinner and they don't even talk with each other anymore. But a fair is a diversion and you see people enjoying the fair and each other. When people go to the fair it is like going on a mini-vacation. They leave their world behind and enjoy the simple things if life."
He added, "It makes me smile to see people at the fair not looking at their phones when they are at our fairs. Then I know they are having a nice time. They're enjoying life."