The 2014 State Fair Meadowlands discovered two is better than one.
Considered the largest fair in the New York City metropolitan region, the fair runs June 20 - July 6. The local economy has one highest unemployment rates in the nation and unlike other parts of the country; few signs of economic recovery are apparent. In this sort of scenario, fairs typically respond with price-promotions and steep discounts and the State Fair Meadowlands took this time-tested strategy an extra step in 2013 by implementing the dollar promotion day on opening day.
The discount was not just a dollar admission, but the cost of rides was also a dollar. Game and food concessions all needed to have $1.00 offerings. Al Dorso, president of State Fair Event Management, said that some vendors resisted both the discount and its opening day timing, but he had a hunch that the time was right for this change.
"The opening weekend was never a big weekend for us, so we decided to try it then," he said. "It gives people a chance to try the fair, and maybe they might comeback or it might generate more word of mouth."
Turned out, in Dorso's own words: it was "too good a promotion." More than 30,000 people came to opening day of the 2013 fair, causing a traffic snarl on the major highways (Route 3 & The New Jersey Turnpike). At one point, state troopers declared the fair full and directed traffic away from the Meadowlands.
Dorso decided to double down on his opening day, fair-wide discount. He concluded that making opening day a $2 day would still appeal to the bargain hunters, but charging twice the price might restrain the numbers to more manageable levels.
Instead, the opposite occurred. "This year, we had more than 40,000 people, The ride gross doubled, and we saw big increases across the board," he said. Luckily, the highway traffic flow was normal and there was no residual tie-ups prompting state trooper activity this year.
Dorso admits the economy is about the same as last year, and the local disposable income has not noticeably increased.
"We hit the sweet spot with two dollars," he said, chuckling. "I don't really have an explanation."
At least the vendors had become enthusiastic to steep discounts to opening the fair. "In the northeast, for many of these concessionaires, they are limping through the spring and they do not like the idea of giving too much away by the time summer arrives," he said. "But when there's more people and more spending, it starts the fair off with excitement. The dollar days got the vendors happy right away about being at fair."
Attendance & Spending Up
The price promotion an opening day seems to have set a tone of increases for the State Fair Meadowlands. In spite of Tropical Storm Arthur causing fierce wind and rain on the days preceding Independence Day - and forcing a delayed opening on July 4th -the skies finally cleared and turned a dismal day to a spectacular evening - the overall fair saw more fairgoers spending more money.
State Fair Event Management is a private company and Dorso is reluctant to make too many figures public, but he said that compared to last year, the fair recorded an increase of 28,000 more attendees and per-capita spending was up up by 10 percent. "We were significantly up across the board."
State Fair Meadowlands is a private fair, managed by State Fair Event Management for the past 12 years (next year the fair celebrates its 30th anniversary). The fair is held at the Meadowlands Sports Complex in East Rutherford, N. J. which includes MetLife Stadium, the Izod Center, and the Meadowlands Racetrack. State Fair Meadowlands is held in the stadium parking lot.
In 2009, when Giants Stadium was torn down and replaced by MetLife Stadium (the stadium is the only NFL stadium shared by two teams, the Giants and Jets), State Fair Event Management - who now owns the rights to State Fair Meadowlands - contracted with the New Jersey Sports and Exposition Authority to improve the parking lot infrastructure. "We had limited sewer and water, and there was no electric underground, it was antiquated before the new stadium," said Dorso. "We were able to design the grounds and it is like night and day. We can run state of the art generators, and with the price of diesel, we cut costs by half."
The fair has a total footprint of 35 acres, with 28 acres devoted to its midway. The major change to the midway was also a promotional maneuver - tripling the wheels. The 2014 State Fair Meadowlands for the first time featured three Gondola Wheels - one each from James E. Strates Shows, Amusements of America and Reithoffer Shows (The State Fair Meadowlands operates an independent, 71-ride midway and those three leading ride operators share the midway).
"The companies thought I was crazy when I asked them to bring a Gondola Wheel," said Dorso. "But it gave us great visibility from the highways.
We had one at both ends of the midway and in the Kiddie Land. Nothing says ‘fair' like a Ferris wheel, and three of them made the fair look bigger and more exciting for a distance. The people in those cars who pass the fair every year noticed us more this year. The three wheels improved our word of mouth."
It is likely that the midway will retain its new triple Gondola Wheel status. He added, "our midway revenue was up significantly."
One of the most successful promotions was "Cousin Brucie's Palisades Park Reunion II" - an event that was broadcast live on SiriusXM's satellite radio. For the New York metropolitan region, Palisades Amusement Park was a legendary theme park for baby boomers. The park closed in the 1970s and it's jingle - "Swings all day and After Dark" - was even a punk rock hit for The Ramones. Cousin Brucie, going on his 5th decade as a New York Area radio disc jockey - he currently has a SirusXM program and besides being known as the "5th Beatle," he used to entertain as a concert MC at the theme park.
For "Cousin Brucie's Palisades Park Reunion II", oldies acts performed, including Neil Sedaka, "The King of The Twist" Chubby Checker, Larry Chance and The Earls, The 1910 Fruitgum Company, The Rip Chords and The Del Satins featuring Stan Zizka. The event also included the 50s Forever Car Show, featuring vintage autos and trucks from the ‘40s, ‘50s and ‘60s. "It was a great promotion, and even though it may have targeted an older demographic, the fact Cousin Brucie is on Sirus still attracted the kids," said Dorso.
This extravaganza of oldies nostalgia may seems to have favored one niche, but for the marketing philosophy of State Fair Meadowlands, it fit the mold of the multiple events within a the larger fair.
"I believe in giving people an event with an event, that way you get more return visits and they add value to the admission cost," he said.
The 2014 events included The Big Cat Show, featuring - lions and tigers, The Steve Bayner Hypnotist Show, Rosaire's Royal Racing Pigs, the Commerford's Educational Petting Zoo & Live Animal Rides, and Brian Miser The Human Fuse
"You need things that will the customer interested," he explained. "We are a heavily populated, urban area. You don't have the elements of a rural fair."
The more stereotypical state fairs have a large agricultural and 4-H component, which also provides a built-in customer base. The State Fair Meadowlands is in a congested, metropolitan area, farm-oriented audiences inherent to rural fairs enjoy do not exist. Urban fairs must present event-entertainment that appeals to different demographics while also reinforcing the fair atmosphere of fun Americana.
"Events and entertainment must be family friendly," said Dorso. "People come with certain expectations of a fair, but you want to keep them talking about what a great time they had, so you add little elements they can't get anywhere else and that work within the context of a fair."
Singing Pit Chefs
Dorso said the food concessions were "up substantially," in keeping with the uptick in attendance and per-capita spending. The State Fair Meadowlands has instituted a restrictive food concession policy, limiting the stands to 60 as well as limiting the variety. "We only allow so many of each food item," he said. For example, no new sausage or lemonade vendor are allowed to be fair vendors, because that category "is closed."
He added, "we do get rid of vendors who aren't selling, there is some turnover and we do look for new vendors to add, but they have to be different, not repeat what we have."
One of the popular - and new - purveyors of fair cuisine at this year's State Fair Meadowlands was Funtastic Foods, a Maryland-based specializing in grilled and smoke-pit cooked foods. Some of their popular items included Chicken bacon skewers, marshmallow sweet potato fries, and "Maryland pit" beef and turkey sandwiches. "The food was very good, but the cooks also sang, it was an act and very well received," he said.
The fair's advertising budget is more than $400,000 and like many fairs, the print is a shrinking portion of the allocation of marketing funds. However, the fair has been adding new media outlets to its marketing campaign, which contributed to the uptick in attendance.
Pandora was new this year. "It is less expensive than terrestrial radio, but the difference is how well they can target a customer," he said. "You ask for women who are 18-34 years old and live in Bergen County, they only charge for that specific demographic.
The fair also increased its billboards - they only use 10' x 20' billboards - but they are positioned throughout the area, including nearby New York state (Staten Island, Brooklyn, and Westchester). In addition to billboards, other outdoor advertising venues include Bus Backs, Train Stations and other transit hubs.
Last year was the first time the State Fair Meadowlands advertised in movie theaters - short commercials that precede the block of previews at the local Cineplex. "We increased our spending this year at the movies theaters," said Dorso. "I thought it was well received, and created a great word of mouth."
According to Dorso, this marketing outlet was so effective because "you have a captive audience. If you are going to the movies, you are looking for entertainment. That's our customer. Going to a fair is great entertainment, it is a cheap date, For a family, it is a lot less expensive to go to the fair than going out to dinner and movie."