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Promoting 175 Years: Erie County Deploys Multiple Marketing Methods

9/3/2014

By Timothy Herrick

Photo courtesy of Buffalo News

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Like many fairs, price promotions are far from new or uncommon for the Erie County Fair, a 12-day annual upstate New York extravaganza held in Hamburg. The fair, the second largest in the Empire State (the state fair is 110 acres larger) and one of the largest county fairs in the United States in terms of attendance, tied a price promotion to its 2014 birthday.

It was the 175th anniversary of the Erie County Fair and marketing found new ways to repeat the figure of - one-seven-five - in as many ways as possible. Multiple marketing methodologies boosted this year's attendance and the most effective and inventive was admission discount - the Erie County Fair Bounce Back. Returning guests with a scanned ticket from the previous week were charged only $1.75 for their return visit during the second week of the fair.

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Although the local economy is recovering, the western New York region is not growing in population. The Bounce Back promotion succeeded because more sales could be gained by further cultivating the fair's existing customer base instead of only trying to increase first time attendees. "The fair is all about community, and with this promotion we tried to say thank you to the community," said Denny Lang, CFE, CEO/Fair Manager, the Erie County Agricultural Society. "We also were able to increase attendance by encouraging multiple visits to the fair."

Interweaving a gratitude ethos into the marketing strategy of the fair proved successful. Attendance reached 1,220,101, a 5 percent increase over last year.
"People always want to feel they are getting a bargain," said Lang. "Admission discounts work because people feel they are getting a special deal, and they feel they still have some money to spend after they get in on food and rides."

Old Truck, New Stops
Price appeal may be sure fire, but for many months prior to opening day, Erie County fair marketing had laid the groundwork by generating interest in the fair. Creating enticement around impressive milestone began a short while after the conclusion of the 174th fair. The rollout of the 175th anniversary promotional machinery was a fun and clever exploitation of the natural nostalgia consumers associate with fairs. The Erie County Agricultural Society sponsored a 1949 GMC Panel truck - covered with fair graphics and anniversary imagery - began a journey throughout this section of the Empire State, visiting festivals and other events throughout the year.

"We started in September of 2013, I think the first event was at a church," said Lang. "The truck went to every type of function, firemen's carnivals, local fairs, and all the parades from Memorial Day to July 4th."

Lang said the truck stopped at more than 60 events during its community tour.

Do Take Wooden Nickels
Wooden Nickels - 17,500 of them - were distributed by the Erie County Agricultural Society personnel accompanying the fair truck. The nickels were for free admission (there was a 44 percent redemption rate) on Thursday, August 14 - Heritage Day - which featured programming celebrating fair history as well another 175th anniversary promotion - all food vendors had to offer a $1.75 item.

The journey of the 175th anniversary truck was documented on Facebook and Twitter and other social media - as well as some local press coverage - further growing the promotional momentum. "It was grass roots marketing," said Lang. "We were at a lot functions, and handing out the coins got people thinking fair and their anticipation grew. Face-to-face sales always work the best, and we were in their face. It was nice to see our customers and talk to them about the 175th Erie County Fair."

When Lang says "thinking fair" he was also referring to the social media component of the truck tour and wooden nickel give away. Using hashtag #ThinkFairThoughts, a daily social media push began on Facebook 175 days out, featuring a different photo and thought from previous fairs every day leading up to opening day. According to the fair, the campaign reached 612,000 Facebook followers as well as 12,500 likes, and 1500 shares.

A separate social media promotion came from partnering with the ABC TV affiliate, who was named official Erie County Fair Weather Station and featured an online Official Fair Forecast, reaching an estimated 203,500, including 40,302 views and 916 likes/comments/shares.

The Erie County Social Media expansion also included Facebook Challenge where winners received a commemorative poster; about 5,000 participated in this contest. In addition, another contest - #hiddentickets - was implemented for the paid concerts. The promotion, implemented through Twitter, and according to Jessica Underberg, CFE, Assistant Fair Manager  & Agriculture Manager, Erie County Agricultural Society, "a small piece of a photo and a clue were provided on Twitter and the first person to be in the location within the photo that said the password would receive the free tickets."

One of the new mobile alerts was ILoveCows - which garnered 1,284 subscribers. "We had a tweet when a calf was being born," said Lang. "Social media allows us interact with our attendees constantly."

Advertising & Marketing
 The total advertising/marketing budget, including production, was about $500,000 which included "a broad mix of radio, television, outdoor advertising, print ads, online ads and of course promotional ads from our media partners," said Underberg. "A responsive website and mobile app are big elements as well that we utilize to provide all of the information about the fair."

Underberg added that the 175th anniversary build up meant "paid schedules for radio and TV remained the same, promotional spots from these stations started one week earlier than we normally have in the past. Additional brochures were printed and mailed three weeks earlier. A large print insert was designed with more photos , thus more eye appealing, and with more precise targeting and scheduled one week earlier than years past. We also added an in-store promotion with our partners from Pepsi Cola and Tops Markets that had a two month shelf life starting in June. Billboards were up one month earlier than in the past as well."

90 Years of Strates Shows
In addition to the 175th anniversary of the fair, it was also the 90th anniversary of Strates Shows being the midway provider for the Erie County Fair, bringing 66 rides to the 2014 event. "The Strates family is well respected and they are nothing but integrity, and they wanted to give back to our fairgoers," said Lang.
 
On Heritage Day, Strates offered 90 minutes of free rides from 11 am - 12:30 pm, commemorating their nine decades with the Erie County Fair. Strates also participated in a social media promotion - Ride Free Fridays - which began in June - people commented on the I Wanna Ride Free page, and winners were chosen every Monday. An estimated 606,000 were reached by this promotion, which garnered more than 16,200 comments.

Unfortunately, while fair attendance and spending saw increases, midway revenue remained flat, compared to last year, according to Lang. "We had very high winds on a few days, and we lost a Saturday when we had to close the midway at 8:30," he said. "We had mostly good weather, but those nights people were walking around in sweat shirts and were not interested in the rides. We lost a total of two days and one night of midway rides this year."

Music, Entertainment & Food
The grandstand featured several paid acts, with Lady Antebellum being the biggest seller. In addition, a rare performance by John Fogerty was also notable, with other paid (Tickets $45 and $65) concerts by Bridgit Mendler and Dierks Bentley. Free shows included the Buffalo Philharmonic Orchestra, The Ultimate Van Halen Tribute and Larry Gatlin & the Gatlin Brothers. "Fairs do not have a the leverage they once did and it's harder to get the big acts," said Lang. "But this year, we did get Lady Antebellum and also John Fogerty, who was great. It is important to work with people you trust and we are very dependent on our relationship with Jerry Davis and Jason Promotions."

New free entertainment for the 2014 fair included Kachunga & the Alligator Show, Bengal Tiger Encounter, and Hilby - Skinny German Juggler Boy, which was the most popular new act. Returning standbys include Flippenout Extreme Trampoline Show, Steve Trash - Green Street Show, Swify Swine Racing Pigs, Jerry Ward - Wizard of Wood, Skyriver Butterflies, Matt Baker Comedy & Stunt Show, Stars of the Peking Acrobats, InJest - Comedy Variety show and Jerry Valley - Master Hypnotist.

There were 117 food vendors at the Erie County Fair, which saw revenues climb 4.8 percent. "We had a few new ones, but we try to keep it the same number," said Lang. "You don't want to dilute your market, so you don't have vendors who repeat what other concessions are selling. Deep Fried tacos and the deep fried donut sandwiches were new items that were popular, but we are very ethnic for fair. Our Italian, Polish and German food vendors are always the most popular."

High-Wire Act
Reaching 175 years is an accomplishment few fairs have attained. Despite windy weather impacting the midway revenue - the weather was mainly sunny, mild and fair-perfect and was combined with a massive and a prolonged marketing effort that effectively generated interest in the history of this upstate New York tradition. "The 2014 fair exceeded expectation," said Lang. "Attendance was up and spending was up."

The fair also hosted a major and highly unique event celebrating of its century and three quarters. On August 10 the famed Nik Wallenda walked across 1,400 feet of 5/8-inch thick tight rope, 130 feet above the Erie County Fair. A seventh-generation member of The Flying Wallenda family, Wallenda gained local notoriety for walking across the nearby Niagara Falls in 2012 (for the record, The Erie County Fair walk was 100 feet longer than the falls).

About a quarter of century ago, Wallenda first performed at the Erie County Fair when he was 14, according to local news reports. "There was a lot of build up and promotion, but about 50 percent of the crowd came because of his Facebook following," said Lang. "It was very thrilling and very popular."




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