More people passed through the gates this year and spent more money than they did in 2013. In spite of two rainy Saturdays, mild summer weather prevailed and coupled with signs of an improving Ohio economy, the Ohio State Fair experienced increased attendance and spending. But for Virgil Strickler, General Manager, this success was not as much due to the short-term changes the fair implemented this year, but the result of a decade-long process of dedication.
"Over the years, we have really improved our safety and cleanliness," said Strickler. "We have a added a lot more trees, more flowers, more events and I think people have to see that we are a different fair. We still have something great, and we are retaining our guests, adding more fairgoers and many people are coming back more often during the fair."
Increased amenities and beautification have both enhanced the fairgrounds and the fairgoer experience. According to Strickler, the fair implemented "operation shade," which included more benches and picnic tables, plus 29 trees. Another landscaping amenity included planting 40,000 new flowers. Strickler describes the result of these developments as "awesome. People stay longer at the fair when they have more places to relax and have fun."
The surest sign of this hesitation to depart and enthusiasm to stay longer at the fair could be seen in the parking lots. "It is most noticeable when it comes to parking, the cars aren't moving every six hours, they're staying there," said Stickler.
Fair staff provided some quantifiable evidence substantiating the anecdotal data. Attendance increased a notable 1.5 percent over 2013, but per capita spending rose 3.5 percent, double the rate of the attendance increase. Attendance for the 12-day, Buck Eye State annual summer celebration of everything Ohio was 916,724 and included two of the strongest weekdays on record. According to Alicia Shoults, Marketing & Public Relations Director, Ohio State Fair, there was "a total of 12 separate single-day records, six single-day records for carnival gross, and six single-day records for concessionaire gross. While we didn't break the overall single day attendance record, this year's Tuesday and second Thursday were the highest of other Tuesdays and Thursdays at the Fair. "
Ohio Fair State Fair organizers recognized what made the fair experience special, then committed themselves to both marketing and enhancing that uniqueness, which paid dividends in 2014. "Diversification is key," said Stricker. "We have good clean fun you can't get anywhere but at a fair. We have agriculture, livestock, rides. You could tell just by the way people are walking around that they were staying longer at the fair."
In addition, the residents of Ohio - a state hard hit by the economic downturn - seem to possess a mind-set that always boosts the fair business - increased consumer confidence. Strickler, who has been with the fair since 1969, assumed his current title in 2003, stated that while the Great Recession had a devastating impact on Ohio, indicators - such as fair spending - had been on the rise in recent years, and this year that trend continued. "It started last year, when it comes to the economic factor of spending, and that has carried over," said Strickler. "Gas prices haven't gone up, employment is a little better. Our per-caps are up."
The Ohio Agriculture industry has also been experiencing a rebound, with positive repercussions for the fair. The number of livestock entries grew significantly - an 11 percent increase - and was at the highest level since 2005. In addition, there was a 5 percent increase in exhibitors from all of Ohio's 88 counties. "For me, having exhibitors from every corner of the state is a point of pride," explained Strickler. "Whether they are participating in cooking projects or showing their livestock animals, these exhibitors help to showcase our great state."
Gaurdians of the Galaxy
Corporate sponsors for the fair were also robust in 2014. The fair's sponsorship program attracted more national companies, including JoAnnn Fabric and Craft Stores, T-Mobile, and Chevrolet. "Companies have heard about the fair, our sponsorships are on the rise," said Strickler. "The sponsorships also help word of mouth, because they promote their sponsorship to their employees, who then come to the fair. National companies showing an interest in supporting our fair and reaching our audience have been rising."
In addition, Strickler has seen a growing interest in kind of short-term sponsorship program, which he describes as a "Mobile" promotion - really a variation on the grass-roots, guerrilla marketing model, where a company conducts one-on-one promotions with potential customers. "More and more, companies will come in, not for the entire fair, but for only two or three days, they usually bring a van or truck, with signs and interact with the fairgoers. We are getting more of these each year."
Not only are more companies taking advantage of the potential of direct marketing to the consumers who comprise the Ohio State Fair demographic, but more different types of products and brands want a fair presence. This year Hollywood discovered the Ohio State Fair. One of the mobile sponsors was the distributors of Guardians of the Galaxy, one of the blockbuster movie hits of the summer. "This was the first time we had a movie sponsor," admitted Strickler. "But the same people who go to fairs for entertainment go to the movies, so why not?"
Marketing & Advertising
The Buckeye State summer spectacular has an advertising budget of $334,000, including television, radio, print, outdoor, online and social media advertising. One tweak this year, according to Shoults, "we removed movie theatre advertising and increased online spending, specifically adding targeted video pre-roll exposure."
In terms of social media, the fair uses Facebook, Twitter, Instagram, Pinterest, YouTube and a Fair blog. "In advance of the Fair, we use our social media outlets to spread the word about the Fair and conduct promotions such as admission and concert ticket giveaways," said Shoults. "During the Fair, we post regular updates about special days, discounts and numerous photos of attractions, performers, livestock shows and more. Many patrons utilize social media to ask questions, and our social media channels are therefore also used as a customer service tool."
A change in Facebook policy also led the way for the Ohio State Fair to expand it use of this marketing venue. "This year Facebook allowed giveaways and promotions to occur on a Facebook page's wall posts, whereas the previous policy only permitted giveaways to occur on expensive third-party applications," said Shoults.
As a result, Shoults continued, the fair "greatly increased the number of promotions conducted on Facebook such as concert ticket giveaways and admission ticket giveaways. In turn, this dramatically boosted engagement on the page and created buzz about the Ohio State Fair and its concerts in the time leading up to the Fair."
Another social media trend was an uptick in Instagram, barely part of the marketing of the 2013 fair. Shoults said there has been "a shift toward increased use of Instagram among fairgoers. We have therefore increased our presence on Instagram significantly, easily incorporating both photo and video posts and "re-grams" throughout the Fair. In order to increase use of our hashtag and social media profiles, we included the icons, our name and the hashtag in print on our daily schedules of events."
Old & Young Promotions
One of the more successful promotions was a Senior Day, where anyone 60 years old and up were had a $4.00 admission fee - a 50 percent discount off the regular senior ticket fee. According to Shoults senior gate admissions increased 324 percent and advance-sale senior group reservations went up 25 percent.
Another new promotion - targeting the next generation of fairgoers instead of those in their golden years - was "Ag is cool" where 4th graders, accompanied by an adult, received free admissions. "We built stations throughout the fair where people could, actually go and learn about agriculture," said Strickler. The stations fit the term "edu-tainment" - fun, engaging and interactive exhibits that taught lessons about farming, with subjects that included milking cows, soy beans and corn. "The 4th graders were encouraged to write an essay about the diversity of agriculture and submit them within 60 days of the fair. We are giving out scholarships of $500 to the schools of the students who wrote a winning essay."
Amusements of America provided the fair's midway, which featured 74 rides and benefitted from the robust attendance and per-capita spending jump, with a 5 percent increase in revenue. ($2.2 million gross). The Disk'O and a new Haunted House were two new rides from Amusements of America for the Ohio State Fair.
The fair's concert series -- staged at The Celeste Center, an indoor, air-conditioned, 10,000-seat concert arena - included free and paid acts. Free events included Ohio Lottery Cash Explosion Road to Riches Show; All-Ohio State Fair Band & Youth Choir Concert, Sinatra Forever and Hard Day's Night, tribute shows to Old Blue Eyes and the Fab Four, respectively. Paid shows ranged from $23 to $45, and featured noteworthy multi-act bills such as Boyz II Men with special guest Christon Gray; Lady Antebellum with special guest Joe Nichols; Bachman & Turner / Blue Öyster Cult / Foghat and The Beach Boys / America; Heart / Joan Jett and the Blackhearts. The Queen of Soul, Aretha Franklin played a solo show on July 31.
"The concert series this summer was one of the most successful," said Strickler. "We were fortunate, we had a real diversified line up. We only have 12 days to book, and you have to get the timing right for the routing of the acts, and it's all about routing. Booking is getting more difficult, but we also want a diverse line up, which we got this year."
Free entertainment - strolling acts and stage performers - featured hypnotists Ron Diamond and Catherine Hickland - as well as Dino Walk, Matt Jergens, Matt's Family Jam, Spoon Man, Darrill Edwards, Antwan Towner and the Stooge Dudes.
The Ohio State Fair featured 189 food vendors, generating approximately $4.6 million in food revenue. This year the fair kicked the food sales up a notch with an app - Ohio State Fair Food Finder mobile app, a free download for iPhone or Android that enabled fairgoers to locate the vendor preparing their favorite fair cuisine. The hot food item this year was the "sloppy donut, from Dickerson & Kenna, which featured donut buns with barbecue pulled pork, deep-fried pickle chips, bacon and cheese, which Shoults described as an " incredibly unique food item that can't be found anywhere." Other popular items among the food concessionaires this year were the Chicken dog, by Marshal's Family Farm, which reimagined the old chicken strip sandwich, the Funnel cake sundae by Berry Barn, Banana dog - a batter coated, deep fried banana served with peanut butter and chocolate sauces, also served by Dickerson & Kenna, and a new "popcorn" concoction by Dippin' Dots - Kettle Corn Dippin' Dots.
The variety of food vendors was in keeping with Strickler's mission to make the fair as diverse as the state it calls home. "The fair business is healthy if you offer customers a range of attractions," said Stricker. "We get great support from the Governor, Ohio businesses and the people of the state. "For many people, visiting the Ohio State Fair is an annual tradition. "We're thrilled that even more families came out to celebrate Ohio this summer, and we hope that they will come back to see us next year."