The 2014 Canadian National Exhibition (CNE), saw modest but still significant increases in attendance and revenue and David Bednar, General Manager, Canadian National Exhibition Association, mainly credits marketing and content that embraces the growing diversity of contemporary Canada.
While the final numbers will not be released for a few more weeks, Bednar estimates that attendance was about 1.39 million, "probably 3-4 percent above last year," said Bednar. He added, while was far from finalized, he expects general revenue figures will show modest increases. "Ride gross was up, and overall per capita spending was up, probably in the range of 5 percent," he said.
"Day to day, we did quite well
with attendance and spending," said Bednar. "We had a wonderful fair."
He also pointed out that the weather for this end of summer, north country fair cooperated. "There were four rainy days, but we didn't get morning rain," said Bednar. "When it rains in the morning, it's less likely people will come out. The weather preceding the fair was generally cooler and wetter than usual, so it was to the benefit of the fair we had some hot days. There was really pent up demand for getting out."
Begun in 1879, the CNE - also known as The Ex - is an 18-day August fair that concludes on Canadian Labour Day Monday (September 1st this year, just like in the U.S.) that takes place on the vast, 197 acre Exhibition Place, a complex that features several facilities, including exhibition buildings, convention halls, a soccer stadium and the CNE band shell, where the paid admission concerts are held. The CNE is both one of the highest attended fairs in North America, but also one of the largest, utilizing almost the entire campus and all the facilities of the immense Exhibition Place.
According to Bednar, that while global economic slowdown of 08-09 negatively impacted the CNE, there has been a "steady and gradual coming out" of the declines. "2011, 12 and 13 saw each fair getting better, There has been a very gradual increase, without retrenchment." The uptick in business Bednar attributes to the lingering positive ramifications of an economic stimulus package from the Canadian Government, and more recently a re-branding of the fair accompanied by more targeted marketing.
The rebranding consisted of making the fair image more contemporary. For example, while the CNE stuck with its catchy tagline - "Let's Go To The Ex" - a new, egg-shaped logo "that was clean and fresh," said Bednar - was adopted. In addition, the advertising and other marketing materials underwent a drastic makeover. Previously, the CNE would feature a collage of stereotypical fair scenes, which presented the idea there was a lot to do at the fair and "there was something for everyone," said Bednar.
Eventually this hodgepodge looked hackneyed and mixed too many messages. This year, the fair adopted a less is more approach, replacing the montage with a single, vividly evocative image. "We went with images that captured a specific moment in time, such as a young family with the mother kneeling by her child, and an elderly couple," said Bednar. "We captured the feeling of the fair, and the ads were less busy and more contemporary."
After last year's fair, the fair conducted a marketing segmentation study, which led to a fine-tuning of the advertising of the fair. This new approach saw the fair's customers not as one massive wave of consumers, but a collection of niches that reflected the 21st century reality of the Toronto Market. "We made finer distinction, and targeted market sections because we there has been an increased segmentation," he said.
This led to a re-thinking of the CNE, moving beyond a model that focused almost entirely on baby boomer and Gen Y paradigm. The new, more focused segmentations included: "College Station" - older teens & 20-somethings; "Urban Boosters" - young professionals and new families; and "Ethnic Adventurer" - encompassing the new and 2nd generation immigrants, such as Asians and Indian/Pakistani families. Marketing to these segments also affected content - Kalish Kehr, an Indian Pop Rock performer with an international following - headlined a show. In addition, the fair has added two prayer rooms, catering to the growing Muslim population.
While promoting agriculture remains an important part of the CNE, Toronto is also an international city whose population is also more global. These immigrant groups of course, are made up of families and regardless of ethnic and cultural backgrounds, all families desire affordable and safe fun for parents and children to share. The Ex "is for all families, and for families from any background to enjoy," he said. "It has universal appeal."
In addition, Bednar pointed out that the CNE has become part of the assimilation process. "People are keenly interested in the country they adopted," he said. "Coming to the fair they gain a sense of being Canadian, and they find out something about Canada."
The CNE's advertising budget of $1.3 million is a mix of print, radio, on-line, out-of-home, with the 2014 burgeoning emphasis on social media - Facebook, Twitter, Instagram, Tumblr and Pinterest. While print advertising may be in decline, print materials actually increased. According to Bednar, about a million more Guide Books were published, reaching about 2.4 million this year, Guide Books are the printed brochures that show everything to see and do at the fair, and they are distributed as an insert in the weekend newspaper. "Our research shows absolutely clearly, that the Guide Books reach more people than other marketing, they come to the fair because they've seen it," said Bednar. The reason for the increase in copies is that the expansion of distribution, which went from a 45 minute to 90 minute radius.
Marketing also led to a noticeable increase in advanced ticket sales, a savings for fairgoers - $12 instead of $18. The increase was in the 5 percent rage, in keeping with the other modest gains made by other segments of the CNE. "The advance sales, to me, speaks to the loyalty of our consumers, that they buy the ticket three or four days, which means they are planning their budget with the CNE in mind," he said. He mentioned the double-pay check fair advanced sale theory, where fairgoers spend more because the cost of the ticket comes out of one pay check, then what they spend at the fair from their next check. "It seems that the advanced ticket sale fairgoer spends more at the fair," said Bednar.
It was the 10th year for the North American Midway Entertainment (NAME) midway at CNE, which featured 65 rides, including the Sky Ride, Tower Ride, and the Mach III. NAME also brought back the Ziptrek, a Zipline ride, which premiered last year. "It was very popular," said Bednar. "Midway revenue was up, by about 5 percent."
The CNE features about 90 food vendors (about 180 total at the fair) in the Food Building, for which a flat rental fee is charged, with no sales tracking conducted. But anecdotally, activity among the vendors seemed constant and brisk, said Bednar. "I talked with on vendor, who told me we had the best year in the 30 years we've been coming here," he added.
Fair cuisine at its most stereotypical can tend towards the gastrological extreme, but the CNE's servings seem to have their own idiosyncratic stamp. Deep Fried Butter Balls - where balls of butter dipped in batter than fried - have been popular. New for this fair was by Coco's Fried Chicken -chicken, rubbed in dark chocolate, brined in cocoa-laced buttermilk for 24 hours, rolled in cocoa-spiced flour. "It's served dusted with a thin layer of chocolate powder and with a spicy ketchup," said Bednar.
Another unusual favorite was Eative, a liquid nitrogen fruit sorbets -- which mixes liquid nitrogen with fresh fruit and fruit juice to create dairy-free sorbets. A more technology free but still popular new item was one of the more popular vendors - Dutch Frites - which served French fries but with an international spin, the Putaine Curd Cheese & Gravy and the Spicy Mayonnaise with Onions variety being top sellers.
Adventure eating and dining curiosity seems common among CNE fairgoers. "Good fairs reflect the society we are currently living in," said Bednar. "It's funny, the local-vore movement, and farm to table to movement, which is popular in Canada, is part of the fair because of the agriculture. But the more indulgent foods, the naughty cousin of local-vore, are the fair foods people want to try. It's a once year guilty pleasure for fairgoers."
It was the third year for the Food Truck Rally, which has grown in popularity each incarnation. After noticing long lines of hungry workers forming around food trucks in downtown Toronto, Bednar realized this popular foodie concept - a limited but high-quality, gourmet menu - and often - ethnic cuisine - could succeed at the CNE. The Food Truck Rally began with four trucks; this year there were 20, the largest rally so far. There were some resistance at first by the other food vendors, "but there sales were not off," he said. "I talked to somebody this year who came for the Food Truck Rally, and he said that was going to try some of the fair food too. People come here for the food, all the food."
The Food Truck Rally negatively impacting other food vendor sales was mitigated by the fact that it is a mini-event, limited to the middle weekend of the fair. "It was promoted almost entirely on social media and was hugely successful," said Bednar.
Bednar emphasized that paying attention to the basics: the fair experience. The CNE has enhanced that experience by paying attention to operations. "We are known for our hygiene," he said. "If I can get dynamite programs that's great, but unless the environment is clean, there will be prejudice about the fair. Our operations department is really into creating the fair environment, making sure the rest areas and the point-of sale and ticket areas are clean. We make sure the washroom are clean. Our operations department is really focused on the nuts and bolts of the fair."
The Operations Department is not just diligent, but creative. When the fair ordered new outdoor chairs - one hundred Adirondack chairs, - "basic wooden chairs" - as a community outreach initiative, the CNE engaged regional grade schools in a painting contest, and the students decorated the chairs. "Our operations department is made up of creative people," said Bednar. "We are continually adding to our stock of outdoor seating and this was a way to get people involved."
Extra attention was paid to the core fairgoer, children. The CNE renovated its Kids World, a section of the fair for children that features a stage and exhibitions, offered an eclectic array of engaging entertainment for young people, including a Dora The Explore Sing Along, Circus School, Pizza making classes, and Repitla, a reptile exhibit. "We included a lot of interactive stuff, and what we try to do is rotate what we offer through there," said Bednar.
Across from Kids World is Ag Venture - the farm display, which received an upgrade this year. The positioning is optimum - it attracts younger people leaving the Kids World plaza, then engages them in interactive farm exhibits, fulfilling a core mission of the fair to promote the agriculture industry. "The kids learn to plant seeds, and about dirt and apples," said Bednar. "Having it across from Kids World increased the traffic at Ag Venture."
Another updating of an event within the CNE took place at the Direct Energy Centre, a large meeting venue with more than 1 million square feet of space, featured retailers, ranging from home related products - housewares and appliances - to fashion - shoes, apparel and accessories. This year the CNE introduced a hipster vibe with a dance demonstrations, a mural painting exhibition and a DJ spinning beats. "We gave it a more contemporary, urban feel," said Bednar.
The CNE may use cutting -edge marketing and research to identify and reach all the communities within their diverse region, and annually update their content and offerings to attract more fairgoers, but the basic appeal is still old fashion fair values. "In spite of all the wonderful technology and social media, people still want to get together and go walking at the fair," said Bednar. "We provide great content for the event, but it is actual experience of being together at the fair that is important."