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Innovative Promotions & Clear Skies Boost Washington State Fair

11/10/2014

By Timothy Herrick

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To go to the fair you have to get to the fair. 

Washington State Fair, held September 5 - 21 in Pullayup, had unusually conducive weather, but increased attendance and the attendant revenue increases are never solely due to mother nature's kindness. The fair implemented a number of new and/or improved promotions that convinced more than one million residents of the Evergreen State to bid farewell to summer at the annual state fair. 

Fair Express
Case-in-point:  One of the most unique and potentially most long lasting promotions was a revived partnership with the regional mass transit system that changed the way thousands of fairgoers got themselves to the fair.

The Washington State Fair partnered with Sounder, the train system of Washington, which linked the fair to stations throughout the state: Everett, Mukilteo, Edmonds, Seattle, Tukwila, Kent, Auburn and Sumner. The Train Express Pack, which runs only on the two Saturdays of the fair,  had been tried previously, but with lackluster results. 

 "The new programs we initiate sometimes take a couple of years to catch," said Kent Hojem, CEO. "This year, people were less enthused about making the drive and paying for gas and parking. Our growth in riders to the trains tripled."

More than 5,000 fairgoers took the train, he added, "there is a romance about taking the train to the fair." 

But the appeal of rail travel or a growing awareness of alternatives to taking the car were far from the only factors explaining why The Train Express Pack finally caught on in 2014. Not only was the discount improved, but the train added  stations and the train system implemented dedicated advertising supplementing the fair's own promotion of the program. "They brought quite a bit of advertising, and they increased the number of stations, going as far north as Everett," said Hojem . "It was a great partnership this year." 

Unusually Sunny
The Washington State Fair attracted more than 1.1 million fairgoers in 2014. "We had big crowds, and saw an increase in spending," said Hojem. "Attendance was up by 10 percent and it appears revenue is up approximately 15 percent." 

The weather not only cooperated, but was unusually sunny. "The weather for Western Washington was great, and we had rain in the morning, that does have the impact on attendance because, but in my memory, it was one of the nicest stretches of weather the fair has ever had."

"Weather leads to an upbeat nature in the crowds," said Hojem.  "People were happier to be outside at the fair."

In addition. the Northwestern economy seems noticeably improved. "The economy is turning around. People are a little more comfortable to their discretionary dollars."

Hojem declared 2014 a great fair, adding "it was a compendium of all the things, what we offered, great weather, the economic recovery seeming to really take  hold, and great promotions."

Innovative Promotions
In terms of sheer ingenuity, the 2014 marketing and promotions by the Washington Sate Fair stand out.  For example, this September fair coincides with the incubation period for Football fever, the final day of the fair saw the hosting of the Ultimate Tailgate party. This was a rematch between  XLVIII Super Bowl champs - the Seattle Seahawks - and the Denver Broncos - (The Seahawks beat the Broncos to win the Super Bowl). "This was a big game," said Karen J. LaFlamme, Public Relations Counsel. "We converted a portion of the grounds to a football atmosphere with huge screens, a 17' inflatable Seahawks helmet and tunnel, Seahawks promotions and fun, drawing guests to enjoy the Fair and cheer on their team with like-minded fans. It was a huge success!"

The fair has an advertising budget of $985,809. (break down: TV:  $339,750.58/34 percent; Radio: $87,400/039 percent; Newspaper: $95,181.98/10 percent; Digital: $60,986.18/6 percent; Outdoor: $130,765.17/13 percent; Social media: $75,000.00/8 percent; Production: $196,725.49/20 percent. 

This year, "TV, radio and newspaper were all reduced so that we could increase the spend on social media and digital," said Hojem. 

With a more robust social media platform, the fair implemented many innovative and interactive promotions. The grandstand concerts were targeted with "Best Seats In the House," which used the social media selfie to increase awareness of the entertainment content. Audience members at concerts who tweeted their selfie, had the opportunity to upgrade seats in the grandstand. "All folks had to do was post #wafairlive on any social media to be eligible," said Hojem. "If they won, they got a message back and their original message appeared on our giant grandstand video screens."

Another promotion Hojem describes as Amazing Race meets the fair -   "XPLORE Adventure Race." Similar to a scavenger race, teams of people searched for items using tweeted clues. "Some of the wacky things participants had to do included, finding a specific Elephant Ear booth and have your entire team sprinkled with powdered sugar, recruit enough fair guests to create a three-tiered human pyramid that would then sing the fair's jingle, and find the USMC booth and do push-ups with the Marines."

Prizes included free concert and ride tickets, and the controlled mayhem of groups racing around the fair looking for clues created a community feeling to the fun of the fair.  Participants took the idea made it their own. "Teams came in their outfits, we had some in track suits, a team wearing Holstein cow spotted shirts," he said. "My favorite was a group wearing fairy wings." 

Friday Wristbands
The midway - by Funtastic rides - features 70 rides - and according to Hojem, the midway rides were up 22.5 percent - "a record ride gross. Games were up 14 percent," he added. 

This year, the midway added wristbands Friday to the other weekday wristbands, a collaborative decision between midway and fair that is another promotion credited to fueling this year's revenue growth. "We reached a consensus with the fair and added Fridays to our wristband program," said Ron Burback, owner with wife Beverlyof Funtastic Rides. "Pay one price, is extremely popular, and when you do wristbands, your per caps always goes up."

Wristbands also cater to the growing ranks of devoted, amusement ride aficionados. "There is also a customer who doesn't like long lines. There are more people wanting wrist bands than ever before."

Midway friendly weather also helped. "We had 17 days without significant rainfall," said Burback. "The people came and they spent the money. Washington is a great fair, but we are subject to heavy rains sometimes, and if it doesn't rain, we have a tremendous fair. We were running near full capacity hour after hour." 

The midway featured the debut of two roller coasters, Funtastic's Rainer Rush -a  looping-inversion coaster, reaching top speeds of 50 mph and hitting a G-force of 5.8 and featuring a loop that tilts at an 80-degree angle - and the wooden Classic Coaster near the Orange Gate, a permanent fixture of the fairgrounds that completed a five-year, $1.25 million renovation this summer. Among the upgrades was an increased top speed, from 32 mph to 38 mph. In addition, a new Wacky Worm was added to Sillyville and according to Burback, the most popular rides - aside from double appeal of two thrilling coasters - were the Wild Cat, Giant Slide, Extreme Scream and the Hard Rock, which was provided by Carnival Americana. 

"The whole idea from my side is that the customer has a good experience, a quality experience," said Burback, who has been associated with the Washington State Fair in one form or another for decades. "You have to have old favorites, but you need additions. You can't just do the same thing, year after year. The fair has increased its quality and the midway has to increase its quality."

"It was a stellar year for the midway," said Hojem. "They are a great partner and the midway had park areas that looked beautiful." 

Near Sell Outs
Finalized figures for the grandstand were unavailable, but this fair's grandstand - the 2014 Columbia Bank Concert Series - Hojem declared, "the most profitable year in our grandstand entertainment history.  The best selling shows included Florida Georgia Line, Chicago & REO Speedwagon, Jeff Dunham, and Toby Keith. "Floridian Georgia Line and Toby Keith sold out," said Hojem. "And Jeff Dunham was close enough to a sell out, there were no good seats left for his show."

Hojem added that finding entertainment was not more difficult this season. "It wasn't a particularly strong sellers or buyers market, but we were able to present a strong line up," said Hojem. "We have a tremendous amount of competition from venues. It also comes down to good weather, we did tremendous walk-up crowds this year."

Food Sales
Likely due to the exceptional weather that encouraged lingering at the fair,  attendees ate more as they enjoyed the final summer days and nights of the year. According to Hojem,  gross revenue for food sales were  up "17 percent, setting a new food gross record, surpassing the old food gross record, set a number of years ago, by over $300,000," said Hojem.

Food sellers numbered 165 locations - controlled by 38 companies. One of the hot new foods was Dole Whip, a frozen desert popular at Disney resorts. Bacon! Bacon!! Bacon!!! - was a new booth serving the eponymous pork product in traditional forms like bacon burgers to more radical variations, such as bacon-on-a-stick, covered with chocolate or maple syrup. In addition, more than 1.3 million warm scones filled with honey butter and raspberry jam, a signature Washington State Fair dish were served. 

Food vending had an extra challenge at this year's Washington State Fair. A few months before, a fire destroyed the Heritage Building, which hosted many of the vendors, including some of the longest tenured fair cuisine purveyors. Tents and other make-shift facilities were set up to house the food venues. "They provided stellar serviced and food prep," said Hojem. "They made improvements even in temporary locations."

Touch, Feel & Smell 
The Washington State Fair offers a range of traditional agricultural exhibits and attractions, as well fun food and carnival rides that are prime attributes of a state fair. By implementing innovative marketing, they added a contemporary appeal to the core of what makes fair perennially popular. "Fairs have the unique opportunity to give an incredibly wide spectrum of experiences to our audiences," said Hojem. "Our audiences want to be educated and entertained. Fairs provide very tactile experiences, there are things they can't do with the iPhone. They can touch, feel and smell, at the fair."

Hojem added, "fairs continue to be strong because it's not just about traditions, but what is also new and promoting the new and the old in new ways. Also, part of what makes a fair continue get stronger in popularity is that the people are keeping a healthier lifestyle. They can see quite literally farm to table. I think the appeal is an escape from contemporary life and a reminder of our roots." 


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