The 2014 Texas State Fair generated $5 million more in revenue than the 2013 edition of this Lone Star state celebration. Since 1886, this 24-day extravaganza has been a Texas tradition, and this year's fair generated the highest revenue since its inception, not a bad accomplishment for Mitchell Glieber, who was promoted from Executive Vice President to President.
"I can easily say this is State Fair team is the best we've ever had," said Glieber. "We have more talent in more areas. We planned and executed the best State Fair of Texas in our 128-year history. I am very proud of the fact that we established new programs designed to raise funds for our State Fair of Texas Scholarship Program that allowed us to double the scholarship dollars from last year."
According to Glieber, the Texas State Fair doesn't track attendance figures or specific revenue streams, instead using as the key indicator its coupon sales (used for food/beverage and rides). "We don't track actual attendance, but based on spending, it has to be at the top of the list of all State Fairs that we've ever had." Coupon sales reached $42 million, exceeding the fair's previous record set in 2010 of $37.3 million.
"The State Fair of Texas set records in virtually every category this year," said Glieber. "We had a great product, great weather, and a great marketing plan."
The weather cooperated - rain was scant and only on the weekdays -the Texas economy is robust, and the support of the Texas agriculture and livestock industry for the fair seems never to have been stronger. What stands out the most this year was the comprehensive marketing effort launched by the Texas State Fair. This year's marketing program featured a new theme that seemed to reinvigorate the fair and fairgoer enthusiasm, further carried through with a year-round campaign bolstered by an enlarged social media presence.
The marketing like the fair itself, is all about Texas. "We created a fair with a strong "Texas" theme that brought about a feeling of Texan pride," said Glieber.
Nostalgia and state pride are aspects intrinsic to most state fairs, although many fairs in an attempt to boost attendance and appeal to new customers, emphasize their other, more contemporary components. The Texas State Fair took an opposite approach, with its marketing, centered around the theme: "Deep in Heart of Texans!"
Texan Heart, Texan Pride
The theme was expressed both externally and internally. "We took the theme and applied it to many attractions across the grounds as well as transforming much of our decor to make sure that our attendees knew they were in the "Heart of Texas," said Glieber.
The fair added four major "Texan" icons making a very visible statement reinforcing the marketing theme. New for the fair this year was a massive new 125-ft. flagpole that flew a giant (30' x 50') Texas flag; a special Texas Sports Hall of Fame exhibit; a Texas-themed animal show, The Wild West Pet Palooza; and a Texas makeover of the annual Starlight Parade. "We had a really good theme, very Texas intensive, and people came here to have a unique Texan experience," said Glieber.
State Fairs always emphasize a state pride and celebrate the history, industries - especially agricultural - and other accomplishments associated with the state. But this new theme also represented, if not a complete makeover, a deliberate and extensive tweaking of the fair.
According to Glieber, in order to attract new fairgoers, Texas, like many state fairs, "positioned the fair as a World's Fair format and theme. Instead, this year we focused on Texas and people take pride in Texas, so that was a little bit of a departure."
Texas also possesses a growing population, fueled mainly by thousands of newcomers moving to the state every year. Glieber has found that the Texas-focus of the content and marketing of the fair attracted as old and new Lone Star State citizens. "We have a lot of people here not from Texas and are new to Texas," he said. "They get properly indoctrinated in what being a Texan is all about. They gravitate towards the fair."
This year's fair promotion also started earlier. Building anticipation became more of a year-long process, measured in months not weeks. According to Glieber, while communicating with their constituency throughout the year has always been standard procedure, usually the fair only "kicked it into high gear and ramped it up in September."
This year, however, while fair messaging and promotion grew as opening day got closer, fair promotion began in January and was steady throughout they year. "In terms of timing, we would do some things periodically, but off-season the fair went dark," said Glieber. "Now we took an approach, with social media and also with our newsletter, to a more year-round posture, keeping the fair, our educational mission and scholarships, in the public eye. We had more community involvement, more attention to our scholarship program and we highlighted capital improvements to Fair Park."
He added, "we were building excitement months before the fair, not just when the summer ended. Clearly, the use of social media is cost-effective and makes it easier for ongoing communication with our customers. By promoting earlier, there was higher anticipation for the fair this year."
Spreading the word and creating momentum may have been the strategy, but to make that strategy work the fair also diligently cultivated its audience. "The trick is to build your data base, and last year we did increase that through our followers on Twitter and Facebook," said Glieber. "We focused on our marketing theme, and captured those people who following or liking us."
Social Media Expansion
The State Fair of Texas eschewed "a dedicated budget for our marketing efforts," said Glieber. The fair uses " an integrated plan that consists of print, radio, broadcast, interactive and the State Fair's own outlets - website, email marketing and social media. The majority of the plan is secured by sponsorship arrangements and trade agreements."
What was key this year for fair social media marketing was the ongoing communication aspect of the format with fairgoers. "We made social media a two-way conversation," said Glieber. " In the past, social media was an information and promotional push beginning mid-August. This year, we leveraged social media throughout the year to promote the state, Fair Park and our own content. We used the channels to get patrons interested and excited about all the aspects of the State Fair of Texas."
The brick and mortar fair was re-fashioned to enhance its online presence. "We leveraged the grounds to ask patrons to like, follow and share content with us," said Glieber. " There was signage throughout the grounds encouraging our guests to share their experiences with us. When they did tag us in a photo or used key #hashtags, the Fair reciprocated with the like, retweet and we even reposted great photos showcasing them on all of the channels."
The increased social media presence may have been a result of the evolution of the format, but Glieber pointed out that the fair staff has "more experience in handling it, so we are really taking advantage of social media."
Independent Midway Increase
The Texas State Fair has an independent midway, featuring 73 rides and 73 games, contracting with a total of 15 companies. The fair does not release specific midway revenue figures, the fair was up approximately 17 percent on Midway operations over 2013," said Glieber.
The Fair Park complex features some permanent rides, such as the Top O' Texas Tower, which premiered last year. In addition, the fair's midway aesthetic is kept uniformed in appearance, which Glieber crediting, Rusty Fitzgerald, Senior Vice President of Midway Operations, for maintaining the independent midway format. "By having independent ride operators, there's more competition between the operators and we get the best rides," said Glieber. "We found over the years, the independent midway, the contracting is very competitive, and we get the quality of the equipment and training of personnel."
Rides having their Texas State Fair debut include Hurricane, Hard Rock and Kamikaze as well as two Kiddie Rides: Puppy Express and Hog Rally. The top five grossing rides were: Texas Star, Texas Skyway, Crazy Mouse, Top O' Texas Tower and Fast Trax Slide. Top five Midway Games ere Short Range Basketball, Balloons - 1, Water Race -1, Water Race - 2 and Balloons -
The Texas State features about 85 performances throughout the course of 24 days, with the Chevy Main Stage included in State Fair admission. Headliners included :the Swon Brothers, Fantasia, Lucy Hale, Kool & the Gang, Siggno, Deryl Dodd, Cody Canada & the Departed, Jason Boland & the Stragglers, Casey Donahew Band, Le Freak, Becky G, Danielle Bradbery, Collective Soul, and La Maquinaria Nortena. According to Glieber, the largest attended shows were Fantasia, Becky G, the Casey Donahew Band and La Maquinaria Nortena.
With fair attendance being up - and concerts being free, essentially acting as additional draw - Glieber feels the entertainment this year was successful, with most of the shows holding up their end in terms of attracting crowds. However, he admitted that talent buying is more of a challenge each year, "In Dallas, because of the heavy competition, I consider this to be a sellers' market," he said.
Funnel Cake Ale
The 2014 State Fair of Texas had 79 food vendors, and since 2005, concessionaires have competed in the Big Tex Choice Awards. One winner and local favorite was "Clint Probst's crowd-pleasing Cajun creation featured everything you would expect in a shrimp boil rolled into a ball, dusted with Fish Fry, and fried to a golden brown," Glieber said,
Funnel Cake Ale, a Big Tex Choice Award winner in the Original State Fair Brew category - sold out before closing day of the fair, the first time in the history of the competition. According to Glieber, this new, innovative brew features its titular accents- Funnel Cake - a food item nearly synonymous with fair cuisine. The recommended serving style for this "summer" ale was having the rim of the plastic beer cup coated with powdered sugar.
From inventive marketing to expanded content, the Texas State Fair was poised for a big year. Glieber may have been confident that this year's fair would succeed, he admits to being surprised about the extent of that success. We knew that with the product we were putting out there, we had a chance to set a record," he said. "However, reaching $42 million in coupons sales was definitely beyond our expectations."