The 145th Anniversary of the South Carolina State Fair combined altruism, community outreach and health awareness with the fair's annual celebration of heritage and culture. The outcome was robust attendance, increased fair spending and a new, state-wide appreciation for what a fair means to its community.
Instead of devising a marketing theme around agriculture or a state's tradition, the 2014 South Carolina State Fair marketed The Pink Fair.
October is National Breast Cancer Awareness Month, and the well-known symbol representing breast cancer awareness is the pink ribbon. The 2014 South Carolina State Fair was christened The Pink Fair and from its earliest marketing through the actual event, pink and what the color now represents was the recurrent theme. This year's fair was devoted to Breast Cancer: supporting research, spreading awareness and helping those coping with what is essentially a health crisis. According to the Centers for Disease Control, breast cancer is the most common cancer in women.
A coincidence of calendar - the fair ran October 8-19 - made for ideal timing to present The Pink Fair, because organizers were able to coordinate efforts with the Palmetto Health Foundation's Walk for Life. Normally held the first Saturday of October, this walkathon - South Carolina's premier breast cancer awareness event - was moved to Oct. 18, the second Saturday of the fair, because of Yom Kippur. The new date fell on the second Saturday of the fair and since the South Carolina State Fair was a stop on the Walk for Life event, where more than 200,000 participants walk to raise money to combat the disease.
The Pink Fair was the 30th consecutive South Carolina State Fair for Gary Goodman, general manager. "I consider this year's fair the most outstanding fair I've ever done," he said. "We wanted to do "The Pink Fair" theme to promote breast cancer awareness, partnered with the local hospital and health foundations, we wanted to do a theme for a long time, but this year everything fell into place."
In addition to Palmetto Health, other Pink Fair healthcare partners included Lexington Medical Center and Providence Hospitals. Other events at the fair that addressed Breast Cancer awareness, including free mammograms and a Wall of Hope at the Ellison Building , where fair visitors posted remembrances of breast cancer victims and survivors - more than 12,000 notes were posted by the conclusion of the event.
Prior to the fair, the South Carolina State Fair's website featured a "Pink Blog," with daily posts devoted to breast cancer survivor stories. At fair time, the color pink and the iconic ribbons were visible throughout the fairgrounds, from large ribbons affixed to the fair's famous landmark -The Rocket; a Cold War-era ballistic missile given to the South Carolina by the Air Force - to the North American Midway Amusements (NAME) carnival - which featured pink lights on the rides, pink flags throughout the area and pink ribbons pinned to all employee badges . Pink Ribbons even decorated NAME wristbands.
This year's pink promotion actually began in April, when 100,000+ packets of pink forget-me-not seeds sent to hospitals, garden centers and clubs, churches, businesses and other organizations as part of its "seeds of hope" kickoff.
"We promoted the fair earlier and in many different ways," said Goodman, General Manager, South Carolina State Fair. "The hardest part as a staff to pull this off were the additional programs we added. But it was very rewarding partnering with the local hospital and healthcare foundations for the first time."
The theme also expanded the scope of the market from which the fair draws attendees. According to Goodman, the fair published more than 75,000 Resource Guides "for the entire fair, which had information regarding breast cancer and those guides were distributed state-wide, not just the Columbia area."
In addition, "our advanced ticket sales increased and by those sales, we saw we were reaching every county in the state, as well as far north as Charlotte, North Carolina and Augusta, Georgia."
While attendance was high - 472,000 - there was a drop of 10 percent, from last year's 492,000. Goodman blames rain - four out of the 12 days had downpours, with one day the deluge and gusts were so severe fairgoers were forced to take shelter in the ground's permanent buildings - in nullifying the potential attendee surges. Yet, even with this sporadic lack of cooperation by mother nature, the fair had the second largest crowd for its opening day - a Wednesday - and the fair's "highest second Thursday in our history," said Goodman.
Attendance may have had sporadic downturns, but spending by fairgoers was up throughout the fair. The NAME midway showcased 71 rides and generated $3.7 million in revenue, according to Goodman. Amy Girton, Director of Communications, NAME, confirmed this was a record gross for the midway at South Carolina Fair. "We always keep our Midway fresh and exciting year after year but there were not any new rides featured," she said.
The leading ride grosses were from Sky Ride and the Roller Coaster, according to Girton. She added that the Pink Fair theme promotion "was highly effective and we were proud to be a part of helping the Fair spread the word about breast cancer awareness."
Food revenue also surpassed last year, reaching $4.5 million. "We added a new concessionaire, A&P Concessions, who serve a great gyro, and another vendor added the Hot Dog Factory," said Goodman. Other new food items included: Ramen Noodle Burger by Carousel Foods, Chicken & Waffles by Bianco's Foods, Pecan Cinnamon Roll Sundae by Grandma Brown's Cinnamon Rolls.
"Old time favorites, such as the corn dogs and elephant ears are steady favorites," said Goodman, adding that a fair food truism retains its relevancy at the South Carolina State Fair. "If you fry it, they will buy it."
The Fair's Pepsi Grandstand Concert Series included paid headliners such as Jennifer Nettles, who sold-out, and Lee Brice, who "came within 200 seats of a sell-out," said Goodman. Free concerts included the Marshall Tucker Band, who opened the fair and MC Hammer, who closed the fair.
While Goodman was pleased with this year's live entertainment, he admits that profitability of the music series alone is harder to measure. "It is tougher to get a return on the investment for the shows," he said. "It's definitely a sellers market. Prices were so high this year for the grandstand entertainment, you have to be creative. But we had dynamite shows."
He added, "I don't see a tremendous amount of new artists, there's less of the up-and-coming artists that can fill the place."
The fair also used one headliner to enhance its college students outreach. Goodman said that within a 10-block radius, there's 25,000+ college students. For the last two years, the fair offered free admission on a Thursday evening with College ID; this year the fair presented Shovels & Rope, a South Carolina-based indie rock band, along with the college student promotion.
"We had a lot of success, you get a different crowd with college kids and this year we got more college kids," he said. "When they get into the fair, they spend a lot of money. We gave them more reason to come to this year's fair."
The fair's advertising budget is approximately $300,000, with spending allocated as follows: 26 percent television, 24 percent billboard, 12 percent print, which includes newspaper websites, 7 percent digital and social media and six percent radio; 25 percent of the advertising budget is used for production of commercials and other marketing materials. "We increased our digital and social media spending, and our television and billboard advertising," said Goodman. "We're spending less in radio."
Goodman also overhauled how the fair uses online and digital advertising for The Pink Fair. We changed our focus away from online banner ads, and put more emphasis on social media, with more presence in Facebook, Instagram and Twitter," he said. "The Pink Fair really resonated among folks on social media."
The success of The Pink Fair will likely have longer term ramifications for the fair, and its success might also have other fair managers reconsider how to market a fair. On one level, the Pink Fair was similar to any other tagline: a means to capture consumer interest and encourage attendance. While The Pink Fair achieved basic marketing objectives, by joining forces with a growing social movement, a new insight into the role a fair plays within a community was also gained.
"The Pink Fair changed our thinking on how we will theme future fairs," said Goodman. "The Pink Fair was a very relevant theme and people responded. There is power in what we do as a fair, and to channel it for a larger mission was great for that mission and great for the fair. We were able to reach hearts and minds and bring greater awareness to the cause."