The 2014 State Meadowlands Fair had approximately 28,000 more fairgoers than the year before, and per-capita spending was up around 10 percent. Per-capita spending remained at similar levels in 2015, but attendance only increased about 1,000-1,5000.
The main culprit dampening turnout was rain. The 17-day fair ran June 19th to July 5th, and according to Al Dorso, president of State Fair Event Management, rain plagued several days, including two of the weekends.
A strong start indicated that despite inclement weather, the State Fair Meadowlands, considered the largest fair in the region, has an established reputation of providing value-added entertainment. The fair recorded a record opening day - 41,000, one of the strongest atte
ndance numbers for any single day of this event. "The fair almost peaked out," said Dorso. "We opened at 5:00 and people were coming through the gates after 9:00, so it means we turned the crowed twice."
Rainy weather however, took its toll on crowd numbers for two weekends of the fair. Closing weekend - Independence Day Weekend - precipitation had a different sort of effect. Friday, July 3rd, the official day off this year, the fair opened at 2:00 pm. Heavy rains were predicted for the 4th of July, and this anticipation for a wet weekend further pumped up crowd numbers. "We had our best Friday ever. I think it was mainly that people were thinking Saturday was going to be rained."
On America's birthday, the weather did not remain as dire as the weather anchors predicted. "By 3:30 the skies cleared and the sun was out. We had a seriously good night, crazy good. The rain helped increase the crowd."
Anyone not familiar with the Garden State probably misunderstands the "Jersey Logic" in Dorso's statement. "Because of the forecast, people decided not to go down the shore and when the sun came out, they came here instead," he said. "The moons and stars aligned so we were able to make up the weekend we lost because of rain."
A fair holding its own with small increases - but increases nonetheless - against an uncooperative Mother Nature may not exactly be news for the fair industry. The State Fair Meadowlands was anticipating a bigger increase. This 29-year-old fair has had a steady growth rate in recent years and is a tradition for residents in northern New Jersey and the New York metropolitan regional area. Last year's record-breaking fair prompted Dorso to expand marketing for 2015.
"We increased the advertising and marketing budget by 10 percent, because had such a good year last year," said Dorso. "I saw a big bump, and in the event business when you get a bump, you don't be cheap, you spend the money."
Dorso declined to specify this year's advertising budget - in was in excess of $400,000 in 2014 - but he admitted he was "hoping to take the fair to another step, even hoping for another 5-to-8 percent bump."
Instead the extra marketing enabled the fair to sustain against the odds. "I am sure we would not have done as well. Next year is our 30th anniversary, so we are going to be heavily promoting that next year."
The expanded marketing and promotion effort by the fair encouraged a more innovative advertising approach. The increased the number of billboards throughout the state, up to about 125, including big boards, small boards and seven Digital Boards, "which we put around the state, and in a wider radius."
Ads also became colorful fixtures for bus-backs and train stations. Dorso also increased the number of ads in movie theaters, something he only started two years ago. "The fair is entertainment, so the best place to reach the consumer of entertainment is at the movie theater."
The fair also expanded its social media platform - "We had constant stuff streaming," he said.
Internet marketing is about images, and for the last three years, the fair has an affiliation with an AP photographer, who came to the midway for a story and "fell in love with us. He takes spectacular pictures, which wind up in newspapers around the world, places like Australia and Israel."
One of the most spectacular pictures was the classic fireworks above the midway shot, but this year a new shot featured the Original Bat Copter (from the 1960s Batman TV series).
While a iconic Helicopter from a half-century ago may seem like pandering to the nostalgic market, Dorso added another marketing/imaging system - believed to be a first for any fair - that was entirely 21st century. The State Fair Meadowlands acquired its own drone, incorporating its aerial photography and video into its social media marketing and other formats.
The drone flew at heights of about 300 feet, "we could show the crowds, the weather, the pig races and people saw it on their smart phones. The drone hovered all over the fair. Any fair who doesn't do this is missing out on a great promotional opportunity, and it's cost-effective. The best drone you can buy is about $1300, it's so cheap to get into."
Unfortunately, it was also a little new for the unusual fairgrounds that hosts the State Fair Meadowlands. The fair is held at the Meadowlands Sports Complex in East Rutherford, N. J., a complex that includes MetLife Stadium, the Izod Center, and the Meadowlands Racetrack. Stadium officials limited the use of the drone, because "they have never had a drone-cam before, and they are not sure of the regulations they need. But by next year that shouldn't be a problem."
Co-Promotion &Trade Outs
On the June 27 & 28 weekend, State Fair Meadowlands ran a new, co-promotion with the NBC 4 and Telemundo 47 Health & Fitness Expo also held on the grounds. The Expo featured locker room tours, the opportunity to walk the 50-yard line, autograph sessions, health screenings, fitness and cooking demos, yoga and a family fun. Admission to the fair included both events, "This boosted attendance for that second weekend, which was almost a rain out otherwise and there was some news coverage."
Print is still a important to fair marketing, but Dorso has worked a cost-effective deal with local print media. "Almost all the print we do are all trade outs," he said. "They get fair tickets for their advertisers, as incentive. It's not a lot of dollars, and it is more effective to barter for those placements. We are starting to do the same with some radio stations."
The most effective promotion was a $2 dollar promotion, which is always held opening day - parking and rides are only $2, and all food vendors have $2 specials. "When we first did the dollar day, everyone was against it and they wound up having the best opening day," he said. "We changed it $2 last year, and it was even more popular."
The fair is open until 1:00 AM, but the gates close at 11:30 PM. This year, "we had a 20 foot line at 11:30, guest services had to turn people away. We probably turned a thousand people away. But I am very strict about the times, and I run a very family event, and you have to limit this late night crowd."
Wednesdays are the softest days for the fair, so for one Wednesday Dorso ran Kids go Free day, children under 12 were admitted free - resulting in a 27,000-attendee Wednesday, one of the strongest midweek days in the history of the fair. With price being a key promotion, Dorso added another discounted "Cheap Cheap Night" - which had steeply discounted parking, admissions, rides, etc., which boosted the July 1st Wednesday. "It was humorous, having a Cheap Cheap night. People love bargains, but when you say something is cheap it usually means low quality, but repeating it was funny and people responded," he said.
The midway featured 71 rides this year, contracting with several midway providers, including Strates Shows, Amusements of America, Lauther Amusements and Jeremy Floyd. The most popular ride was the Dutch Wheel. The fair has a long-time independent midway, and the main reason is that the scope of the rides. "No single company can provide 71 rides, we want a lot of rides at this fair," he said. The fair spans 35 acres and is the largest fair in the metropolitan area.
But also, the state of New Jersey is renowned for its strict ride inspections. "It is a difficult state for companies to bring rides into, so it is better if one company only brings in a few rides at a time," he said.
New attractions for this year include the Lipizzaner Stallions & Horses of the World Show. Back by popular demand attractions included the Great American Thrill Show, Master Hypnotist Steve Bayner, and Racing Pigs, which have been at the fair for 27 years.
Fairs are outdoor events and rainy days and nights will certainly curtail attendance figures. But, with a combination of bigger and smarter marketing plus events that appeal to his fairgoer following, Dorso was able to dull the impact of bad weather. The best example of a promotion was "Cousin Brucie's Palisades Park Reunion III" - an event that was broadcast live on SiriusXM's satellite radio.
Palisades Amusement Park was a legendary regional theme park, steeped in baby boomers' nostalgia. Cousin Brucie - who was known as the 5th Beatle - has been a New York Area radio disc jockey for more than half a century. The reunion show, broadcasted live from State Fair Meadowlands, featured such golden oldie acts as The Capri's, Gary US Bonds, Tommy James, and Tony Orlando.
"People love this show," said Dorso. "That second Saturday, we had high winds and heavy rain. But the show must go on and we had to open for the broadcast. We had 1,100 under a big tent in the pouring rain and they stayed the whole show."