The 2015 edition of the Canadian National Exhibition - known by most fairgoers as The Ex-faced two challenges: a new general manager, Virginia Ludy, and an increasingly competitive Toronto consumer entertainment marketplace.
Ludy has 18 years experience with The Ex and even before taking the helm of this massive operation, her attitude was always that the same old same old simply doesn't cut it. A new wrinkle this summer was that Toronto hosted the international Pan Am games - and combined with festivals and concert venues that proliferated one of the largest urban markets in North America - making the CNE stand out enough to grow its audience required some of out-of-the-box thinking.
"We were concerned that the market might have been 'festivaled' out by the time the fair opened," said Ludy. "The Pan Am Games had a powerful effect and we thought people might have been over saturated. We looked a cross section of programming, because we felt we needed to lift and boost the programming.
Instead of more music, the fair expanded its event entertainment package, including Bon Voyage! Aerial Acrobatics & Ice Skating Show, which featured Olympic Gold Medalists: Tessa Virtue & Scott Moir - Ludy said the show had more than 6,000 - a near-capacity crowd - at the Ricoh Coliseum, RUSH: Parkour Demonstrations, XPogo Stunt Team, The West Coast Lumberjack Show, and The President's Choice SuperDogs. "We had a great fair, our attendance was up, revenues up and there's a buzz in our community," said Ludy. "I insisted that we shake up our programming mix by introducing new attractions and re-instating showpiece programs such as our Aerial Acrobatics & Ice Skating show."
The CNE offers free concerts, which include America, Alan Doyle, Chubby Checker, Rick Springfield, Cody Simpson , Tokyo Police Club, The Last Waltz - A Musical Celebration of THE BAND, a new touring tribute act ( The Band are one of the most Classic Rock acts to come out of Canada).
Weekday shows received a boost from a promotion 'Six After Six," which Ludy said, "was very popular bringing in more adults, it's a great deal, people came here, to go to a concert and have dinner, it is a very affordable night out.
Many of the shows were near capacity - The Last Waltz was "a phenomenal show," she said - but the selection of the free-with-admission-entertainment worked in conjunction with the strategy of finding the right types of event entertainment that best positions the fair to compete in a very crowded entertainment marketplace. "I'm not bringing in the Rolling Stones," she said. "We bring in the forms of entertainment that resonate with fairgoers, create that buzz. We are in a truly competitive market place today, a lot of those festivals were not here 20 or 30 years and so you can't get that kind of entertainment anymore, but fairs provide other things that festivals do not have. Fairs have the agriculture component, the community involvement, things that competition can't touch us on. We had a great line up of free concerts and entertainment that I feel broke through the clutter in the market."
Good Weather, Stay-Cations
The fair was "blessed with very good weather throughout the 18 days of the fair," hosting more than 1.5 million visitors, an increase of "at least 8 percent," she said. Fair organizers were still examining the numbers, but revenue and per cap spending was up significantly, she said.
Another surprising aspect of the 2015 CNE is that its attendance and revenue robustness occurred in the midst of a still slumping economy. Ludy pointed out that the added-value had its time-tested appeal for fairgoers who had to spend their vacation time closer to home, thus cornering the stay-cation market. "Our economy is still in recovery, but often that works in our favor since people are more likely to stay home," she said, adding that the another factor was the exchange rate -- the U.S. dollar was high making the popular U.S. sojourn more expensive for Canadians this year. "The high US/low Canadian dollar also worked in our favor," she said.
The CNE had an advertising budget of "just over $1 million CDN," and the mix of media remained relatively unchanged from last year. "We use webpages, social media, combined with radio, all the tools available to in our tool basket. It has to be a coordinated campaign designed to reach your customers."
One marketing vehicle they continued and expanded was surprisingly old school, the Guidebook, a printed brochure distributed as a newspaper insert. The Guidebook "was expanded from 16 to 20 pages," said Ludy. The distribution also increased, "quantities expanded from 2.35 million copies to 2.5 million copies."
The other new feature for 2015 marketing was a little less old school. " more money was invested in programmatic online advertising, which tracks online behavior, targets the consumer and customizes the CNE message accordingly."
There were more than 100 food vendors, and anecdotally Ludy said the vendors had an up year, with the hot food gems being " The Red Velvet Deep Fried Oreo, Frosted Flake battered deep fried chicken on a stick, the Sumo Burger & the iconic Ice Cream Waffle, which celebrated its 75 Anniversary at the CNE this year," she said. One food trend that seems to have some staying power is not a specific cuisine but an event, Food Truck Frenzy, which runs for three days. Introduced last year, food truck vendors from throughout the metro region come to the fair, creating a new energy. This year these meals on wheels were augmented with a Craft Beer Fest, enhancing the food and beverage grazing reputation of The Ex.
The NAME midway featured 60 rides, including 28 children rides, including a Monster Truck, "which was new to us and proved to be very valuable to us," said Scooter Corek, Spokesman, North American Midway Entertainment (NAME). "The Sky Ride, which is a permanent fixture, is always the most popular ride. The Polar Express and Mach-3 always do a good job there."
While the final numbers have not been publically released, "I think we had a record year, we had amazingly good weather," said Corek. "August can be hot and humid in Toronto, but it was in the upper 70s and ideal fair weather."
"In an urban fair you are competing with a lot of locally based entertainment," he said . "You have to be priced right and find a formula that works, create something that isn't offered by other forms of an entertainment. Where else can you get food, music, entertainment and 60 rides right in downtown Toronto?"
Corek noted that the entertainment additions Ludy added did not distract from the midway centerpiece of any fair. "The more people that come through the gates, the better it is always going to be for the carnival company."
He added, "it is really a feature in Virginia's cap that she did such an exceptionally good job with the CNE and the programming. There was always something brand new on the grounds and the Ricoh Center, the programming kept people coming through the gates and busy the entire time of the fair. She did a great job with vendors and corporate sponsors, she had hundreds of corporate sponsors, and our advanced sales program at the CNE was probably the best for any fair."
The turnaround for the CNE that began a few years ago continues on an upward cycle. The 2015 CNE "exceeded our expectations," said Ludy. " This is the best attendance we have had since the late 1990s."
Ludy admits that the times used to be a lot tougher, that The Ex was "challenged and struggling and we worked very hard to put us on a positive, forward path, and I think it's indicative that we are the right party because our popularity continues to grow, and as our attendance and revenue performance increases, it allows us to invest more in the product. It breaks my heart to see other fairs not investing in their product, which is a recipe for disaster. You need to continually update your product offering, how can we change it to make it more innovative and relevant to the community."
Key to this change for the better approach? Market research. "We do not do anything without knowing our market, we continually our doing surveys, focus groups, talking to people, to find what they want, what they like. You can't give them what they want if you don't know what they want and the only way to find is quantitative and methodological market research."