The 10-day Champlain Valley Fair in Essex Junction, Vermont, had an attendance of about 150,000, on part with previous summers. And according to Executive Director Timothy P. Shea, the fair benefited from great weather, an exciting new midway by James E. Strates Shows, and a positive economy.
"The economy seems better and there might be more discretionary income among fairgoers," said Shea. "Gas prices were much higher last year which I think was a factor, people seem to have more money to spend."
The weather was cooperative - "We had 10 dry days, which we never seem to get," said Shea.
All About That Bass
The qualifier for this year's fair is that like many fairs, t
he Meagan Trainer cancellation had a negative impact on the fair. "It was a set back, and we didn't really make up what should have been about 8,000 people. We replaced her with Echo Smith, but that only drew about 1,000. The Trainer crowd is also younger, and so our midway would have been up."
The cancellation was not devastating, but "when you consider the possibilities, we had a good fair in spite of this set back, and you really can't make it up with sales of hot dogs and beer," said Shea.
Some of the highlights of the concert series include a strong fair opening appearance with Jake Owens, Little Big Town - "who did really well" and Three Doors Down, as well as the Happy Together Tour and Hotel California-Eagles Tribute Band -"which was a fun show, getting about 1,500 but that was on a Tuesday so that is pretty good," said Shea. Entertainment was rounded out with "motor sports and cycle shows," he said.
Shea admitted that it "was a tough year for routing and availability. What you hear is that there are so many festivals and other venues now that acts have more and more options. It is something we are still trying to figure out. What happens is that it gets to be May or June and you need to find entertainment. Over the last few years, there's not as many affordable acts for fairs and you're left with fewer and fewer options. You are getting really limited as a fair booking low-risk entertainment."
Fairs were featured stops on Trainer's summer route. When the 21 year-old superstar with the massive hit, "All About That Bass" abruptly ended her North American tour due to vocal chord damage, she cancelled 15 shows, and few venues were impacted as hard as fairs, many of which like the Champlain Valley event had built their entertainment package around her booking. Shea estimated that the cancellation cost about 8,000 in attendance, but it was not just the absence of fairgoers, but the caliber of that lost audience. "These are young people who eat a lot of food and go on a lot of rides, they are prime midway customers. It is hard to tell how the fair would have worked out differently if that didn't happen."
But the other side of that coin is that those with the good weather, a new midway and other attractions at the fair, the fact the fair did not experience a steeper decline compared to the previous year is remarkable."
The Strates Shows midway featured 45 rides, and Shea said that "ride gross was up modestly compared to our 2014 midway." He said that the midway had about the same amount of rides as last year's, and noted that the Double Decker Carousel "people loved."
But his highest praise was for Strates management and workforce. "The overall presentation was excellent and the whole team is really hands on. You could not ask for better carnival workers from the way they behave to their appearance. They interacted really great with the customers and our staff and local police department, who handles our security. We got comment after comment, in person and on Facebook, about the Strates operation, all positive."
One Strates Shows midway innovation that augurs well for the future was the first electronic ticketing system . While this made for a smoother midway - "fairgoers seemed to love it," said Shea.
The other aspect of this innovation was real time metrics. "We can see the ticket revenues up to the minute. When we were paper tickets, we see the ticket and see the ride, but we did not have an idea of what ride was popular at what point of the fair."
Long term, Shea feels this innovation will improve the "efficiency of the midway, maybe we can modify the hours. We haven't really looked at the data in depth yet, but we will in the upcoming weeks. We have a new metric which we really don't know how to use yet, we just know that we now have much better data to use. It was part of the negotiation with Strates and we are very impressed with it, it's a new metric."
In addition, after fair closing, "settlement was a lot easier, it only took a few minutes and not an hour or more."
The fair markets itself as "The 10 best days of summer, and Shea said the fair gained more than 20,000 Facebook followers this year.
One of the more successful promotions was a car load special, one price including admission and parking for cars with up to five people. This off-set some drop off of kids. "We did have kids the entire run of the fair but with the later Labor Day, that we had less, and they came."
Anecdotally, the discounted carload special "we ran mid week and it picked up what were usually quiet days," said Shea. Also, he noted "we saw more people coming back to the fair on a Wednesday, making a second trip to the fair, which is something we have been trying to encourage."
In addition, the fair a promotion with a regional convenience store chain - Maplefields-worked "very well this year," and there as a canned food Thursday with free admission for canned foods Shea said was successful."
The can foods were donated to the Vermont Foodbank. Another canned promotion was "Let's All Do Something About Nothing," which was a fundraiser for the Vermont Foodbank. Empty cans of "nothing" were at food-vendor counters, and contributions left inside will go to the Foodbank.
The Champlain Valley Fair featured 65 food vendors, and Shea said, "the feedback from our concessionaires was very good, sales were up 5 percent. He said that a bacon on a sick a new smoked barbecue item "were good sellers and new to the fair. Local vendors did very well, especially with seafood. We have a pretty good mix of traditional fair foods and local vendors. Al's French Fries does pretty well, they are probably the top selling food item."
Preconceptions of fair food were shaken up with a new cuisine event with "The Culinary Classic - Fair Style, which featured a Vermont Celebrity Chefs Shawn Calley, of The Essex Resort and Spa and Narin Phanthakhot of Butch & Babe's, who held a demonstration cook off creating new gourmet dishes using food from the fair's vendors. "People come to the fair to eat food that is off their diets, but they also come for local food that you can only get here at the fair."