How bad a year was 2015 for the State Fair of Louisiana? "It was bad, it was bad as bad gets," said Pat Crabtree of Crabtree Amusements.
The cause of the dismal performance was the factor beyond the ability of stakeholders to control but always determines the success or failure of a fair: weather. More specifically, rain and lots of it.
The sun didn't come out until the close of the State Fair of Louisiana; a near constant deluge tormented the fair throughout its run. On one day, the fair had be completely closed, and the midway had to be shut down intermittently on other days. Even when the rain let up, the weather was lousy and nobody could be blamed for not coming to the annual Shreveport-Bossier tradition.
The numbers indicate the degree of dismal. According to Chris Giordano, CFE, President & General Manager, about 266,500 attended this year's State Fair of Louisiana. "Last year, we had 455,000. It was the worst rain I have ever seen. We lost every single weekend day. Over three weekends, we had rain."
Giordano said more than 20 inches of rain fell during the course of the fair, and the nearby Red River crested twice. The fair suffered through nine out of 15 days of rain. Attendance records look like an EKG reading, with peaks of 30,000 and 40,000 to disheartening multiple days where attendance barely 2,000.
One bright spots was the closing day - Veterans & Military Appreciation Day - which attracted 66,000 through the gates, a one-day attendance figure not reached by the fair since the 1970s. "We ended the fair on a high note at least," said Giordano. "We had complete gridlock, there were so many people, it was our only good weekend. We were able to honor the veterans and pass out 5,000 American flags and the parade we had was the highlight of the fair."
He added, "this was a case of pent up demand, people love this fair."
The midway sustained a near-lethal blow: a 46 percent drop in revenue, and the closing day turnout may not have rid the pain, but suffering was eased. "If it wasn't for the last Sunday, the entire fair would be a complete loss," said Crabtree.
Giordano and Crabtree also implemented an unprecedented move - they opened the fair on a day usually dark. On a Sunday evening the two were sitting in Crabtree's trailer in a kind of misery loves company scenario, bemoaning the ultra-damp, dismal 2015 edition of the State Fair of Louisiana. The discussion began informally. The two men are friends and the midway onsite offices is a place where Giordano will often hang out during the fair, especially on a rainy night with fair activity almost at halt. "It was just a discussion about how things were so bad and things we could do and it just sort of came up out of that discussion," said Crabtree.
As Giordano remembers, it was Melissa Crabtree, Pat Crabtree's daughter-in-law, who came up with the idea. "She said what we should do is give Tuesday a try."
The two men immediately liked her idea. Giordano immediately got on his cellphone to clarify logistics with security, vendors, exhibitors and other interested parties. "Everybody was on board and in the end, only two commercial exhibitors weren't able to come because of scheduling conflicts," said Giordano.
The fair is closed on Monday and Tuesday, and the weather forecast was clear for Tuesday. Opening on a dark day is something new for both fair veterans, but they instantly recognized the idea as one of those that's so crazy it just might work. By 9:00 pm the decision was made, the key participants were in agreement, and the marketing and promotion wheels set in motion. "We were on all the local 10:00 pm newscasts, the fair opening on Tuesday was breaking news," said Giordano.
The fair's social media alerted the public with ongoing updates. The opening also featured enticements such as free parking and free admission. "We had a skeleton staff," Giordano said. "We use the police for security and they were very supportive. It helped our morale more than anything else, and it gave our midway and other vendors some revenue to make up for their losses."
In fact, the fair did consider adding additional days, even an entire week, to make up for the negative impact of the monsoon, "but not everybody could be here and we didn't want to gamble by spending money on extra advertising and marketing and all the other overhead costs," said Giordano.
All the numbers are still being crunched so the extent of the loss is not yet known. "People do look forward to this fair all year so I know the community was disappointed and as a fair manger you feel very bad about not being to bring the community the fair," said Giordano. "But we had great community support, they understood."
Good Fair Plan
The 2015 State Fair of Louisiana is a case-in-point that regardless of the quality of your fair organizing, nature often has the final control. "We had a great fair plan and when the sun did come out, it was the final Sunday," said Giordano . Our livestock shows were good, we still had people in the barns. But those are only a couple of thousand, and because of the rain they weren't walking the midway, eating food, playing games or riding rides."
The fair's marketing 2015 theme was 'Whole Lot'a Happy,' and in spite of seeming sadly ironic now, the campaign was bolstered by an advertising budget of $200,000, a slight increase over last year. "We did some print here and there, but we spent less with the local newspaper and still did a lot of traditional radio," said Giordano. "We had more digital components, and social media was very effective, driving viewers to our website and increasing our likes. We spread out through all the platforms, Facebook, Instagram.
In addition, the fair's marketing net was spread over a wider region. "We went further into Texas and other markets, about a100 mile radius, much further reach than we had ever tried before," said Giordano ."We have been seeing growth from the day trippers and were trying to increase that growth."
The community was also anticipating an economic boost from the annual celebration of everything Pelican State. The local economy has been slumping lately, Giordano pointed out, "but the fair helps the economy, injects more life for that period, and we weren't able to do that this year."
The State Fair of Louisiana, like other fairs, is a showcase of the regional agricultural industry. While many business segments of the area have been stagnate, the agriculture industry has been a bright spot of economic growth. "It certainly hasn't been hurt like a lot of other industries," said Giordano.
Unfortunately, the fair was not able to fulfill its central role in boosting area farmers. For example, even though the livestock shows were held in the enclosed coliseum - and even though livestock exhibits showed a 3.8 percent increase over 2014, actual livestock sales plummeted 18 percent, squelching the upward trend of recent years (2014 livestock sales jumped 18.2 percent over the year before).
Another stunning contrast from year to year was that competitive livestock exhibits declined 13.1 percent, whereas in 2014 the increase was a whopping 126 percent.
"You feel the worse for those kids who worked on those projects all year," he said.
Giordano said the fair has become known for its free entertainment, and 2015 had a had a solid roster of free entertainment Circus Hollywood and Friesian Horse Shows, as well as new for this year Wacky Emu Races, Ives Brothers Wall of Death Motorcycle Show, and JUMP the Ultimate Dog Shows. According to Giordano, most of this entertainment was either cancelled or playing to sparse crowds and near-empty fairgrounds.
Another casualty were some group sales. The fair does host company parties, by the far the largest bringing 9,000 people into the fair on a single day. The company, a hospital and healthcare network, buys a group sale for a single day, which also includes a catered lunch beneath a large tent. This year, rain forced the cancellation of this party, and employees were given passes good for any day of the fair and food vouchers instead of catering. "This spread out attendance, which was a good thing," said Giordano. "You do not want to get into talking about refunds, which we didn't have to. Our partners understood."
But how does a fair rebound from such an awful outing? The immediate reaction was instead of himself and all the senior staff attending the annual IAFE Convention & Trade Show, the Louisiana State Fair sent only one representative. "I didn't feel it was appropriate for me to go to the IAFE when we had such a steep loss in revenue," said Giordano.
Luckily the State Fair Louisiana has had recent annual fairs there had higher attendance and spending and were much less damp. "I am looking into dipping into our reserves, we have enough to pay our bills," said Giordano. "We will be tightening our belts and we will be looking at creative ways to increase revenue."
The creative ways span revising some of the promotions for next year, increasing advance ticket sales prices and similar tweaks - such as making $1 day a $2 day - that will pass some costs on to the consumer but not result in an overall admission price hike. More immediately, Giordano said the fairgrounds will try to increase the number of - and expand the type of -events hosted during the rest of the year.
"There are a lot of markets we will be looking to tap into," Giordano said. "There's been a lot of competition in this area, but there has been increased interested."
He mentioned the fairgrounds has contracted to host a boat show, RV show and a local Harley Davidson convention. Also, a hockey team has leased its coliseum. "It will take us a year, maybe two fully rebound," he said. "We will be making some adjustments, seeing how we can grow the fair, tighten our budgets and work on getting more off-season events."
Weather may have ruined this year's fast, but Giordano's commitment to the fair industry remains undampened. "I'm not looking for a new job because I love the fair business," he said. "I still love the fair business even after a fair like the one we had. I love watching families put their problems to the side and enjoy their time together. There's so much negativity in this world and the fairs are still the best value for affordable family entertainment."