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Change is Good: New Marketing, Ticket Packages and Home-Grown Music Boost 2015 North Carolina Fair

12/14/2015

By Timothy Herrick

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Ticket packages, new promotions, expanded social media and optimum weather added up to a record setting 2015 edition of the North Carolina State Fair. The annual celebration of everything Tar Heel came off without a hitch and had fair organizers gleeful with the results of an event that is said to have begun in 1853.

"We had an amazing fair this year," said Wesley V. Wyatt, Fair Manager, North Carolina State Fair.. "We had 10 and half days of perfect weather, record setting crowds on our two opening days, no infrastructure problems to speak of and a significant increase in our overall attendance contributed to a very successful year."

The overall attendance reached 1,019,732, which included a record first Thursday (50,327) and a record First Friday (90,954).

Beyond Weather
Few states can be as splendid as North Carolina in early Autumn, but while "perfect" weather may make a fair successful, it takes effective marketing and promotions to push attendance to record levels. 

The fair advertising budget - $660,000 - was relatively unchanged from 2014, although some spending allocations shifted more towards digital and online outlets. The media mix break down was television - 38 percent, radio & Pandora - 17 percent; Out of Home - 12 percent; Display and YouTube - 12 percent; Social Media - 8 percent; Mobile - 6 percent; Print - 4 percent; and Search - 3 percent. 

Aside from the percentages, the entire North Carolina approach to spending allocations was overhauled. "We changed how we look at our media buy in 2015," Wyatt explained. "That started with changing how we've always done business. Instead of going with a large agency that would do our media buying and produce our commercials, we broke our RFP into two contracts: one for media buying and one for creative production. This allowed us to broaden our scope of interested parties, and we believe, gave us the best bang for our buck."

Wyatt and his staff realized that this more focused marketing could best be accomplished by smaller companies. "We chose two boutique agencies who could dedicate time to making conscientious buys and outstanding creative.," he said. "With that change, came a difference in how we allocate funds in our buy. We organized by purpose instead of traffic type. We focused on 4 major areas - Branding, Advance Sales, Music and High School and College Students - and bought with purpose against those areas."

Mascot Revival
In addition, the fair expanded its social media presence and leading the charge was a  new mascot - Casey Cardinal - the cardinal is the state bird of North Carolina. 
According to a local news report, the "new mascot" actually "dates back to 1968 when the fair held a contest to create a mascot and Casey Cardinal, a play on the state bird, was chosen from about 2,000 entries."

Over the years Casey Cardinal faded away from fair promotions. According to the North Carolina News & Observer, 10/14/2-15, fair spokesperson Brian Long said "It was fair manager Wesley Wyatt's idea to bring him back… Over time, we'd like people, when they think of the State Fair, to think of Casey Cardinal, and when they think of Casey Cardinal to think of the State Fair."

For a reintroduction of a beloved feathered icon in the second decade of a new century, social media figured heavily. "We added a Snapchat account for Casey Cardinal," said Wyatt. "Since this was an inaugural year for Casey, we concentrated heavily on including him in all of our campaigns, but by far, Snapchat was our best platform for his interactions with fairgoers."

Aside from an creating a high profile platform Casey to perch upon, Wyatt made the social media marketing by the fair more intertwined with the other online resources, especially the fair's website and ticket buying system. "We placed a higher emphasis on social media conversions and worked with our buyers and developers to be able to track from initial introductions to our website through purchase so that we can determine where our fall off is and how to better organize our site for optimal purchase conversion."

New Promotions
This year, the fair eschewed headline entertainment, instead reinforcing the community roots and state boosterism intrinsic to most state fairs by creating the Homegrown North Carolina Concert Series, and making all the concerts free. In addition to using the cost-effective marketing tool of social media - directly building on the followings for local acts created by their own networking efforts - the fair's social media component also targeted the primary users of social media, young millennials. 

Social Media was critical in the music and high school and college brackets of our media plan," said Wyatt. "We used targeted social advertising for each of these areas to promote the benefits, dates and times with specific call-outs for people who self-identify in certain groups. We also ran a fun rolling contest for the last month before the Fair where we gave away tickets, etc. on a different platform each day, driving traffic from one platform to another for a chance to win."
The most effective promotion, according to Wyatt, was a new approach to ticket sales by devising ticket package discounts.  "For the first time we added ticket packages to our cadre of options," Wyatt explained. The new options included a Family 4-Pack, combing 4-gate tickets and a Mega Pass for the entire 11-day run of the fair, and a Mini Pass that gave the bearer access to any four days of the fair."

The North Carolina Fair youth movement was further fueled by the Friday Frenzy promotion,  held on the first Friday of the fair. "This was not a package per se, but it allowed a different way to promote coming out to the fair," said Wyatt. 

The fair offered half-priced ($5) admissions to students with ID. "We promoted Friday Frenzy heavily in Wake County as it was an early release day from school and with church youth groups since we also had a contemporary Christian concert that night," he added. "For church groups, youth could spend $40 and get into the Fair, have unlimited rides and see the concert while still having $1 left over to help cover the cost of bus gas."

Wyatt said that 15,863 student tickets were sold that day, "which directly correlates to the increase in attendance of 17,383 over 2014 and gave us a record breaking day."

2nd Best Ever
The Powers Great American Midways midway at the North Carolina State Fair featured  96 rides, with new rides including: Balloon Fiesta Wheel, Super Cyclone, Crazy Mouse Spinning Coaster, Music Express  and Pirate's Island Interactive Play Port.

According to Wyatt, the most popular rides were: Hit in 2000, RC48 Roller Coaster, Giant Wheel on the Main Midway, Super Cyclone Coaster, and Enterprise. "We added a second unlimited ride wristband day as part of our Friday Frenzy promotion on the first Friday of the Fair," said Wyatt.

Corky Powers of Powers Great American Midway, declared the 2015 North Carolina Fair "the second best in our 10 years at the fair. People were spending on rides and games," said Powers.

A major factor was the new marketing implemented by the fair board. "They really pushed their media differently," Powers said. "They reached out to new people, not catering to those who come every year. There were new customers who came out to enjoy the fair. Their whole approach was different this year."

According to Powers , the new wristband days were very effective. "Fairgoers are getting acclimated to the pay one price, we have seen it more and more in all the county fairs I deal with in the area, and you look at other venues, like amusement parks, and they are more geared towards the pay one price," he said. "Paying $34 to ride our 96 rides, that is a very good deal."  

The North Carolina State Fair not only served as a positive cap to a successful season, but the uptick in spending exemplified  a more positive economy. "Spending was up all summer along," said Powers. "A lot of it has to do with the gasoline prices.  That is huge, psychologically, it puts a few extra dollars into the family budget and people want to finally spend and enjoy themselves."

If the fair is any indication. it seems that North Carolina is finally emerging out of its recessionary doldrums. 

"North Carolinians are feeling more financially secure as can be seen by the significant increase in our attendance figures for this year," said Wyatt". While they are still looking for the best value for their money, and taking advantage of package promotions and gate promotions are part of that, the increase in our attendance points that the state is economically headed "

Homegrown Headliners 
The music entertainment for this year underwent its own local-vore movement. "Our concerts did well," said Wyatt. "We mixed it up in a radical way this year. Where in years past we had paid national act shows, we decided to go with a Homegrown North Carolina Concert Series where all acts had ties to North Carolina and the shows were free."

The fair also utilized more venues within the fairground, including moving the annual Folk Festival into Dorton Arena, and adding "two outdoor music stages that went well also. We believe that the fair is about showcasing the best of North Carolina, and with the extreme competition in the Raleigh market for booking national acts, we believe this format sets the North Carolina State Fair apart from the pack," said Wyatt. 

The fair featured 86 musical acts - not counting the Folk Festival -showcasing more than 900 musician and an eclecticarray of musical genres: Country, Latin, Heavy Metal, Christian, Bollywood and Bluegrass. "We billed the music at the fair this year as an all-encompassing festival for the ears," said Wyatt

Food Changes
The Fair featured  129 independent food vendors - accompanied by a social media promotion that "culminated with a grand prize for the most interesting and best sounding deep fried concoction the respondent could dream," said Wyatt. 
 
Popular cuisine at the 2015 fair included: Deep Fried S'mores, Deep Fried Pop Tarts, Carolina Crab Bites, Deep Fried Jalapeno Pimento Cheese and Bacon Hushpuppies with Sriracha Bang Bang Dipping Sauce, Deep Fried Peanut Butter Pickle. "Our fairgoers are all about anything deep fried," he said. 

"The combinations ran the gamut this year as our vendors work to come up with new ideas to stand out from the pack."

Of course, new ideas were far from being the exclusive domain of the food & beverage segment of this year's North Carolina Fair. Out of the box thinking, innovative ticketing programs and working with new ad and advertising partners resulted in welcome changes to the annual Tar Heel tradition. "We made many changes this year from entertainment to advance sales packages to carnival layout to a new outdoor pavilion in our Heritage Circle area, and without exception, all went to plan making this one of our best years," said Wyatt "I'd say the 2015 North Carolina State Fair exceeded expectations."




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