Amazing what nice weather, an improving economy and a revamped marketing programming - one that includes an expanded social media marketing effort - can accomplish.
The 2015 Arkansas State Fair broke records in attendance and fairgoer spending, infusing this fair with a new vigor that reflects a regional economic resurgence. "We had four days of rain in 2014," said Ralph Shoptaw, General Manager. "But this year we had rain the first day but beautiful weather the remaining nine days. We broke all records including attendance, gate admissions, concert attendance carnival, food and beverage spending."
According to Shoptaw, the robustness of 2015 "proves we have a good product and enough promotion to allow success to happen. "With
our fair witnessing a record year and the fact that patrons were spending money I believe those were pretty good indicators that the economy is improving. Arkansas is again on an upswing. We as a state fair are planning to build on this momentum and will renovate and expand our facilities."
Shoptaw admits that much of his enthusiastic optimism for both the present and the future is the fact the state fair is strengthened by a surging agriculture industry and its close association with a fair infrastructure that includes 70 county fairs and 17 district fairs. "We are a big fair with more than 6,000 entries in livestock and more than 4,000 entries in arts and crafts. The fact people are still coming to the fair to compete says a lot about the popularity of the fair."
He added, "our agriculture industry is huge, it's the biggest industry in the state. We are the number one rice producer in the U.S. and one of the largest poultry producers."
In part because the Arkansas State Fair comes so late in the season, the poultry sector of the fair did not suffer from the avian flu outbreak this year, which out of caution, shut down poultry and fowl exhibited in several states. "We were monitoring it real close, and talked with the state vegetarian and the live poultry federation. We had plans to not have exhibits, but there was not really a danger when it was fair time."
The 2015 Arkansas State Fair received 473,106 attendees, an increase of 14 percent, with two days being record days in attendance. Reinforcing what Shoptaw saw as an upswing in the regional economy, he stated that that overall fair revenue was up 13 percent and per capita spending up by 5 percent.
The fair's advertising budget was $170,000, an increase of about $6,000 over last year. "We still do a lot of print, but not as much, and a lot of radio and television," said Shoptaw. "But social media we expanded this year."
Social media is the most cost effective, even if the impact can not be measured precisely. Social media accounts for only 3 percent of the marketing expenditure of the fair. Also, social media was done primarily in house, but this year it was taken over by the fair's new ad agency, resulting in more than 6 million impressions, according to Shoptaw.
A major factor accounting for this significant boost is that the fair's old advertising company, Heathcott Associates was acquired by CJRW, one of the largest advertising and public relations firms in Arkansas. Not only did this merger mean that the Arkansas State Fair's marketing was now handled by a powerhouse ad agency, but other partnerships emerged. The Arkansas State Department of Parks and Tourism is a CJRW client. "We were able to reach new markets because the ad agency had contacts in the tourism department," said Shoptaw. "The ad agency really did a terrific job."
Nowhere more terrific than with the social media, which included a staff dedicated to "fulltime onsite coverage of the fair," said Shoptaw. "We were able to do so many promotions throughout the course of the fair. Every day we ran a different social media promotion, and presented different sponsors. We never used social media to the extent we did this year, it was unusual for us and it paid off. The new agency did a great job."
Reaching a wider audience that resulted in an attendance increase, the new advertising agency made his year's advertising theme "Arkansas's Biggest Celebration," come true. "We are the biggest celebration in the state and we were able to make that jump. The combined resources of the merger meant more effective marketing, everything from media buys to creative. With social media, having a dedicated team meant the marketing was ongoing, it made a difference."
Other effective promotions had a very local appeal. A regional auto dealership, Arkansas Auto Group, offered free admission tickets for any one who took a test drive of one of their vehicles for sale. The first Monday of the fair was "Dollar Day, that is huge," said Shoptaw. In addition, the fair, which is in close proximity to the state capital building, offers free parking in the capital building's lot and a free shuttlebus to and from the fair. "We had more people participate this year than ever before," said Shoptaw.
For the midway, the fair arranged a partnership with Walgreens and Deggeller Attractions, creating armband discounts. The midway featured, 57 rides, the same as 2014, and Shoptaw said that ride revenue was up 15 percent. Shoptaw said the carnival company added a new Kiddieland area, due to a layout change caused by construction of a new building that leads to the fair's entrance. According to Shoptaw, the construction "took part of our Kiddieland, so we moved it into a new area, which is an offshoot from the midway, which was tremendously successful, and opened the area to independent concessionaires, it created a better flow."
He added that the "Deggellers put in new canopies, all the same color scheme and it was a huge enhancement. They also created more eating areas, and we had bales of hay and pumpkins as decorations."
Headline entertainment is free with gate admission, with this year's line up including: Montgomery Gentry, Eddie Money, Silk, Styx, Toni!Tony!Tone!, Pop Evil, Grand Funk Railroad, Joe Diffie and Naughty By Nature. Unlike some of his colleagues who are re-thinking the headline entertainment because of rising costs and other factors with talent buying, Shoptaw feels that the Arkansas State Fair has found a niche. "They are a big draw," said Shoptaw, adding that Styx and Montgomery Gentry were the more successful headliners in terms of increased attendance.
"This is still a good outdoor concert type fair," said Shoptaw. "We can't afford the really big acts, and we have reapplied revenues to spend more on headliners, but we book the acts that we feel we can achieve a good ROI (return on investment). We work with Meridian Entertainment Group and they do a really good job for us, they know the market and they know the industry."
The fair is careful to draw a range of acts from country to classic rock, "we are getting stronger with the urban market acts, and we are an urban market. The urban acts are not as expensive as some of the country acts have gotten for fairs," said Shoptaw.
Overall talent buying conditions were the same as last year, he said, adding, "costs are continuing to inch up."
Two Foot Dogs
About 40 food vendors served a variety of cuisine to Arkansas fairgoers. The high spending trend evident at this year's fair was most apparent at these concessionaires, with revenue up 22 percent, the highest for any segment. The most popular item was the Two Foot Long Hot Dog, by Petit Jean Meats, "they are also one of our sponsors. It got a lot of attention. We are a food fair, and the two foot wiener was very popular. We're a livestock fair and we have a show food environment."
Other unique Arkansas Fair food offerings included Apple Fries ((strips of apple that have been flour-battered with cinnamon and sugar, fried and served with sauce); Arkansas-shaped peanut patties, Deep-Fried Pickles; Armadillo eggs (bacon-wrapped stuffed chicken breasts); Bacon Bomb.(Hershey's kiss in a brownie ball, covered with chocolate chip cookie dough and peanut butter, rolled in bacon crumbs, deep fried and served with ice cream); Bacon-wrapped Oreos; Indian fry bread; Pig Licker (chocolate dipped bacon); Walking Taco (taco salad in a bag of chips);and Turtle Funnel Cake (standard funnel cake topped with caramel and nuts). Food sales - as well as other areas of the fair - received a weekday boost with what Shoptaw said was the fair's most effective promotion -"Lunch at the Fair" - where during weekdays, parking and gate admission was free from 11 a.m. to 1 p.m.
"What a great ten days we had," Shoptaw said. "We were hoping to set a new attendance record and we got it done. The weather always plays a major role in attendance but I think there were other factors like our great concert line up, our free weekend shuttle service and an increased police presence inside and outside the gates. Our success is only possible with the support of the people of Arkansas. Our patrons took full advantage of the great weather and showed up in record numbers."