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Top-50 Fairs: Innovative Marketing & Improving Economy Boost Industry

1/15/2016

By Timothy Herrick

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Severe rain in the southeast may have negatively impacted some late-season fairs, but overall 2015 turned out to be a robust year for the fair industry. 

Carnival Warehouse's annual top-50 Fair list - which complies the top North American fairs by attendance - found that more than half the fairs in U.S. and Canada - 29 of them, experienced an increase in attendance, with nine fairs racking up record years for attendance. In 2014, only six fairs had record years, with 26 fairs experiencing an upswing. 

A survey of recent Top-50 Lists of the continent's fairs shows that  in spite of this sector being at the mercy of an uncontrollable factor - the weather - the industry has been on a steady upswing. Compared to other sectors of both the overall economy and the entertainment industry, the outdoor amusement business is successfully emerging out of the doldrums of the great recession. 

Top 10 Movers
Wilson County Fair, Texas State Fair, Maryland State Fair, Fort Worth Stock Show & Rodeo, Georgia National Fair, Ohio State Fair, Iowa State Fair, Arkansas State Fair and Wisconsin State Fair.  

"We broke all records including attendance, gate admissions, concert attendance carnival, food and beverage spending," said Ralph Shoptaw, General Manager, Arkansas State Fair. 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."  
 
The 2015 Ohio State Fair attracted 982,305, an increase of 7.2 percent over last year, breaking for the third year in row the 12-day attendance record for the fair and attaining a record opening day. "We always hope for a great year, and this one broke records when it comes to attendance, Midway revenue, concession revenue and more," said Alicia Shoults, Marketing & Public Relations Director, Ohio Expo Center & State Fair. " The fact that our attendance continues to grow, as well as the fact that per capita spending has increased, are a sign of economic resurgence in our community."

More Spending
The most successful fair of the year, the Texas State Fair,  had both a record year and a record increase from one year to the next. The Texas State Fair lasts 24 days, one of the longest fairs of the year, repeatedly making the top spot on the list. The fair utilizes a coupon system, and the 2015 generated in excess of $53.6 million in coupon sales for food and rides, an all-time record, making the event the most successful in its 129-year history. 

Fair attendance increased 22.7 percent compared to the previous year's fair,. "We've never had an increase even approaching this," said Mitchel Glieber, president. "Four out of the top five days in State Fair of Texas history occurred during the 2015 State fair." 

Other fairs  in the top ten of the list are Houston Livestock Show & Rodeo, Minnesota State,  San Antonio Livestock Show & Exhibition, Canadian National Exhibition, San Diego County Fair, Eastern States Exposition, Orange County Fair,  Los Angeles County Fair and Fort Worth Stock Show & Rodeo. 

One of the largest and highest profile fairs of the year is the Minnesota State Fair, often seen as a bellwether fair for an annual state of the industry estimation. The 2015 Minnesota State Fair was the 4th highest attended fair, attracting 1.78 million - last year, the event exceeded 1.8 million attendees. "But we don't count everybody," said Jerry Hammer, Executive Vice President & General Manager, Minnesota State Fair. "We don't count kids and that probably adds another 100,000. We did a record Labor Day, which is the final day of the fair."  

The fair welcomed 178,000 fairgoers on the traditional end of the 2015 summer. While a statistical dip in attendance, revenue was up. Fewer people came but those attending spent more, which "shows that the economy has improved, people are spending more this Summer," said Jim Sinclair, Deputy Fair Manager.

Social Media
The economy however is not the only common factor for the top fairs of the year. New marketing, including an expanded social media platform, were hallmarks of nearly of 2015's leading North American Fairs. 

The Canadian National Exhibition, the largest Canadian fair, known as The Ex had a new general manager, Virginia Ludy,  and an economy, mainly due to dropping fuel costs, heading out of a tailspin. 

As a sign of the long-established appeal of this North Country tradition and revamped marketing and promotion campaign, the 18-day fair hosted 1.5 + million visitors, an increase of "at least 8 percent,"  said Ludy, adding that revenue and per cap spending was up significantly. 

"Our economy is still in recovery, but often that works in our favor since people are more likely to stay home," she said. "This is the best attendance we have had since the late 1990s."

Scooter Corek, Spokesman,  North American Midway Entertainment (NAME), midway provider for The Ex, credited the company's "record year" at this North Country extravaganza to the new marketing and innovative programming implemented by the fair's new head.  "It is really a feather 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. Our advanced sales program at the CNE was probably the best for any fair."   

In spite of a rainy day or two, the Iowa State Fair attendance reached 1,117,398 in 2015, up from 1,015,902 in 2014, and a record turnout. While the fair failed to break the single day record (116,774, set in 2008), "we broke the overall attendance record set in 2008 by 8,248," said Gary Slater, CEO of the Iowa State Fair. 

On the plus side, the fair benefited by an improving economy, a more aggressive social media campaign, an effective grandstand concert line-up, and comfortable weather. Of course, with Iowa being the first state to hold a primary - technically, it's a "caucus" - presidential candidates flock to the fair to meet the early-bird voters, find photo-ops and make news. "It brings more attention to the fair, but that doesn't always translate into higher attendance," said Slater. 

Longer or Shorter 
Many of the top 10 of the top 50 fairs are longer fairs, and one question organizers of these events face is longer better or is less more. 

Unfortunately, there is no clear answer since fairs that both added and subtracted days still had higher attendance than last year. 

The LA County Fair (LACF) moved from the 11th  fair in 2014 up three slots to 9th position, with attendance jumping 6 percent, reaching 1.276,817, and revenue up 11 percent. 

For this west coast event, less was indeed more - the fair ran 19 days (one less weekend - and four less days). A deeper look at the attendance is even more remarkable. According to fair organizers, the 6 percent increase was compared the cumulative 23-day 2014 Fair; the comparative 19-day attendance saw an increase of 21.75 percent from 2014.

 The economic climate  also seemed more cooperative. "I think definitely, based on our increased revenue, that the California economy is in recovery," said Renee Hernandez, Communications & Public Relations Manager. "People bought things at our merchandise vendors, food & beverage is up. More people are coming out, buying food, enjoying the carnival, you can see there's an upswing in the economy."

In addition to a cooperative mother nature, an overhaul of the fair's marketing reaped rewards. "Less days and great weather along with the fair's new marketing campaign meant this year was great," said Chris Lopez, Vice President, Roy Cammack Shows, Inc. "The fair's new marketing was the best that it has been in many years." Lopez added that Rides were up 6 percent, Games 8 percent and food 13 percent. 

The San Diego County Fair added a day to make the fair a 25 day event. The fair did retain its spot as the largest fair in Southern California, although it slipped to from 4th to 6th place. Attendance went up 3.2 percent, but an improvement in consumer confidence loosened up the purse strings for families in the Golden State. 

Overall fair revenues increased by 6 percent, reaching in excess of $2 million. Food sales were up more than 9.23 percent and the midway up 9.59 percent. "We had a tremendous fair," said Fennell.  

Maryland Miracle
The Cinderella story of the year was the Maryland State Fair, an event that did not make the Top 50 last year but in 2015,  came in at 32 with a remarkable 58.2 percent increase in attendance, the highest year-to-year fairgoer jump for fair recent memory. 

Andrew "Andy" Cashman, was the general manager of the fair - the first new general manager for the Maryland State Fair in several decades - and he implemented an innovative marketing campaign, replete with an aggressively expandedsocial media presence, all unified under a "My Maryland State Fair," theme and tagline that strongly appealed to the millennialmarket. 

"We wanted a new look to our advertising, a more modern look, and we used it though our entire campaign," said Cashman. "We wanted something that was very different and fresher, and we wanted to get more 18-to-40 year olds." The new strategy paid off, with an increase of nearly 200,000 attendees over 2014, including multiple record days of for the midway. 

"They did new marketing for the fair, they had great ride promotions." said Heidi Deggeller-Elsperman, Unit Manager for Deggeller Attractions, the carnival company for the fair. "We had a record midway revenue, but you can only attract so many people with just rides. They had different genres of concerts, and they used that racetrack better than I've seen in recent years. Stuff like that is invaluable to a midway, because in the fair business, you have to give a parent two reasons to leave their house on a weekday, not just one." 

Other top-performing fairs emphasized that listening to their customers as a guide to improving the fair was key. The Wisconsin State Fair, presented by U.S. Cellular®, had an attendance of 1,033,053, marking the third straight year attendance exceeded the one million mark, an increase over last year and a record year for the this Wisconsin tradition. While a new social media campaign and improving Midwesterneconomic outlook,  Adam Heffron, Director of Event Services, mainly credited a fairground upgrade, an effective balance of attractions, and surveying fairgoers for keeping the Wisconsin State Fair on its winning streak. "We were able to work on the overall appearance of the fair, and it was a big step over what was here  before," said Heffron. "When you  have the right  mix of rides, food concessions and games of skill,  it makes a difference. We received feedback surveys about how positive fairgoers feel about the changes that have been made."

Other fairs rounding out the Top-50 list were: South Florida Fair, New York State Fair, Western Washington Fair, North Carolina State Fair, Tulsa State Fair Erie County Fair, Calgary Stampede, Iowa State Fair, Arizona State Fair, Wisconsin State Fair, Ohio State Fair, Indiana State Fair, Oklahoma State Fair, K Days,  National Western Stock Show, Pacific National Exhibition,  Miami-Dade County Fair and Expo, Mississippi State Fair, Big Fresno Fair, Kentucky State Fair, California State Fair, York Fair, Maryland State Fair, Wilson County Fair Florida Strawberry Festival, Georgia National Fair, Colorado State Fair, New Mexico State Fair, Alameda County Fair, California Mid State Fair, Kern County Fair, The Great Allentown Fair, Greater Jacksonville Fair, Florida State Fair, and  Kansas State Fair.

Rainy Loss
Perhaps the positive year for fairs was augured by the first major fair of the year, the South Florida Fair, which took place in January, coming in at number 33. 

Rick Vymlatil, CFE, President/CEO South Florida Fair & Palm Beach County Expositions, Inc.,declared the early bird fair "One of the best in our history. We had seven record days for admission revenue and seven record days for ride revenues. I believe that the economy has improved. Gas prices are down considerably and it appears that more people are back in the workforce."

But the late-season rain negatively impacted Pensacola Interstate Fair and the State Fair of Louisiana, both perennial favorites of the Top-50 Fairs. The events were down 40  percent - an estimated 150,000 fairgoers. "We lost every single weekend day," said Chris Giordano, CFE, President & General Manager of the State Fair of Louisiana. But even bad weather cannot vanquish perennial appeal of the unique Americana of the annual fair. The clouds cleared and the sun came out for the final day of the fair, attracting 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. This was a case of pent up demand, people love this fair." 

In addition, Carnival Warehouse also compiles the Top Carnival Companies, with very little change from last year: (1)North American Midway Entertainment (Total Attendance: 8,773,324 - 11 events: CNE, Big E, Calgary Stampede, IN State Fair, IL State Fair, K Days, MS State Fair, KY State Fair, Miami Dade County Fair, SC State Fair, KS State Fair); (2) Ray Cammock Shows (Total Attendance: 6,163,499 - 4 events: Houston Livestock Show, LA County Fair, Orange County Fair, Arizona State Fair); (3) Wade Shows (Total Attendance: 4,427,202 - 5 events: San Antonio Livestock Show, NY State Fair, OK State Fair, South Florida Fair, FL State Fair); (4) Butler Amusements (Total Attendance: 2,037,530 - 4 events: California State Fair, Alameda County Fair, Kern County Fair, Big Fresno Fair); (5) Belle City Amusements (Total Attendance: 2,026,398 - 3 events: Iowa State Fair, Florida Strawberry Festival, Greater Jacksonville Fair); (6) Power's Great American Midways (Total Attendance: 1,811,954 - 3 events: North Carolina State Fair, Duchess County Fair, Great Allentown Fair); (7) Deggeller Attractions (Total Attendance: 1,609,397 - 3 events: York Fair, Arkansas State Fair, Maryland State Fair); (8) Amusements of America (Total Attendance: 1,540,007 - 2 events: Ohio State Fair, Wilson County Fair) (9) Talley Amusements (Total Attendance: 1,248,500 - 1 event: Fort Worth Stock Show & Rodeo); (10) Murphy Brothers Exposition (Total Attendance: 1,200,000 - 1 event: Tulsa State Fair); (11) Strates Shows (Total Attendance: 1,172,635 - 1 event: Erie County Fair); (12) Funtastic Shows (Total Attendance: 1,000,000 - 1 event: Washington State Fair): (13) Reithoffer Shows (Total Attendance: 946,551 - 2 events: Georgia National Fair, NM State Fair; (14) West Coast Amusements (Total Attendance: 678,193 - 1 event: Pacific National Exhibition); (15) Crabtree Amusements (Total Attendance: 500,207 - 1 events: Colorado State Fair; (16) Fiesta Shows (Total Attendance: 485,000 - 1 event: Topsfield Fair) and (17) Davis Enterprises (Total Attendance: 428,807 - 1 event: California Mid State Fair).  


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