The State Fair Meadowlands in New Jersey celebrated its 30th anniversary in 2016, which prompted Al Dorso, president of State Fair Event Management, to increase his advertising budget by about $25,000 to $475,000.
Like many fairs, this Garden State extravaganza has allocated marketing funds away from print to newer mediums - and for Meadowlands that increase targeted an old medium that has been made new again - digitized billboards. The State Fair Meadowlands is held on the Meadowlands Sports Complex, accessible to the New Jersey Turnpike and other highways and just like classic Bruce Springsteen songs, cars are still a way of life for the target demographic of the fair.
Of the advertising budget, Dorso always kee
ps aside about $10,000 for any last minute opportunities to promote the fair. If you can recall way back in June, New Jersey's Governor, Chris Christie, after he dropped out of the presidential primary race, made public his support for Donald Trump, the presumptive Republican presidential candidate when the Meadowlands Fair was imminent.
At the same time, Christie was being considered for the #2 spot on the GOP ticket. Nationwide, the presidential race has been a daily headline grabber for at least a year, but in the New York/New Jersey metro region, Christie and Donald Trump were suddenly even more dominant than usual in this media saturated part of the country.
Trump and Christie may be polarizing figures - people either hate or support them - but the fact is everybody knows them, their every tweet seems to be newsworthy - led to inspiration.
Dorso decided to co-op a famous Trumpism while also playing off of Christie's very public relationship with the Donald. He purchased additional digital space that that ran with a new message - "Make New Jersey Great Again."
"I'm a creative guy," he said. "We had a set schedule of advertising, but I decided to spend our reserve on last minute billboards with Make New Jersey Great Again."
The audience who sees these billboards numbers in the millions. In addition, local news outlets also noticed and a few humorous press reports reported on the State Fair Meadowlands having some welcomed fun at the expense of national politics. "It made the news, we got some press on it," he said. "That is always worth more than any advertising or PR. Any time you can break through the static it's a good thing."
It was also evident that digital billboards have become an effective medium. "More eyes see the billboards, and with the digital you can change them. So the guy who drives by the same billboard everyday to work sees that it is a different message today than it was yesterday. I think that has more of an impact than other advertising these days. The billboards never get static, and you can put multiple messages to promote the fair."
The changing media landscape and the inherent nature of new media also were contributing factors avoiding potentially negative publicity. A fight broke out between teenagers at the fair at about 12:30 AM and a fairgoer taped it and put it on Facebook, receiving upwards of a million likes, according to Dorso.
But how viral is viral? The public relations company Dorso contracts with suggested immediately issuing a press release. His cooler head prevailed, seeing that the tape lasted 30 seconds and in reality, not much longer. Security handled the situation quickly and professionally, and while it made fun viewing, it was not a situation. "The kids just danced around, no one was hurt, within seconds of starting it ended," he said. "A press release would have just brought more attention with it. And the thing with social media, is that even if it gets a big audience, it disappears fast too, people go on to something else."
He added, that the following days - the weekend, "were huge, had a great turn out. Nobody was talking about the video at all."
Rain & Economy
Clever marketing cannot make up for bad weather, it can only minimize its impact. Fair attendance took a dip from the previous year, mainly due to rain, although several bright spots ensured a successful event, which ran for 17 days.
For example, the second Friday was a lost cause due to rain, and the rain also marred the July 4th closing day - but the Sunday before had an "excellent day" of 33,0000, and there was another high day of 44,000, but he cautioned, "you have to watch it, because you don't want too long a wait for the rides or the food, you want a manageable and comfortable fair."
Dorso mentioned that the New Jersey economy has gotten better compared to last year, but he said the improvement was mainly incremental. "Unemployment is still high around here, and incomes aren't raising," he said. "Families aren't spending like they were before the recession."
One indicator - perhaps a counter-intuitive metric - was that the discounted fair nights - which are also weekday nights - were not well attended. "People are saving their money for the weekends, when they have a big day at the fair. They are not coming to the fair twice, they plan their weekends. The good days we were way up, but the special discount days were not drawing them up."
In celebration of the 30th anniversary, the concert line up for the fair was heavy on 80s-oriented bands, both original and tribute bands , acknowledging the decade when the first State Fair Meadowlands was born. Acts included: Trixter and Riff - two New Jersey based bands who had their earliest success during the Reagan era - and Mike Delguidice & Big Shot — Celebrating the Music of Billy Joel (the ensemble features members of Billy Joel's back-up band); Gypsy- A True Stevie Nicks Experience; and Rubix Kube, an everything 80s tribute band, whose show is entitled "The Eighties Strike Back Show."
Returning again was Sirius XM presents, "Cousin Brucie's Palisades Park Reunion IV," which featured stars of yesteryear: Bobby Rydell, The Fireflies, Passions, The Mello-Kings, and The Supergirls Group- featuring members of The Exciters, The Cookies, The Jaynetts, The Hearts, The Raindrops, and Reparta & The Delrons.
Palisades Amusement Park was a legendary theme park, beloved by NJ/NY baby boomers until its closure in the 1970s and Cousin Brucie has been a DJ presence on New York area radio since the early 1960s. The event also included the 50s Forever Car Show, featuring vintage autos and trucks from the '40s, '50s and '60s.
What may seem like a merely using nostalgia to attract a niche audience is actually an effective promotional tool. As Dorso pointed out, not only does Cousin Brucie still inspires a loyal following, "it brings about 1,800 people to the park, who normally wouldn't come to the fair. Yes, most of them are grandparents but guess what, they come with their grandkids and those kids ride the rides and spend."
The show is broadcast on the radio, and "he repeats that show five times on the radio and over the 17 days of the fair, he is constantly promoting the fair. That is exposure we don't have to spend for."
The fair featured about 60 food vendors - although some have multiple stands - "if there's one food trend I've notice this year is bacon, bacon, bacon. Everything is wrapped in bacon," he said. "Corn dogs wrapped in bacon were very popular."
But sometimes presentation can be as important as the fair cuisine. At the last minute, a food stand had to drop out and instead of finding a new vendor, the existing vendor adjacent to the cancelled spot offered to rent the spot, but instead of bringing in another food preparation unit, the vendor extended the fence line and added tables. "I thought he was crazy, but his sales were up more than 30 percent," he said. "He was a smart guy."
Food & Beverage sales were generally either the same or up compared to 2015, but Dorso said several food vendors had "their best fair ever, up about 25 percent."
While many of the vendors renew their contracts, all agreements are only for a one year term. As what he describes as a courtesy, he always features about five or six local food vendors, which he describes as a "courtesy," to regional food vendors. But this local representation is both a proving and training ground. Vendors who want to come back, "have to upgrade. I tell them what they need, like signage, an awning, flags, pictures of the product. They have to be able to produce. They usually are not up to par, but they have a good product and did well enough to want to upgrade."
But the idea is not just to do one state fair in the Meadowlands. "They will get a few spots on the fair circuit, and some of them can do very well, and that is nice to see. But you can't just go from the street fair to a state fair. I tell them they need to upgrade and what they have to do, and about only 5 percent do it and come back and go on to other big fairs. That's always nice to see, the vendors who aspire to do more. They go from a tent operation to a better tent operation to a professional trailer with great signage."