Weather may be a determinant factor when it comes to fair attendance, but attendance does not have to be the determining factor in the success and sustainability of a fair.
An excruciating heat wave hindered the Delaware State Fair, causing a 15 percent drop in attendance. The clever marketing tagline – A Slice of Summer – invoked the fair season and traditions, but unfortunately summer arrived with more than a slice – high humidity, hot days and some thunderstorms.
Hot Summer Fun
Bill DiMondi, General Manager could not remember a heat wave this long and intense lasting for the majority of the fair. "Perhaps our slogan should have been revised to say find your 'slice of hot summer fun' in order to be more accurate," he said, jokingly, adding that
"With a fair or major outdoor event being held on the Del-Mar peninsula during the last 10 days of July, you expect extremes in weather, however, this year was clearly one for the records."
The 2016 Delaware State Fair attracted 262,587 fairgoers to the fair, down 15 percent from last year. Optimum summer weather led to a record 2015 for the fair, but the 2016 edition saw a steady stream of National Weather Service-issued heat advisories and experienced heat indices in excess of 100 degrees for seven out of the 10 days.
According to the fair, RealFeel temps peaked at 114 degrees on Monday, July 25th and violent thunderstorms raked through the fairgrounds on Thursday, July 28th, the same day that in nearby Maryland a tornado was reported in in Talbot County and a water spout was seen off the beaches in Fenwick Island and Ocean City. The rain cooled things down, and the closing Friday and Saturday drew close to record setting crowds.
"We were prepared for the heat", DiMondi said. "With the cooperation of Wade Shows, the carnival provider, a whole bunch of food vendors on the grounds and all our competitive exhibit departments, we created many shaded spots for families to rest. Cool zones with patron seating opportunities in many of the air-conditioned exhibit buildings were prepared and identified for use by overheated patrons looking to cool down and rehydrate."
While every fair hopes for a cooperative mother nature – the Delaware State Fair had optimum weather for a record breaking year in 2015 – more importantly, fairs must create a solid operation that can withstand the lows as well as maximize the highs.
In spite of the dip in attendance, an improving economy, an entertainment line-up that defied current booking trends, new marketing and a successful push for increased sponsorships both softened the attendance hit and strengthened the future of the fair.
"We continue to stay the course," said Danny Aguilar, Assistant General Manager. "We put on a great fair and it was a fun fair. We get 72 percent of our attendees from Delaware, but we are getting folks from Maryland and Pennsylvania and our State Department of Tourism tells us we are one of the largest, if not the largest entertainment destination in the region."
Sponsorships were up 17 percent over last, a metric indicating that Delaware State Fair is a recognizable brand that business both want to be associated it and that they see the event as a marketing opportunity.
Of course, it helps when the fair takes a proactive and innovative approach.
Driving this increase in sponsorships was a new platform that encouraged fair support from a wider array of regional businesses.
The fair implemented a centrally located, highly visible 16' x 10' Jumbotron that showed promotional clips of attractions and things to do at the fair, interspersed with 15 and 30 second commercials (priced $995 and $595 respectively). The costs was competitive with local radio and advertising rates, and the clips rotated at least 12 times per day.
"We had a great response and increased the number of sponsors," said Danny Aguilar, Assistant General Manager. "We were able to get more local businesses and community members who otherwise could not afford to sponsor the fair. We placed the Jumbotron in a well-traveled area, near our food court, where people will sit and eat. "
Another sponsorship opportunity as well as additional revenue stream was the VIP Loft, a new two story observation structure for concerts and other events, offering great views, a private cash bar and restrooms – essentially all the amenities of private box seats (even private parking!) – the VIPers also have their own premium seats. While some tickets were sold individually, the new VIP observation deck was mainly used for corporate parties and group ticket sales, allowing for corporate parties of about 150.
"It allowed companies to host a party at the fair," he said. "It was a great opportunity."
The fair "also created other sponsorship assets, jugglers and other ground acts would mention sponsors. It doesn't pay for the act, but it helps off-set the cost of the acts. We also added about five more grounds acts, like X Pogo, which is the traditional pogo stick on steroids and appeals to the millennials. We paired sponsors with the acts, and incorporated the sponsors into the acts."
More 1,000 hours of sponsored ground acts were programmed throughout the fair, and include The Procrastinators and Scott's Future of Magic Show; Circus Hollywood; racing pigs, two petting zoos, and Catherine Hickland, the world renowned hypnotist.
The Delaware State Fair remains committed to popular entertainment, featuring Jake Owen to kick off the fair a day early in a preview show. Besides the Monster Truck Meltdown and Manlove Auto Parts' Demolition Derby, perennial favorites of fairgoers, the M&T Bank Grandstands featured such acts as Jeff Dunham, Little Big Town with Kristian Bush, Alabama, a Contemporary Christian Night, with For King & Country and Sidewalk Prophets. Most shows had individual sponsors.
"The M&T Bank Grandstand continues to play a crucial role in bringing nationally recognized entertainment to the Delmarva Peninsula," said Aguilar, in an official statement. "The Fair is extremely proud and genuinely appreciative in announcing the successful conclusion of discussions with M&T Bank that will result in M&T Bank signing on for another 5 years as title sponsor of the M&T Bank Grandstand."
"We have sponsored the State Fair for nearly 25 years, and this new agreement will extend our support through 2021. M&T looks forward to continuing our role in bringing top-level entertainment to the M&T Bank Grandstand and enriching the quality of life of hundreds of thousands of fans who come from all over the Delmarva Peninsula," said Nick Lambrow, President of M&T Bank's Delaware Region. "As the leading bank in the state, we are proud to support The Delaware State Fair, the single largest attraction in Delaware."
Two other notable shows were Jam Band stalwarts Blues Traveler, who closed the fair but also headlined its second annual Craft Beer Festival, which featured 60 separate craft brews from 20 different breweries, and the first ever Delaware State Fair appearance by Delaware's most famous Rocker, George Thorogood and the Destroyers (the original incarnation of this band was George Thorogood and the Delaware Destroyers).
According to reports: "Never having played below the canal, Thorogood indicated his delight in playing the fair noting that it took him nearly 40 years to get downstate. During his encore, Thorogood said that he would love to continue an annual tradition of playing at the fair."
According to Aguilar, while entertainment booking is still a challenge, it improved for the fair this year. Two major festivals in the region, the Live Nation-produced DelawareJunction and Red Frog-produced Big Barrel country music festival, were cancelled this year. "This opened up some more country music for us," said Aguilar.
"We had backed off from country, but this year country music returned. There is still competition, but with the two country music festivals folding this year, it did increase some availability of acts for the fair."
The booking picture may have improved, but it is still far from rosy. "It's a sellers market," he said. "It's very frustrating, you have to book earlier and the acts are saying yes later. It's more expensive. We're already booking for 2017 and we've noticed an increase in prices of about 10 percent."
Nonetheless, "fairgoers have always viewed entertainment as part of the Delaware State Fair experience, and we are the premier entertainment destination for Delaware. We work harder, and we look for more partnerships."
One example was the Contemporary Christian concert, where the fair partnered with a local Christian radio station. "It was the fourth year in the row, and they have built the audience for this night."
And in a heat-plagued outdoor event, the night time shows attracted fairgoers. "When the heat is excessive, people stay away during the day, but will still come out at night to see a show."
The fair featured 300 food vendors, and revenue for Food & Beverage suffered along with the heat. But the energy in this segment was high, with some attention grabbing trends and national media exposure. Aguilar said that the fairgoers tended to prefer traditional – deep fried and/or on a stick – fair cuisines, although he did notice some new items. "The Funnel Cake Burger, which was a spin off the donut burger, I hadn't seen before and that was very popular. Scrapple Quesadillas were new too. There were doing some new things with Quesadillas this year, very unique. People wanted food that they can carry and are easy to transport."
He also noticed that "shark bites and gator bites, which are unique to fairs, were popular."
The fair and its abundance of fair cuisine vendors also received some extra attention. According to Aguilar, the Food Network program, Carnival Eats filmed segments at the fair. "They were here for a few days, and they showcased eight different dishes.
Surviving Attendance Declines
The midway at the Delaware State Fair was provided by Wade Shows and featured 58 rides.
The fair reported that the gross was down 16 percent compared to 2015. Frank Zaitshik, Wade Shows founder and president took the long-view when assessing the 2015 Delaware event.
"We've been at the Delaware State Fair since 1998 and over the course of that time the revenue has grown grow dramatically, he said. "But you arealso aware that in Delaware you always have a chance of extremely oppressive heat. Last year had extremely good weather, but when you have days a lot of excessive heat, it definitely affects rides."
In addition to taking a down fair in stride, Zaitshik pointed out that the fair has "a very enlightened fair management, and in recent years they made a lot of great changes in marketing and capital improvements and that has contributed to a lot of the successes of the fair."
Wade Shows saw what Zaitshik described as a "slight uptick" in advanced wristband sales. Also, due to some fairground improvements, the midway had a more "creative layout, and "we brought in a few new pieces, including the Delusion and the Super Cyclone, which hasn't been there in a while, and that was very well received. The perennial favorite was the Giant Wheel."
The economy in the Northeast and Mid-Atlantic states remains sluggish, although Zaitshik said that there are some positive signs.
"In an economic downturn, certain components feel it the most. The carnival is the carnival, people are going to come to the fair for the value, and they want to ride the rides. But they do not come for multiple visits. The food and the games suffer during an economic downturn. I don't see that this year. In Delaware because of the weather, we got the good, the bad and the ugly, but the games and food were down proportionally. This indicates to me that maybe the economy is not as bad as it has been."