Good weather, an intensive grassroots-based marketing campaign, and a few fairground upgrades, not only combined to make the 2016 St. Joseph County 4-H Fair in South Bend, Indiana better than the 2015 edition of the event, but helped bring this county fair's goal to the next level.
"It may not be the biggest, but it is one of the biggest county fairs that we play," said Danny Huston, president, North American Midway Entertainment (NAME). "We've been playing this fair for 25 years and is has grown every year, they really do a good job."
This year's fair - which also was the 90th anniversary of the event had a 15 percent increase in attendance - exceeding 155,000 - and record revenue for the midway.
"The economy is better this year, it is very strong, you
could feel the better attitude people have towards spending," said Jim Caldwell, President of fair board, St. Joseph County 4-H Fair . "We had a little rain, but we dealt with it. We had some hot weather, but it was not blow you away hot. It was perfectly comfortable weather to come out to the fair." He added, "We had great ground acts daily shows. Our Monster Truck Shows and Demolition Derbies were very popular. We increased the number of vendors, not only food stands but other merchants. Our attendance was up, our ride income was up substantially, we had a great fair."
With all the indicators moving in the right direction, the St. Joseph County 4-H fair had an exceptional 2016 - and while a cooperative mother nature is always a dominating factor - the fair has been successfully evolving into a major Indiana outdoor event for the past three years. The turning point, according to Caldwell, was receiving a grant, which in itself wasn't huge - about $5,000 - but led to a re-imagining of what this fair could be.
"We began to reevaluate what we do and since then have been more professional and detail oriented," he said. "The grant gave us an opportunity to advertise more, look at different ways of doing things. It triggered a revaluation of how we do business. We may not be the biggest county fair in the state, but we are one of the biggest and one of the oldest. We have been doing a lot to the fair, in terms of marketing, our attractions and fairgrounds, in recent years, and it is paying off."
A Bigger Local
What were some of the new marketing initiatives? Casting a wider net was one strategy. "We advertise in a bigger radius from the fairgrounds," said Caldwell. "Our fair runs over the weekend of July 4th, when a lot of businesses closed down, and we give them great value for their dollar. We started advertising in a two hour drive from the fair grounds. We advertised more in other counties than our own this year."
While many fairs - even smaller fairs - expanded their market reach, what is unique about St. Joseph County 4-H Fair was how old school they went about it. "Indiana has a lot of small towns, and most of the towns still have newspapers. We did daily advertising in those papers, changing the ads every day, offering discounts and that worked very well."
The advertising budget is about $65,000, said Caldwell, which is an increase of about $15,000 compared to three years ago. He added, "we do a broad range of advertising, and we do a great deal of online advertising, and radio and TV, but we are committed to local newspapers."
The fair also implemented a return visitor initiative. The fair offered half-price admission - $4.00 - for anyone coming back to the fair. "We advertise over the PA system not only everything going on the fair, but before each show we promote what is upcoming and that plants the seed. So, at the start of the Demolition Derby, we go into the spiel about what is going on, and encourage them to comeback."
He said that the number of return victors "climbs each year, it is in the thousands," and estimated the number to be 8-10,000.
What seems most striking about this county fair's marketing dynamic is its grass roots ingenuity. In addition to the local press preference, the fair had several LED Traffic Message Boards - the kind that warn drivers of delays or detours - which they borrowed from the county, then placed at strategic highway bypasses. According to Caldwell, the fair is only two blocks from a main interstate - an easy to find and convenient location. "With these signs we are marketing our fair before and during the fair. Those signs cover a large swath of drivers, especially those commuting to work. They see our message every day."
Ironically, what had proved not to be cost-effective were billboards, which Caldwell said the fair has almost totally eliminated. But this form of outdoor advertising was replaced with another medium - Yard Signs. While it may not get more grassroots than a sign literally on somebody's lawn - and Caldwell admitted he got the idea from some political campaigns he's been involved with - more than 1000 signs were placed for the fair, and the program both strengthened the community involvement with the fair while also getting fair messaging out to a much wider market.
"They were oversized yard signs, big and bright. They said support the local 4-H fair, we were able to get people to place the signs in two other counties, mainly through their involvement with the fair, or their relationship with somebody in 4-H or at the fair. The signs go out in the boonies as well as major thoroughfares. You get more bang for the buck then with billboard signs, and it cost 80 percent less than billboards."
The local media coverage of the fair this year was also extraordinary: on any given day there can been anywhere from three to seven live broadcasts from the fair. "One Friday we had 12 media outlets broadcasting from the fair," he said.
The fair goes out of the way to encourage media coverage and what is essentially free advertising. "We want them to be here and we work to accommodate them. We give reporters and crews a golf cart, we help them get the stories they want. Also, July, especially the 4th of July, is a slow news week. The fair is a great story and an easy one for them to cover."
The fair built a parade float this year - which Caldwell described as "a professional float, very colorful" featuring a motorized Ferris Wheel, bubbles and the fair's new mascot - a cow called Clover. Beginning on Saint Patrick's Day parade, the float was featured at nearly every parade in the Hoosier State until the fair's opening day. "It was a big hit, we would give out fliers at every parade, this really spread the word."
With barely a moo of complaint, Clover went from float to onsite promotional duties to being featured celebrity at the fair for photo-ops and selfies with an adoring public. "The mascot was a big hit, Clover was available for pictures. The kids loved Clover," said Caldwell.
Besides its bovine star, custom characters are popular at the fair, which includes a "Munchkins on the Midway," which Caldwell described as a special day for toddlers, "we had a lot of custom characters, and opened the fair early and had the Kiddieland opened just for them. It was a way for parents and their little ones to come and enjoy the fair, it was a tremendous day."
More fairgoer friendly amenities were added this year. "We changed the layout and foot print to the fairgrounds, to make it a little more inviting, " said Caldwell. "We added more shaded areas, and then pushed some things into the shade areas, and we changed the layout to encourage visitors to our Nature Center. The fairgrounds are more welcoming and inviting. We added 75 more picnic tables this year, where our guests and go sit and relax, recoup their energies. More people linger and they stay longer at the fair."
"It's a beautiful fairground," said Huston. "They updated the midway layout so we had an easier time and they added more comfort stations for people at the midway. It is one of the top fairgrounds aesthetically that we play. The added seating definitely had people staying longer."
The NAME midway showcased about 40 rides, including the St. Joseph premier of the carnival company's new Crazy Mouse. Hutson said revenue increased 20 percent, "we definitely had a record year at this fair," said Huston.
The addition of picnic tables meant the fair now had two picnic pavilion areas. The layout of the fair improved pedestrian traffic flow through the midway into the food and other vendors, creating the more fairgoer friendly atmosphere.
The fair showcased 50 food vendors, and fair cuisine was mainly staples such as Elephant Ears and Corn Dogs, although Caldwell pointed out that two vendors serving Cajun and Louisiana styled foods were "new and very popular," he said.
A food trend he noticed at this year's event was an increase in healthier options. "I saw more salads, mainly vendors who added salads to their menu."
The St. Joseph County 4-H Fair has found that the headline music entertainment is no longer cost-effective or as big a draw. "We have moved away from big concerts. They do not pay off. They do not bring the people through the gates. There are so many venues in our area, with air conditioning, that is hard to compete and the costs have gotten out of control. We've recognized that fact, the amount of outlay of cash for these actsis not worth it."
Apparently what the grandstand customer wants is spectacle. Three Dog Night was the sole headline grandstand music act - although the smaller Zolman Stage feature acts such as Linda Lee and Starheart - and comedians Brett Eastburn and Jon Reep also played the grandstand. But the main grandstand entertainment was spectacle, including: 600 Micro Sprint Race; St. Joseph County Sheriff's Posse Rodeo; Derby Cross & Full Size Cars Derby (Demolition Derby), Monster Truck Throwdown; Front Wheel Drive and Powder Puff Derby.
"People can see concerts anywhere, but they can really only see demolition derbies and monster trucks at the fair," he said. "We also have two nights of rodeo. We do whole lot of fireworks. We've really transformed our event arena. It's really about giving the customer what the customer wants."