The 76th New Jersey State Fair fell victim to the record heatwave that plagued much of the Northeast in August. The 10-day fair usually averages attendance of 125,000 according to Gary Larson, Manager, Sussex County Fairgrounds/New Jersey State Fair & Sussex County Farm & Horse Show, but the 2016 attendance was below average, although he declined to give exact figures.
"The heat was oppressive, but we had great opening days," said Larson. "The last few days of the fair we had the real hot weather, but before then, people were coming out."
The 2016 edition of this Garden State event was also Larson's first at the helm - Larson has a background as a special education teacher, but has been a participant and volunteer at the fair for about 30 years. The fair also switched fr
om using an advertising agency to producing all its marketing in-house. With these major internal changes in place, the fair was overcoming challenges well before opening day and the subsquent summer scorcher. But even with high-risk changes and uncooperative weather, "I feel we had a very successful fair," said Larson. "The opening day's attendance was above average. Everything ran smoothly at the fair."
"It was the closing weather that hurt the business," said Rick Reithoffer, President and CEO, Reithoffer Shows. "The first weekend, the weather was in the 80s and the humidity was not intolerable. But then we had that heavy heat, high 90s and 95 percent humidity, it was really unbearable. That hurts attendance, attendance drives the rides gross. People were coming out more at night, when things cooled off a little."
Reithoffer said that as a result, midway revenue was down by 13-15 percent. "Usually rain is the weather problem, but here it was the heat."
Reithoffer Shows has been the carnival company at this event for 15 years, and last year signed a 10-year contract that begins next year. "They do a very professional job and it's a beautiful fairgrounds. People think of New Jersey as industrial, like Newark and the Turnpike, but this area is very rural, it's in the mountains. We have seen deer and bear on the grounds during off hours. It's a beautiful facility, and a lot of the fair is relegated to their horse show [Sussex County Farm and Horseshow] which draws in a lot of people."
The Reithoffer Shows New Jersey State Fair Midway featured 40 rides, including a brand new Music Express ride and a children's ride, the Sky Racer. The most popular ride was the Giant Wheel, "the crowds love the wheel here," said Reithoffer. Families with children have become a growing customer segment at the fair, and Reithoffer has catered to this community with a revamped Kiddieland, which included increasing their family and children's ride complement to almost half (18 children rides) the midway and a grounds and layout modification. The Kiddeland area is now in the meadow-like center of the midway. The adult rides surrounded the children's outdoor amusement center in a concentric circle like formation.
"We developed the new Kiddieland meadowland with the fair," said Reithoffer. "Moms and pops comprise a lot of the crowd at this fair. We added more covered rest areas, where parents can watch their children on the rides. It worked our great."
The new design - with a ring of adult rides encircling the Kiddeland - makes for a more accessible midway while still segregating the youngest fairgoers away from potentially rowdier elements. According to Reithoffer, this layout was made possible by moving the carnival company trailers into a more secluded location on a hill.
"The fair continues to grow," said Reithoffer. "It is really the premier fair in New Jersey. The grounds and parking crew are fabulous, they have a great management, very professionally run event. Their signage is second to none."
Reithoffer also noted that midway related promotions by the fair were effective. "They have been running a mega-pass for years, which includes gate admission and a ride bracelet good for any day of the fair, which has been really great and grew this year," he said.
Another promotion that helped lessen the heat wave's negative impact was pre-fair group sales. "They have a great program for group sales to camps in the areas, that's all day action. They came out even in the heat."
The promotion and marketing underwent the fair's most dramatic transformation. Instead of hiring an advertising agency, the entire program was brought in house, for a savings of approximately 35 percent, according to Larson. The savings did not mean an expansion of ad placements, but more fiscal responsibility. "We stayed within budget for the first time in years," said Larson. "We came in under budget."
No staff additions to ensure the fair's marketing objectives were made. "Everything is done through committee. We are strongly based on volunteerism, and without that we would not have a fair at all. We used our own creativity, we have very talented people with an advertising background who volunteered their time."
Billboards are the most effective advertising medium for the fair and the in-house team simplified those messages. "We made our advertising easier to understand, with simple images like a cow, horse and Ferris Wheel, and just the fair and the dates, it is very quick to recognize. The billboards are placed throughout the tristate area," said Larson.
Although a makeover that freshens up a well established brand is usually welcomed, the benefit of bringing marketing in-house was the streamlining of the creative process, giving the fair more flexibility and a more direct avenue of communication between decision making committees and the creative staff implementing those decisions. This advantage was most apparent in the social media marketing by the fair. According to Kathy Cafasso, Advertising & Learning Center, Sussex County Fairgrounds/New Jersey State Fair & Sussex County Farm & Horse Show, bringing the marketing in-house enabled "gaining better control over answers provided to people as we have the facts at our fingertips."
Before, contracting with a outside agency caused time delays, which undermined the immediacy social media brings to the fair. "Our marketing company had to check with us frequently before posting. "Social media requires constant checking. It allows us to get breaking info up and out quickly."
According to Larson, the fair dispensed with headline entertainment about 10 years ago. "There is just too much competition from venues, like NJPAC and the Meadowlands," he said.
"We did not have entertainment on a stage that was big time this year," he said.
The biggest entertainment draw for the fair was its Demolition Derby, said Larson, and of course the horse show, which is actually four years older than the state fair. "The Demolition Derby is very big. We also have a zipline and Tractor Pull that is very effective in brining in people.
Cafasso added, "our diving dogs were very popular in the Family Entertainment area."
The attitude of the New Jersey Fair is the fair itself and all the activities is the entertainment value of event, not who is on the stage. "Our fair is an economical way for families to enjoy the entertainment of the fair," said Larson. "Our tickets are low, $13, and for Sussex County residents, they get a $4 discount. Veterans can come free to the fair. We have an array of entertaining activities at the fair. Consumers have choices and we are one of the best entertainment values."
By offering an agricultural and equestrian programming, the New Jersey State Fair appeals to an overlooked segment of population in New Jersey. While the rest of the country may be surprised that New Jersey still has rural spaces and traditions - the state is more than just Bruce Springsteen songs and Sopranos episodes - the fair has modified its programming to keep in tune with the current farming realities. "Both northwest and southwest Jersey have a lot of agriculture," said Cafasoo. "The New Jersey State dairy farming got more expensive, farmers have turned to smaller animals - goats, sheep - and different animals - ostriches and alpacas."
She added that Sussex County is "one of the top five counties for number of 4-H clubs, many who are livestock based. The number of horses in the county has replaced the number of cows. We have had to make some adjustments in our livestock shows to keep them competitive by including other counties and states. In addition, our agricultural committee works to highlight agriculture with displays such as the milking parlor, barn tours, rare breed animals and ag museum."
The fair showcased 50 food vendors. The heat hurt sales of food as it negatively impacted revenue across the board. "Most vendors were on target or higher for the first six days, those were really good days," said Larson. "The last four days with the oppressive heat sales were down. But there are vendors who have been coming to the fair for years, so they understood.
He added that Empanadas were new to the fair, and did "very well," as did a new vendor, Soda City, where fairgoers could customize their own soda flavors. Nonprofit groups, such as 4-H, Kiwanis and Rotary Club, "also had food stands and they are always popular."
For his freshmen year in the captain seat of the fair, Larson was most surprised about "how many moving parts there are at the fair. All those things keep moving during the fair. It is a well oiled machine. I really spent most of the time experiencing and observing the fair. You have to learn from the people you are working with, because no matter what they do at the fair, it is special and unique and that's make the fair a different experience."
Fair organizers and stakeholders are still in the process of evaluating the heat-impacted 2016 New Jersey State Fair, and Larson said that he will be making some changes moving forward, although most will not be announced in the near future. However, one improvement for 2017 he did mention was creating a designated drop off area. "There are a lot of teenagers and young people whose parents drop them off at the fair and the way it is now ties up traffic. It could be a dangerous situation. If we had a safe zone where people could be dropped off, it would smooth traffic. We could also use it for Uber and taxi cabs."
Any advice to impart for future fair managers that he learned during the fair? "The piece of wisdom I learned is not to micromanage. Let people do what they're good at."