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2016 Dutchess County Fair: Attendance Down, Midway Spending Up

10/3/2016

By Timothy Herrick

Photo courtesy of Dutchess Fair Facebook

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The Dutchess County Fair in the Hudson Valley section of New York State had an attendance dip of about 8 percent, yet spending, especially midway revenue, increased by 7 percent. Even per-capita spending was up 2 percent. 

Attendance for this fair was still robust - 362,383 - and spending did not seem impacted by the year-to-year decline in fairgoers. "Our vendors did very well this year," said Andy Imperati, General Manager

Why this counter intuitive result?  

Pay-One-Price

Corky Powers, president of Powers Great American Midway, said one factor the midway spending outpaced attendance was a strong ride footprint and aesthetic improvements to the midway that induced the desire to linger. v>

"People stayed on the midway longer," Powers said. "we are always trying to improve and expand the comfort areas. You bring families there for the rides, and the moms and dads and the grandparents, they want to rest. You create an atmosphere they want to stay in and when they stay they spend more money."

In addition to making improvements and upgrading the quality of comfort areas on the midway, Powers' Great American Midways midway featured 52 rides, including three new rides: Sea Ray, Jungle Jeeps & Mega Motorcycles. 

But perhaps the biggest boost to revenue was the first pay-one-price wristband day in the history of the Dutchess County Fair, which was first held in 1842. Powers admitted that he had been pushing for this addition to the promotional offerings by the fair. "We do Pay-One-Price at nearly all the other fairs we play," said Powers. "This fair was an exception until this year."

To test the Dutchess County market for this promotion, the decision was made to feature the bargain midweek - on a Wednesday - an "off-day" for the fair, said Powers. "It turned out great, it is usually not the best day for us. I think people came out more, because they thought the fair wouldn't be as crowded, and they would get a good deal. There's a lot of opportunities."

The midway benefited from a $25 Ride All Day Wristband day. "We've been talking about it for three or four years with Corky Powers", said Imperati."The fairs around here all have Pay One Price, so in December we finally decided to try."

He added, "it wasn't a high priority, but we talked it over with the board and finally decided to try it."

Although the Pay-one-Price midweek test case led to the biggest Wednesday in the fair's history - and one of the biggest revenue days of the fair - Imperati notes that the metric can be misleading. "Saturday is always the biggest carnival day, and last year's Saturday was the biggest revenue day in  the past five years," said Imperati. "This year's Saturday was heat affected, and it was not as big. It was brutally hot, the heat index was in the high 90s."

He added, "we only have to compare it to the other midweek days. We are glad we did, we will definitely do it again this year. We are probably looking at adding another day, but making it every day is probably not going to happen. The weekends are already big midway days, you don't really need that extra promotion to boost crowds. That's why you offer a bargain, to boost the crowds, and it worked for  a midweek day, which has lower attendance."

Powers pointed out that the a late summer heat probably was the main factor in suppressing attendance. "The heat and the humidity hurt attendance. There's a lot of shade areas, and that made it easier, but the heat can be as bad as rain."

Imperati called the weather "outstanding," during the opening days ideal fair late-summer northeastern weather - sunny, with temps in the 70s and 80s. But a patch of humid dog days weather set in for the close. "Thursday and Friday were very hot and humid, Saturday and Sunday was not as bad."

Nobody can control the weather, but this midway company remains impressed with this New York event. "It is the best groomed, or one of the best groomed fairgrounds in the country," said Powers. "I think it is the second or one of the largest county fairs in the country. They have beautiful rolling hills, displays all over the place during the fair, it is a great fair." 

Classic Marketing 
The fair had an advertising budget of $145,000 - which was allocated, by medium, as: Print - 25 percent; Radio - 59 percent; Social Media - 8 percent; Production - 2 percent; Cable - 6 percent.  The most noticeable spending shift was an increase in spending on radio and social media. 

With radio, the fair also changed from running radio ads to sponsoring the weather report on multiple stations. "We increased the radio budget as we purchased the News and Weather Sponsorships across all three of the largest media groups - Pamal, Townsquare and IHeart media," Imperati explained. "We were running radio spots and sponsoring Yankee games on the radio, but with the reports, we noticed an uptick so we are doing more of that. You get more bang for the buck, and you get a lot of rotation. Most people in the car will switch stations to find what the weather is going to be." 

He added, "we also advertised the fair earlier in August on the radio, and focused mainly on afternoons and drive-time.'
 
Other old media, especially print and billboards, continue to decline for the fair, with the money shifting towards online and social media marketing. We are continuing to increase social media resources," he said. "We increased social media by including presence on vendors' social media sites with purchase of print and radio buys.  Facebook is our most active social media outlet.  We are focused on growing our Twitter followers through the 2017 season.  We will be purchasing ads on Pinterest and Twitter through the 2017 season."

Imperati sees the radio sponsored news and weather breaks and the expansion into social media as the fair's way to reach two distinct demographics. "I truly believe marketing is driven by age groups," he said. 

"Those under 40, they are reached by social media. They rely on their phones and computers for their information. Those over 40, they listen to the radio when they drive. 

It's important to change, even though some people think change is a dirty word. You don't want to make the change over night, so we are gradually spending more in different areas and increasing our social media presence. It's about building the foundation. We are well-followed on social media, our friends continue to grow and we are getting more younger people at the fair." 

This year's adverting tagline was "Experience a Classic," a proactive sentiment inviting the audience into the traditions and nostalgia of the fair.  Like most county fairs, the mission of the Dutchess County Event is agriculture and this year's tagline emphasized the "continuing focus on educating the public about agriculture and affordable family fun," said Imperati. 

The sentiment is further reinforced by a Currier & Ives etching, that appears on the website and other places, depicting a "classic, old fairground, with livestock and the carnival, it's very old fashioned,"  he said. "No matter what state you are in. the traditions of the fair, the family fun and the history, that is what is brings people to the fair."

Farming Mission
While the methodology of delivering that message might change - Apps instead of newspapers, for example - the message itself is evergreen. "It is getting tougher and tougher to draw new generations in, they don't understand agriculture, but they will make an effort to learn," he said. "The farm is still what the family tradition is about. We promote a venue for families and some hands-on learning about where their goods comes from. We promote that in the press and we promote that in social media. We are seeing more young families, with their parents , and they are very interested in what they eat and teaching those habits to their kids." 

The Dutchess County Fair has also embraced the new realities of farming, a philosophy that manifested itself in a new exhibit that showcased the agricultural past and presence of the Dutchess County Fair, Agventure. "Agriculture is the number one industry in the state of New York, which a lot of people don't know," he said. "In the Hudson Valley, we are seeing less dairy and beef forms than we used to, but we are seeing more vegetable farms and fruit farms, which is very seasonal, and a lot of niche farms, like goat farms for producing goat's milk."

Locally grown produce and artisanal, locally produced food products have boomed in the Empire State, particularly in it's midsection - the fair is about 90 minutes  from New York City - accompanies by a proliferation of green or farmer's markets throughout the more urban areas. "A lot of people are not buying their vegetables at the grocery store, but at the local farmer's market," Imperati said. "We even have one just outside the fairgrounds during the fair where people leaving the fair can buy the freshest produce."

Entertainment Costs
The Fair's ticketed entertainment this year included Third Eye Blind, Hotel California Eagles Tribute and Chase Rice. 

The fair has actually replaced the headline grandstands acts on some nights with motorsports, a sign that the ticketed entertainment is no longer the draw that it had been. "Artists continue to raise their costs, and it's been a losing proposition," he said. "Sometimes you can catch lightening in the bottle, and get a rising act who can cover the costs, but it's harder."

Another problem has been the booking window. All fairs are dealing with the cost inflation of headline entertainment in various ways, and probably the most universal strategy is to try and book earlier and get a spot on routing at a cost-effective price, "We can try to book earlier, but we really don't have a budget for the next fair until October and that's when we begin to talk to our booking agent about who is available and what the price tag is. But that is getting to be too late for some acts. It's not an easy market and I don't know what the budget for next year will be yet." 

The Duchess County Fair featured 83 food vendors. The most notable new fair cuisine in 2016 - and winner of the fair's Spork Award - was the Chimney Cake, an "Hungarian ice cream dessert with sponge cake and chocolate sauce," he said. "It was well received, I didn't try it personally, but members of my staff raved about it." 

While the fair offers the usual suspects of fair cuisines - "sausages, corndogs and cotton candy," said Imperati - there was a noticeable move away from the deep friend everything. "The taste palate has changed," he said. "There were more healthy options, you saw more salads, or Greek and other foods that were healthy, and that is all for the good." 

An attendance dip yet some spending upticks does not an unsuccessful fair make. But Imperati has a more objective view of the 2016 Dutchess County Fair. "I'm happy with what we did. I don't like to set goals because every time I do, I want to exceed those goals. We didn't set records, but we had a solid week. It was not as good last year, but if you look at the last five years of fair, it ranks number two."

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