Two days of rain and several humid days might have a negative impact on most fairs, but the 18-day Canadian National Exhibition recorded 1.54 million attendees, slightly behind last year, according to Karen Lynch, Director of Marketing. Final attendance and spending - a precarious indicator in the struggling Canadian economy -are still being tallied at press time, but the fair's outreach to the diversity of the Toronto ended with positive results.
"We had another very good year," she said. "We had two days with rain, and several very humid days, but for the most part we had great fair weather."
6/ 5 Gen Y
The fair's most effective promotion was the repeat of the $6 after 5 deal - fairgoers could attend the weeknights for this steep di
scount - a promotion that has 'completely transformed our weeknight traffic," she said.
Like many cities, Toronto is experiencing a rebirth as millennials and other generations shift towards more urban living. "There are huge condo developments going up and more people are moving into Toronto," she said. "The CNE promotions runs Monday to Thursdays. People can come in and eat fair food, enjoy the music at the Bandshell which are free with admission. We had a strong mix of concerts."
The 2016 Bandshell concerts included Randy Bachman, Jefferson Starship, Headstones, Ricky Nelson Remembered, Luciano, George Canyon, Dean Brody, Scott Helman & Tyler Shaw, A Great Big World, Ria Mae & Coleman Hell and Walk Off The Earth. She added that many of these are "very popular in Canada," adding that the Luciano show had "8,000 people at the concert," she said.
Another promotion that further fueled the robust attendance was the Food Truck Frenzy & Craft Beer Fest, a special three-day event held August Aug. 26 - 28 that featured 25 food trucks and 10 local brewing companies. "The younger fairgoers flock to this food trucks and the craft beers," she said.
The combination makes for a "fun and funky experience," she explained, combining the time-tested and beloved features of the fair - food you can't get at home and outdoor concerts - but marketing them in a way that appeals to the younger demographic.
Of course, the price promotion is also key. "The younger generation, they are very cost conscious and deals appeal to them," she said. "Our economy is still in recovery; but often that works in our favor since people are more likely to stay home. The high US/low Canadian dollar also worked in our favor once again this year."
Besides a preference for artisan food products and price promotions, Gen Y & X are known for their tolerance and inclusiveness. The EX got some unprecedented global coverage this year from and it wasn't for its exciting new attractions, such as the $5.5 million investment in the waterfront area of the fairgrounds, enabling the CNE to offer waterfront attractions for the first time in decades, including The Great Canadian Water Ski Caper as well as the WWA Wakeboard World Championships, or the Star Trek "50 Artists. 50 Years," featuring over 50 artists from 10 countries celebrating the 50th anniversary of the iconic series, as well as photographs by the late Leonard Nimoy, or the brand new Aerial Acrobatics and Ice Skating Show that boasted famous Olympians.
No, international media came for the new bathrooms that became global news thanks to controversial bathroom laws in the lower 48. In March, North Carolina Governor Pat McCrory signed into law the Public Facilities Privacy & Security Act, which mandated that only individuals must use the rest room designated for their birth sex. The CNE seemed to protest this so called "Bathroom Bill" - still hotly debated in this already overly heated election year - with new restrooms that were non-gender specific.
According to Lynch, "the idea originated with our General Manager Virginia Ludy," but making a political statement related to the red state/blue state divide over U.S. bathrooms were not part of the original concept. It turns out, the CNE had been planning to add new "washrooms" and were taking a cost-effective method, repurposing large shipping containers into outdoor facilities. "To be honest, we wanted to get new outdoor washrooms," said Lynch. "we wanted to get away from using the portable ones, so we decided to build our own washrooms. We really didn't care about the bathroom bill in the U.S., it wasn't on our minds. We just made them unisex."
The fair built two large units and two family units - and one of the reasons they were made unisex were so families could use them - such as when mom wants to supervise a young son who may not be old enough to go by himself - but while Lynch claims the fair didn't "care about the whole gender thing," the forces of social media -then old media - had a different take. "It took a viral life of its own, we got very positive pr and a lot of shares. Then we got tremendous coverage that included the BBC in the UK."
The universal symbol used on the facilities were a hybrid - pant -legged figure on one side, skirt on the other. New restrooms using the repurposed containers will be added each year as part of a fairground-wide infrastructure upgrade the fair has implemented. They will of course be unisex, because it seems there's no turning back in Canada. "It really brings our fair into the 21st century. We were surprised by the positive response to the bathrooms we received. It had a real resonance with young people, who are generally looked at as apathetic. But they thought this was great, and they made their opinions known on social media and I think some of them did come to the fair because of the bathrooms."
Lets Go To The Ex
The fair's more deliberate marketing also received an upgrade, expanding the message's reach. The fair's signature tagline, "Let's Go To The Ex," with licensed use of the classic 50s hit, "At The Hop" still played over the airwaves. The fair used the same media mix as last year, which included a massive print campaign with a CNE Guidebook insertion in newspapers. The fair produced dozens of different ads for online purposes, which cycled through the various websites and digital outlets. "We became more programmatic and marketing is increasingly stratified," she said. "The ads tracked different interests and were pushing different messages. Increasingly to reach millennials, they only view online media."
In addition, the fair's out-of-home marketing included billboards, buses, street cars and mass transit hubs. "We shift the money and follow the different trends," she said. "We massage it each year."
The fair also translates some ads to reach newer and growing ethnic groups, adding Hindi and Punjabi. "We have a very diverse population and it is a big thing for us and our audience to really reflect the diversity of the region," she said. "The diversity of the region has completely changed since the 1980s and we have a large population of people for whom English is not their mother tongue. You want to build for the future, you have a responsibility and they are coming to the fair, they love it. It's just like reaching the millennials, it's building for the future and reflecting your community."
She added that some groups, especially South Asian families "come with their extended family, it's a great activity for them."
For the first time in more than a decade, the fair also purchased advertising in U.S. markets in upstate New York, near the Canadian border. In addition, the fair also had a promotional partnership arrangement with the Erie County Fair. She said that initial analysis of data indicates that website traffic from American visitors was up 17.9 percent compared to last year. The fair was still calculating whether this resulted in an increase in actual attendance from south of the border.
Actually, U.S. marketing was common to the fair for much of the 20th century, but in the first decade of the new millennium there was the SARS outbreak and new security measures enforced stricter passport laws, "we saw the U.S. fairgoers dropping off, but it has been growing in more recent times so we decided to market in the states again. We had several ads in Buffalo newspapers, which is within two hours of the fair."
North American Midway Entertainment (NAME) provided the CNE midway, with 62 rides although ride revenue was down slightly from last year due to weather, said Lynch. While the weather did not seem to negatively impact attendance, rain and humidity took its toll at the midway. "Concessions were up, and it is hot and humid, people tend to drink more and eat more ice cream," she said. "But the rain and humidity meant the midway was down slightly."
New rides included The Himalaya on the Main Midway and Chopper Charlie in the Kiddieland , and a newly restored Polar Express, "which was a thing of beauty," said Lynch. "It really sparkled."
The midway was also reconfigured, due to a new construction - a new hotel is being developed -- and the construction footprint hampered the size of the midway. "It was probably a tighter squeeze but it shouldn't be a factor next year," she said.
The CNE features a vast number of food vendors - in addition to the 3-day day Food Trucks and Midway concessions - with 106 food vendors in the Food Building and 86 Food & Beverage Concessions outside on the grounds. Some new cuisine debuts include Rainbow Grilled Cheese Sandwich a Pickle Corn Dog and a Sushi Burrito. Another new vendor was selling the "Bug Dog," which were made up edible insects, such as crickets. "It's a food trend, definitely ,using insects," she explained. "It started in animal feed, where they found that crickets were a cheaper source of protein, they didn't need as much water as soy. It manifested itself into fair food. There's definitely a Fear Factor aspect, but some people are adventurous and it is fun."
Last year Lynch recognized the fair was extremely successful and the challenge is the pressure to top with yourself. "We were chasing very big numbers from last year which had perfect weather and was a banner year, " she said . "We were a little nervous about competition with yourself. But we succeeded despite having two days of rain and some very humid weather."
More importantly was the marketing outreach, "the fair is a universal experience, people young, old, millennials, they love it, specifically families with children two to eight. We do a lot of research and are more successful in shaping programs to appeal to the different crowds and tailoring our message to reach them."