The Eastern States Exposition - affection ally known as the Big E - had an astounding 2016 fair. Attendance was up only 5 percent - and four severely rainy days negatively impacted outcomes - but there were five daily attendance records and the 100th anniversary of this New England end of summer tradition had much to celebrate.
For Eugene J. Cassidy, President and CEO of Eastern States Exposition, 2016 was his 23rd fair, which means he's been present for nearly a quarter of these events in West Springfield, Mass.
"There was no better way to celebrate 100 years of the largest fair in the Northeast than doing it with over 1.4 million of our closest friends," said Cassidy. "As always, we couldn't have had this successful event without the unwavering support of the agriculture commu
nity, all six New England states and our thousands of staff and volunteers who work tirelessly getting The Big E ready, up, and in operation each and every year.
According to the fair, 1,418,042 fairgoers attended the 2016 Centennial Edition of The Big E.. During the Fair's run, five daily attendance records were broken, including Opening Day, Sept. 16 with 86,204 visitors; Sept. 17 hosting 116,602 fairgoers; Sept. 20 where the Fair saw 56,424 come through the gates; Sept. 25 with 132,041 guests; and Sept. 29, when The Big E hosted 84,111 guests.
"It was a smashing success," said Cassidy, who rated it the third best fair during his near-quarter century with the event.
The Eastern States Exposition is held on a 175-acre complex, including a 5,000-seat coliseum, located in the Pioneer Valley of Western Massachusetts. The fair is a multi-state event, representing all the New England States-- Massachusetts, Rhode Island, Vermont, Maine Connecticut and New Hampshire.
The success of this fair can be attributed to what has been a surging economy in this region of the country. While the recovery might still have a long way to go, Cassidy did notice more spending this year, although he is quick to note that the affordability of the event and its appeal as a tradition bolsters its economic immunity.
"I've seen the economy rise and the economy fall many times, but I never felt the fair was impacted that much, because the fair is a tradition and people come regardless," he said. "But this year I saw a lot of expensive products being sold, more so than last year."
By expensive products Cassidy means the merchant vendors which can sell items in the $2000 range, such as antiques and luxury goods. "People were buying grandfather clocks and those sort of things, and they are very expensive goods. It's strictly anecdotal, but I seemed to notice more of those purchases this year than last year, so that might be a sign the economy is headed in the right direction."
Century of Greatness
While the fair would not release its advertising budget, the media mix for The Big E advertising saw some interesting shifts, with billboards and online spending showing the only increases: Outdoor was 19.5 percent (an increase of 2.5 percent), Network TV 18.4 percent, a decrease of 1.9 percent; Cable TV 8.7 percent (an decrease of -0.9 percent); Radio 27.9 percent (a decrease of 1.6 percent); Print 10.2 percent (a decrease of 9 percent) and Online at 15.2 percent.
The electronic billboards and online components of the advertising campaign had the advantage of flexibility and quick response. Cassidy pointed out that the fair's market has a wide draw; fairgoers will often drive more than 60 miles and in outlying areas, "they might have thought the weather was raining but the storm had already passed through us we could reach them and let them know the fair is opened. "
The fair also updated its fair app, implemented Snapchat Geo-filters; expanded its presence on Facebook, Twitter, and Instagram. The Big E had over 200,000 Likes on Facebook, more than 10,500 followers on Twitter, and 9,700 followers on Instagram. Facebook Live Video was a big addition to the Fair's daily content offerings this year, with the daily "CoffeE with JuliE LIVE at The Big E" each morning.
The fair's 2016 tagline -A Century of Greatness - Cassidy felt was particular successful. The tagline tied into one of this year's new exhibits "The Eastern States Centennial: A Century of Greatness" Exhibit, which showcased historic items from the Exposition's archives, including trophies and ribbons, pennants, advertising vehicles, and posters.
Nostalgia is intrinsic to the annual fair tradition, and a centennial offers an enticing opportunity to bask in the glow of the past. But even Cassidy was surprised of how well the campaign and the exhibit went over. "A lot of young people are jaded, and you would think they would not care about the history of the fair, but people were very interested and it got a great response," he said. "People have been coming here every year for generations, it's a family tradition and I was really surprised how people responded. We have a colorful history and people have a deep connection with us."
He added that for a fair staff long associated with this event, "it was a very rewarding experience for those involved with crafting the display. There have been a lot of careers spent here, including my own. It was really warmly received and that was very satisfying."
Weather Hurts Rides
The midway is provided by North American Midway Entertainment (NAME), with about 50 rides. They premiered a new Freak Out and a slightly larger Kiddieland, which included perennial favorites such as the Tea Cups, Orient Express, Dizzy Doggies, Go Gator, Family Swinger, Construction Zone, Rockin' Tug, Wet Boats, Mississippi Train and Loony Airport. According to Cassidy, the top grossing rides, usually led by the Giant Wheel, were mainly spectacular rides, such as the Blitzer Roller Coaster, Power Surge, Speed, Starship, Vertigo, and Spider.
While the attendance and other spending seemed robust at this year's fair, the NAME midway suffered a revenue dip of about 4 percent, mainly due to the weather. "The weather impacts the midway the most," said Cassidy. "Any sort of rain or high heat in the slightest can have a big impact on the midway and that was the case this year. Some of the nights were very cool, and the impact on the midway revenue was stronger than I would have expected."
Cassidy had high praise for NAME and its partnership with the Big E. "We've invested a lot of money in the midway and NAME provides an incredible facility to us, it is beautifully lighted and clean, all the wires are off the ground and there are no overhead wires. It's a comfortable place to be."
The Big E Concert line up. for its 100th anniversary included Blood, Sweat & Tears featuring Bo Bice; Elle King; George Thorogood; XAmbassadors; Maren Morris; Gloria Gaynor; and Morgan Page.
With Morris The Big E really caught lightening in a bottle. "She was just nominated for five CMA awards, which really put her in an elite group," he said. "She was a huge draw for us."
Cassidy remains committed to headline entertainment as a separate ticket admission, but times are not what they were. "The entertainment market here is not a buyer's market," said Cassidy. "There is a lot of competition, including casinos nearby in Connecticut, and they have a lot of buying power."
Like other large events, headline entertainment is part of The Big E brand, but the reality is that costs are rising faster than revenue and the drawing power of the stars is increasingly more difficult to discern. "Part of our identity as a fair is to provide entertainers to our audiences," said Cassidy. "If you go back 25, 30 years, coming to the fair important to a lot of entertainers, we were a much bigger market. But now there's not nearly as many opportunities for the fair and a lot more public spaces, some of them supported by taxes, that makes it very hard to compete. Every year we have to make decision to continue with the entertainment, and every year we ask ourselves if it is still something we can still afford to do."
In addition, with the near collapse of the recording industry, and streaming sources changing the paradigm of radio hits to generate a following, the unique platform of a fair has some resurgence in appeal. "Fairs can help build a fan base unlike any other facility," he said.
Cassidy pointed out that with some acts, such as EDM or one hit wonders, fairs audiences are not as attracted, but for other acts "Fair routes play an important role, especially with country acts, because it makes it much easier for them to access their fans."
He added, "with a lot entertainers, there's still a commitment to the fair industry."
Cream Puffs & Contests
There were 144 food vendors at the Eastern States Exposition - Food choices include restaurants, such as Wurst Haus, by the Student Prince, specializing in German cuisine such as bratwurst, Bavarian pretzels and Munich corn dog and the fair has created the Big E Cream Puff, "which is our signature food," said Cassidy. "We have higher end availability, a more classic family dining experience, in our permanent buildings, along with more traditional fair foods." He added, "what hasn't worked in this setting are food trucks, they don't do well."
Tied into the centennial celebration of the event, the Fair held its first food competition, the Big Eats Competition, where fairgoers voted on foods in different categories. "It was quite fascinating and it worked very well," he said. "Food at the Big E has become as about the entertainment as it is about food.
New Foods at the Big E included a Maple Waffle Breakfast Sandwich, Navajo Taco, Mac & Cheese Burger, and Chicken & Waffle Sliders , Deep Fried Oreos and Cinnamon Caramel Apple Gourmet Mini Donuts. According to the Cassidy, the most popular new cuisine was the Mac & Cheese Burger bites, "they seemed to drive a lot of traffic, mac & cheese is very popular and of course, bacon has become every big," he said.
Centennial celebrations only happen once of course. The Big E, one of the last and largest Northeastern Fairs of the season had a solid 2016 - attendance uptick, successful headline entertainment lineup and a new energy among the food offerings - and the fact it happened during its 100th anniversary made this year's Eastern States Exposition more significant. "Personally for me, being reacquainted with the fair was very meaningful," he said. "Fairs are one of the few things today that celebrate the American way of life at its best. There are fewer and fewer places where you can do that today, our society has become so segmented. Fairs uniquely share that experience with their customers."