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Topsfield Fair: Record Setting Pumpkin & Bicentennial Build-Up Eases Rain Pain

11/25/2016

By Timothy Herrick

Photo courtesy of

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An oversized gourd topped the news cycle for the  2016 Topsfield Fair. One of the last of the Northeast fairs of the season, this Massachusetts event is the longest continually held fair in the United States. 

The first Topsfield Fair was held in 1818. Being an October fair, pumpkins of course take center stage but even Charlie Brown might be shocked at the 2,0275.5 lb.record-breaking great pumpkin, which reportedly had to be moved via forklift to the judging stand. 

A pumpkin that size makes international news in the weeks just before Halloween when everybody is out shopping for the family Jack-o-Lantern. But the gigantic pumpkin increased attention given to the fair, reminding the region that New England farming is stiPhoto By ll alive and well, further enhanced by the growth of the locavore, farm to fork, and artisan food movements. 

The fair, started as a cattle show, features numerous contests for local farmers and gardeners, including vegetables, fruits and flowers. "There are farms and farm families scattered throughout the area," said David Thomson, Spokesman  for Topsfield Fair. 

"With the foodies and the locavore movement there is a new focus on agriculture. We educate the public on their food and farming and take great pride in that."

In addition, the fair offers 15 educational programs for school groups, which includes free and discounted admissions on agriculture and New England's rich farming history.

Preserving the Past 
The marketing theme of the fair this year was Preserving the Past - a lead up to the bicentennial celebration two years away. It was more than the 2016 tagline however, fair organizers have commissioned a book to celebrate this milestone while documenting the rich history of an American farming tradition. 

A featured exhibit at this year's fair was a dairy history of New England, with a collection of upwards of 50 milk bottles, some collector items dating back more than a century. "I was surprised how popular it was, people loved them. They reminded people of the time when milkman used to come to the house to deliver milk."

Advertising for the fair included about 10 different commercials, according to Thomas, mainly for radio and television, although the placement had to take into account the presidential election. "We had varying lengths of commercials ,and we booked them mainly around weather updates on local TV and radio," said Thomas. "We ran more of those this years because the longer commercials tended to get bumped because of competition from the campaign ads." 

The media mix of where advertising dollars were spent  was little unchanged from last year: . TV - 48 percent, Radio - 22 percent, Print - 6 percent, Billboard 13 percent, Misc. - 11 percent. Some radio placement targeted specific audience segments, such as The Brothers Osborne commercial appearing on country music radio.

Social media also was more instrumental in this year's fair, for the first time the fair created a new internal position dedicated solely to social media - Facebook, Instagram, Twitter and Snap Chat - marketing. "We learned as social media has grown, we needed to take it more professionally," said Thomas. "It used to be done internally by several staff members, but now we decided to put more focus to it. We developed a year-round program, and during the fair we promoted a daily flier, highlighting everything happen on the fair on that day."

He added that social media is "just one, and when that tool is working well, you are in good shape, None of our communications elements are perfect, and everything is so weather dependent when it comes to getting people to come out to the fair."

Social media has become a dominating factor in today's culture and marketing landscape, so that even other elements in the communications mix, such as news stories and other advertising, often get filtered through social media by sharing, extending coverage to new audiences. 

"That's one of the biggest advantages of social media, because now with any type of media coverage you can expand the reach of the story," he said. "The news media gives you credibility, and what you are hoping for that the positive, successful stories go viral, which happened with the pumpkin contest this year." 

Entertainment Challenges
Many of the ads and promotions featured the ticketed headline acts. The fair offers a mix of free with fair admissions and separate ticketed events, with the leading paid shows being KC & The Sunshine Band, Frankie Avalon, and Brothers Osborne as well as Imagination Movers, a children's show. The free acts "have been easier to book, they typically don't charge as much and are already on the fair circuit," said Thomas.

The types of paid acts, which like this years, are usually a mix of legacy entertainers like Avalon to up-and-comers like Brothers Osborne, are getting a little more difficult. "You see what is in your budget, and fill those weekend nights and we always have a kids show," he said. "It's been pretty similar for the past eight years, that has been the model. We are now looking into the budget to see what's there. We are dealing with more competition and rising costs, but it's always amazing that someone like Frankie Avalon can come on and do a fantastic show, bring in the crowd and they really put out." 

Headline entertainment is still "a draw for many people, it adds value to the fair, especially the free shows during the week," he said. "Certain people come to the fair because they are interested in a specific type of act. There is an audience out there for these groups, and there's a real energy at the fair when the grandstand is packed." 

Unfortunately, even viral and shared media coverage, effective marketing, positive agricultural messages and an entertainment lineup that was up to the fair's standards cannot overcome nature's realities. Rain on key days hurt the 2016 Topsfield fair - they had rain on the first weekend, then on the second Sunday of closing weekend, as well as intermittent rain throughout much of the run. 

Attendance reached a total of 380,000 -a robust figure, but down by 102,000 from the 2015 - one silver lining in these dark New England rainclouds was that the fair had a record second Saturday, perhaps an indication of pent-up demand - rained plagued the previous weekend and was predicted for the next day so fairgoers decided to flock to the fair. "It was a hugely successful day," he said. "That weekend is always busier anyway because a lot of people are home from college, and some people have family in from out of town who come back for the fair."
 
Midway Hit
The weather-induced attendance dip nullified the positive impact of a new parking lot. As with many fairs, adequate spaces for cars can be an issue on peak fair days, and this year was the debut of the Topsfield Fair's satellite parking lot, about a half mile from the fair - a shuttle bus ferried attendees to and from the event. "We expanded our parking with the satellite lot," said Thomas. "But it wasn't fully used every day." 

Inclement weather had the most severe impact on the midway. Fair revenue was down 20 percent, with the midway taking the biggest hit, according to Thomas. Fiesta Shows was the Topsfield Fair carnival company with 46 rides, including a host of new rides, including: Giant Slide, Hot Shot Drop Tower, and Super Cyclone Roller Coaster.

According to Thomas, the midway company created a Kid Zone, which segregated the rides from the main midway but also included a general play area, with hay bales and other child-proof decorations. "This was where parents  could take the youngest fairgoers," he said. "It was a free area, and enormously popular."

In addition, the fair expanded its midway promotions, including $25 wrist bands on several nights, and online presale ride ticket discounts. 

The fair featured 83 food vendors. Popular food items including Lernard's apple pie crisp, gobbler sandwich  turkey legs, fried dough, and "I wasn't surprised by any new foods, we had fried Kool Aid and the bacon covered everything," he said. "But we had no hyper food promotion or crazy new foods this year." 

An attendance and fair revenue decline negatively affected the 2016 fair, but the march towards a bicentennial blowout - the first American fair to receive this milestone - continues. "Due to the weather, attendance was down, but the vast majority of the comments received were positive," said Thomas. "But we were successful in reminding people of how many buildings we have, and  that the majority of the grounds are paved so families are not pushing strollers in mud and gravel. People definitely love coming to the fair, and everything was in place and the fair ran really smooth. We had a record day and a record-setting pumpkin. We promoted the 200th anniversary in different ways so people know it is coming." 


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