Admittedly, the 2016 State Fair of Virginal could not have been worse than the previous year. Hurricane Joaquin resulted in a state of emergency being declared in the commonwealth, cancelling the four final days of the fair last year.
The 2015 State of Virgina was the less than optimum debut for Marlene Jolliffe, who was appointed Vice President of Operations for Commonwealth Fairs & Events Inc., whose duties include manager of the State Fair of Virginia. Essentially, the 2016 event was the first complete fair for the new V.P. "For our entire organization, we needed a good, full run of the fair," she said.
The 2016 fair did suffer from some rain during the event and a reported 6.5 inches of rain fell in the days p
receding opening day. The inclement conditions were dramatically less severe than the state of emergency caliber weather event in 2015, but they still caused some sporadic spending softness and muddy parking lots. "We had rain on set up, and that saturated parts of the ground on opening day," said Jolliffe. "We had some mud to deal with, and mud creates operational issues for grass parking lots and for concessions on grass. We had few areas that were just too wet."
Passing storms also forced two early shut downs - but only an hour or so was lost - but overall she declared the event "a very solid fair," which brought in about 225,000 and included a near 40,000 opening Saturday, considered a record day. " Compared to perfect weather in 2014 we got within striking distance revenue wise," said Jolliffe. "We had a very solid fair."
The fair is still in the calculation and assessment stage, "but from the data I have been able to review, I think spending on Food & Beverage, and beer was up. Once somebody was inside, they spent. We posted strong numbers, and our per caps will be up. Spending was better than in recent years."
She said that the regional economy - essentially the Richmond and Fredericksburg markets - has shown improvement in the last year, and spending she described as "strong," especially in three key areas -"the carnival, F&B and gate revenues."
"Our revenues were not far off from 2014 and we had strong advance sales," said Andy Deggeller, General Manager, Deggeller Attractions. "We got to operate the entire time, and last year we lost an entire last weekend. So we got all the days and had a pretty good run."
Deggeller noted that regardless of limited rain, the weather was actually pretty much ideal, lacking the unbearable heat that plagued many late summer/early autumn fairs. "We've been dealing with a lot of excessive heat, and by the time of the fair it started to cool down a little, and people showed up, and they were spending.. It wasn't like other fairs where the day time being so hot nobody wanted to come to the fair."
The Deggeller Attractions midway featured 42 rides, including a new Puppy Roll and a refurbished Zero Gravity, complete with a brand new LED light package. The top grossing rides were the Giant Wheel, the Super Nova, and the Orient Express roller coaster. The carnival company also introduced another first for the fair, new Spinner Sign, a bright circular LED sign that was situated on the company's Century Wheel, which was placed on a hill amid the Kiddieland. The sign has video capabilities and can shuffle through images and logos. The technology also enables flexibility and Deggeller featured Virginia 529, a major sponsor for the State Fair of Virginia. "This was the first time we used the sign for a sponsor," he said. "Where the Century Wheel was, you could see it from a long distance, and also parents and their kids could see the entire fairgrounds, which is really one of the prettiest fairgrounds we play."
Deggeller Attractions has played this fair more than 30 years, and Andy Deggeller's family members even longer, before even the formation of the family company. "The fair is a good event, and we work with a great group of people, the customers are friendly and it makes our job easier to work a fair that is this well run," said Deggeller.
He also praised the work Jolliffe has done, "our family has been through multiple transitions at the fair, and even last year with the bad year, Marlene worked with us and kept us informed about what as going on. This year we were able to comeback strong and have a great fair."
The fair "met expectations," said Jolliffe. "We met the fair's mission, we operated efficiently, we had an excellent safety record.
She pointed out that having the financial ramifications of the loss of entire closing weekend the previous year could not be avoided. "We had to cut back some things, we still have a lot of discussing to do, there are issues in our physical plant that need to be addressed, and how we present entertainment to the public."
The fair has virtually eliminated headline entertainment because of the cost, opting instead for local and regional musical acts that in addition to being more affordable, bring in a local followings. "We cut back on entertainment spending and we moved towards more mid-range entertainment acts and Virginia-based talent," she said. "When you looked at the return, we had some great bands, managed our budgets. I don't see our fair getting into high-end entertainment. We also have a demolition derby. We got far more from the local and regional entertainment, and there was no affect on attendance at all by not spending on national entertainment."
She added, "entertainment for fairs is always a sellers market. Fairs don't get good pricing. We made a decision to stop booking headline/national acts and focus on Virginia-based. It was a smart move and we will continue with this philosophy moving forward. Financially, this decision did not impact our gate nor our bottom line. "
Replacing national names with regional stars " was a good idea," agreed Deggeller.
"There is a more focus on agriculture and more educational activities and exhibitions, and they turned the fair into a very good value and people know that when they walk through the gate. The headline entertainment doesn't always bring in the attendance and it is getting too expensive. This fair is setting itself apart as being more than an amusement park out in the field."
The fair had an advertising budget of $225,000 00, which was not increased from the previous year. Television spending was decreased drastically due to the competition for advertising time from political ads in this crucial swing state. "With the election, the TV ads were too expensive," she said. "But we kept our marketing budget the same. From a business standpoint, it doesn't make sense to slice and dice marketing when you need to bring in more people."
The most cost-effective marketing in today's communications climate was social media. " We spent more money and effort on social media," she said. "We grew our Facebook by 15,000. We had radio and some print, we don't put all the eggs in one basket, but social medial was more important"
What marketing strategies work best on social media? "the thing we learned, if you have a contest on social media, ticket give always works. If you ask a simple question, like what do you like most about the fair, that gets a huge response,." She added. "Or you just encourage friends to take a picture."
Jolliffe hired a new ad agency this year - the fair puts out the marketing contract every three years - but the agency had been previously affiliated with the fair. "They knew the product and had a person on staff who was incredible with the social media."
The fair's marketing campaign used iconic blue ribbons and repeated the idea of First Place, and had images of fair food, carnival rides, agricultural images, and even two young people on a classic midway date. "We all have to define what makes a fair different, the live animals, the carnival, the entertainment," she said. "When you show pieces of all of that with people in some fashion, it shows the fair is combination or package of experiences ."
The objective of State Fair of Virginia's 2016 marketing campaigning was to reinforce the fair's brand, said Jolliffe, which she did "by tying our image to the iconic flavor of the fair. We gave our marketing more of a theme and consistency. The success of your marketing campaign is to drive the fair and tell the fair's story, create a desire to go, so your fair can sustain bad weather."
In terms of reaching different demographic groups, there was more segmentation in the marketing, be it online, social media or 'old' media. " We definitely targeted females as decision makers in the families," said Jolliffe. "Our advertising depends on the day, and you have to at who is attending. The population you get on a Tuesday night at 2:00 in the afternoon will be different than Thursday at 7:00pm. There's not one demographic harder to reach, but you have to cross age groups and look at how they receive information. There is not a one size fits all, not when you are selling a fair to a diversity of population."
The 2016 fair featured an automated front gate, including a new scanning system. No delays or gate snarls were reported with the new system, although the purpose was not just smoother entry or keeping up with the latest tech, but the collection of data. "It worked very well, it gave us real time reporting on who is coming in when."
It is too early to assess the data gathered, but the fact it was gathered will be key to the future. "You can't manage what you don't know," said Jolliffe. "If you don't your stats, then you are making decisions in the dark. You got to learn what is happening on that property, and gaining that information is the first step."
To state the obvious, Jolliffe's second year at the helm of was better than her debut - not having a cancelled closing weekend tends to do that - but more significantly, targeted and aggressive marketing , new collections of data to analyze and finding an entertainment programming initiative that makes economic sense - created both a successful 2016 fair but a brighter future head. "We absolutely had a solid year," said Jolliffe. "We battled weather and still managed to post solid numbers. The State Fair of Virginia will continue to grow and will be one of the most respected fairs on the East Coast."