The good news was that Hurricane Matthew would depart before opening day of the North Carolina State Fair. The bad news was the storm badly interfered with fair preparation, but the long term impact was not as negative as one might anticipate.
Grappling with the aftermath of a hurricane was only one challenge the 2016 celebration of everything Tar Heel State confronted. The fair was gambling on two very new initiatives - the installation of a State Fair Flyer - a chair lift that has been in the works for several years - and the rebranding of the Homegrown North Carolina Concert Series, which was introduced last year with the very risky prospect of replacing big name stars with local heroes.
2nd Best Ever
A hurricane's impact and
two risky ventures. How did the fair cope?
Exceedingly well. Fair attendance reached 1,028,364.
Wesley V. Wyatt, Fair Manager, North Carolina State Fair, said "2016 turned out to be a great year for the Fair. It was our second highest attended fair ever. This year definitely exceeded expectations."
Hurricane Matthew was no help, it affected mainly pre-fair operations. "Hurricane Matthew hit us with wind and rain for a couple of days during our busiest set-up time, but once the fair opened, we had great weather," he said. "Once the rain stopped, it was a scramble on the part of staff, vendors and the carnival to get everything dried out and set-up. Luckily for the fairgrounds, we never lost power and were able to get everything ready for opening. There was some impact on attendance the first three days of the fair, but after that, we had strong attendance each day. We were a little warmer than normal at the begin of the run, but the crisp fall weather was back by mid-week."
A hurricane relief effort was soon lost and the fair became a nexus point enabling a more effective community response that like the fair itself, help unify residents of the state for the common good. "Many of our media partners held fundraisers during the Fair, some vendors donated a portion of their profit to flood relief and our Food Lion Hunger Relief Day Food Drive fulfilled immediate needs of those displaced," he said. "As a fair community, we donated over 240,000 lbs. of food on just that one day."
Entertainment Shake Up
Coming in second best ever is an admirable achievement for any state fair, and Wyatt said it indicates a rising level of consumer confidence. Pointing out that 2015 and 2016 were two robust years in a row, "We believe that North Carolinians are feeling more financially secure by those increases," said Wyatt. While they are still looking for the best value for their money, and taking advantage of package promotions and gate promotions are part of that, the increase in our attendance points out that our fairgoers are feeling more secure in spending entertainment dollars."
Rebranding and redesigning its live music entertainment offerings was the most significant change for the fair. Big headliners were essentially replaced with 117 concerts on 3 stages over 11 days, all by local and regional acts. This new format was rechristened as Homegrown Music Fest, which saved the fair approximately $400,000-but would fairgoers still turnout for local heroes instead of superstars? "It was a big risk when we went to the all North Carolina act lineup on a much smaller budget," admitted Wyatt. "We expected overall Fair attendance to dip, but we've actually seen gains in attendance to the Fair."
North Carolina pride seemed to be a significant factor for the enthusiastic response by attendees. " Our fairgoers have embraced the change and enjoy being able to hear their fellow North Carolinians given a platform for their music to be heard," said Wyatt. "More than once, we have had fairgoers tell us they've discovered an artist they had never heard of before, but loved. This has been a successful endeavor for us, and while we may tweak things, have no intention of change for 2017."
Also new for the fair was a birds-eye view of the proceedings. This year was the debut of the sky ride, the State Fair Sky Flyer, a ride two years in the making. According to fair history, the fair had a temporary sky ride in the 1980s, but the new version Wyatt described as a "labor of love" for Agriculture Commissioner Steve Troxler. "Commissioner Troxler was committed to bringing the chair lift back to the Fair and making it a permanent fixture at the fairgrounds," said Wyatt.
The project, had a few fits and starts, but planning stages date back to early 2014 and fair organizers in developing the RFP, met "with engineers, the North Carolina Department of Labor and other industry experts as we put together the RFP," he said. "We contracted with American Sky Lifts of Sanford, NC, after a lengthy RFP process. They have the contract for a total of 10 years, with the option of an extension at the end of that time."
Wyatt declared the impact to the fair as "tremendous," both as an attraction and a way to enhance fairgoer traffic flow. "It was rare that the State Fair Flyer didn't have a line, and we could tell that some of our congested areas that we had hoped the Flyer would help alleviate, did seem to lighten," he said. "Our marketing plan for the Flyer this year was limited to our digital platforms. We ran advance sales of tickets, which turned out very well, and we plan to fully incorporate it into all of our sales/marketing plans for 2017."
In addition to the debut of the State Fair Flyer, the fair unveiled a Blacksmith Shop complex, The blacksmith shop is the next phase in our continued development of Heritage Circle, where fair patrons can learn about the history of rural North Carolina and enjoy a quiet place on the fairgrounds," said Kent Yelverton, director of property and construction with the N.C. Department of Agriculture and Consumer Services, which runs the fair. "The blacksmiths will have the opportunity to use the building throughout the year for meetings and training as part of their mission to keep people interested in the art of blacksmithing."
The fair's advertising budget was $ 693,000 (production costs: $30,000), with the allocation showing an increase in digital spending. Media spending was broken down as: Digital - 38 percent; TV/Cable - 32.2 percent; Radio - 14 percent; Out of Home - 12.7 percent.; and Print - 2.3 percent.
Digital advertising created a new metric, "with the analytics we've been able to trace from first click through purchase," said Wyatt. "For the first year our digital buy outpaced our television spend."
This move away from television was not just due to the appeal of new versus old media. North Carolina elections were close and controversial. This drove up ad prices and made usual autumn ad buys for the fair scarce, which meant an earlier than ever marketing launch. "With our state engaged in tight political races right up until Election Day, we knew when we started strategizing for this year's buy that we would need to purchase our preferred slots early, and look at adjusting our media mix for the year."
The most noticeable change is that ads for the North Carolina State Fair began in August, earlier that typical. "This saw us starting a bit earlier with spots purchased during prime time slots during the Summer Olympics and many live sporting events we knew our demographic would be watching in real time."
Wyatt pointed out that the digital marketing by the fair underwent another evolution in 2017. "Our main change was limiting our ad purchases on desktop," he said. "85 percent of our spend was pushed out on mobile only after seeing that 72 percent of our website visitors in 2015 accessed the site from a mobile device rather than desktop."
More was also merrier. Social media also became a group effort. "We also assigned days for our Instagram account to different staff people," he said. "Instead of our public information officer handling all the posting, we thought this would give fairgoers a unique perspective of the Fair."
The fair also launched a special social media campaign collaboration with nearby North Carolina State University. As part of the schools ag studies, students produce Howling Cow Ice Cream with its own dairy herd and has long been a fairgoer favorite at the event. According to Wyatt, in December 2015 a social media campaign began, but then went into full gear a few months later during March Madness. "North Carolina is truly college basketball country, so our fairgoers really got into 'Ice Cream Madness'," said Wyatt. "We had social media followers suggest flavors/names for a new flavor of Howling Cow Ice Cream that would be exclusive for 2016 to the N.C. State Fair. This promotion ran through the months of February, March and April with voting in the different brackets as we narrowed down the flavor choice. We announced "Caramel Apple Crisp" on our first "New Food Friday."
Wyatt described the flavor as "an apple based ice cream with a caramel swirl and graham cracker pieces," and as part of the promotion "Howling Cow had to allocate a specific gallon amount to sell each day to have enough for the whole run of the Fair," he said. "They sold out by early afternoon of each day's allotment."
Another promotion featured Casey Cardinal - the official fair mascot that Wyatt revived last year. The mascot made more appearances this year, especially in the Kiddieland section, where Casey's Clubhouse was launched - sponsored by Shed Depot of North Carolina. Casey Cardinal made photo-op appearances, where children and families would come and have their photos taken with the fair's mascot. "Casey's Clubhouse was born out of feedback from fairgoers in 2015 who wanted photos with Casey, but kept missing him as he roamed the grounds," said Wyatt. "We have plans to add activities to the clubhouse in 2017 to make the area even more interactive."
In addition, the mascot made a daily "Casey's Big Slide" where "Casey would go and slide several times with our smallest fairgoers at the Big Slide in Kiddieland," he said. "Casey's Big Slide was a fun event, that even got a few of our media partners to come out and slide on air with Casey."
The fair's midway, provided by Powers Great American Midways, featuring 98 rides, including the debut for the fair the Powers Parthenon Wheel and the Street Fighter Inversion 360. In fact, the Powers Parthenon Wheel was the leading grossing ride, followed by Hit In 2000; RC 48 Coaster; Super Cyclone Coaster; and the Giant Wheel on the Main Midway.
Corky Powers of Powers Great American Midway noted, like the fair, the midway was "about the second best for us there" and emphasized that the fair's "advertising and promotions worked very well."
Weak start, strong finish summed up the North Carolina State Fair midway for Powers. "The floods and hurricane hurt us a little bit opening weekend, when attendance was soft. We missed the hurricane, but the area was hit hard, roads were closed and bridges were washed out. The last thing on people's minds was going to the fair. But they did finally come out to the state fair and we ended strong."
The pride and joy for this carnival company was the fact a new ride proved to be the top grossing ride, a 33-meter high ride by Lamberink. Powers was convinced of the appeal of a ride that is essentially a spectacular ride for families. "The tubs can hold up to eight people, and it's a smooth running ride, suitable for any family member," he said. "It is not scary, but it is a spectacular ride, you get an overview of the fair grounds that's amazing. It's not for every location, but we have used at a few of our major fairs."
The North Carolina State Fair featured 132 food vendors, and this year's selection of fair cuisine received a special showcase. "For the first time, at our Media Day prior to the Fair, we had the media taste offerings from our vendors and vote on the 'Best New Food at the Fair'," said Wyatt. "The winner of that competition was Captain Neil's Seafood and their Hot Crab Dip. The two items that saw the most social media traction and realized the longest lines during the Fair were the Bacon-wrapped Grilled Cheese from Bubba's Bacon and the Chicken and Waffles on a Stick with Sriracha Maple Sauce from Chick-n-Que."
The 2016 edition of the North Carolina State Fair exceed expectations for Wyatt. The aftermath of Hurricane Matthew stretched the fair staff as well as the staff of Department of Agriculture and Consumer Services very thin. But in the end, commitment to the event prevailed. "We had fairgoers, vendors and staff whose homes or those of their families were under water," he said. "This impacted both set-up of the fair and the first few days of our run. After the first three days, we noticed that more and more people needed the respite the fair provided. They came out to give themselves a break and enjoy time with their family and friends. At the end of the run, we were extremely proud of our state coming together to celebrate what makes us all uniquely North Carolinians."