The The State Fair of Louisiana was the biggest comeback story for any North American fair last year: a dry fair followed an event that set the kind of record all fairs fear: nine out of 15 days of rain - more than 20 inches of rain - barely reaching an attendance of 266,500.
The 2016 State Fair of Louisiana had a "much needed rebound," said Chris Giordano, CFE, President & General Manager, reaching 431,000. "It was not a record year for attendance but it was in the top five for recent history."
The fair had ideal weather in 2016. Giordano described it as "perfect. Most all days were sunny with warm temperatures. It only rained for about 20 minutes during the entire run of the fair. The comeback in 2016 was predomina
tely weather related, but we also had a very strong marketing plan and a good mix of entertainment. "
While a cooperative mother nature goes a long way in helping any outdoor event to achieve its objectives, planning a follow up with the squelched revenue of a down year is a challenge. There were cuts in most areas - "across the board" heading into the fair. "We didn't want to increase spending, but we felt like we had the same plan that was a good plan last year. We didn't want to go into the year with an inferior product."
He added, "we had a very good fair and certainly will survive another year. We were able to make up the loss from the bad year with a normal year, and able to put a little more money into the year going forward."
One area the fair did slightly decrease is its advertising and marketing budget. While Giordano emphasizes that the cut was not severe - "shaving a few dollars" - and it still was about $200,000, the reason this segment was the most appealing to slice down was two-fold.
The primary reason is that marketing is the one cost "you have complete control over, you do not have complete control over utilities, security, labor and other costs. There are a lot of the other costs that are fixed when it comes to running a fair."
The other factor is that with digital and social media advertising, "we can do more with less. We have been purchasing more digital media over the past few years and we had a very effective Facebook program as well. We continued to use social media tools that we have been using the past several years. We do run many contests leading up to the fair on social media."
He added, "We still buy a lot of traditional media including: outdoor, television broadcast, radio and some print."
Step Right UP
The difference in spending for 2016 was "directing a larger portion of our budget out of our immediate market. In order to have growth at our fair, we feel like we need to attract more visitors from out of the immediate market." This outreach included Arkansas and Texas as well as other parts of Louisiana.
Smaller modifications to advertising spending included shifting television ad times to newscasts, and using more direct TV and cable marketing methods."
Giordano and staff developed a tagline - Step Right Up - incorporating the line into a graphic of a classic carnival barker. "It was fun and had the feel of a classic fair."
The fair increased weekday attendance with price promotions, including unlimited rides wristbands for $30; Free Fair Days - free parking and free gate. "The weekday promotions definitely boost attendance during the week," said Giordano.
In addition to cuts, the fair fine tuned its ticket sales program to improve the bottom line. "We converted our discount ticket program to a true advance sale," Giordano explained. This meant that while the discounted tickets were sold online and at Brookshire's Grocery Stores and Super 1 Foods throughout the fair, sales ended the day before opening day. In addition, the fair increased the group sales rate, "which helped overall revenue and we actually saw an increase in the group sales," he said.
The fair also shifted its schedule. In the past the fair was closed Mondays and Tuesdays. "We did add Tuesdays this year. We are going to analyze the figures from Tuesdays and make a decision on whether or not to continue opening on Tuesdays. Our first Tuesday was mediocre, but the second Tuesday, November 8th was a big day at the fair. All of the area schools were closed due to the election. Many of our local schools are utilized for elections."
Attendance on individual days may not have been broken, but the carnival ride gross - approximately $1.7 million, said Giordano - was indeed record setting. The 2015 monsoon hurt the rides the most, so with ideal climate conditions the carnival ride gross was up 96 percent. "This is the one area where we did break a record this year," he said. "This year's ride gross was the largest ever recorded at the State Fair of Louisiana. Great weather and adjustments to pricing were the contributors to a record ride gross."
The midway, which featured 60 rides - was provided by Crabtree Amusements - this carnival company has a long relationship with the fair, having been its midway provider for the past five, but has been bringing rides to the State Fair of Louisiana since 2005, subcontracting with Lowery Carnival Company.
According to Giordano, top grossing rides at the fair included: Gondola Wheel, Grand Carousel, Giant Slide, Super Nova 360, Thunderbolt, Haunted Mansion and Power Ride. New rides for the fair included a "Sky Trip" also known as "Tango".
Some of the rides technically had a Louisiana premier last year, "but they were so under used, Crabtree brought them back," said Giordano, adding that the midway was augmented by subcontracting with Alamo Amusements, Skerbeck Entertainment and Paradise Amusements.
This year's midway featured a new Kiddieland - which had some new rides, but not more rides - the change was making it more family friendly environment. "It was fenced off, with its own separate entrance and no smoking or alcohol allowed," he said.
The fair featured 80 food vendors - with an additional 20 as part of the Crabtree Carnival. "From what I heard from vendors, they had a very good fair," he said. "There's always a waiting list each year, we book a good mix of food. People love to come to the fair for the fair food."
The top sellers for the fair are traditional cuisine - Corn Dogs, Funnel Cakes, and Turkey Legs. "They are the most popular year after year, in that order."
One stand out was a large operation from a local vendor - Porky's, which sold a range of dishes, including fried watermelon, mountain oysters, frog legs, donut burgers, sunrise burgers, pork parfaits, fried bread pudding, boudain balls and Beignets. "They had a big front banner and sold other things like the donut burger, crawfish etouffee, shrimp on a stick, and hog on a log, which is pork on a stick," he said.
A food-oriented exhibit introduced at this year's fair - in collaboration with Louisiana State University-was AgMagic, which promoted the state's agricultural industry with hands-on exhibits about farming. "We had a lot of field trips to see the exhibit, but it was also popular with the general public," he said. "The general interest in where our food comes from seems to be increasing." Like many fairs, the State Fair of Louisiana has backed away from headline entertainment, mainly due to competition from the proliferation of casinos and other venues. The fair did catch some lightning in the bottle by booking Frank Foster, a Northern Louisiana native that is a rising country star. "[Foster] drew a huge crowd. We won't spend a whole lot on music, we can't afford the big names for ticketed shows. But we are trying some different things. The exception seems to be Hispanic Day, with Hispanic music and that draws a big crowed. We also did an R& B night for the first time and that was popular."
"People aren't coming to the fair for the music. The price of entertainment has gotten more and more out of reach. We focus on what the people are coming for, which is the total fair experience, the 4-H, the rides, food, and attractions. The music is part of that experience.", he said.
Like other segments of the fair, after the 2015 rainout pushed the State Fair of Louisiana Fair into a deficit, the stage entertainment suffered some cut backs. However, one entertainment segment where he increased spending on was the grounds acts and other attractions, which Giordano calls "entertainments."
Giordano lumps all these entertainments together - and this category is robust and diverse: Petting Zoos, the Dallas the Fire Guy, The State Fair Zoo, The Ultimate Dog Show, Circus Hollywood, Hollywood Pig Races, Rock-It Robot and Big Bear Mountain. "Everybody loves these entertainments and it brings good value to the fair," he said. "They draw people, and they perform three or four times a day. People come to the fair and expect to see a good mix of entertainment."
The grounds attractions seem to encourage people to stay longer at the fair, compared to music entertainment when guests tend to depart after the show. "I've seen a bigger crowds at pig races than at the stage sometimes. The grounds acts are part of the whole fair experience."
The reality of the Shreveport market is that the demographic is not growing, with the regional economy still suffering from the downturn in the energy industry. "Our oil and gas industry has been hit hard in the last few years with a lack of production," said Giordano. "Many people have lost good paying jobs and it hasn't recovered yet. Our state has also been running a deficit for the last several years. There has not been any job growth and not much new business."
But a bright spot in this market proved to be the 2016 edition of the annual celebration of everything Louisiana. "It was great to have a dry run," said Giordano. "It was a very good fair, and it exceeded expectations. The State Fair was Louisiana's highest grossing outdoor event. With this increase in fair revenue this year, we can make more moves, which includes more capital improvements, utilizing other cost savings and analyze how we can rent our facilities for the rest of the year."