Ohio State Fair Bounces Back After Tragedy with an Honest and Professional PR Campaign

Wednesday, September 12, 2018
No opening of any 2018 fair was as widely anticipated as that of the Ohio State Fair. Last year, a fatal accident on the Amusements of America midway left an 18-year-old dead and seven others injured. The accident – on a Fireball, a KMG thrill ride – not only closed down the fair last year but sent ripples through the industry that are still being felt months after the court settlement between the victims and Ohio Expositions Commission, the ride company and two private inspection firms had been reached.

The Ohio State Fair – a Buckeye institution that predates the Civil War – not only had to regain the trust of its own fairgoer, but reassure the fair industry and general public that one of the leading fairs in the country was able to confront the issue of midway safety with professionalism, honesty and effective public relations.

Open Communication
According to said Alicia Shoults, Marketing & Public Relations Director, Ohio Expo Center & State Fair, “The first anniversary coverage began a few weeks before the Fair, specifically related to proposed Ohio legislation regarding amusement ride safety, victim recovery, etc.”

This tougher inspection law, named "Tyler's Law" for Tyler Jarrell, who died in the accident was not passed before the fair’s opening day, is reportedly still “languishing” in the legislature.
“We worked closely with all parties involved in ride safety to amplify our annual ride safety media event, which is always held two days prior to the start of the Fair for members of the media to see rides being inspected and learn about the process,” said Shoults.

Underscoring the gravitas of the situation and the fair’s commitment to ride safety, the media event featured Bob Johnson, president of the OABA and ASTM F24 committee member; David T. Daniels, Director of the Ohio Department of Agriculture; Mike Vartorella, Chief Ride Inspector, Ohio Department of Agriculture; Jonathan Brooks, independent ride inspector from Wagner Consulting and ASTM F24 committee member; and Jill Walls, Amusements of America spokesperson.

“When you come to a state fair like this, you want a diverse variety of rides for all the demographics, not only children but for adults and teens,” Johnson said. “So when you have (an accident involving) a spectacular ride, or a super spectacular ride like that one, it’s a wake-up call. It’s our 9/11 experience, unfortunately.”

“We continue to have the utmost confidence in the skills and capabilities of our inspectors to carry out the statutory duties that they’re required to,” said Ohio Agriculture Director David Daniels. He said the 2017 accident was a tragic mechanical error but that Ohio’s inspection program remains one of the best in the nation.

“Allowing media the opportunity to have ready access to all of these individuals, as well as see rides being inspected and access video footage of annual non-destructive testing, allowed the reporters to complete their stories,” said Shoults. “ With “tough but fair” questions, the stories mostly ended up being framed as: Ohio wants rides to be safe, and this is how it is being done.”

Well before opening day, the fair diligently kept the lines of communication open, not just with the public but all the entities involved in the crisis. “We knew that we had to regain trust, and that the story was going to continue whether we were a part in contributing content or not,” Shoults explained. “So, we kept clear, open lines of communication with all involved parties over the course of the last year – OABA, ASTM, the Ohio Department of Agriculture Ride Safety Division, Amusements of America, etc. Being familiar with industry changes and being able to point media in the correct direction for answers to their questions over the last year was incredibly helpful. The public relations personnel for these involved parties stayed in close communication all year, with increased frequency and meetings prior to and during the Fair to handle any issues as necessary. We always knew what the other was saying, and this was incredibly helpful.”

Podcasts & Social Media
In addition, the public relations effort included attempts to change the fair’s narrative, which included adapting a new media platform, the podcast. “We needed to focus on getting as many positive human-interest stories out as possible to highlight the many great aspects of the Fair. There are so many fantastic people who have wonderful accomplishments and relationships with the Fair, and our team worked to find and share those stories. One of the ways we did this was to launch our own podcast, taking listeners behind the scenes of the Fair with unique stories they’ve never heard – a strange item that could be used for admission in 1953, the most popular place to get engaged at the Ohio State Fair, the rivalry between competitors vying for the blue ribbon and farmers using genetics to breed prize-winning cattle and many more stories.”

The podcast’s first season featured 10 separate episodes, “each centered around a particular topic – history, love, competitions, animals, and of course, the cherished butter cow,” she said. “The podcast is available on all major podcast platforms and, and press releases were distributed about each of the podcast’s interviewees and their story, among the many other human-interest stories.”

The marketing and advertising of the fair also had to remind people what they always loved about this Buckeye tradition. The Fair’s advertising budget was approximately $365,000 and included print, television, terrestrial radio, Pandora radio, digital/web, pre-roll, social media, outdoor and movie theatre. “The advertising had to be sentimental and strategic, highlighting the relationships and memories people make at the Fair versus showcasing excitement and thrills,” she said.

In addition, the fair outsourced their social media to a new agency, resulting in a social media makeover and more impactful audience engagement. “We worked with a new social media contractor this year and this helped really give a “voice” to our social media outlets,” she said. “The witty, friendly and sometimes sassy personality on Twitter, along with beautifully-curated images on Instagram, helped for a combined growth of nearly 6 percent following across all social media platforms and a significant jump in followers on Instagram, which grew nearly 19 percent.”

Attendance Increase
The multilayered and coordinated public relations and marketing campaign paid off – attendance reached a robust 908,306, up 13 percent from 2017, although still below 2016’s 921,214, a result partially blamed on patches of inclement weather. “Our attendance is always very weather-dependent,” explained Virgil Strickler, General Manager. “We usually see a slight dip in our attendance with rough weather, and the heavy rain we had nearly all day on two consecutive weekdays was no exception. Despite that, an impressive crowd of happy fairgoers turned out to experience our Fair’s entertainment, livestock shows, education and activities.”

Spending however showed a pre-accident level increase. “Per capita spending is up slightly, primarily as a result of increased food and beverage spending,” she said.

Ohio’s economy has shown signs of recovery, albeit with a still cautiously optimistic consideration. “”The economic downturn caused people to look more closely at their spending and rather than full-fledged vacations, many choose to take staycations,” said Shoults.” Our research shows many visitors are repeat visitors from one year to the next – and having that first visit when their budget may have been a little tighter helped to create a lasting relationship with the Fair. I feel that we have built a relationship with those individuals who now choose to continue to add the Ohio State Fair into their summer plans as a family tradition.”

Food has become a major attraction for the fair, with the 2018 edition of the Ohio State Fair showcasing approximately 190 independent concessionaires. Food & Beverage revenue reached $4,826,000, with notable new fair cuisine concoctions including Philly Donut Burger, Pork Butt Fries; Stuffed Hot Italian Peppers; Hog Stack Sandwich (rib, shredded pork, bratwurst patty); Deep Fried Bacon Wrapped Pickle; and a Jalapeno Peach Funnel Cake.

Shoults pointed out that Ohioan’s taste buds favored their familiar flavors. Two of the hottest selling foods were Ice Cream from the American Dairy Association Mideast – “this is consistently one of our most popular food items and purchasing it becomes an annual tradition for fairgoers, especially given that one of the points of sale is in the building where the Fair’s famed butter cow and calf are displayed” – and Ohio Roast Corn.” This good to go food is tasty and incredibly fresh – usually served within 24 to 48 hours of having been harvested right here in Ohio,” she added.

Midway Revival
The midway by Amusements of America featured 74 rides, a footprint consistent with fairs past. This year included a new Wacky Worm, a completely refurbished Giant Wheel and new LED sign for its Crazy Slide. The entire midway was outfitted with new canvas and added two new amenity stations, including phone chargers and a baby-changing station, complete with courtesy curtain for more privacy. The company brought back many rides that had either never been at this fair or had not been featured for several years, giving fairgoers the impression of an entirely revamped midway. These rides included a Triple Decker Circus, Rock Star, Bear Affair, Silver Streak, Monster Truck, Black Widow and Monkey House.

“People were hesitant at first,” said Rob Vivona, general manager of Amusements of America. “But after the first couple of days, they were on the rides and having a great time. The Ohio State Fair was great this year.”
“The carnival midway rebounded following last year’s tragic accident,” said Luis Perez, Assistant General Manager, Ohio State Fair. “Amusements of America went above and beyond any standard state, local, municipal and manufacturer inspection protocols to ensure the safety of the rides, and it was reflected by the reception of fairgoers. We thereby exceeded our revenue projections, though not quite at the level prior to 2017.”