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Concerts Return to Orange County and So Did Customers
Dreamland Amusements plays Orange County for the first time
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Citing rising costs, increased competition from festivals, casinos and other venues, and the diminishing drawing power of many headliners, more and more fairs have been removing separate ticketed concerts from their entertainment formats. The Orange County Fair in Middletown, New York took the opposite tact. For the first in about 30 years, the fair brought back ticketed concerts to its 4,000-seat grandstand.

Reviving the headline, separate-ticket concert option at this fair was not an isolated decision. Obviously the fair had to increase its entertainment budget to accommodate three concerts, but that entertainment budget increase also included an expansion of other free entertainment, from an upgraded petting zoo to a new midway concert stage. But to make sure they come if you build it, the fair also doubled its advertising budget, with reinvigorated emphasis on the media most conducive to music audiences – radio.

Consistent Fair
Turned out the return to headline, separate ticketed concert worked, with attendance for this 178 year-old historic fair jumping up. Attendance increased to over 40,000 and according to Michael Gurda IV, Fair Manager, Orange County Fair and General Manager of Orange Motorsports & Entertainment and they did it with one less day than normal, closing on a Saturday instead of the traditional Sunday. “We had the biggest Friday in over 20 years, so that is probably a record. It was a pretty consistent fair throughout the full run.”

How much of a factor was the addition of headline entertainment in the attendance uptick? “It was absolutely a draw to the fair,” he said. “In addition to that, we had had something for everybody to go to and the music was something they talked about. If I was to guess, attendance increased a good 20 percent because of the concerts.”

In addition, the live music by major music acts garnered significant press coverage the fair otherwise would not have receive. Throughout the 80’s and 90’s the fair was known as a concert destination, including a famous 1983 performance by The Beach Boys who christened the stage. Other superstars to play the fair included: Aerosmith, Loverboy, Heart, Def Leppard, Judas Priest, Poison, Ozzy Osbourne, Bon Jovi, Metallica, Mötley Crüe, Alice Cooper, Bad Company, Extreme, Van Halen, Danzig, Tom Petty, Huey Lewis & the News, Celine Dion, Bryan Adams and Phish.

The 2018 music acts that reintroduced ticketed concerts to the Orange County fairgoer were combination of new, up & coming rock musicians and legacy acts: Manchester Orchestra, XEB, Badflower, AJR, Big Data, Night Ranger and Vince Neil of Mötley Crüe.

Different Category
What about competition from other venues that other fairs have cited as making music in their grandstands no longer financially feasible? “A fair doesn’t compete with a casino or an amphitheater type venue,” he said. “It is a fairground with a stadium, and we’re well within that category and it is a different category offering something different to the public.”

The Orange County Fair is unique because its fairground is also home to the Orange County Fair Speedway, a racing facility due to celebrate its centennial next year. Motorsports – Monster Trucks, Dirt Track Racing and Demolition Derby – filled the grandstands on non-concert nights during the 10-day run of the fair and have always been a ticketed event at the fair. This year however, all motorsports events, with the exception of the Super Dirt race, had some free tickets available. Orange Motorsports & Entertainment has reportedly signed a five-contract to manage the speedway, which included an influx of capital improvements and other investments.

The return of concerts to the fair was not just about this year’s Orange County traditional celebration, but establishing the speedway as an ongoing concert destination. “It’s very hard to survive on just the 10 days at the fair,” he said. “We are looking at the fair and what we can use within the fair itself to have successful events throughout the year.”

He added, “We are a full summer facility with stock car races, motor cross and other more sports. With the fair, I think what is important is that we choose different events on different nights, so we had stock car races and monster trucks in addition to the concerts.”

The 2018 fair convinced stakeholders that headline concerts will remain an important component of the fair, with one crucial caveat: in the steep sellers market in today’s entertainment landscape, the earlier you book the better. “We started booking about only about 7 weeks out so it’s more of a learning process. We were able to fit into routing but from a financial position it would have more successful if we booked earlier.”

Free Music
Not all of the 2018 Orange County Fair soundtrack required fairgoers to pay extra. The new midway stage was booked with an array of free concerts – with a heavy concentration of tribute bands. The superstars covered included the Eagles, Queen, Neil Young and Gloria Estefan. “It was fantastic, free music, stacked with national-level Tribute bands.”

The stage was situated in the center of the fair, near a bar area that was augmented in 2018 into a beer garden, with more seating, amenities and expanded hand crafted beer selection. The free music stage added value to the fair ticket, gave reason to fairgoers to linger longer at the fair, created an additional revenue stream and reinforced the nascent reputation of the speedway as regional music destination.

The advertising and marketing budget for the fair doubled according to Gurda, with an emphasis on older broadcast media. “Typically, radio and TV is the heart of the program. Social media carries much more than is necessary but it isn’t the main focus of the program.” Radio and cable also gave the opportunity for promotions and to highlight events on the grounds. One Classic rock station not even on the buy sponsored one of the wrestling nights for instance. “The stations want to get involved when you have exciting events going on,” Gurda added.

Instead social media – particularly Facebook, Instagram and Twitter – is a channel of communication more effective a direct relationship with fairgoers. “Social media is more interactive, we have multiple people making multiple posts, but we really make sure we are responding to the questions and comments right away.”

In addition, the goal of all the marketing was to “push people to our webpage.”

The fair also revamped their promotions, offering new and engaging options to entice fairgoers. “We tried a few different things,” he said. “On opening day for the first hour and a half, we offered free admissions and free rides. On numerous other days, we had a two dollar gate. We put on a few severely discounted flash sales leading up the opening. We did quite a bit discounting and promotions this year and that increased volume of attendance.”

The midway at the Orange County Fair was provided by Dreamland Amusements, the first time for this company. According to Gurda, the midway featured 30 rides and by the very fact it was a new to the fair’s following, just like the revival of ticketed concerts at the fair, the impression of a revitalized event was reinforced. “It was definitely a nice array of rides. They had a new roller coaster which was obviously very popular with our guests. The midway revenue increased this year and having a new carnival generated more interest. They did a fantastic job with the display, the staff is very consciousness and their customer service went above and beyond. They were a pleasure to work with.”
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