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Maricopa County Fair Cuts Television Advertising in Half, Boosts Attendance 18 Percent
Butler Amusements Midway up 35 Percent
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When deciding their 2019 media buys, fair organizers, marketers and other stakeholders may want to take a lesson from this year Maricopa County Fair. The fair took the drastic step of cutting their commercial television ad purchasing by more than 50 percent. 

Where was the traditional media money reallocated? Digital streaming services, including Hulu and Spotify, as well as more social media buys on Facebook, Instagram and other platforms.  

50 Percent Less TV

The Maricopa County Fair attendance increased by 18 percent this year, attracting more than 52,000 fairgoers.  Except for some high winds – some as high as 32 MPH – on opening day, the weather was ideal Arizona springtime climate and the regional economy continues to be strong – certainly these factors were critical in making the 2019 event succeed. But the change in marketing strategy was the most significant distinction and the difference that might have industry-wide implications. 

“We had a very good fair, we were up,” said Karen Searle, Executive Director. “I believe our move away from commercial TV and radio was a big factor.”

She is quick to point out that while the cutback may have been deep, old media was not entirely abandoned. Maricopa Fair marketing retained its expenditures on print media, although the fair had cut back on that medium in marketing realignment in previous years. The fair has long ceased advertising in any daily newspaper in the market, and has limited its print exposure to hyper local publications. “We use only two entertainment magazines and a weekly newspaper in one of the suburbs. We do little things in that newspaper all year around, to keep our names in front of that audience. Our print advertising was relatively unchanged this year. Those ads still get a big response.”

In addition, the fair’s budget – about $100,000 – has remained relatively unchanged. “We’ve had the same budget for about 10 years. The biggest shift over the past year was our move away from the more traditional marketing, less radio and television.” 

She added, “we are doing more online ads in all different places, on different websites and social media. From the click-throughs, views and conversions, I believe our marketing campaign has been more and more successful. It has more impact and reaches more people, and that has affected our attendance.” 

Better Metrics 

New media not only gave the fair better metrics, but more data to measure. “The difference was quantity, you absolutely reach more people, you never how many saw your commercial on television. You can quantify the numbers of people you reach on social media, and not just Facebook advertising, but other websites. You can get those numbers and make decisions based on those numbers. You can find out how many people watch your commercial, how many minutes they spend watching your commercial, and how many watch your commercial on the phone versus the computer.”

Collecting this level of data had other effects. “We have become even more mom focused, because she’s one in the family who makes the decision to come to the fair. Also, knowing how long people watch the commercial changed our video segments, as well as the increase of people watching them on a mobile device.” (Only 40 percent are watching online via computer).

This has made the fair create marketing content that conveys the message “within the first five seconds. We are using more video spots, which are 10 to 15 seconds long, and they show the action at the fair, or cut to the message, like buying unlimited ride tickets.” 

The overall message is “a very family friendly fair. That’s our target. We’re a family friendly event and a way to spend quality time with family and make friends.”

Fastest Growing

Maricopa County -- – the 5th largest in the U.S. in terms of  population, is one of the fastest growing cities in the U.S., adding approximately 65,852 new residents per year, or almost 66 people per day, according to the U.S. Census (2017).  One reason for the population has been a healthy job growth rate. The result is a strong economy favorable to not just fair attendance, but fair revenue. 

 “Arizona’s economy is doing better than ever, employment is way up,” said Searle. “The attitude is very upbeat. More people came out, and they were spending longer at the fair, and spending far more money than in the past.” 

Both food and alcohol sales soared compared to 2018. Food revenue was up a remarkable 27 percent; alcohol sales were up 33 percent. The adult libation increase was particularly good news for the fair – only two types of alcohol are served – beer and margaritas – and the sales are handled in-house and the absence of an outside vendor means a better profit margin for the Maricopa County Fair.

The fair featured about 25 food vendors, with the focus on traditional fair cuisine items – corn dogs, turkey legs, pizza – the strategy is to reduce repetition to encourage better bottom lines for the event’s vendors. “It’s a very big deal to us, to keep it a very closed loop and have one no more than one vendor for each type of food,” she said. “Food sales did very well this year. The one barbecue vendor told me he had his best day ever, not just at this fair, but in his the 20 years he’s been in business.”

The hot food item for the 2019 Maricopa County Fair was Deep Fried Coffee, but mainly due to some unexpected publicity. As with most fairs, local television stations come out for the live remotes and other fair stories with the fair food being the perennial angle. It wasn’t that Deep Fried Coffee was new to the annual outdoor event – it’s been a fairgoer favorite for at least four years – but by happenstance the news crews were near the Deep Fried Coffee stand. “They were literally standing near the booth and it was the easiest thing to show. It became the most promoted food and the fair for that reason, it was the easiest thing to grab.”


Butler Amusements

Even more impressive was the ride revenue – up 35 percent, setting a record for the fair, according to Searle. The midway was provided by Butler Amusements. “We had some rides that were new for us,” said Searle. “We had a new Super Shot, Wacky Worm and a Tilt-A-Whirl. We’ve had a Tilt-A-Whirl before, but this was a new one.” 

The fair also instituted a $25 unlimited-ride wristband, “which was very popular with people,” she said. 

Entertainment at the fair long ago switched to spectacle and motorsports, including a freestyle motor-cross and three separate Monster Truck Shows. “They are extremely family friendly shows. We added a Monster Truck Show this year, because people like them and the arena is filled with parents and their children.”

The fair also switched up its free entertainment in 2019, adding  a “world class” bird show, Washboard Willy and a new “Safety Magic Show,” that included “all different kinds of magic and card tricks, he did different shows for each audience, all with a safety theme.”

Like many county fairs, agricultural education is a major part of the nonprofit’s mission. The Maricopa County Fair created a new interactive, educational display Arizona Ag & Ewe. “Agricultural education is an important focus and this new walk-through exhibit had its debut. It was very popular with the children on field trips. When you get positive comments from the teachers you know you are doing good. It was very well traversed.” 

The 2019 Maricopa County Fair was a bit of a comeback year. The 2018 edition of the event was negatively impacted by bad weather, but with a new, more effective marketing strategy and programming that responds to the new demographic in the area, the fair both returned to form and reached a higher level. “We compete with major events, including a country music festival, so we had high hopes but were a little scared,” said Searle. “We absolutely exceeded our expectations. All the stars aligned this year with our marketing, the midway and the weather.”
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