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State Fair Meadowlands Succeeds with Reinvigorated Family Focus, New Marketing, Good Weather & Improved N.J. Economy
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An economic upswing and a marketing program targeted families while underscoring the New Jersey appeal of this Garden State Event – coupled with mainly ideal northeastern summer weather – made for a successful 2019 edition of the State Fair Meadowlands.

“This year exceeded expectations,” said Al Dorso, president of State Fair Event Management. “I am grateful weather-wise, people came out for the fair and they came out early.”

Of particular note was the area’s economy. The Northeast – and New Jersey especially – had long lagged behind other states in job growth and other economic indicators since the Great Recession ended in 2009. But finally in 2019, unemployment is lower, there’s more disposable income, and this upsurge Dorso noticed at the fair.

Economic Upswing
“This is how you can tell it’s a good economy this year,” Dorso explained. “Historically if it rains after five, it’s a dead night. We had rain two Saturdays, but the rain ended. On the first Saturday we got 9,200 attendees after six, and on the other Saturday, we had 10,400. Those nights were pretty close to records. People looked out their window and saw the sun was out and went out to have some fun.”

Weekend turnout was strong, but the weekday attendance also saw an uptick fueled by discount promotions. One discount that experienced an increase of 15 percent was a Speed Pass, enabling holders to bypass long wait lines at the rides; other weekday specials included: Preview Night (the Thursday before opening day; Dollar Day; Kids Go Free Night; Cheap, Cheap Night, and Early Bird Specials.

For the Early Bird Specials – typically discounted admissions  4:30-6:30, Dorso says the key is to extend it an extra 20-30 minutes to avoid people complaining they missed the cut-off because of lines. “You need to leave a window. For the Early Bird Special I was hoping for 3,000 but we had 6,000 before 6:30.”

A legislative obstacle the fair overcame in 2019 was the newly enacted Nosey’s Law, a statewide ban on exotic animal exhibits that went into effect in January. Tigers, elephants, camels and the like were popular attractions at the fair – just as they are at fairs throughout the USA – but Dorso was unable to renew contracts. “It shows you how dumb politicians can be and how crazy animal activists can be,” he said.

The fair still featured a petting zoo and pig races, but the exotic animals were replaced with the Paul Bunyan Lumberjack Show and Jurassic Kingdom. “People just loved the dinosaur show. I was surprised how well it did. I could see how much attention it was getting.

Magician Jay Mattioli was another new attraction, and returning favorites included Cycle Circus Live and Jungle Island High Dive. Family entertainment was the key for 2019, with headliner concerts no longer applicable. The issue was not just the competitive New York metro area, but the region’s diversity. The very multicultural State Fair Meadowlands fairgoers are mainly families, and while a spectacle show like Jungle Island High Dive has cross cultural appeal, concerts often do not.

More Fun, Less Music
 “We did away with live music this year,” he said. “Music is tough. Fairs lean towards country music and classic rock, which is what I like, but that only appeals to 40 percent of our customer base. 20 percent don’t want any music, people who are 12 and under. If we found a genre that worked, we would bring it back. Boy Bands work but they weren’t touring, we look for them and we’ve had them.”

 The turn away from music is emblematic of a new emphasis for the fair. Fairs can be seen as a manifestation of a community – and indeed, most thrive on community support. The State Fair Meadowlands is located in one of the most densely populated regions in the county, and Dorso points out the reality for the fair is “we really are a niche, it’s not for the masses. We’re in a market of more than 20 million, and we draw 400,000. Our new customer base is the family with small children, they’re the ones finding the fair. Our exit surveys show that they’re the ones who come back to the fair a second time,  and they come for the rides, the entertainment, and the food. Quite frankly, I’d rather cater to them than the young adults and teenagers.”

Echoing  the stay-cation attraction  built into fairs, “New Jersey’s Great Escape,” was this year’s marketing tagline. The advertising budget is about $450,000 “and social media takes a bigger part of it, but we do some cable television, some radio, some print, digital billboards, bus-backs, train stations, grocery stores and movie theaters. Print is bare bones at this point. Social media siphons more and more, but it’s less expensive and easier to manage.”

The fair’s advertising media buy is both impressive and deliberate. For instance, the out-of-home piece reaching the hundreds of thousands of commuters in this densely populated region, “we included fringe locations, outside of New Jersey, such as Rockland County and Staten Island, which is outside a 20 mile radius but who come to the fair.”

Family Focus
The messaging and advertising all reinforced the new direction of the event. “We pounded home the family value and family thing in every aspect of the fair, not just the marketing and pr. We have upped our security with mag machines and bag searches and parents with kids love to see that, because it makes them feel safer.”

When fairgoers enter the event, technology also goes into effect. “Their phones are pinged when they enter fair, and they get discounts throughout the fair on their phones.”

This year, the fair instituted a Facebook spokesperson – Cousin Louie, who in addition to social also appeared on other online platforms as well as billboards –and an actual cousin of Dorso – Cousin Louie is a muscled, tattoo, gesticulating epitome of a Jersey Guy who would not be out-of-place on the cast of the old reality show, Jersey Shore. In his recognizable Jersey Accent, Cousin Louie was featured in a series of clips with the different food, rides and other attractions. “I listened to the accent and I knew he would be a hit,” said Dorso. “It was the first year and we will be continuing to use him.”

State Fair Meadowlands’ independent midway had a 71-ride midway, which was contracted with seven different ride companies and boasted two Ferris Wheels – a Big Dutch Wheel and a Gondola Wheel. “We catered to the families and offered more family discounts. I didn’t want too many teenagers roving around. I wanted the families roving around. We are not just catering to the young adult market as a fair, we wanted more families present and our deals were focused on the families.”

Reflecting the diversity of the families attending the fair, a wide ranging menu was featured, including Mexican, Chinese, and Pakistani food vendors. There were 77 food vendors, down by five vendors which Dorso said “was by design, we were looking at the numbers reported from last year, and less vendors helped those numbers. The most important thing was to not have competing vendors with the same food selection.”

New for the fair were shark and gator bites, Pride Fish, a new vendor specializing in fried fish, shrimp and Calamari, as well as vendors with healthier options that include Italian and Greek salads.

\New marketing, new attractions and overcoming the most restrictive animal exhibition law in the country – plus ideal early summer weather – added up to a successful celebration of everything Garden State. “It was the best weather we had in 19 years and our attendance was up by 20 percent over last year,” said Dorso. “I’m very grateful.”
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