It may appear counterintuitive that a rainy fair has days of record-turnout, but the reality is more likely the event has an enthusiastic following willing to wait out the weather.
The event originated in 1917 and remains an annual showcase and celebration of the agriculture & arts of the six New England states it represents. The 2023 fair still attracted 1,427,234 patrons, a turnout that ensures the event's status as one of the largest outdoor events in the US, but was still a dip over 2022.
“Attendance was down 176,120 people, or 11 percent, but rain was WAY up!,” said Cassidy. “Six days were impacted by precipitation, but we set five daily attendance records.”
In spite of the six figure dip, this year set only one less attendance record than last year. “ In 2022 we had six daily records set,” he explained. “I think people were watching the weather, or may have postponed a visit due to it, and when the weather was nice, the crowds were very heavy indeed!”
American Way of Life
“The fair-going public is hungry for what fairs have to offer; the American Way of Life,” said Cassidy. “Family, friends, food, fun, agriculture on display, and a throw-back to a simpler time.
But that confidence was challenged by the Mother's Nature's violent mood swings, which included 3.37” of rain on Friday (9/29.) “To give an idea of how bad the rain was, as of September 1st, in order to find a weekend combination of Saturday and Sunday that did not include at least one day of precipitation, you would have had to go back to February,” he explained. “According to the National Weather Service, normal rainfall in this region for the entire month of September is 4.1 inches. However, on the six rainy days of the fair 6.7 inches fell! Yet, we still produced the sixth largest fair in our history.”
An impressive accomplishment indeed for a fair more than a century old, The five daily attendance records were set during the 17-day event: Tues, Sept. 19 – 57,802; Fri., Sept. 22 – 97,477; Wed., Sept. 27 – 95,689; and Thurs., Sept. 28 – 108,962; and Sunday, Oct. 1 – 170,471. “That tells me that people want to be here. They will show-up on rainy days and do serious shopping; Buying crafts, and unique product, hot tubs and $3500 palm trees. They will watch shows in the intimate settings a fair offers, and eat with their friends and families food that isn't available but once a year. This relates to my earlier point about the American Way of Life. The Discovery Channel only goes so far, fairs expose that which people don't ordinarily get to see, touch, and yes, smell. We in this business are the luckiest of all. People want to participate in fairs. The wholesome opportunity to see agriculture up close. The fair is the address where you can see the “real thing”.
Inflation Versus Value
While they came, are they spending? – or at least like they have post-lockdown. It's question complicated by the inflation that has plagued the global economy. Cassidy noticed that “Spending was down a fraction less than our decrease in attendance,” and inflation impacted the fair, the most noticeable being the need to increase fair admission. “After 13 years with the same $15 adult admission price, we increased that pricing by 33.3 percent to $20 for a full price adult ticket,” he explained. “There were a few comments on social media, but after one broadcast interview wherein we reported that the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistic's inflation calculator told us $15 in 2010 was equal to $22.67 in 2023, the question never came-up again.”
He added, “Inflation has been a factor since 2022. It had a major impact on all of our partners; concessions, the carnival and straight sales. We delayed our increase as long as possible with a goal of advertising our “low” prices in order to build volume. In recent years we successfully increased that volume ahead of our '23 pricing increase.”
People may have been spending, but with the return of inflation and a less than stable political environment both here and abroad, economic apprehension has become more apparent. The marketing tagline for the 2023 Big E both played on the famous nickname and reinforced the belief at this event you get more than what you pay for –“Real BIG. Real Value”
The Big E's advertising budget was $1.7 million, about a one percent increase over 2022. An enhanced social media presence that was actually begun last year drove this year's marketing effort. “In 2022 we increased our social media spend for entertainment and fair content, while retaining budget for traditional media. [We had] more frequent organic posts, stories, videos, reels and collaborative posts with sponsors and partners. This year there was a slight increase across the board.
The 49-ride NAME (North American Midway Entertainment) midway bore the brunt of the repercussions caused by the downpours. “The midway suffered with the rain, and for the first time in my 30 fair career at ESE, we had an entire day that was shuttered due to rain; $0.00 sales. On another rainy day sales amounted to less than $28,000. All told, the midway was off 25.2 percent.”
But in spite of the downpours & downticks, NAME was upbeat about the overall 2023 experience. "The Big E was a blast this year - as always,”; said Lynda Franc, Corporate Marketing Director, NAME. “We love this event as it has a few unique characteristics that you don't see anywhere else including the state houses that feature food, artisans, and products from each participating state. It's been an honor to have worked with the Big E for so long and hopefully for many more years to come! As we near the end of the season, we see consumers continuing to come to the fair. We may be looking at kids back in school and people gearing up for the fall, but everyone is trying to squeeze in as much of that midway fun while they can!"
“NAME has provided our carnival operation since it was the Conklin family,” said Cassidy. “They are a marvelous partner who elevate the midway and its collateral operations. There were a number of new rides on the property, and the overall appearance of the midway was second-to-none.”
What were this year's top grossing rides? “The Giant Wheel made its second appearance this year,” said Cassidy. “It remains a huge hit! The Matterhorn is a perennial favorite, and has been for generations now (including my own), and the magnificent double decker carousel are all very popular rides.”
More rain resistant than the midway was the headline entertainment, both paid and free, ranging from John Fogerty to Jose Feliciano. “We had some big hits on the paid stage; John Fogerty, Third Eye Blind, The 90's Tour with Vanilla Ice, and Zedd, whose lasers and pyro were enhanced by the rain,” said Cassidy. On the free stage, we offered no less than two dozen groups ranging from Megan Moroney, to Molly Hatchett, Dokken, and Jose Feliciano. Jose did a marvelous job and filled the area to bursting for his 2pm performances.”
Although attendance dipped 11 percent, food & beverage “fell by only 7 percent. F&B pricing was increased in 2022, and remained very stable in 2023.”
New Fair CuisinesThe Big E fairgoers not only have big appetites, they seem more accepting of new variations on fair cuisine, which the fair is deliberately “caters” to. The fair added 68 new fair foods, including Bacon Bomb; Waffleicious; Polish bomb; Mexican street corn pizza; Jolly Rancher extreme slush; the pickle cupcake; Thanksgiving Nachos; Dorito Gyro; deep fried meatballs on a stick; twister fries smothered in American cheese sauce and topped with real bacon bits & sour cream and the pickle donut; and much more. In addition, The Big E's newest Cream Puff flavor – Maple – was described in the fair's wrap-up press releases as a “… big hit! Cream Puffs, with or without ganache topping, and Eclairs proved to be a fairgoer favorite once again.”
“In recent years we have encouraged our current list of fair vendors to pitch our Advisory Team with new, innovative offerings,” said Cassidy. “Tapping into our current partner's imagination has been a boon to them and us creating excitement around “new”. We love all of our fair-favorite foods; the fried dough and cotton candy. They are the core elements of the offerings and what the Big E was built on, and in some cases are being sold by the grandchildren of the generation that started here. With that said, “new” gives us something to boast about.”
As a promotional hook, the new fair foods emphasis accrues additional benefits. “It also allows for expansion into the changes in demographics of society,” he said. “We do a great deal of promotion prior to the fair with the broadcast media featuring not only the new, but the “favorites” which include the staples. Not surprisingly, the annual food competition usually includes a winner that is a traditional fair item, like the corndog (‘22) Candied Apple ('21) and a fried Oreo this year!”
More days that were record attendance than rainouts makes this fair manager circumspect about how to define success in 2023. “ Given the miserable weather, I would say the fair exceeded expectations.”