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Three Weekend Format & Anticipation-Building Marketing Offsets Heat Wave at Maryland State Fair
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What some claimed to be Maryland's hottest September in years – plus some stormy days – took a toll on attendance, but the 2023 Maryland State Fair – its second year as a three-weekend as opposed to 12-consecutive-day fair – overcame these obstacles to achieve success.  Attendance reached  518,000 – about 50,000 fewer than 2022's outing, but when an event attracts more than half a million folks, its stake holders are pleased.

The Maryland State Fair & Agricultural Society's main mission is agriculture education. 4-H/FFA and Open Class youth and adults presented thousands of farm and garden, livestock, horse, home arts and other exhibits that educated fairgoers about the importance of agriculture. “It was encouraging to see that the Society's mission was met as families and individuals enjoyed the fun and educational displays in the barns, buildings, the U-Learn Agriculture Education Zone, U-Learn Barn, Birthing Center, the Horseland Tent, Nature Play Space, and the Fair Museum” said D. Andrew “Andy” Cashman. General Manager. Maryland State Fair.

Heat Wave

A moody Mother Nature suppressed attendance on some key days. Temperatures soared into the upper 90s during the second weekend, and high temperatures and scattered storms plagued the closing weekend, According to David Gordon, Assistant General Manager, the new extended format mitigated the weather challenges. “We all managed in battling the heat for that (middle) weekend, but we saw more of a steady crowd on all the days of the fair. We also held different ride specials and spread acts throughout the days so had a good steady crowd. The three weekends work well because it gives you more of a chance to make up for bad weekdays. Attendance was staggered. We may do more tweaking with the hours next year. The midway and vendor workers also get a little break. The staff really appreciates it.”

The attendance dip lowered revenue, but people were “spending at rates basically similar to last year. They haven't lowered their spending. We had some price increases. We were spending more. But the increases were nominal, but that didn't hinder their ability to spend. It was strong, but it was spread out throughout the day and people were not out as late.

He added that the fair offset the prices with strategic discounts. “We did more flash sales and specials, and had more advance sales this year.”

Youth Policy

As a response to the rising concern of disruptive teens, the fair adapted chaperone polices similar to malls, amusement parks and other fairs, not allowing unattended teenagers on the grounds after 5:00pm. “We instituted a youth-chaperone policy, and we did see a dip in ridership because of the policy.”

The new policy coincided with increased security measures at the gate, including metal detectors, wands, bag-checks and more security personnel. “We switched to metal detectors and a wand, then a bag check as a secondary backup. You definitely need more people at the gate because we were getting really slammed around 5 o'clock. We were able process through 22 people per unit an hour.”

Did the new system work? He noted, even though the security may have curtailed some attendance, “We didn't have the scuffles between teenagers like we did last year.”

Prepare For The Fair

The marketing campaign for the 2023 Maryland State Fair focused on anticipation building. This year's tagline was Prepare For The Fair. The tagline was most visibly used on videos that played the idea that the only thing more exciting than the fair was the excitement you feel about going to the fair. The spots cleverly play with perspective while encouraging ticket purchases. One of the most prominent shows a young woman's face happily enjoying what initially appears to be a concert but as the lens pulls back the woman is sitting on her boyfriend's shoulders and actually watching a grandstand show from the state fair on a wide-screen television in a Best Buy-like electronics store. The store clerk at first watches the couple in disbelief, than starts dancing along as the music plays. The information about the fair is conveyed through text and by the narrator.

A similar commercial delving into the anticipating building had a woman whose hair is blowing in the wind as if she's riding a roller coaster.  Gradually the camera reveals it's a hand-drier in a washroom and she's only dreaming about the coaster. “We built excitement around the brand,” he said. “We had a full-marketing campaign.”

The anticipation-building marketing strategy was not limited to the video spots. “Throughout the year, we had social media posts about the fair, like 4-Hers having calf born. We posted all the steps. We also did things with different hashtags”

In addition, the fair's “Summer Interns” created a TikTok page that focused on the concert line-up. “We turned it over to young people to create that content. We kept it in-house.

The radio-ad portion of the budget now included a larger component of Spotify advertisements, taking full advantage of the options the platform offered. “We did great online presales with Spotify, you can really drill down with the artists and reach markets we haven't.”

According to the fair's press release: “Maryland State Fair Carnival Operator Deggeller Attractions presented an exciting and colorful Midway with a variety of thrilling rides, fun games, and flavorful fair foods on the Main Midway and in Kiddie Land. Robocars transforming vehicles and The Strolling Piano added more excitement as they wandered through the Midway and Kiddie Land. “”We added back a roller coaster that hadn't been here since before thee pandemic,” said Gordon, “The Giant Wheel was the biggest grossing ride, which it always is.”

The fair featured 30 food vendors as well as three separate dining & drinking venues: The Maryland Foods Pavilion, Dairy Bar, and the Chesapeake Beverage Garden. New vendors included Jimmy's Seafood, Jake's Grill, Deddles Donuts, Deep Fried Watermelon, Cambodian Street Corn, Zero Degrees Freeze Dried Candy, The Boba Joynt Bubble Tea, Yea Mon Coffee, and Zespri Kiwi sampling.

“The seafood in the Maryland Foods Pavilion does well, we fill them with vendors from the local area. The new pit barbecue vendor, Jake's Grill, did very well. If a company has a good reputation, that brings a lot of good news and it's of a win-win for us to have the local tie-in.”

He added, the newest and perhaps most baffling fair good item introduced this year was “Fried Watermelon.”

The later summer heatwave that plagued the mid-Atlantic region may have tamped down on attendance some days, but “as a fair manager, looking back at the year before and put it in a perspective, 2022 was a good year, but it was very, very good weather. This weather was different, so having the three weekends helped us. But even on the 97 degree days, people were coming out and enjoying our air conditioned buildings, that shows we have the support of the community and we had a successful fair. People need history and tradition. They long for those traditions that have been kept over time, and every year the animals, the participating youth, the midway rides, we bring them those traditions and keep them new.”
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