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Topsfield Fair Turned 200 by Recommitting to Agriculture
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Celebrating a 200th birthday for a fair known as America’s Oldest Agricultural Fair meant reemphasizing why the annual event has long remained a beloved annual tradition for its community. The Topsfield Fair in Essex County, Massachusetts, which began as a “cattle show” in 1818 when the Essex Agricultural Society formed to hold an annual event "to promote and improve the agricultural interests of farmers and others in Essex County."

Two centuries later, the fair attracts in excess of 400,000 (the fair does not release attendance or other data) but agricultural ethos remains at the core of the seasonal get-together. The bicentennial edition of the Topsfield Fair was commemorated with a hard-cover coffee table book produced in collaboration with the prestigious Yankee Magazine, depicting a the earliest midways and other nostalgic historical nuggets of the past, such as the dog races the fair held during a bygone era.

New Farm Education

But it wasn’t all history when it came to agriculture and America’s oldest agricultural fair in 2018.  The fair implemented the Topsfair Educational Program specifically designed for students K- 12. The new program not only broadened awareness of farming and the critical role,  it plays in the community, it was a way to reach younger fairgoers – crucial for a fair taking place when school is in session – while also bolstering the fair on low attended days.  “We had a huge education component this year,” said David Thompson, Spokesman, Topsfield Fair. “We had more than 15,000 students from different schools in Massachusetts..”

The program was formatted for the different grades, and included interactive exhibits such as an animatronic cow for milking demonstrations or beehives to show how honey is produced. The program ran throughout the week. “We had more elementary school than high schools. But we did a lot of focus on inner city schools, many of these kids had never seen a farm or did not realize where fruits and vegetables come from. We had 15 different programs schools could cycle through. We had a robust curriculum tied to the Common Core, the State of Massachusetts required program of study. We supplied teachers with teaching materials and worked with the schools. We had groups of home-schooled students. Some schools would not have been able to participate because they have a free-lunch program for their students, so for those schools we provided hot dogs and milk for those students.” 

Agriculture was showcased in a variety ways, such as the various barns – Fruits & Vegetables, Flowers, etc., --  and a new for this year, a Hay Bale Tossing Contest. “The biggest ag draw is the New England Giant Pumpkin Weigh Off,” said Thompson. “We didn’t break a world record but we did break a fair record this year. It receives international media coverage.”

Marketing Themes 

Agriculture and related community-oriented events being so essential to the fair were also part of its 2018 marketing campaign.  While the bicentennial hook offered new promotional opportunities, the fair’s marketing tagline remained the literarily time-tested, farming boast. “We continue to stress America’s Oldest Agricultural Fair in all our marketing,” he said. 

The fair’s breakdown of media allocation remained essentially the same, “we spent more money primarily on TV and Radio, especially radio,” he said. “We spent about the same on billboards and less on print.”

The TV and Radio sponsored spots targeted drive-time and weather announcements with shorter commercials. “We pre-planned the spots, and focused on weather forecasts and traffic reports. We shifted the mix of ads, and made them shorter. They were 5, 10 or 15 seconds. When people are thinking about the fair, they are looking at the weather and they hear about come to the Topsfield Fair, just a mention about  America’s Oldest Agricultural Fair and we did include to celebrate the fact what is our 200th anniversary.”

Social media has been a robust and instrumental component of the fair’s marketing program, requiring only a few tweaks for this year. “We continue to place greater emphasis on it each year and this year we added Snap Chat filters. Social media has continued being a major part of our marketing.”

In addition to the increasing their social media presence, the fair added new Facebook contests, where fairgoers were asked their favorite fair food. “We had a March Madness type contest, where we pitted items against each other until one final food won.”

Food had an outsized presence at this year’s fair. The Topsfield event showcases 85 vendors and a major drawing element of the fair. Advanced ticket sales – pushed strongly on Facebook and other social media outlets – emphasized discounts, such as $10 admission fees (as opposed to $12 on weekdays and $15 weekends), three-day passes for $25 and ride tickets of 10 rides for $24. Unlike many fairs however, the Topsfield Fair included a discounted Food Voucher for $6 (worth  $8), “We saw an increase in purchase of all advanced tickets,” said Thompson. 

Voted number #1 in the Facebook food face-off was Leonard’s Apple Crisp, a perennial enticement   and signature Topsfield cuisine. “Favorites at the Topsfield Fair continue to be Lernard’s Apple Pie Crisp, Whoopie Pies, cider doughnuts, gobbler sandwich, turkey legs, and German fries, he said. “Food sales were up, The food vendors were very happy.” 

Thompson noticed that there were no “huge new fried foods, like fried cotton candy or fried bubble gum, those fair foods don’t seem as popular. A new vendor this year was a bubble tea stand.”

The midway at the Topsfield Fair was provided by Fiesta Shows, which Thompson said featured approximately 50 rides at the 2018 event. Thompson said revenue was up on the midway, with the popular rides being the Giant Slide and Pirate Ship. New rides at the fair included the Scrambler and Top Gun, and the fair’s website proclaimed: “Be one of the first to experience Fiesta Show's exhilarating new ride, the Family Spinning Coaster!”  Although a rainy day caused an early midway closure – squelching the midway participation in a new $2 promotion (for “two” centuries) – Thompson said the midway revenue “was up this year.”

Ticketed & Free

The fair offers ticketed  headline entertainment and free with fair admission headline entertainment. The fair only had two ticketed shows – a Monster Truck Show and on the closing Saturday, Martina McBride.”  Other than those two nights, the arena features fair-related free shows, including horse shows and a demolition derby. Sometimes the fair will add an additional ticketed show, such as a Children’s show with Disney Stars, but the exclusion of additional shows was not due to rising entertainment costs plaguing many fairs, but rather timing.  “Some years we have a kids concert/show on the final Saturday, the same day we have the headliner concert, but we don’t do this every year,” said Thompson. “It is expensive to justify an entertainer and it is always more challenging to justify a weekday entertainer. Our board decides whether it is worth it or not, but it comes down to pricing and scheduling for that particular year.”

What is more profitable – motor spectacle or a nationally known superstar – for the ticketed events?  “Those are very different audiences. Monster Trucks are a male driven audience and Martina skewed more female. You want both audiences for the fair.”

The free grandstand acts tended towards fair stalwarts and established legacy artists, which this year included: Chubby Checker, Charlie Daniels Band, and Sara Evans. “The grandstands were very popular this year,” he said. “What surprises me is how popular acts like Chubby Checker are. They pack the place, they’ve been around all this time they still have a following. They definitely draw in an older crowd, but they did very well this year. With the oldies acts you always get a following, and you can book them but every few years. You do not want the same entertainment every year.”

The 2018 Topsfield Fair also benefitted by an upbeat New England economy. “It’s been consistent for the last couple  of years,” he said. “People seem to spending money, their top priority was food, but the other vendors were doing very well. People still wanted discounts, which is another reason why I think advanced ticket sales went up this year.”

Of course, a cooperative weather system helped matters. “The weather was very good for both the opening and closing weekends, which makes all the difference in the success of the Fair. We average 400,000 and we were up from there this year. But we’re weather dependent and rain kills us. We had two very nice weekends. There’s nothing sadder than vendors frowning on a rainy day, knowing they bought all of these supplies.”

Seemed there’s no better birthday gift for a 200 year old fair then back-to-back warm and sunny weekends. “Weather makes or breaks a fair and we were fortunate enough to have nice weather. This allowed more people to attend than last year and celebrate the 200th anniversary of America’s Oldest  Agricultural Fair. We increased our social media presence and pre-fair discounts, which were very popular and we expanded our education program. The board looked at our program and knew it could be better. We brought the next generation nearer to the farm.”
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