It may have been Marlene Jolliffe's fourth year as Director of the State Fair of Virginia and Vice President of operations for Commonwealth Fairs & Events, but it was her 30th anniversary in fair management. What kind of fair was the 2018 celebration of everything Virginia?
“We had a wonderful fair, we had about 10 days of sunshine,” said Jolliffe. “Weather always defines what you do and dictates the success of the event.”
While it may not have rained. weather did impact the fair. The State Fair of Virginia dodged a bullet by missing Hurricane Michael but its aftermath did cause some issues. “The rain cause wetness issues. We had soft ground and mud.
Otherwise the weather was sometimes “a little hot, low in the 90s, but we had some cool temps at night.”
What made the fair so wonderful was of course an attendance uptick of about 4 percent. attendance hit 250,000 – 10,000 more people came than 2017 and it was the highest attended State Fair of Virginia since 2014.
Mother Nature's kindness however cannot be credited as the entire reason for a robust increase in attendance. A more stable Virginia economy compared to 2017, an upgraded marketing campaign, midway improvements and an evolving entertainment strategy were all factors that Jolliffe implemented that reaped rewards in 2018.
“I think the economy is now very solid in Virginia and the Upper-South/Mid-Atlantic region,” said Jolliffe. “The unemployment rate is much lower than in other years. If you look at the gate which was up or compare with the carnival and food spending, they were way up. People were spending. We were also drawing from more money.
An upgraded and more purposeful marketing campaign also played an instrumental role into helping the 2018 fair succeed success. The State Fair of Virginia's marketing has a long term brand building strategy. It's tagline is simple and direct—“ a very basic blue ribbon that shows the Best of Virginia,” said Jolliffe – and has been the same theme as last year. “We do a three year rotation for our marketing, we don't do a new theme each year. My philosophy is that the mix of product we present in the fair should drive attendance. The marketing should be focused on the product itself.”
Hence, the blue ribbon imagery – blue ribbons being an iconic symbol instantly associated with the fair experience. The fair paired the blue ribbons with iconic fair imagery to create a look and feel that underscored the traditional and community-oriented experience of the fairs as embodying the “best of Virginia.”
The fair's advertising budget – approximately $244,000 – was slightly lower than 2017, the marketing content itself underwent an upgrade by increasing the allocation for images. “We spent more money on a high quality, good photography. “We are redoing all our visuals. The pictures tell the real story. We featured more real people and real scenes. We're lucky because the setting of the fairground in the rolling hills of Virginia is very beautiful.”
In terms of media buys, more money was spent on radio to boost its entertainment quotient, and replaced some internet advertising with strengthened partnerships designed to drive increased traffic to the fair's website. “We have a great partnership with the Richmond Times Dispatch, who produce a daily guide to the fair and we placed banner ads there. Our website is strong.”
Jolliffe noted that the fair's social media presence – fueled in no small part by the upgrade in photography – grew in 2018. For instance, the Facebook total hits increased 44 percent to more than 100,000. “Good photography helped build our Facebook Community and works really well on Instagram. Our strong Facebook community we use to pitch sponsors. We are doing really well with social media because it allows us to market who we really are.”
Advance sales tickets were down this year due to the loss of the fair's previous advanced ticket sale partner and its array of outlets. The fair had to scramble to save its advanced sales program and in lieu of a partner this year, handled processing which also meant a steeper discount than usual and moving up the date of advance tickets going on sale by two months. “We went on sale the first of July and pushed it hard and they were steeply discounted. Our advanced sales were down, we couldn't find the right partner in time to replace all the offsite sales we lost. The right partner adds another marketing element. There's a lot of competition in the Richmond market, so not having that partner hurt us. But the weather was so good that our ticket sales at the gates were up. If the weather wasn't as good, if we had rain that would have been a good true test of how much the drop in advanced sales hurt us.”
The State of Virginia's midway was provided by Deggeller Attractions, and featured 55 rides and according to Jolliffe, revenue was up 11 percent due mainly to midway promotions. An attendance uptick and Indian Summer fall weather encouraged longer stays and more rides. “We had a heavy wrist band fair,” said Jolliffe. “It is hard to tell which rides had the highest volume.”
Deggeller Attractions showcased three new rides, all children rides: Dragon Coaster, Safari Bus, and Teacups. Popular adult rides included Fireball, Giant Wheel, Starship, Tilt-a-Whirl and Zipper.
The midway was divided into a Kidway and Midway Madness. The midway also benefited from a new location, “more front and center,” said Jolliffe. “That helped drive up interest, it looks good and the flow works better for the fair. Part of what we sell is the visual. We also have new asphalt walkways that people appreciated and helps with flow. That drives up ridership and revenues.”
The carnival company also stepped up their 2018 game in terms of both appearance and customer comfort. “The Deggellers did a great job with umbrellas and seating. They made a neat logo out of sand and really did great stuff with landscaping. In the Kidway, they did some great things with pumpkins, scarecrows and hay bales. They work hard to make the landscape look sharp, and it welcomes people to the event.
Headline entertainment at the State Fair of Virginia has been an evolving process. Due to high costs and inconsistent drawing inability, the fair did away with national headliners. Last year, the Fair focused on regional musicians, capitalizing on their local followings. This new entertainment structure accrued savings by the fair, but “it didn't have the buzz we wanted. Local musicians don't get the radio attention.”
This year, the fair went for “the middle ground.” The State Fair of Virginia hosted the Firefighter Combat Challenge—which has been broadcasted on ESPN— which got media coverage and attracted firefighters from a reported seven state sand as far away as Canada and Kuwait.
The middle ground also meant a shift towards bigger but not outrageously priced concerts: Craig Campbell, Dylan Scott, Trent Harmon, Natalie Grant , Chris Lane, Scotty McCreery and The Crooked Road Showcase—Ralph Stanley II and The Clinch Mountain Boys – the latest iteration of this multigenerational bluegrass tradition, a show that was partially sponsored by The Virginia Commission for the Arts and the National Endowment for the Arts. While free with gate admission, the fair also implemented a Blue Ribbon premium ticket.
The best premium ticket sales were for Natalie Grant, but the program was successful enough for the fair to continue in a similar direction. “We were testing this and it went pretty well.
She added, “we spent more on radio, because that's where you sell tickets when there's an entertainer like Natalie Grant involved. We haven't answered the question on what we will do with do in the future. Our place in this market is unique, there are a lot of concert venues. So we will be looking at more of a mix, adding regional acts with a strong following and using bigger name acts. The strategy for a positive return on investment for a national acts is to look what else is going on with food and beverage sales. You need to focus on selling the event and everything about the events, and when you do that, you add live music to the event and that is just icing on the cake.”
?The State Fair of Virginia continues to evolve, and like most fairs it is a continual work in progress. That's nothing new to Jolliffe as she celebrates three decades in fair management and the constant work of balancing the need to keep things relevant while maintaining the tried and true traditions that keep fairs an essential annual tradition for a community.
“ I've seen a lot in my 30 years and I do not try to predict a the future,” she said. “We deliver a product, but you have to be more savvy how you deliver that product. Young people are still getting married and having children and the core element of the fair is keeping things the way they remember when they were children. Part of the fair is to give grandparents the chance to share this special tradition with their grandchildren.”
She added, “we continue to make a good statement in this market. The changes we have made have been accepted and that is very rewarding. We are firmly on a good path.”