March used to be when the State Fair of West Virginia launched its annual marketing campaign for its August fair, which is said to date to 1854, making the fair older than the state itself -which was formed at the outbreak of the Civil War (the first official State Fair of West Virginia fair was held in 1869).
But one first for the 2015 edition of the State Fair of West Virginia actually started in 2014. The fair unleashed the promotion for this August event in December, a strategy that paid off, countering the calendar quirk of a late Labor Day, which prompted schools to start earlier in August, negatively impacting the fair.
Alabama Sells Out
Increased competition and skyrocketing artist fees have made the entertainment buying environment a severe seller's market. When an act like Alabama is available, the earlier the better is an optimum strategy. "We usually announce the shows in March, but Alabama is such a popular band, we started with a Christmas promotion for tickets, and we had several people who came because we marketed it as a Christmas present," said Kelly Collins, CEO of the State Fair of West Virginia. "The track seating sold out in 20 minutes."
Alabama opened the fair on August 14, with a sold out grandstand performance, "and they were great too," said Collins Not only did the band fulfill expectations, starting the marketing of the fair three months earlier than usual - a full business quarter - reaped other rewards. "To have that income from ticket sales three months earlier than usual was very helpful to this year's fair. We were better able to market the other shows, which we basically did in March like we usually do."
The Southern Rock stalwarts also compensated for a diminished younger audience. "Colleges and high schools are starting earlier every summer and with Labor Day coming so late, all those students went back to school before the fair started."
Instead, the Alabama booking by the fair maximized its targeting of an older audience unencumbered by the school year calendar . "We knew that schools were starting, so we shifted our demographic marketing towards an older crowd," she said.
The shift worked, "2015 was a great year for the State Fair of WV," said Collins. " We started with a sold out grandstand show with Alabama on Friday, August 14 and followed up with one of the best days in Fair history."
Other paid admission entertainment - which Collins said did well but not quite the same level of Alabama - included: Third Day, Easton Corbin with Special Guest A Thousand Horses, 3 Doors Down, The Roots and Boots Tour featuring Sammy Kershaw, Aaron Tippin and Joe Diffie and the Buckin' B Bull Ride with Special Guest Craig Wayne Boyd.
She added, "We also increased the talent on the Telos Free Stage, with Jimmy Fortune, Pam Tillis and country new-comer Clare Dunn."
Economy & Weather
Alabama led the way for a successful State of West Virginia fair, which recorded an attendance of 160,000, which Collins said was "slightly above last year," and was accompanied by a merciful Mother Nature, "We couldn't have asked for better weather for the 2015 State Fair," she said. "It was sunny and beautiful all week, with just a few scattered showers. "
In addition, signs of an economic recovery helped the fair. "West Virginia is known for its coal industry, and when that industry suffers, so does the entire state," sad Collins. "We see that trend at the State Fair. We see it in our finance and we hear about it from our fairgoers. However, we have changed some of our marketing to highlight the fair as a staycation. A lot of people can't afford a full vacation, so they are looking to alternatives and the fair can be the perfect day trip. This year, we did see a bump in spending across the board, which is hopefully a sign the economy is bouncing back."
Given the positive factors of good weather and improving factors, Alabama acted as a catalyst leading to a upbeat fair. Unfortunately, Alabama may have been an anomaly in what remains a severe sellers market in the headline entertainment segment of the industry and Collins is not confident the fair can catch this lightening in a bottle again. "Luckily, we had a great year for entertainment, but I don't believe things will get easier for us," said Collins. "Talent buying is becoming more and more difficult for the fair industry."
The challenge is that costs are rising faster than budgets, and finding that optimum artist who can sell tickets to the fair going demographic remains a challenge. "Artists are getting more expensive, production is getting more expensive. You look at artists you can afford and they don't have the star power you need."
Whether the StateFair of West Virginia can find an artist worthy of a December kick-off for the 2016 fair seemed unlikely, she added.
Nonetheless, the fair could not ask for a better start for its 2015 edition.
"The first Saturday of the Fair was a record day with over 31,000 people in attendance," she said. "That led to the Carnival's best day ever here at the State Fair of West Virginia. The second Saturday, was also a huge day for us and ended up being the carnival's second-best day ever here.
Reithoffer Shows provided the fair's midway featuring 50 rides, with the leading ride being the Dutch Wheel. "They had the same line up as last year," said Collins. "They do a great job."
Midway spending was on par or up slightly from last year, said Collins. The impediment to a more robust showing for the midway was the older skew of the general fairgoers. "We did see a significant shift in our weekend vs weekday crowds. Because this was the first year schools in the State and surrounding areas were in session either before or during the fair. Despite that change, we still had a great week. "
She added, "the older crowd doesn't go on the rides like the younger customer, so if anyone was hurt it was Reithoffer."
What made ride revenue suffer seems to have had the reverse effect on fair cuisine. Food spending was up by 17 percent, a record increase for the fair. "The ride spending was not up as much as the food and beverage numbers."
The fair featured 75 food vendors - which includes the midway vendors - and Collins speculated that several factors were behind this push. "The economy is seeing a rebound, so people were more comfortable spending money and our weather was good, so people stayed longer at the fair and when they stay, they eat and drink."
Prior fairs had some unseasonably cool weather for August, but this year the summer heat lingered into the night and the optimum temperatures had positive effects in several F&B segments. "We saw an increase in drink sales," said Collins, Alcohol is only served in the grandstand area, and it was only the second year. "We sold more beer this year than last year, but that was mainly because the shows were well attended."
But with temperatures in the 80s well into the evening, "water and drink sales went up and the ice cream stands did record business. All of them had long lines," said Collins.
The new foods gaining notoriety this year were grilled bacon on a stick with a maple glaze and lobster fries, said Collins, adding that the Cinn-Sational Cinnamon Rolls was probably the number one seller at the fair. But the signature West Virginia State Fair are Ben-Ellen donuts, made fresh at their stand and a fair staple for more than 60 years. "They are one of the longest standing vendors at the fair, and everyone lines up to get them. They always have the longest lines."
Collins is a native West Virginian, having participated in 4-H programs growing up and was in the livestock competition department of the fair for more than five years before being promoted to CEO after last year's fair.
Much of the upcoming marketing plans were set by the time she took over the position. "Our media mix was pretty much the same as 2014. I started as CEO at a time when most of our big decisions were already made and the marketing plan was in place," she said.
However, she did oversee a shift to more online marketing. "We do a lot of television placement, but as with print, we have to be on the websites , which drives people to our websites. We can promote contests on the website."
But as CEO, this young fair professional has been actively revving up the social media presence of the fair. "We have seen an enormous growth in our social media accounts over the last year, not only in number of fans, but also in participation," she said. " More and more fans are communicating directly with us over social media, letting us know what they do and don't like. We can now use social media as a marketing tool, but also a communication tool."
She pointed out that the Facebook followers have soared to 60,000 - from only 20,000 in 2013. "We started being more active on social media throughout the year. We have a small staff, but the fairgoers are more active and involved with us because of social media. We run contests, but we also answer a lot of questions."
She added, ", this year we pushed the hashtag "#sfwv2015" heavily and added Instagram stops around the Fair. We saw an immediate great return, with over 700 fan photos tagged just on Instagram."
The State Fair of West Virginal may actually predate West Virginia, but for the inaugural CEO year for Collins, she admits that "2015 was a great first year for me personally as the new CEO. I had a great support staff during my first fair. We could not have asked for better weather and logistically it was a breeze."
As planning for 2016 commences, one issue is how to reconcile the earlier start of school so the younger fairgoer population can be increased.
"We did learn a lot with schools in the state starting during the fair on how our schedule and programming may have to change in the future," she said. "However, we are looking at it as an opportunity, not a challenge."