The July heatwave that plagued much of the U.S. did not leave the Ohio State Fair unscathed. But as impacts go, the celebration of everything Buck Eye State was considered successful.
An improving economy, strong marketing, an exciting entertainment line-up and a supportive community all contributed to what was a very upbeat event, in spite of an attendance decline of 6 percent. But even with this significant dip, the fair recorded its second best fair since going to a 12-day format in 2004.
"We had a great one again," said Virgil Strickler, General Manager, Ohio Expo Center & State Fair. "Every year we like to beat the fair we had before, and for the past three to five years, we had great fairs, and last year was our best year. We've really proven ourselves in terms of security, beautification, the cleanliness of the grounds, and the entertainment we have. We planted more than 40,000 flowers this year, and we work really hard to keep the grounds clean and beautiful, I've never heard so many compliments. We give our families who come to the Ohio State Fair a diversified value for their dollar."
Weather was culprit behind the attendance drop, "most days were incredibly hot with significant humidity and temperatures above 90 degrees, and we had untimely rain on three or four occasions," said Alicia Shoults, Marketing & Public Relations Director, Ohio Expo Center & State Fair.
Attendance did reach 921,214, a hardy turnout considering the severity of the heat wave. "We have a lot of shaded areas, all our buildings are air conditioned and we have a lot of buildings on the grounds that are all used as part of the fair," said Strickler. "We have a lot of options for people who visit the fair."
Per capita spending rose about 5 percent, indicating that the fairgoers are in a spending mood. "The economy has been better this year," said Strickler. "They still want value and that's what we offer them."
Shoults pointed out that the fair has built upon community support, which was actually strengthened by the value the fair offered them during pre-recovery economic times. "The economic downturn caused people to look more closely at their spending and rather than full-fledged vacations, many choose to take staycations," said. "This worked out well for fairs, and during this time, I feel that we have built a relationship with those individuals who now choose to continue to add the Ohio State Fair into their summer plans as a family tradition."
She also emphasized that the fair also introduced new amenities, including a brand-new 100,000 square-foot building, increased grounds entertainment and attractions, added a new mobile app and increased infant care stations. "We continue to enhance the fairgoer experience," she said. "I'm sure all fairs would love to break records every year, but by and far, our goal is to put on a great fair - and we did!"
Social Media Marketing
The Ohio State Fair had an advertising budget of about $350,000, which Shoults said included print, television, radio, web, social media, outdoor and movie theatre and showed no allocation shift compared to last year.
The real action in fair marketing in 2016 was an expanded media presence. According to Shoults, Snapchat has been a growing social media platform, the fair was unable to "have Snapchat community geofilters approved for the Ohio State Fair due to the significant cost for branded geofilters," she said. "Unfortunately, we were rejected about four times. However, geofilters were used with by fair sponsors in conjunction with the event for positive results."
For example, the American Dairy Association Mideast, purchased a geofilter for the "legen-dairy" butter cow display.
The most effective social media promotions were giveaways, which Shoults said were "incredibly popular". The giveaway promotions were on all Ohio State Fair social media platforms, beginning in May and have a diverse range of prizes. "We kick off giveaways on all of our social media pages for fair admission or concert tickets and conduct a giveaway nearly every single day," said Shoults, who added that giveaways for "Jeff Dunham were the most popular and engaging."
In addition, the fair took advantage of what Shoults describes as emerging trends on social media. "Using Facebook Live videos during large events and using features like Boomerang to create memorable video snippets for outlets such as Instagram. For the second year, we have had one individual dedicated to posting on social media for the full duration of the Fair, and that has worked very well. We communicate closely with various departments at the Fair to ensure that we are aware of any happenings and can post it on social media - one example being a livestock exhibitor who proposed to his girlfriend with a banner asking "Will you be my Grand Champion Wife?" - a post that was among our most popular for the Fair. Our posts featuring tradition and iconic features of the Fair were by far the most popular, as they encourage patrons to engage and share their memories on our pages."
But iconic traditional fair imagery was not the only internet marketing by the fair. The Ohio State Fair also took advantage of the latest mobile internet trend of July - Pokemon Go. The Ohio State Fair had 17 Pokestops and two gems. "This definitely helped attendance, and we had to tell our security staff to be aware of clusters of people looking at their phones. You could also see people getting excitement when they won a new gem, it was a lot of fun."
Amusements of America
The Ohio State Fair midway - provided by Amusements of America - featured about 76 rides, and generated approximately $2.3 million in revenue, which was down about 6 percent from 2015. But, as Rob Vivona, General Manger of Amusements of America commented, "we were up 20 percent last year, which was a record year for us at the fair."
He added, "the really hot weather is not the best for rides during the day. But the nights were good. People are spending when they do come out. "
The best midway promotions were ride-all-day wristbands, now available every day of the fair, with a noticeable increase for online sales. New rides for the fair included an Orbiter, Elephant Ride, Alien Abduction, and Starship, stated Vivona.
Amusements of America subcontracted with several other ride companies, including Belle City and Jeremy Floyd. According to the fair, the top 10 rides by gross at the fair were the Skyglider - which is owned by the Ohio State Fair, followed by Giant Slide, Giant Wheel, Crazy Mouse, Fireball, Rock-N-Roll, Space Roller, Wave Swinger, Moonraker, and Pharaoh's Fury.
"When the weather is good, it is a great fair," said Vivona. "It was a great fair this year, we were just down a little bit. They use every resource at this fair, it's a large fairgrounds, and a beautiful fairgrounds. They always are bringing in new exhibits and attractions and that brings out the community."
For Amusement of America, their 2016 fair route has been plagued by uncooperative weather. "Late spring we hit a rough patch with rain, and the heat heart us, but things are picking up again in the end of summer," he added.
Dolly & Dunham
The fair remains committed to separate admission for concerts, and hosted two sell-outs this year - Dolly Parton and Jeff Dunham, and also was a stage for the final world tour of country music legend Kenny Rogers. According to Shoults, the Keith Sweat / After 7 concert, was also well received.
Shoults admits that entertainment booking continues to "to trend toward being a seller's market," with no relief in sight.
Entertainment costs are undeniably rising, but tracking an exact metric is problematic. "It is hard to put an exact dollar amount on this, because individual concert acts demand different prices and in order to book acts that are appropriate for our market and our line-up, we may end up paying more one year over the next," she said. " Fortunately, grounds entertainment act prices have remained relatively stable."
Like many fairs, the Ohio State Fair relies heavily on classic Rock and Country acts as a foundation for the headline entertainment at the fair, rounded out by Contemporary Christian, R&B and Comedy, such as Dunham. But the reality is that heritage acts are not growing, as exemplified by Kenny Rogers knowing when to fold them. "There are a finite number of the heritage acts like Kenny Rogers, and replacing those is hard," she said. "The artists guarantees are higher, and there are more music festivals, so it poses a challenge for us and it is harder and harder to do a diverse line up."
Booking is earlier, but singing deals for all 12 nights of the fair can often come later than usual. "We have offers out there, and not everyone is committing early. By March, we are still rushing to fill in dates. We are in a good fiscal position, so we have been able to accommodate the increase in prices and guarantees. But I anticipate another challenging year. Fairgoers expect headline entertainment and big names at the Ohio State Fair."
Fried Buckeyes & Bacon
About 190 food vendors were at the Ohio Sate Fair, with concession gross reaching approximately $4.75 million, according to Shoults, a healthy showing for fair cuisine, although about 8 percent lower than last year.
"This year, we had two new vendors of note," said Shoults. " Big G's Food Service, serving alligator - a new delicacy for our Fair, and McLellan's Shrimp Shack, serving a number of seafood items including jumbo crab-stuffed tots and shrimp and bacon kebabs. Both seemed to be popular among fairgoers."
But the Buckeye State Fair-goers showed their annual preference for the unusual and the deep fried. "This year's newest creation, bacon-wrapped deep-fried Oreos and the latter addition of bacon-wrapped deep-fried Buckeyes, which is a chocolate and peanut butter candy, and that proved to be quite popular."
She added that if there was a trend among the fair food offerings It was among "some healthier options, like gluten free and dairy-free items. Healthier smoothies were very popular. Because it was so hot, the cold treats were doing very well this year."