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New Marketing Program Helped Arizona State Fair Survive Hurricane Sergio
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Like several fairs in 2019, extreme weather forced a full day of closure for the Arizona State Fair and a steep dip in attendance. Unfortunately the day was a high-attendance Saturday, taking a significant toll on the overall fair. Attendance still reached a substantial 1,107,696, but still a significant drop compared to 1,136,702 in 2017.

The culprit was Hurricane Sergio, at one time a category-4 Hurricane that hit the Southwest and Mexico. The fair had opened on the Saturday, but as the weather reports grew more dire, the fair shortly closed, setting a record for the lowest attendance – 3,146 – in fair history, according to Brianda Martinez, spokesperson, Arizona State Fair. 

Severe Saturation
“Nobody remembers if we have ever had to close a day,” said Martinez – the fair is 135 years old and the official press release stated the closure was the first in “more than three decades.” 

The fairgrounds sustained severe saturation, although it was able to open the next day. “We did have a group of operations workers stay on the grounds and we were at work the following day. We had a lot of mud, there was a record amount of rainfall, some areas had to be closed down, and we have big grassy areas that were closed down. We put up stanchions around areas that were too muddy. But we opened the next day. The Saturday that we closed was a peak day but the following Sunday the weather was nice and we had a good attendance.”

Sergio blew through about mid-fair which at least gave the celebration of everything Arizona time to recoup some losses. “Although we had to close on a Saturday due to rain and flooding, we were able to make up approximately 51,500 in attendance over the next two weeks,” she said.

In the end, the fair' was “an absolute roller coaster ride, with the usual event related ups and downs, spins and jolts, but ended at the top.

An upbeat economy and a drastic overhaul of the marketing direction for the fair were crucial in softening the negative impact of severe weather and a closed day. Martinez pointed out that the most effective promotion reflected the community-oriented mission of this Arizona institution was the annual food drive, which is also designed to pick up a soft weekday. “We Care Wednesdays, continues to be our most effective promotion,” she said, noting that this year “94,996 pounds of food was donated to St. Mary's Food Bank - an increase of 4,000 pounds from 2017.  The program allows us to give back to the community while providing free admission, and is sponsored by a local auto dealership.”

She noted that compared to more recent years, the Arizona economy in 2018 was stronger, but the cautious optimism among consumers may have meant more disposable income, but accompanied with a keen eye for discounts, hence the success of admission gate savings.

“The economy is more stable this year, there is much more wider employment,” said Martinez. “But we had some very tough years, so people are spending their money wisely and looking for discount promotions. Our vendors were happy, people were spending. They were looking for a promotion with a good cause, but also saving money was something they want to be taking advantage of.”    

Eliminating Television
The fair's advertising budget was $600,000, the same as last year. The critical difference this year was shedding old media and reinforcing its presence on the newer platforms. “We eliminated all network and cable television this year, focusing on our digital strategy,” said Martinez. “We did do billboards, but we added Hulu, Spotify, and Pandora. Doing away with television gave us a lot of more leeway into places we couldn't fully afford before.” 

In addition, both the marketing content and new media placements were more focused this year. “We tried to target the 32 year old mom,” she said. “She is the one in the home who makes the money decisions, where the family is going to spend their money. We targeted that consumer, especially on social media.”  

The 2018 marketing tagline was “Making Memories” – certainly an effective slogan on which to base a marketing campaign for a state fair, an event redolent with nostalgia. But it also adeptly corresponds to the changing demographics of Arizona, which is no longer just a retirement destination. “Arizona's population is growing, we are getting more new families from out of state, new transplants,” she said. “One of the reasons we chose that tagline is to cross generations, and people who are coming to the fair are making it their new tradition.”

The fair placed picture frames at the fair, reinforcing the slogan as people stopped to take pictures and selfies through the frame, then share their memories through social media platforms. 

“We increased our social strategy, focusing on both paid and organic content,” she said. ?“The content emphasized relevant items and with daily monitoring, we eliminated low performing content and increased high performers. We used Stories on Facebook and Instagram all day, which allowed us to share quick photos, videos and links to our followers.”

Martinez hired a full-time social media coordinator and generally upgraded their social media content. “We brought all our social media in-house, and we focused on having daily behind the scenes, interviews with entertainers. We did a lot more videos. People are more likely to interact and share videos. When you bring it in-house, that person knows and sees and breathes social media. Engagement is key, and that person can relate more to the followers because they are more engaged.” 

She added, “It is not a trend, people are more invested in social media. They don't watch TV. We are able to keep our followers. Before we used to just make the effort during fair time, but now we are keeping those followers there for our year-round events, it's more of an umbrella for all our marketing.” 

The fair received national media attention on the Jimmy Kimmel Show in a comedic tie-in with the midterm elections where fairgoers were asked their opinions about politicians running for office, with the twist being that the politicians were imaginary. According to Martinez, this primo television spot was made possible in part to the elimination of television advertising as part of the marketing budget. “By eliminating paid television, we focused heavily on pitching news stories and tagging/sharing with entertainment outlets,” said Martinez. “Our relationships with local media led Kimmel's team to us and what better place to reach the masses and talk midterm elections.”

Ray Cammack Shows
The Arizona State Fair midway was provided by Ray Cammack Shows and featured 69 rides, including three new rides: Konga, Flying Jumbo, and Ice Jet. According to Martinez, La Grande XL Wheel was the top grossing ride. 

Headline entertainment continues to be a crucial component of the Arizona State Fair. The fair's Coliseum Concert Series features general admission tickets, free with fair admission and reserved VIP tickets. The biggest draws for 2018 were Pitbull, Gary Allan, Nathaniel Rateliff & The Night Sweats, and The Flaming Lips.

Martinez pointed out that the upside of headline entertainment was the publicity, but the downside is rising costs of entertainment. “The Coliseum Concert Series continues to help us gain unpaid media, press and promotions,” she said. “However, with our model of free GA seating and limited reserved seating for purchase, the hard concert expenses outpace ticket revenues. I think it is still worth it. The concerts are one of our main attractions, but it has gotten really expensive.”

However, the fair's Tribute Band Concert series, which include tributes to Boy Bands, David Bowie and Elton John.  “It was our second year of doing tribute concerts, and people love it,” she said. “People know if they see a tribute band, they won't be disappointed.”

The fair featured 101 food vendors, with two new cuisine items -- Caramel Crack Fries and Unicorn Floats, which featured cream soda and cotton candy. “Food is always a focus of the fair. We did a social media campaign directed at the foodies.” A post-fair press release announced that “48,000 pounds of turkey and 51,200 pounds of sugar were consumed, with another 7,000 gallons of cooking oil fried up things on sticks.”
In spite of Sergio and the negative impact on attendance, the 2018 fair was a success because of the community support, which included 2,071 fairgoers signing the One Community Unity, 24,485 students who wrote book reports to participate in the Read & Ride program, 8,127 students who attended Field Trips to the fair that included the King Tut exhibit and a tour through Kerr's Farm Tours and Arizona Milk Producers Milking Parlor and 8,460 Competitive Entries from 15 counties.

“The fair exceeded our expectation,” said Martinez. “Arizonians showed up because they love the tradition of going to the fair and to see the new exhibits and acts. They love the experience of the fair.”
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