Down with Webster and Deep-Fried Butter Offset Rain at CNE

21 Sep

Down with Webster rocked this year's CNE.

Seven days of rainy weather or the threat of rain probably will prompt a decrease in attendance compared to last year’s 1,320,000 at the Canadian National Exhibition in Toronto when final numbers are tabulated next month.

“I don’t think we’ll be at last year’s numbers,” said GM David Bednar. “We had really good numbers for the last two years. We were doing great this year until the last weekend. In a good year, we do 25 percent of our attendance in the last weekend.”

But the final Saturday and Labor Day Monday of the Aug. 20-Sept. 6 fair either had rain or threatened rain. “The Sunday was the one decent day and it wasn’t enough to make up for the loss,” Bednar said.

Jackson, Miss.-based North American Midway Entertainment placed 58 rides on the midway, Bednar said, including the new Zamperla Skater, as well as the Drop, the Swing Tower, the Crazy Mouse roller coaster and the flume ride.

“It was a very good line-up,” Bednar said.

Like fair attendance, Bednar expects the ride numbers to be a bit down over last year.

Gate admission of $16 Canadian ($15.56 U.S.) was up $2 Canadian from last year.

“We were planning a $1 raise but the province did a harmonization of sales tax that took the admission tax from 5 percent to 13 percent,” Bednar said.

Some tax credits alleviated the brunt of that so the full 8 percent increase was not felt, Bednar said.

“But we estimated that it was going to be $550,000 to $600,000, so we adjusted the admission fee. But we did other promotions to offer people other ways of getting in.”

Admission for ages 13 and under and 60 and above was $12 Canadian ($11.67 U.S.)

Other promotions were an opening day “$8 at the Gate,” which was $8 for everybody and essentially a half-priced deal for ages 14-59; “$5 after 5” on Mondays through Thursdays; and a “little, almost stealth, promotion we did in the local neighborhood,” which was free admission during lunchtime for patrons who are in after 11 a.m. and out by 2 p.m. Patrons actually pay admission and it’s refunded for those who leave on time.

“It’s an idea we picked up from South Carolina,” Bednar said, referring to the state fair in Columbia. “It’s not nearly as big as theirs is, but it’s fun to do.”

Once patrons of The Ex pay their admission fee, most attractions other than the carnival are free. That includes the musical entertainment at the bandshell, where acts included Debbie Reynolds, Bobby Vinton, a Michael Jackson tribute act called King Michael and a band called Down With Webster that between the time they were signed and the CNE, were nominated for a Canadian Juno Award for New Group of the Year.

“They went through the roof,” Bednar said. “Never, never in my 12 years here have I seen this. There were teenage girls here at 8:30 in the morning in front of the stage, maybe a dozen of them. They were not moving. They were going to take turns going to get a bottle of water so they would have their position in front of the stage.”

During the concert, Bednar witnessed an estimated 8,000 of the 10,000 or 11,000 fans forming a “W” with their hands and holding their hands above their heads pulsing to the music for two or three songs. And then during one song, they asked everyone to pull out their cell phones, which fans waved in the air instead of lighters.

The bandshell seating is an open field so attendance is difficult to count, but Bednar estimates that it maxes out at about 11,000.

Other entertainment at The Ex included tribute bands nearly daily at the Budweiser Midway Stage, honoring such acts as Aerosmith, Led Zeppelin, Billy Joel, Frankie Valli & the Four Seasons, Bryan Adams, KISS, Tina Turner, The Tragically Hip, Genesis, Pink Floyd, Elvis Presley and more.

Patrons also could attend twice daily ice skating shows, “Rock on Ice,” presented by a group out of Quebec and featuring on six of those days 2002 Olympic gold medalist figure skating duo Jamie Sale and David Pelletier.

Last year, the ice show, presented in the 11,000-seat Ricoh Coliseum, featured Olympic silver medalist Elvis Stojko because The Ex had gotten $3 million Canadian ($2.9 million U.S.) stimulus funds from the Canadian government, similar to what the United States government did in an effort to get the economy cranking.

In addition to Stojko, last year The Ex brought in Bill Clinton for a paid appearance, an extra $1 million for marketing, plus an International Friendly Soccer Match between Portugal and Scotland.

This year, the CNE only got $750,000 Canadian ($729,000), which officials at The Ex used to purchase five trams, with a capacity of 54 riders each, to transport fair patrons from one end of the grounds to the other.

“The old ones were dated from the mid-1980s and were pulled by tractors with manual transmissions,” Bednar said.

In marketing, the CNE has a very active Facebook page. “We had the most success we’ve had with social media,” Bednar said. “We held trivia contests on Facebook in which we’d ask a simple question and get all the answers and draw for a winner and somebody will win passes. We know from watching that that when you post something like that and get 15 answers in 20 minutes, there are people who are watching you, which is what you want.”

The year-round budget at the CNE is $22 million or $21.3 million U.S., Bednar said. About $800,000 or $777,800 U.S. was spent on paid advertising.

One food item actually turned into a huge marketing tool – deep-fried butter, which was unveiled last year at the State Fair of Texas and which Bednar saw at the Florida State Fair. He then asked concessionaires at The Ex to step up and one did, and the media attention that ensued was overwhelming. In a normal year, Bednar does maybe one, if that, French-language radio interview. This year he did three. The Toronto Star even did an article with the headline, “Did butter-balls save the CNE?”

“The deep-fried butter just took off in the popular imagination,” Bednar said. “It went nuts. I couldn’t tell you the numbers of interviews we did and the comments and the number of people who asked about deep-fried butter. It was only available at one booth and that poor guy – he was doing well financially, but he was there until an hour after the midway closed.”

Next year’s dates will be Aug. 19-Sept. 5. – Mary Wade Burnside

Interviewed for this article: David Bednar, (416) 263-3800.

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