No Record, No Regrets at a Healthy ‘Big E’ Run

22 Oct

Record crowds turned out when the sun was shining at Eastern States Expositions, West Springfield, Mass. (Photo by Kristen Bilanko)

Attendance at the Eastern States Exposition dropped 3 percent from last year, from 1,260,487 to 1,228,418. But considering 2009 was the highest attendance ever and that the fair saw a 2 percent increase on the midway and a 6 percent jump in food sales, those attendance numbers – the fair’s third highest – look pretty good.

Rain on five days during the Sept. 17 to Oct. 3 fair, known as the Big E, in West Springfield, Mass., probably kept this from being another record year, said Fair President Wayne McCary. But when the rain stopped, fairgoers did come out, leading to three single-day attendance records: 59,072 on opening day, 84,125 on the second Wednesday and 158,222 on the final Saturday.

“I think it was very evident that we would have” broken the overall attendance record, McCary said.

“Attendance was strong on every day the weather was good.”

Miranda Lambert sold out the 6,500-seat outdoor Comcast Arena Stage, with Eric Church and Josh Kelley opening. Those tickets cost $49, $39 and $29. Lambert played one of three paid concerts at the Big E, which until recently had an all-free line-up.

“Ninety-five percent of the entertainment is still free, but the cost of entertainment has driven us, in some cases, to charge for them,” McCary said. “But they are still few and far between.”

The other paid concerts were Terry Fator, winner of “America’s Got Talent,” with a show that cost $45 and $35; and Owl City, which cost $29.95. All of those tickets included the price of admission, which was $15.

Free shows included Boys Like Girls, Laura Bell Bundy, Jason Michael Carroll, The Boys in Concert and Danny Gokey of “American Idol.” The entertainment budget was $2 million, McCary said. “Our entertainment budget today is larger than it’s ever been in the history of the fair. Entertainment is more expensive, whether for concerts or other events we produce.”

That includes the 2010 Big E Super Circus, produced in-house by McCary himself, which drew attendance of 80,000.

The $15 gate admission price reflected a bit of a hike over last year, when the price was $15 only on weekends and $12 on weekdays. Now $12 is the advance price.

Fair officials also raised the price for the five-year-old “$5 after 5″ special to $6, McCary said. He noted how successful that program has been and credits it with raising the carnival midway and food prices over last year’s numbers in spite of the 3 percent attendance decline.

“It’s an opportunity to come out and grab a bite to eat and catch some free shows and spend a couple of hours at the fair in the evening,” McCary said. “It’s obviously attractive to people.” The fair is open until 10 p.m. on weeknights – although if the weather is good and the crowds are strong, the midway will stay open longer – and until 11 p.m. on weekends.

Jackson, Miss.-based North American Midway Entertainment placed 50 rides on the midway, McCary said. Last year’s carnival gross, which was not released to the public, was the all-time highest, so this year’s gross at 2 percent higher set a new record.

Pay-one-price carnival wristbands cost $25 at the gate and $20 in advance, McCary said. The economy in southern New England – with unemployment in excess of 10 percent in the Springfield area – has prompted many fairgoers to seek out deals, McCary said. The Big E also is benefitting from people who want to “staycation.”

The Big E Cream Puff Bakery produced 45,000 of the fair’s signature food, according to a press release. The event also benefits from offering some of the splashier fair foods, included deep-fried butter and fried jelly beans.

The Big E, which has an annual budget of $16 million, actually draws attendees from the six New England states and New York, but the $6 after 5 p.m. program is geared toward those who live 25 miles away or less, especially because the fair begins after Labor Day and school is in session, McCary said.

Marketing included a coordinated billboard campaign that played on the event’s end-of-summer timing, with slogans such as “The Last Taste of Summer,” “Last Ride of Summer,” and one with a baby chick that said “The Last Peep of Summer.”

The fair spent $650,000 on media buys, said Catherine Pappas, communications manager.

The Big E’s relatively new Facebook page has more than 52,000 fans. Pappas said all advertising directs people both to the Facebook page and to the fair’s presence on Twitter. “We did a lot of contesting where people could win tickets to a concert, tickets to The Big E,” Pappas said.

Next year’s dates will be Sept. 16-Oct. 2. –  Mary Wade Burnside

Interviewed for this article: Wayne McCary and Catherine Pappas, (413) 737-2443.

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