With the Eastern States Exposition recently celebrating its Centennial Big E celebration, it’s a display of the New England community’s continued commitment to promote the area’s agriculture industry. Since hosting the National Dairy Show as its initial event in 1916, the Eastern States Exposition has maintained Joshua L. Brooks’ and the other founding community members’ desire to cultivate and exhibit all things New England agriculture.

“The fair has changed very little. Some things have gotten modern, but our mission statement is certainly not changed. We are committed to developing opportunities and promoting agriculture, and education, and industry, and family entertainment,” said Donna Woolam, director of agriculture and education for the Eastern States Exposition. We still have one of the best livestock shows and dairy shows on the East Coast, which is what this started as, a dairy show.”

“We are, as of last year, the seventh largest fair in North America based on attendance. We’re 17 days long. Our attendance last year was 1,345,961,” said Noreen Tassinari, director of marketing for the Eastern States Exposition. Another distinction for The Big E: “The Avenue of States, is so unique and unusual (compared with) anywhere in the United States. There is probably not a place where a state owns land in another state. I think we’ve got to be the only place on earth (where) that occurs.”

Understanding how the application process works is the first step in becoming an exhibitor. With each state owning their respective building and the land that it sits upon, the exhibitor application process for each state building is handled through each state’s government agencies. To become an exhibitor on the Eastern States Exposition’s (ESE) land and buildings, the application process is done directly via ESE.

“We have an application right on our website if people would like to be considered to be an exhibitor here at the exposition, and there’s a set procedure,” Tassinari said. “They have to apply in writing, and they need to indicate other shows that they’ve appeared in and certainly supply some photography so that we can get a sense of what their exhibit is.”

Tassinari gives examples of the various buildings and exhibitors who market on the Eastern States Exposition’s property. The Big E’s 3-acre, 123,000-square-foot Better Living Center building features a variety of vendors, including some who sell cheese. Another highlight of the festival is The Big E Wine and Cheese Barn, situated on the exterior of the Mallary Complex.

“In our agricultural department here, we run a wine and cheese competition. We run the competitions in the summertime, and those people that participate are given an opportunity to promote their product in our wine and cheese shop during the fair,” Woolam said. “They have exposure to over a million people in that shop, and so that’s a great way for agriculture and their little enterprises to get exposure.”

Making the most of a festival

Ashley Sears, marketing specialist with Maine’s Agricultural Resource Development Division, said that for vendors in the Maine state building, there are various ways marketing can occur before The Big E festival. Along with pre-festival preparatory shows after selection, Sears said show organizers distribute press releases and promotional pieces before the show; other advertising is done through the Eastern States Exposition’s press releases and website.

Other marketing on behalf of vendors, according to Sears, includes the Get Real Get Maine website, where there are promotional pieces inviting people to the Big E, listing vendors and informing them of Maine Day at the Big E, which is dedicated to the state of Maine.

Rather than putting too much emphasis on advertising before the fair, Winton Pitcoff, coordinator for the Massachusetts Maple Producers Association, suggests focusing on your exhibit’s location and how your products accentuate other products.

“At a large festival like the Big E, or even most fairs, individual advertising by a vendor isn’t going to draw more people to the event – that’s up to the event planners themselves,” Pitcoff said. “At the fair, vendors want to make sure they have some say in where their booth is located and how visible it is. Know what the other vendors are and how your products complement them (that is, someone buying a bag of apples would be interested in hearing how great maple cream is with apples).”

A crowd of people on the second Saturday of the fair. Attendance records were set with 165,000 coming through the gates.

Customer service tips

Developing a good track record of top-notch customer service and the ability to maintain sales and inventory is what Sears recommends as part of a favorably considered application to the Maine state building. Through the inclusion of the application’s letters of recommendation, exhibitors can highlight their capabilities of customer service and ability to keep up with inventory and sales demands at high-attendance festivals.

“If they’ve exhibited at other large events or shows, whether they were in Maine or on a national basis, that right there demonstrates their customer service and their ability to keep up with maintaining sales and their inventory,” Sears said.

Letters of recommendations used for consideration can come from show directors or management, along with other festival vendors. Sears explains that while a demonstrated ability to interact with customers is essential, it’s equally as important to be able to work with other vendors and management.

Working through challenges

Woolam noted that marketing programs must be tailored to each audience. In the case of The Big E’s attendees, Woolam noted that they’re “very urban” and may not be versed in how agriculture works.

One way to increase engagement during a festival is to educate consumers during the sales process, which has prompted groups such as Wild Blueberry or Aquaculture to produce educational videos in their exhibit. It’s a great way to educate consumers, and the general public,” Sears said. “They have staff there from their organizations (who) are readily available to talk to the public about growing wild blueberries or how they harvest wild blueberries. Then they also offer samples of the wild blueberries. It’s just a great way for them to engage with consumers.”

Sears explained how exhibitors in the Maine state building can better engage attendees. For many people, it can be the first time consumers learn why eating a particular food may be good for their health or how an industry is committed to environmental stewardship. In the case of Maine’s wild blueberry farmers, passersby can view videos showing how blueberries are produced and how they support physical well-being. Another example includes the aquaculture industry, specifically smoked salmon, and educating consumers through videos on their methods to harvest seafood in a sustainable manner.

“Having something eye-catching is key. We have a big-screen TV with a slide show of our members’ sugarhouses, including their names and town. It always makes people stop and look for someone in their hometown, or someone they know,” Pitcoff said. “Making products on-site – maple candy or cream, cotton candy, slushies – also is a great visual and attracts people to the booth. Offering samples of products is another great way to draw people in. Having sugarmakers staffing the booth who can explain to people just how the products are made, how the season was, etc., is also key.”

Jo-Ann Merrifield of Merrifield Farm in Gorham, Maine, and the Maine Maple Producers Association said she asks all association members for availability of bulk syrup for bulk packaging. From there, members are selected on who can give the best balance of pricing while showcasing Maine’s highest quality syrup. Merrifield also explained how the association at large gets credit and can encourage sales for as many members as possible.

“Everything we sell at the Big E is labeled as a product of a member of MMPA. So not (one) individual gets the credit for that item,” Merrifield said. “We do hand out business cards and they can visit the website to reorder product and hopefully with the upcoming holidays, they will visit.”

Katharine Robb, economic development specialist with the Massachusetts Department of Agricultural Resources, explained how the New England Apple Association exhibitors have tapped the benefits of a festival like the Big E.

“They’ll bring in varieties of apples, including ones you might not be as familiar with, and give them the opportunity to connect with people and the public and tell them about how the apple crop is going this year,” Robb said. “This year, we’ve experienced drought in the state. However, the apple crop is still strong and actually very flavorful because of the conditions over the summer months. So it gave them an opportunity to touch base with people and remind them to go out [and] pick your own.”

Other examples Robb mentioned to engage attendees include brochures and using a particular crop in novel ways. She explained while apples are traditionally used for pies, ciders, crisps and donuts, creating apple smoothies is a different way to highlight a particular crop.

Being prepared as an exhibitor to establish a commercial relationship with a buyer or retail store outlet is another opportunity to increase engagement. Robb explained how exhibitors always have the chance to speak individually with commercial attendees who may not necessarily source maple syrup from their home state.

“I know that some of our exhibitors have also said that by being in the building, someone who might be here with their family might also be, in their professional life, a buyer, or might own retail stores, and might be looking to source a product. (T)here’s always those opportunities,” Robb said. “A number of exhibitors have made comments like that. They’ve experienced someone grabbing their business card and following up after the fair, and sometimes it’s a good avenue to get their product in another store.”

Festival follow-up

Pitcoff recommends having ample hard copy materials, such as maps, brochures and recipe cards readily available to hand out to attendees. The mix serves two purposes. It gives attendees an easy way to remember where they can purchase more product and it gives people some suggestions to help them enjoy the products they buy. Pitcoff also recommends asking for email addresses for direct marketing and reminds everyone to become active on social media.