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THINKING OUTSIDE THE BOX
FARM SHOW RALLIES THROUGH ROUGH TIMES
I was one of those geniuses about five years ago who predicted the fall from grace for big outdoor farm shows. My theory was that those "real" farmers/ranchers left in the U.S. (and internationally as well for that matter) were so busy farming/ranching that the only people left to go to farm shows were retired folks. Plus, ag businesses were doing nothing but downsizing, and lower profits meant fewer people and less budgets for the time and expense of attending farm shows. Just chalk up that theory as one of my worst predictions of all time. (There are many others, but let's confine this article to my stupidity regarding the demise of farm shows.)

One needs to look no further than World Ag Expo, that Tulare, Calif., show that in February 2004 had about 1,550 exhibitors using 2.5 million square feet of space, being run by a staff of 15 people and 1,000 volunteers. That compares with 1,150 exhibitors 10 years ago using 1.46 million square feet of space with seven staff people and 450 volunteers.

OK, so I was off a little on my prediction about the future of farm shows. But let's let Gary Schulz, general manager of Expo, set the record straight. "We've averaged 5 percent growth per year since I've been around (1990)," he says. "We're optimistic about World Ag Expo, and California gives us tremendous opportunity and advantages. The climate is great, we have hard-working and entrepreneurial farmers and ranchers, we're close to export markets and ports, and state government puts a high priority on continuing exports and making strides in innovative production technology. Ag is huge business in the Central Valley."

World Ag Expo, arguably, has been called the world's leading farm show. Now I won't get in the middle of that debate, but it's clear that when it comes to marketing a farm show, few do it as well and with such fervor and passion as the folks at Expo.

"We've chosen to gradually cast our net a little broader and expect attendees to travel further distances," Schulz says. "Today it's not unusual for people to hop in their cars and drive 1,000 miles or fly 15 hours from New Zealand to attend the show. In any given year, we may attract as many as 10 Chinese delegations."

The World Ag Expo, Tulare, Calif., has continued to grow despite downsizing and consolidation of agriculture companies and producers.
The U.S. Department of Commerce also has put its stamp of approval on the show and, Schulz emphasizes, it represents World Ag Expo before nearly 200 embassies worldwide. "We have exhibitors from 20 countries," he says. Computer technology companies, drip irrigation and other water technologies, and dairy exhibitors are major product areas that have shown tremendous growth of the show over the years.

And with a recent study showing the local economic impact of Expo to be $1.2 billion, Schulz says, "This is a big deal to our attendees and our exhibitors. We better have our act together every year." It appears they do just that.

NO SILVER BULLET

Veteran ag marketing and publishing consultant Stan Bird of Imagination Unlimited, a firm that contracts with Multi Ag Media to produce two publications for Expo and consults with the Expo staff on other show issues, has decades of experience in farm shows. Although slightly biased (I suppose he has to say nice things about his client), Bird says unequivocally, "It's the world's leading show. It's given first-class treatment from the exhibitors to the attendees. I know it has the most extensive and constant flow of information of any farm show in North America."

The success in marketing Expo won't be found by searching for some silver bullet of marketing magic. It's consistency of message in all facets of marketing communications - from direct mail to e-mail and fax blasts, to a monthly newsletter, a Web site, billboards, and two publications for exhibitors to advertise to attendees designed to pique interest in the show. That, and a dedicated media relations program built on the care and feeding of ag trade print and broadcast media, local newspapers and other media outlets, complements the other marketing communications efforts.

"Technology has changed the way we communicate with the media, and we have to meet the challenge," says Nancy Lockwood, owner of Rita B. & Company, the local PR firm that handles media relations for Expo. "It used to be a pen and paper and type it up. Now we make sure the media has DSL lines, the ability to use their laptops and a continuing ability to electronically get information to the media."

Lockwood says the media "has been hugely important in increasing the size and attendance at the Expo over the years. We all know there's more credibility to our show when reporters and editors write about our show. Anecdotally, last year's board chairman told me he had no idea the impact the media had on the show and the service they provide to agriculture in telling the story about Expo."

The media is well cared for at Expo. From a small trailer with folding tables and chairs years ago, this year a doublewide trailer with kitchen and two bathrooms will serve the couple hundred media attending. "It's become quite sophisticated," Lockwood says.

WHAT'S NEW

California Governor Arnold Schwarzenegger visits the 2004 World Ag Expo, providing attendees and media represntatives an exciting opportunity.
With almost 1,600 exhibits, Lockwood's challenge is focusing the media on how to get the story at Expo. Something new last year, and an event that will be expanded this year, was a fall media day. "We're going from one day to two days with our fall media event," Lockwood says. "We want to bring in as many media as we can to tell our story. We're going to have an update on the show, as well as golf, customized farm tours and a special evening with some of our long-time volunteers. It's critical we do this if we want media from beyond California to continue to come on a regular basis."

Not that that's a real problem. More than 200 media attend each year. But getting them focused can be a challenge, especially in today's world of mainstream journalists uneducated about agriculture without much of a background in the industry. "This is especially true of the mainstream media," Lockwood says. "The trade journals really have better ag backgrounds. But we spend a lot of time in the care and feeding of reporters."

Another new idea this year will be a magazine sent in November just to California attendees. It's called VIP Preview and, Bird says, "It's designed to hit top producers in California and convince them to come to Expo for more than one day. We have been sending one publication (World Ag Expo magazine) to 80,000 in January for years. We decided that a second publication was needed to target our biggest potential market for attendance, those 31,000 people within 250 miles of the show." World Ag Expo annually has 200-plus pages, half of which is advertising.

The new VIP Preview will include lists of local hotels to assist Californians with accommodations. Some discount coupons might be available as well, depending on the success of the sales efforts. With 85 percent of the attendees from California, it's another opportunity to tell attendees about exhibitors. And why will exhibitors care to advertise in two publications? "Repetition and continuity," Bird says. "Plus, there will be a sizable discount if exhibitors run in both publications."

KNOWING THE CUSTOMER

Schulz says the key to success in the growth of World Ag Expo is to know the customer. "We pay close attention to the demographics of the show," he says. "Each year we do a survey through Fresno State University. All our past attendees get a 'save the day' postcard. We try not to leave any stone unturned to communicate with our customers."

The 16-member volunteer board of directors, made up largely of farmers, keeps the show fresh, and 1,000 volunteers "allow us to maintain a high level of energy and enthusiasm and can-do attitude," Schulz says. "We're eager to please and make a difference. Our volunteers go the extra mile."

As for me, I'm converted. As the hall of fame rock group The Who once said: "I can see for miles and miles and miles and miles and miles..." AM

Den Gardner owns Gardner & Gardner Communications, New Prague, Minn.


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