Marketing at County Fairs

The 160th Wisconsin State Fair, with its famous cream puffs and should-be Butterfamous fried butter (shown), wrapped up last Sunday. Yesterday, the fair reported a 4% increase in attendance over 2010, with a total of 911,231 walking onto the grounds in West Allis over its 11-day run.

For rural consumer equipment dealers throughout the U.S., county fairs can be a great way to showcase equipment and services.

In the Midwest, the county fair season is about three-quarters of the way over. While it may be too late to rent an exhibit space, there is still time to scope out an event to exhibit at next year.

In 2008, Jeff Sponholtz, general manager of C&N Tractor's store in Paso Robles, Calif., spoke with Rural Lifestyle Dealer's Executive Editor Dave Kanicki about how he uses fairs and other events to boost business. Below is an excerpt; for the full article, click here.

If you exhibited at a county fair or other outdoor event this summer, how did it go? Would you do it again? Please send comments and photos of your exhibit to me for a future issue of E-Brief.

— Chad Elmore,

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For Jeff Sponhaltz, general manager of C&N Tractors' store in Paso Robles, Calif., the dealership's success is as much about establishing the dealership's brand as it is about pushing product out of the door today. He believes this is especially true when a dealership's target market involves such a varied and growing group of consumers like rural lifestylers. Community involvement — being out there — is absolutely critical.

In the rural setting of Central California, attending county fairs and equestrian events is a part of everyday social life. It's where the action is.

One of the first things Sponhaltz did after the store opened for business in 2001 was to inquire about exhibiting at the mammoth Mid State Fair, a 12-day event held each summer in San Luis Obispo County. He was too late to get the dealership exhibit space that first year, but C&N Tractors has been a regular sponsor every year since.

Unable to participate that year, Sponhaltz did the next best thing — he scoped out the event.

"Of course, the first thing I noticed was there were no tractor dealers at the fair. The Kubota dealer


JCB equipment on display at the
Wisconsin State Fair
during August, 2011.

in Santa Maria is also a New Holland dealer and they had two blue tractors there pulling trash trailers with dealership signs hanging from the rollbars. But there was no display or anything else," he says.

"I remember thinking, 'This is the California Mid State Fair being held in a rural, very ag-oriented county, but there are no dealerships displaying farm equipment. This is nuts.'"

He may have had to wait till the following summer to exhibit his Kubota equipment, but with the San Luis Obispo fairgrounds among the busiest in California, Sponhaltz saw plenty of other opportunities to start branding his dealership that first year.

"There's constantly something going on there. It has the second-largest equestrian show facility in the country. Besides all of the local horse shows, they have huge cutting horse events there and another major one called the Equine Experience."

So, rather than wait for next year, Sponhaltz paid a visit to the fairgrounds maintenance department. "I told them who I was and explained if there was anything they needed equipment-wise, they could call us. They looked at me like, 'Oh, sure.' I had to prove that I was serious about working with them.

"So I told them straight out, 'If there's a crowd here, I want to be in front of the crowd. I'll be happy to loan you equipment free of charge just for letting us be out there.'

"We got into the fair doing that. The next year we had display space at the fair and we also provided them with equipment to tow the trash trailer around the grounds," Sponhaltz says. "We provided different tractors and implements to groom the riding arenas as well and we've been doing it ever since."

For a short time, C&N was the only equipment dealer exhibitor. "I thought, 'Man this is going to be easy. This is going to be like taking candy from a baby,'" he says. In 2008, at least three others equipment dealers will have displays at the Mid State Fair.

'Out-There' Opportunities

Sponhaltz sees nearly any gathering of people in his community as an opportunity to "be out there."

The spring after C&N opened its Paso Robles store, he noticed that a big home show was coming to town. "I'll bet there are more people living on acreage around here than there are people living in town. So, exhibiting tractors at a home show made sense to me."

As expected, C&N Tractors was the only equipment dealer at this show, too.

He constantly looks for opportunities to loan equipment. In most cases, he explains, it doesn't really cost the dealership — or event —anything.

He also points out that the dealership gets some of its best exposure at smaller events in the smaller towns in the area. In Creston, Calif., with a population of about 1,000, a resident built a private barrel racing arena and stages eight events annually. The dealership loans him a tractor during his scheduled races.

This event draws 200 local women that own horses. "That's exactly who we're trying to target," says Sponhaltz. "We're just keeping that orange paint out there in front of them."

In a lot of cases, he says, the tractors come back with barely 30 minutes of run-time on them. "That's demo time," he adds.