When you’re in charge of an attraction that draws more than 1.1 million attendees over two weeks and in the past year has had an economic impact of $204 million, a name change is no simple task. However, with this year’s rebranding of Puyallup’s annual Washington State Fair – which began as the Valley Fair in 1900, was expanded to The Western Washington Fair 13 years later, and was then morphed into The Puyallup Fair in 1976 – visitors will see some major changes to the Pacific Northwest’s largest country-style event, which for 2013 runs September 6 to 22. Here, CEO Kent Hojem reveals the big picture.
You’ve said that the switch from The Puyallup Fair to the Washington State Fair is more than just a name change. How?
That’s right; it’s an entire “rebranding.” The new name and all that goes with it actually gets to the core of what we do. It certainly provides us with a better description of what we’ve been doing for generations.
Why change the name again, for the fourth time in 113 years?
By rebranding, we had an opportunity to look at what we do. We also had the chance to rethink and restructure some of the things that we had been doing for years that needed to be tweaked; areas like customer service. Ultimately, it gave us the opportunity to examine our mission, or what we’re doing and why are we doing it. The answer to both is that we’re here to provide Washington state with a major fair venue where they can come and have a great time.
What was the most difficult part of the rebranding?
We wanted to be prepared for whatever challenges that we could, so before we even went into this process we asked other companies that had undergone major rebranding about the issues they had run into. And the answer that came back time and again was that companies would ask us if we thought we were ready to handle all the complexities of a major identity change. When we responded that we did, they hammered it home: “Well, you’re not.”
Why not? Besides the name change, what else does rebranding entail?
When you think about changing the name of a company that’s been in place over years and years, there’s a lot of work that needs to be done. For one, it’s changing all of those things that you do in a typical year, like name cards and signs. For us, all around the fairgrounds alone, there were hundreds and hundreds of signs. Needless to say, it was a monumental undertaking.
So, when all was said and done, how did the reality of the process match up with the budget?
Expenses; that’s the one thing that we did anticipate. It’s a little bit like remodeling your house: you have a budget when you start, and then you blow the budget. However, we said, “We can do this differently. If we need to spend a little more money than we anticipated for better quality and greater thoroughness, that’s alright.”
When you compare the process to a remodel, people also often say that once they start the process, they always find more work to be done. Is this true for the fair’s rebranding as well?
Absolutely. It’s never-ending. I think of it as an evolution; that it will be a continual rebranding over the next couple of years as we keep finding more to do that embraces our new identity.
In all of this, what has been your greatest fear?
You know, we’ve had a very focused but relaxed approach to the process, so there haven’t really been any fears. That said, I am completely assured that I will walk onto the fairgrounds the day the event starts and find another “Puyallup Fair” sign. (Laughs) But I’m just going to have to live with that, and know that we’ll be making more changes as we go.
How long do you think it will be before the actual concept of “Washington State Fair” over “Puyallup Fair” will sink into peoples’ minds?
Well, there is a generation out there who will forever know this place as the Western Washington Fair. And also a generation who will forever think of this as the Puyallup Fair. People just need to keep in mind that the Washington State Fair is still the same great fair as either of those. And it’s still the same great party it always has been.
Will attendance increase because of the broader appeal of the “state fair” name?
Yes, we do expect our numbers to increase, but not necessarily a great deal this year. That will happen over time, as people who aren’t familiar with what the fair means, and what it involves, move into the area.
Are you still taking a “local community event” stance with the rebranding?
We’ve been a big part of the community, and we will always be a big part of the community, but that’s not what we’re all about. We want to showcase all of those things about the fair that make it such an important highlight for Washington state.
What will visitors see this year that has changed at the fairgrounds?
What I can think of immediately is that we’ve removed the old gold gate, which at some point soon will be replaced by a permanent gate. We also have many different attractions, like a new steel roller coaster, and we’ve rebuilt the old wooden one.
Finally, many South Sound businesses have been involved with the fair over the past century. How does the broadening of the name change your approach to that involvement.
What business owners should realize is that we’re always taking very seriously the name of the Washington State Fair as something that spans both sides of the mountains. To that end, we’ve started prioritizing our marketing efforts to the east side, of course all the while being respectful of the fairs there. Right now, our challenge is to be inclusive and available to businesses on all sides of the state. We’re happy to have them involved, and think they should be.