A rainy final day failed to dampen the spirits of the 2017 Merced County Fair, which had record attendance, increased fairgoer spending and an overall successful fair.
The strategy to achieve this success included new attractions, an enticing midway, and expanded range fairgoer amenities. Perhaps more significantly, the Merced County Fair has extended its upward trajectory made possible by community support and giving that community what they want from its fair.
"We had a great run this year and gave the community an even better Fair than last year," said Teresa Burrola, CEO of the Merced County Fair.
'Even better' is the key phrase. The 2016 edition of the Merced County Fair was one of the best in the long history of an event said to have begun in 1891. In
2017, the fair was in the position of finding ways to both sustain the success and top themselves. Making the fair 'even better' according to Burrola seemed mainly defined as adding value to the ticket without raising its price.
"Last year, we had record-breaking attendance, jumping nearly 15 percent over our 2015 attendance," said Burrola. "Going into the 2017 Merced County Fair, we knew it was going to be hard to beat last year's attendance. However, we focused on bringing in more free attractions for Fairgoers, continually increasing the entertainment value of the Fair."
The 2017 Merced County Fair's unaudited attendance total during the five days was 72,338 people, an increase of .04 percent from last year's record-breaking total of 72,311 people (adjusted audited attendance). Overall paid attendance was also up 2.3 percent. Following a record-breaking year, even a modest increase indicated the community support of the fair and it's new direction. "That is a testament to the role our Fair plays in the community; it is an annual tradition where everyone comes together," said Burrola.
The weather was generally good, if unpredictable. "The weather was unseasonably cool which made Fairgoers happy," she said. "Although on the final day of the Fair, we endured an unusual thunder and lightning storm."
Burrola said that "Affordability was a big focus," and offered a range of discounted promotions, such as $2 for Adult Admission and $5 for Unlimited Carnival Ride Wristbands when purchased pre-fair at participating Rancho San Miguel Markets and O'Reilly Auto Parts., as well as a $10 discount on a 5-pack of Adult Admission tickets was available online, or at the Merced County Fair Administration Office.
The fair partnered with Mercy Medical Centers for a new "We Care Wednesday, "a food-drive admission program, resulting in 7,088 lbs. of food collected, marking a 46.7 percent increase over last year's food take.
In addition, the fair offered an opening Seniors' Day, and a Kids' Day - sponsored by another local business, Golden Valley Health Centers, where kids 12 and under received free admission. The fair also provided free bus transportation, where "The Bus," which had 23 stops throughout Merced area, and offered riders a $2 discount off admission,.
Passengers took advantage of these free rides to and from the Fair, plus more than 10,000 free trips were taken system-wide during the "Free Fares to the Fair" promotion. " We continued to market the Fair in the most efficient way possible and looked to promotions/partnership," she said, adding "we continue to market our Fair as a great option for company outings, hosting for the second year the Gallo Family Vineyards Company BBQ with over 600 people in attendance."
The economy in the county may still be struggling - hence the needed focus on price promotions - but Burrola noted that the business climate has improved compared to 2016. "While the economy is still recovering, especially in the Central Valley, there are definitely positive signs of recovery such as our paid attendance and concessions growth," she said." People appear to have more discretionary dollars for entertainment or at least are utilizing what they have on an annual outing such as the Fair, which provides great entertainment at an affordable price."
One indication that the economy was on the upswing could be seen in a robust animal auction program. For example, the Rabbit Auction saw the sale of 148 rabbits, 38 more rabbits than last year; and the Dairy Replacement Heifer Sale had 70 heifers sold, 17 more heifers than the year prior. A total of 618 goats, pigs, lambs and beef were sold this year, compared to 609 animals in 2016.
The food concessions were the most popular, and Burrola said per capita spending was $6.97 per person for food concessions. The fair features 32 food vendors, with overall revenue reaching $504,182.15, another slight increase in spending. New food vendors included: Eddie's Chinese Food, Wild Bill's Roasted Corn and BJ's Frozen Custard. While she did not notice any new food fads at the fair, the most popular item was the old tried and true pulled-pork dishes, a trend she attributed to the weather. "BBQ Concessions did very well since temperatures were in the high 80s," she said.
Spending was also up on the midway, which was provided by Butler Amusements. According to Burrola, Butler has been the carnival provider for 14 years , and had 36 rides in 2017. Burrola said the company had no new rides at the fair, but ride gross was up 0.76 percent, with the most popular rides for the fair remaining the Inversion, Vertigo, "and the classic Fair-favorite Ferris wheel," she said.
The fair had a modest advertising budget of just over $50,000 and "includes Billboard, Print, TV, Radio, Digital & Social media advertising."
The allocation of media spending was: Print 15 percent, Digital 5.7 percent, Social 4.3 percent, Print 37.5 percent and TV 37.5 percent. "Billboard isn't accounted as it is a trade agreement; no cash is exchanged," she explained.
She added, "This year we added Instagram to our social network. We also utilized Facebook Live and IG stories more to make sure the sounds, sights and feel of the Fair made it to each one of our fans/followers.
Earlier in the year, the fair announced a rebranding highlighted by a new Merced County Fair logo, which was featured throughout the marketing and advertising materials, including its website and social media as well as on signage around the Merced County Fairgrounds. It was the first new branding change for the fair since 1974, replacing it's a logo that had an antique plow, with a new more contemporary design showcasing crop rows and flag.
The makeover emphasized the agricultural roots and mission - the Merced County fair represents the 35th District Agricultural Association - while highlighting a 21st century outlook.
"The creation of our updated brand for the Merced County Fair is rooted in our proud agricultural heritage," said Burrola. "It represents the unwavering commitment of our richly diverse county; its present-day look is more relevant to a broader demographic base and more applicable for use in digital platforms where a wider audience can become more engaged in all that the Fair has to offer. We are committed to remaining true to the core attractions of our Fair, while staying relevant to younger generations by adapting to new platforms to communicate and engage them."
She added that "Our 2017 marketing was all about agriculture and what an important role in plays in our community."
The fair's entertainment include a mix of free music and grandstand spectacle. Music and other acts were presented on several stages, including The Coors Light Stage, the Bear Creek Plaza Stage, and the Outdoor Theatre, where - according to a fair press release - "an incredible array of musical acts played as part of the Table Mountain Free Concert Series presented by Coors Light...I Am King...The Michael Jackson Experience; John Michael Montgomery, WAR, Moonshine Bandits and Noel Torres.
New this year in the Grandstand, was the "Battle of the Bulls" bull riding competition. "That event drew big crowds of cheering fans," said Burrola. "We had great Grandstand entertainment this year and all shows did well. However, our Monster Trucks and Freestyle Moto X continues to draw the biggest crowds."
Also new at the fair were Camel Rides and All-Alaskan Racing Pig, and both "drew big crowds daily," she said. "We added Flo the Clown to our strolling acts line-up and she was a hit with Fairgoers leading our daily tractor parade. We brought in some new, free attractions on-grounds such as the Lorikeet Encounter and the All-Alaskan Racing Pigs."
Perhaps the most significant family-friendly addition to the 2017 far was a private, air-conditioned facility for new moms to "nurse and change their babies," she said "Our new mommies that are either nursing or need to change their baby have the opportunity to go into a private room that is air conditioned and clean so they can tend to their babies."
She added, all in all, I am so happy with this year's Fair and I want to thank the community for coming out to support us!"
"I want to say thank you to our community for continually supporting the Merced County Fair.