Seemed the best strategy for a western fair in 2017 was to go west. The 2017 San Diego County Fair built its fair around a theme that echoed nostalgia and was filled with synergies with the Americana this community has come to expect - How the West Was Fun!
It's a theme - and fair - that Katie Muller, Deputy General Manager, admits will be hard to top. San Diego is a fair known for its marketing and merchandising, and certainly a theme that celebrates the southwest and nostalgia for the past certainly commands attention can be utilized in a range of ways. This county fair certainly did make the most of the theme when it came to marketing - "Our television advertising mimicked an old spaghetti western and our radio spots featured a western jingle that really cut through the advertising clutte
r," Muller pointed out.
But few fairs carry a theme throughout the event like San Diego did this summer. A cattle drive of nearly 200 steer were driven through the streets to the Del Mar Fairgrounds. "The cattle drive kicked off the fair," she explained. "We drove them through our gas lamp district. It was a huge hit and we had national media coverage. It was a lot of fun."
In addition, the fair staff wore cowboy garb - western-cut shirts, cowboy hats, Sheriff-style badges and bandanas - during the entire run of the fair and the entertainment line up was heavy on country music. The fair also partnered with the 18 different Native American Tribes for different exhibits and attraction, created a Frontier Town for authentic western flavor, and its Flower & Garden show - horticulture is the leading agricultural industry in San Diego County - was renamed Happy Trails. "We had 60 different gorgeous landscapes that expressed the theme," she added.
"Coming to the fair is an annual summer tradition for many of our guests, but to offer something new and limited to create a sense of urgency to come to the fair each and every year we re-theme our fair annually," said Muller. " Our "Where the West Was Fun" theme saluted the history, pop culture, music and movies of the old west, bringing a new and different spin to our event."
Attendance dipped about 3 percent from a record-busting 2016, but fairgoers still exceeded 1.5 million (1,565 933), making the 2017 edition of the San Diego County Fair one of the highest attended fairs, with at least one of the days making it the fair's top attended days in its history. Although the midway took a spending hit - dipping 5.5 percent from 2016 - concert sales were up 12 percent in attendance, and 25 percent revenue and " our VIP Farm to Table Dinner sold out in record time," said Muller.
Weather was ideal in San Diego - low to mid-70s -- and the California economy has been generally on an upswing - the question remains, why the dip in other segments of the fair? The fair had increased its admission fee by $2 and parking prices by $2, due to a mandated increased in the minimum wage. According to Muller, the wage increased to $10.50 per hour and will increase annually until it caps at $15. The fair hires more than 2,000 temporary workers and this wage increase not only impacted the organization but all the vendors, carnival companies (San Diego County Fair has an independent midway) and everyone else doing business at the fair. "Unemployment is low, so it is getting tougher," said Muller. "Everyone is affected."
But in spite of the increases and their impact, Muller pointed out that "per caps stayed the same as last year, we didn't see a drop in caps. That shows that people were spending money at the fair."
The fair's advertising budget was $875,000, broken down in the estimated media mix: Television: 24 percent; Radio: 31 percent; Online: 23 percent; and Outdoor: 22 percent. "
We've increased our allocation for digital/online advertising and have decreased traditional media," she said. "We've also increased our efforts to reach out to specialty and multi-cultural markets including Asian, African-American, LGBT and Hispanic, with approximately 20 percent of our budget directed to Spanish-language advertising."
The fair's advertising featured the Where the West Was Fun theme. One of the most effective examples was a community outreach program which started in February, where pictures of people from the community were taken - participants wore cowboy/cowgirl themed outfits - printed on banners and the banners hung on telephone poles throughout the county. More than 1500 picture banners were created and distributed.
Social media played an instrumental role in fair marketing, but the emphasis its Facebook and Twitter presence has is more about communications and customer service. Beyond posts about entertainment, activities and promotions at the fair, we're seeing a real increase in incoming communication," said Muller. Guests are increasingly direct messaging through social media and want real-time response to their questions and feedback. Social media is a customer service tool, a way to address a concerns and complaints, and squelch any kind of rumors or mistruths."
Social media had such a high traffic of communication the fair created a position to handle social media during the fair. "We have one person who does all the posting, and answers all inquiries, and if there's a problem with a certain area, she sends that to the person in charge of that department, like the rides manger or the concessions manager. She diligently responded to all the customers, which is important. You have to respond immediately."
The independent midway showcased 82 rides, with a Hurricane being the new ride and the most popular being the Crazy Mouse and The Big Wheel.
The Fair also featured 26 nights of Grandstand Entertainment , with the highest attended shows being Toby Keith, Darius Rucker, La Arolladora Banda, Calibre 50, Los Tucanes de Tijuana, Switchfoot and Frankie Valli.
While Frankie Valli may not have fit as well as into the western theme as country superstar Toby Keith - the only sellout of the fair -"he sounded great, and because of Jersey Boys, he had a strong turnout" said Muller.
Another interesting - and popular selection - was Trevor Noah, the host of The Daily Show. Noah - recently on the best seller list with his autobiography Born a Crime - drew large crowds with a rare standup comedy set. (Before his cable TV fame, Noah was a standup comedian). Comedy may not be uncommon for fair entertainment, but Noah does seem to be an unusual choice, but topical, edgy humor attracted a new audience to the fair. "It was a great show, and he draws younger people," she said. "He is very popular with the next generation."
With concert ticket sales rising this year, Muller is obviously pleased with this year's line up. However, she is also realistic about the current state of the fair entertainment booking market. "It was as difficult as it was last year," she said. "We had luck with booking country acts, which isn't really a niche any more and we added an additional Hispanic night. We were successful, but there are inherent challenges and we face a lot of competing venues in San Diego."
Costs continue to rise but so far those upticks have been manageable, and the San Diego County Fair will likely have the same number of headline entertainers. "We are booking earlier every year and we are already booking for next year," she said. "That used to never happen."
The fair featured 110 food vendors, grossing $ 18,990,427. The most popular items were fair staples such as turkey legs and roasted corn as well as the always popular - and perhaps uniquely Californian fair cuisine - the pineapple bowl, a scooped out pineapple filled with a rice dish, such as Teriyaki Chicken. New fair food items included fried octopus and peanut butter meatballs. "We have seen more healthy food items, such as artichoke sandwiches and salads," she said. "There are more vegan options But the trend continues to be bacon, people are seeing more ways to serve bacon every year. People want to try new things at the fair, and they also want to eat food you can't get anywhere else."
Muller acknowledges that, while attendance figures may have proven to be shy of anticipated goals, "in many way we exceeded expectations, we saw spending increases, such as with our VIP Experiences and our Wine Festival, which was new. We had a safe fair with decreases in security and safety incidents. We highlighted the talents of the San Diego community through our Competitive Exhibits programs and brought agriculture to the forefront through our educational California Grown, Farm and livestock exhibits. We had more participation than ever in our multi-cultural programming, including our Gospel Festival, Asian Festival, and Out at the Fair celebration of the LGBT community. We had no safety or security issues. This was the smoothest running fair in all my time here."
Quite a statement from some with 18 years experience at the same fair. And her opinion of her first fair with a "western" theme - How the West Was Fun! She replied: "a hootin' hollerin' hootenanny of a good time!"