Like many newly appointed fair managers overseeing their first fair, Miguel A. Santana, spent a lot of time observing. Last year, Santana was named President and CEO Executive Officer of the Los Angeles County Fair Association (LACFA), the private nonprofit Association that manages the 487-acre Fairplex in Pomona and of course, puts on the annual 19-day Los Angeles County Fair, which celebrated its 95th anniversary this year.
But observing the vast machinery of one of the largest county fairs in the U.S. did not mean this newbie manager stayed in his office and monitored activity from a distance. Santana's observation was hands-on, where he worked in the capacity of what he called an "undercover boss." Many days of the fair he spent discreetly working in various fair jobs, including admission gate
s, ticket booths, food vendors, grounds and maintenance crews. He picked up trash, sold tickets, cooked food and hosted guided tours of children vesting the fair's working one acre farm.
"I wanted to understand each of one the pieces that goes into running a fair," he said. "Interfacing with all the areas of the fair, especially where you deal directly with the guests, that's the where the rubber meets the wall. It left me with an appreciation of all the hard work that goes into this fair, the high level of professionalism that has been maintained well before I got here."
Santana intends to make his main mark on this California tradition with the development of a strategic plan for the future of the fair, essentially a road map that will bring the event up to and beyond its 100th Anniversary in 2022. "We are engaging in a strategic plan which is a vision for the future. The roots in the community have been laid and we have established a very strong foundation. I am looking ahead towards what the next iteration of the Los Angeles County Fair."
The new manager's experience as a City Administrative Officer for the City of Los Angeles served him well for both the future and the present of the fair. "Running the city I found to be very relevant to running the fair, because a fair is basically a city that you build from the ground up every year. You have very similar issues, like public safety, cleanliness, there is a lot of skills involved a full force of labor. I oversaw a $9 billion budget and there are a lot of parallels."
His first fair often seemed like a dream come to true to this son of California, who grew up in the area and attended the fair every year. "I was one of those kids who are bused in on school trips," Santana remembered.
"I experienced all the attractions and the rides, it was part of our family tradition too, my whole family went to the fair together and now I can take my daughters to the fair."
Now at the helm of the fair he first saw through child eyes and now sees anew through the eyes of his own children, he realizes that it is a combination of "a lot of work, and a lot of fun."
More significantly, what impressed him most as a first time manager of the fair was the support by the community for the fair. "The one thing that stood out the most was how much people love this fair," said Santana. "I really gained a new appreciation for how important it is to the community. The fair really belongs to the people, and it is loved by all the communities in Los Angeles County. They all feel passionate about the fair. We embrace all the traditions and cultures of Southern California; I think I might have underestimated that before this year. Their support is a very special thing."
Santana's first fair did experience a mild attendance dip of about 6.5 percent, but still reached an impressive 1,231,243. Weather was the culprit, not rain but heat. A heat wave of global warming proportions afflicted the west this September, which kept people home during the day, shifting the fair to more of a night time event. The heat wave mainly impacted the first half the fair, and the end of the fair saw an attendance rebound. "We ended really strong," he said. "The last six days saw higher attendance than 2016 by an average of 11 percent."
He added, "there was heat, and lightning and they were also a factor. There were also major fires in Southern California, and that affected the air quality and the overall tone of the fair. The fires were about 40 miles away, but those communities in Glendale and Burbank, are part of the market, and the fires of course were on newscasts here. Then we had a thunderstorm. So people were urged to stay home. But we had a very strong final."
The bad weather and other factors changed the marketing mid-campaign. "We reminded people that we had more than 300,000 square feet that is indoors and air-conditioned, and encouraged people who came during the day to see our exhibitions or go shopping. We also encouraged people to stay hydrated, and all of the vendors gave out water."
The fair's advertising budget of $2.1 million was about the same as last year - and even though some of the messaging was modified, the marketing mix was generally the same except for increases in digital online ads, and sponsored ads on social media platforms, such as Facebook. The tagline this year was Dare to Fair, which not only tied into the fair's attractions and traditions, but was easily transitioned to an effective marketing theme that fulfilled the charitable aspects of the fair's mission. A new program "Dare to Give," where the Fair asked guests and partners to donate to the American Red Cross relief fund for recent hurricane and earthquake victims, raised more than $50,000.
The midway at Los Angeles County Fair, provided by Roy Commack Shows, featured 70 rides and 40 games. The new rides at the fair were Endeavor and La Grande Wheel XL, a Ferris wheel with climate-controlled gondolas. According to Santana, the air-conditioned Giant Wheel was included in Dare to Fair marketing as a way to minimize the impact of the heat wave.
High day time temperatures may have had a positive impact on the fair's concert series. "When it was hot, people still came out at night, so even if the daytime crowds were lower, we had a good night time turnout.
The End of Summer Concert Series - with acts that included Chicago, Migos, Trace Adkins, Patti Labelle and Gerardo Ortiz - set an all-time record high for ticket sales. Technically, there were no sellouts. The fair's grandstand seats 9,000, and sales of 7,000 are considered strong, "and we reached 7,000 several times this year," said Santana. "We added an additional Latino night, and Queen Latifah shared the same stage. We tried to have a diversity of acts and we tapped into different markets, and worked very hard to represent diversity and the tastes of different communities.
But was it harder to book entertainment this year? About the same said the first time fair manager, indicating that the sellers' market for entertainment persists in the Golden State. The emphasis on a diversified music lineup, he pointed out, worked in the fair's favor. "By tapping into different genres made it less challenging to book for us," he said. "Music is a big reason for people to come out to the fair. We are still committed to live music, and the concerts did record breaking level, despite the heat, and by the time of the shows, things cooled down and a lot people stayed later than usual and enjoyed the carnival.
The fair featured 150 food vendors, including new items such as the Cotton Candy Ice Cream Sandwich and Flamin' Hot Cheetos Pizza. The new trend for the Los Angeles County Fair was to vend locally - there was an uptick of local restaurants setting up stands and selling local delicacies alongside traditional fair cuisine. "We try to celebrate local venues, and we had a lot of new restaurants as vendors at the fair, which is a way of celebrating our unique community."
Some of the 2017 food stats include: 3,000 Cotton Candy Sandwiches; 8,000 Peanut Butter Meatballs; 2,000 Krispy Kreme Chicken Ice Cream Sandwiches; 25,000 Oreo cookies; 48,000 lbs. turkey legs as well as an entire field of sweet corn for roasted corn on the cob and two 2 orchards of apples for Caramel and Candy Apples.
For someone who was first bused in with other school children to see Los Angeles County Fair, Santana was happy to continue the FairKids Field Trip program, where students from schools throughout Southern California visited the fair free of charge. More than 156,000 students and teachers experienced the Fair's educational programming that included STEM curriculum tied to Magical World and agriculture and sustainable living in the five-acre Farm. "With the farming industry moving out of Southern California, many young children have no idea that milk comes from a cow," said Santana. "To see them learn this at the Fair is priceless."