The Ventura County Fair saw an increase of 4.5 percent in attendance this year, reaching 332,262, a boost resulting from innovative promotions, a commitment to live entertainment and an effective ride selection for its independent midway.
"The Ventura County Fair was a great success with record attendance, clear blue skies, warm days and cool nights and plenty of refreshing Ocean Air", said Barbara Quaid, CEO, Ventura County Fair.
The uptick for this year's edition of the Ventura County Fair comes despite what appears to be a sluggish regional business climate. The economy has shown little improvement in the region. Adding to the woes of persistent unemployment and low consumer confidence, Quaid pointed out that the Ventura County economy, heavily reliant on Agriculture, is still suffering from the Golden State drought.
"The economy is still status quo compared to last year," said Quaid. "Things haven't really improved compared to last year. But they look at what we have to offer, and for the price we charge, It is an affordable place to go for all walks of life, no matter what your financial status."
She added, "the agriculture industry is still suffering because of the drought, even though it isn't quite as bad as last year. Strawberries are a major crop here and they did not have a good harvest."
The drought's lingering impact on the actual fair was evident with the lack green grass on the fairgrounds, "we still had a dry auction, and everyone had to bucket wash their animals."
Country Fair/Ocean Air
But on the positive side, the fair's advertising and marketing seemed particularly effective. The Ventura County Fair has a modest advertising budget of about $100,000.
According to James Lockwood, Marketing & Public Relations Director, the big shift in 2016 advertising spending was that "we added more digital/targeted advertising and fine tuned our print and broadcast advertising," he said. "With digital, we actually targeted our advertising to reach our intended audience by using pixeling, which is based on reaching the demographic. The online ad appears where people are shopping or going on their web, and targets the user. We looked at the advertising, asking what more can it bring us, so decided that narrowing it down to reach the individual was the way to go."
Fine tuning the print advertising meant some critical old school flourishes, including 250,000 fliers inserted into Ventura County newspapers. "We work through the newspapers on our digital advertising, but they have an expert team and used them for the newspaper insert. We reached a diversity of people by looking at our geographic region and looking how we can reach different areas, especially different towns that are not well serviced by main stream publications."
The fair's marketing tagline - "A Country Fair with Ocean Air"— led the marketing the campaign. " It describers exactly who we are and it lures visitors from across the state, across the country and around the world," said Quaid. "We use the term country fair in our staff meetings, and we thought it worked and we decided to keep this tagline because we don't believe in change for change's sake. It worked well with our social media, we have likes from all around the country."
A popular community outreach promotion was "Read & Ride," where the youth of Ventura County - from preschool to 7th grade - received rides for reading books. Those eligible had to read a minimum of two to four books, and submit book reports and they were mailed free ride tickets. More than 1,8000 children participated.
Unusual for a mid-size county fair, the fair operates an independent midway, which it has for more than a decade, contracting with about half-a-dozen companies for its 49-ride midway. While it is more management on the part of the fair, "it really does give the option to pick and chose from the best rides available on the west coast, providing the best experience for people who come to the fair," said Quaid. "Unlike having one carnival company operate the midway, all our contracts are for one year, and we can get the best, and the newest rides. We pick and choose and keep attracting people to the fair."
This annual approach to ride contracting seems to have paid off, with midway ride revenue up 5.62 percent. The fair introduced two new rides this year - FD-80, a children's ride and the more spectacular Flipper. The top grossing rides were Giant Wheel, Wave swinger, Flipper and Ex-Scream Machine. "The wheel is always one of the top rides, she said. "We also poured a new concrete pad this year.
The view over the water, with white caps of the ocean, are beautiful. We do a lot of social media and get a lot of pictures from that view. We did a lot of Periscope this year, and we had our own Snapchat filter. Many of our own staff and their family members go up on to the top of the wheel and post pictures of that view."
Fairground design this year also improved the interface between the rides and concerts. "The exit for our concerts goes right into our midway," said Quaid. "They see the sparkle of the rides and stay longer and spend more time at the fair."
The midway offered about 12 games, with Pokemon plush the most sought after prize. The fair eagerly jumped on the still rolling Pokemon Go! bandwagon - adding Pokemon stops within the fair, "which attracted a lot of kids and millennials, she said. "It was also covered in the local newspaper and they did a nice article on our Pokemon program."
Other popular plush included emojis, especially the now near-ubiquitous Poop Hat Emoji.
The midway revenue uptick in 2016 likely pushed the revenue into record-making territory. "I believe, based on last year's midway revenue, that this year's revenue is going to be a record," she said. "I believe the prior year's fairgoer came to this year's fair and saw the new rides and midway. There has been an upgrade in the midway and we know that we have the fairgoer experience. We give them a lot in the midway and we love having the record."
The independent midway also gives the fair more flexibility in layout and design, an advantage for a 63-acre fairground where attraction placement has to be strategically "measured by the inch," said Quaid. "We work on smooth transitions between the different areas, and because we are right on the water, it's difficult to move around large parts of the fair. But this year we changed position of some of the rides and midway."
The Ventura County Fair features headline entertainment in its grandstand, but as part of the admission fee ,not as a separate ticket. Opening night may be a motor sports event, but major names this year included Joan Jett, Chris Young, Trace Adkins. America, and Third Eye Blind.
"When you pay to get into the gates, not only are you paying for the experience of the fair, you are also paying for the entertainment, which they get for no additional charge,"
Quaid said that booking entertainment has been pretty evenly split between a buyer's and seller's market. She credited her entertainment booking for finding acts that both attract the fair constituency and fit into an entertainment routing. "We are booking earlier, and it is more difficult. We are booking now already for next year."
Unlike other California County Fairs, Ventura County Fair remains committed to headline entertainment. "It brings people into the gate, and the rising cost of entertainment is just the cost of doing business," she said. "you can see about 3:30 people leaving the fairgrounds who have been here all day long and new people coming for the music that night. It drives attendance."
She pointed out that a significant factor in reinforcing the viability of headline entertainment at the annual celebration of everything Ventura has been the ever growing social media promotion. "We do spot on coverage of our concerts in every form of social media," she said. "The concerts are free, we always have a good name, like Joan Jett or Third Eye Blind. We get the word out and people show up because of the value, where else can see a big name and go to a fair for the same price."
Food revenue was up 7 percent, reaching $1,070,808, with 73 different vendors. Hot food trends at the fair were crepes, deep fried peanut butter and jelly and spiral fries. "Spiral fries always had a huge line," added Lockwood.
There were 185 vendors in the Commercial Building, which included some booths for local political and other community organizations, but the vast majority were what are commonly known at the fair as "pitch items," harkening back to boardwalks of days gone by when pitchmen hawking products would give pitches and attract crowds and sell merchandise.
Perhaps the best contemporary example is Ron Popiel, who actually did appear at the fair years ago selling his "Vita Mix."
When asked what were the unusual vendors at the fair, Quaid quickly replied "Always, always the wonderful pitch items," she said. "These are commercial exhibitors selling their products and they really do put on a show. Lighted tennis shoes were the hot item this year, and it's popular with teenagers and some young adults as well as moms with toddlers."
With rising attendance and solid revenue, Quaid declared that the 2016 Ventura County Fair "Absolutely exceeded all expectations.," she said. "Good weather, good revenue and happy faces."
Those three factors in the outdoor event equation usually add up to success. But there's always next year. "If it works, we fine tune and we change the things that don't work."
One area that didn't work so well was at the entrance, where for the first time the fair installed metal detectors. "We will definitely fine tune this part of security. There were lines on the opening day and other days, and we are going to figure out to make that work more smoothly. Security is a reality, and a lot of fairs have them already. So that is one part of the fair we can fine tune. But overall, we have a recipe for a great fair that worked this year."