Only an ultra-confident event can market itself as "A Fair to Remember," but The San Diego County Fair has earned the size of its ego. Considered to be the largest fair in Southern California and the 4th largest fair in the country, it is also now one of the longest. The fair added another day, making it a 25-day event, running June 5th to July 5th.
This extension was accompanied by an expanded marketing and promotional strategy, the addition of two new "festivals within the fair," as well as other content and the booking of audience-attracting entertainment. The formula worked. Numbers were up across the board.
According to Tim Fennell, CEO, The San Diego County Fair, overall revenue increased by 6 percent, reaching in excess of $2 million. Food sales were up more than 9.23 percent and the midway was up 9.59 percent. "We had a tremendous fair," said Fennell.
For the past 15 years, he estimates, the fair has seen steady increase and this year attendance reached 1,503,508, with the Friday July 3rd, reaching 92,948, making it the sixth highest single-day attendance in fair history. That day was also a major one for the main parking lot, which handled 16,398 vehicles and had its highest revenue day, grossing $173,690. In addition, the 66th Annual Jr. Livestock Auction was successful : $449,000 was raised for members of 4-H and FFA.
Fennell said the key to his fair's up-trending track record is a business-minded spirit that he feels is in contrast to county fairs statewide and nationally. "We operate the fair like a business, which means we think out of the box and are entrepreneurial," he said. ‘A lot of fairs, the people who run it come out the agricultural industry, but they don't really understand about putting on entertainment events."
Fennell cites as example, the decision to add days but close on Mondays - the fair used to run 20 straight days - a move that added a 5th weekend. The idea was not just to make the fair longer, but make optimize every minute of every fair hour. "Monday was the slowest day for the fair, especially when school is still in session," he said. "The best you could hope for was a push."
Weather & Drought
According to Fennell, the weather was typical sunny San Diego for the most part, although there were three "rainy days," and a thunderstorm that "shut down the midway for 45 minutes," and he estimated that these inclements day during the 25-day fair, "hurt us about 15,000."
Being that California is suffering one of its worst droughts in history, Fennell was not about to complain about rain. While the a handful of downpours may not have had any significant effect on the water shortage, the impact of the drought and more restrictive state regulations on water usage was more noticeable on overall operations than on actual fair operations. "We've cut water usage for the fairgrounds, and the race track isn't in operation during the fair," he said. "For the annual fair, there were other things we were doing that we hadn't been doing. We've been living with the drought for a few years now."
In addition to the mainly good weather, there were indicators that the economic recovery continues in California. "The economy has come back, maybe not as good a comeback as some are saying in Washington, but things have gotten better," said Fennell. "You could tell patrons had more money to spend and were feeling better about the economy."
Aside from what appears to be an uptick in spending at this year's fair, Fennell noticed another positive sign. The fair hires about 1,800 part time workers annually, "and when the economy is weak, we've had more than 9,500 applicants," said Fennell. This year, that application pool was down to about 7,500.
Many fairs face increased competition from festivals, and San Diego has taken an "if you can't beat them, join them" approach by incorporating festivals into the fair. The San Diego County Fair hosted several of these events within the event - the 3-day 2015 San Diego International Beer Festival, attracted 9,517 - Fennell claimed it was the second largest beer festival on the west coast; the 2-day 2015 Toast of the Coast Wine Competition & Festival, which attracted 1,105, and the one-day 2015 Distilled: San Diego Spirit & Cocktail Festival had 985 in my attendance. In addition, the fair also hosted one-day festivals, the 11th Annual Gospel Festival, the Bluegrass Festival (an annual event) and the first ever, Asian Festival, which celebrated Asian and Pacific Island culture, which according to the San Diego Fair website, presented, "music, dance and martial arts performances, as well as fashion and community-based organizations representing China, Philippines, India, Korea, Japan, Polynesia, Indonesia, and Vietnam.
Fennell said, "this will definitely return and I know it will grow."
Fennell pointed out that 20 years ago, the San Diego County Fair was basically "ignored" by the Hispanic community. When he stepped into the helm, he made sure the fair has committed itself to this growing community, adding more events each year. Now, every Sunday the fair features Día de la Familia (Day of the Family) at the San Diego County Fair, which showcases Mexican music and performances along with artisans, games artisans, games, contests, and other activities and attractions. This year they set up Fiesta Village in the Family Funville section, which features Hispanic entertainment, food and artisan crafts that span Central and South America and the Caribbean.
"We strongly embrace the Hispanic community and have been for years," said Fennell. "It is growing and they are great customers, You get grandparents from both sides coming, entire families enjoying the fair. We probably have the highest per-capita spending rates from our Hispanic fairgoers."
Bilingual and Spanish language advertising has long been part of the marketing strategy of the San Diego County Fair, but this year the fair placed ads in various media in Northern Mexico. "We crossed the border because we are getting a lot of families from that area," said Fennell.
While adding an international arm of their marketing shows innovative thinking, perhaps this promotional savvy fair's entrepreneurial spirit is best exemplified by how it merchandise the "A Fair to Remember" theme. The fair's in-house graphic design and marketing team every year takes the theme, incorporates it into a new logo, creating a range of incentive items, souvenirs and other merchandise. The "A Fair To Remember" marketing theme was steeped in fair nostalgia. This year was the centennial of one of the most famous world fairs in history, also held in San Diego - the 1915 Panama-California Exposition held in Balboa Park, an historic landmark.
"People want a keepsake of the fair," he said. "We always bring out new merchandise, themed to the fair, and those colors and themes are carried throughout the grounds, in banners and uniforms"
Another new marketing gimmick this year was a steep-discount, pre-fair promotion - a $25 Best Pass, available at local retailers Albertsons and Vons - which allowed fairgoers admission any day of the fair. "It was probably our most effective promotion," said Fennell.
According to Fennell, the San Diego Fair midway revenue reached $9 million. Due to the length of the fair and the size of the midway - the fair features 82 rides - the fair has an independent midway contracting with 13 different ride companies. "Grosses are higher because of our split, which favors the carnival companies, and we can cherry pick the best rides for our midway," he said.
The fair features nine different stages for entertainment - a mix of free and paid admissions. The price of concert admission is not included in the fair admission fee. In addition, the fair added a Concert & Concerts package which included a meet & greet cocktail reception with the artists. Some of the artists this year included: The Robert Cray Band; Iron Butterfly; Marshall Tucker Band, Three Dog Night, Average White Band, Tanya Tucker, Gregg Allman, Kansas, KC & The Sunshine Band, Charlie Wilson, Grupo Intocable, Gregg Allman, Los Tigres Del Norte and Spirit West Coast, a Christian concert. The paid-acts stages include the Toyota Summer Concert Series, which is held on Heineken Grandstand Stage and the Ford Dealers' Paddock Concert Series, which included nationally known artists and tribute bands performing in one of the Fair's most intimate settings, the Coors Light Rock On Series, which showcased a eclectic array of tribute bands and the Del Mar Arena Shows, which showcased animal and motor sports entertainment. Every Thursday of the Fair featured the Solid Gold Series, which this included Tony Orlando and folk music legend Judy Collins.
"We have something for everybody," he said, noting that for the non-music entertainment, "the Monster Trucks had one of our best nights."
Like other fairs that feature nationally known headliners, booking entertainment isn't getting any easier, or less expensive. San Diego is also a growing market with no lack of competing venues. Fennell said that his fair is perceived as more of amphitheater, creating its own profile in the live entertainment industry. He also feels that the fair has established itself as a quality West Coast summer gig. "There are a lot of fairs were the artist doesn't get the best reception," he said. "But I think the word has gotten around about the reception they get, our backstage areas, our security and accommodations, and they get treated as well as they can be. We promote our concerts very well, and bring in crowds."
Fennell added that his staff is finding entertainers at the right price who draw from the many population segments who come to this 25-day fair. The market may continue to get more challenging, but "we try buy talent wisely," he said, and like the independent midway, "we book entirely in-house, we don't use any other agencies. I think the level of trust we've established with artists and promoters has given us an edge."
More than 100 food vendors worked the Fair, and Fennell claimed the food sales - $17.5 million - were the best in the history of the fair. Some of the official stats include Dixie's Donuts selling more than 40,000 mini donuts; Bacon-A-Fair used more than 18,500 pounds of bacon and selling 1,600 orders of Deep Fried Coffee; Chicken Charlie selling 3,000 Deep-Fried SlimFast Bars, and 5,000 Peanut Butter Pickles; Pink's sold "more than 4,160 pounds of hot dogs. That translates to 20,800 hot dogs, with 15 percent of those Martha Stewart Dogs, 10 percent Bam Dogs, and 5 percent the new Jalapeno Dog; Juicy's sold more than 50,000 Turkey Legs; Australian Battered Potatoes used more than 14,000 pounds of potatoes and Pignotti's went through more than 1,000 pounds of shark and 7,200 fish tacos.
In spite of its size and length, the San Diego is one of the greenest fairs in the country. The event generated an estimated waste stream of 2,084 tons of material, but more than 1,449 tons were recycled, turned into biofuel or sent to be composted. The fair achieved a 70 percent diversion rate from the landfill and an estimated $33,757 in earned revenue.