Saying that Tim Fennell, CEO, The San Diego County Fair, feels excited about the 2016 edition of this California tradition risks understatement. "It was the biggest fair we ever had, the highest revenue we ever had, the highest attendance," he said. "It was a great fair, and a very safe and secure fair."
A total of 1,609,481 fairgoers - the highest attended San Diego County Fair ever - came through the gates between June 3 and July 4. The previous attendance record was set in 2012, with a total of 1,517,508 guests. The Fair was closed six days during that period, but this year the fair added an additional day, making it a 26-day event.
An attendance of 96,501 was achieved on Sunday, July 3, placing that date within the top four attendance dates in the fair's history.
When Fennell took the helm of the fair in the early 90s, the fair was 20 days, but across the decades the fair has been inching longer, day by day. With Independence Day falling on a Monday, it made calendar sense to be open on the last day of the long holiday weekend - the fair traditionally ends either on or after Independence Day.
"It was a business decision just as it was a business decision to add days," he said. "We picked up an extra weekend and were closed during some weekdays."
He said that the bargain - adding weekend always boosts business but being closed on weekdays during a month-long period means down days for vendors - was not universally received at first and he did receive flack. "But the weekends more than make up for it. You cannot just sit back and expect things to go the same every year. I knew the demand was out there - our numbers show the demand is out there."
In addition, the regional economy seems slowly improving.
"The economy is picking up, it's positive, but it is still not that great," he said. "People are working but they are not getting pay raises and the cost of living keeps rising. I think people are used it, and it is a new norm."
Even if the economic climate is more positive this year than last year while not as positive as it should be, families still appreciate the value of the fair. "Where else can you get the entertainment we have a fair for a $12 admission fee? We have 10 stages of entertainment, and all the food and rides, exhibits. That's why we got 1.6 million this year, but a better economy helped. Still, going to the San Diego County Fair is a much better value and cheaper than going to the movies. Plus we offered a variety of discounts and passes, which increases the attendance and makes the fair available to more families."
Typically the fair contracts with about 13 ride companies for its midway, from operators large and small. But adding days and eliminating slower weekdays, extending the length of the fair, Fennell said was generally well received by the ride companies. "They want people on their rides, so taking away a dead day and adding another weekend is worth it to them," he said. "No one complained about their routing."
But who can complain with success? He said the midway revenue increased 4.3 percent, reaching $10.8 million. The top 10 grossing rides at the San Diego County Fair were Crazy Mouse; Skyride; Grand Wheel; Fast Trax Mega Slide; G-Force; Olympic Bobs; Magnum, Carousel; Sky Flyer and Alien Abduction.
A 26 day fair is the longest fair in the history of the San Diego event, which dates back to 1880. Since it also the highest attended, Fennell estimation of the demand proved realistic, not merely optimistic. Does the success of the 2016 edition of the fair mean longer fairs in the future? "Could be," is all Fennell would allow. "Stay tuned."
Fennell described the 2016 San Diego County Fair was a "very well balanced fair, we had 85 rides, tremendous exhibits, more than 100 food exhibits and more than 500 commercial vendors. We had a great team to put on the fair and a great marketing theme."
Go Ask Alice
Perhaps his enthusiastic recap of the fair can be seen as a self-fulling prophecy based on theme - "Mad About The Fair." This clever theme tied two overlapping images - Alice in Wonderland and Steam Punk. This very original idea was developed internally. "It came about through team work, we asked our team what would be a good theme for next year, and key people in our exhibit department made a proposal."
Of course Alice in Wonderland is based on the Victorian era children's novel - "Alice's Adventures in Wonderland" - that is also beloved by adults; Steam Punk is a general fashion and arts movement that combines Victorian era fashion and technology, but within a science fiction context - steam powered robots for example. Steam Punk is a popular concept used in video games, movies, televisions, comic books and novels. What seems astute about this very imaginative marketing hook is that it is based on a sentiment all fairs share: nostalgia.
Fennell admits he was skeptical at first, having never heard of steam punk. "I did some homework, and even went to a Steam Punk convention in Reno," said Fennel. "We were able to expand it, and there were a lot of associations in the fair already. And it looked great, so we put steam punk in our merchandise, themed our entrance, we had tea parties, did give always for people who dressed up in costumes. It brought in young people, but it also brought in middle age people as well. It was very successful."
The fair increased its marketing budget by under 5 percent, said Fennell, with a great shift away from print. "The reality is, less and less people are reading newspaper or watching TV, so we are shifting our marketing dollars away from old media to more new school media. We try to stop on trends and this year, we are really expanded the social media, which worked in great with our Steam Punk theme."
Unfortunately an online presence can be lost amid the rapid pace of the internet, and Fennell said the fair did shift more dollars towards outdoor advertising. "We did more billboards and wrapped more buses this year, that medium we have expanded."
The scope of the marketing reach also expanded, not only to other California counties, such as Los Angeles, but to Nevada, especially Last Vegas, and even Arizona. "We are getting more people traveling to the fair," he said. "We have even gone international."
By international he means our neighbor to the south, Mexico. "We market into Tijuana and Northern Mexico," he said. "We have a large Hispanic population here, and a many families visit us from Mexico. Most of our marketing is bilingual, and we have an English version and an Hispanic version, which use across the border."
The fair also features two Hispanic nights with Spanish language faves: Los Tigres Del Norte and Los Tucanes de Tijuana.
San Diego was able to get a remarkable lineup of headline entertainment ranging Lady Antebellum, which Fennell said was probably the best draw, to country stalwart Kenny Rogers who saying Farwell to his fans with his Final World Tour: The Gambler's Last Deal. Other acts included Switchfoot, Joan Jett and the Blackhearts, Michael McDonald, 3 Doors Down, Grand Funk Railroad, Hailee Steinfeld, and Brian Wilson. The fair also hosted its 12th Annual Gospel Festival, which featured Gospel music legend, Shirley Caesar.
Booking headline entertainment for the San Diego County Fair had never been more challenging than it was last year and Fennell does not see an improved scenario for next year. "It's very, very competitive," he said. "We have more music festivals and casinos. The casinos don't have to worry about making money on the concerts, they make their money on more people playing the slot machines. It is more difficult. A lot of acts that always came to fairs are getting eaten up the competition
As a result, the fair increased its budget by 8 percent, but the booking department is scrambling harder to get a fair deal. "In my opinion, the risk fairs face is to overpay for acts. We have a narrow window, only 26 days and we really have to do our homework."
Fennell said the fair will not follow a path similar to other fairs, of saving costs by cutting back or even eliminating headline entertainment. "Headline entertainment is an important part of our programming, so we will continue to find the best acts for our fair, and try to bring them to San Diego. We are committed to name entertainment for our fairgoers."
Will booking be easier for next year's fair?
"No, I do not see the situation changing any time soon," said Fennell. "What we do is continuing to book the fair earlier and earlier. Typically we were looking at acts during the meetings of the International Association of Fairs & Expositions (IAFE) in December, but now we are starting before that, at least by September. It is getting earlier every year."
Food & Beverage spending was $23 million, up 11 percent. Some of fun food stats the fair releases: Dixie's Donuts fried more than 188,000 mini donuts; Country Fair Cinnamon Rolls used 15,000 pounds of cinnamon roll flour, and three tons of cinnamon and sugar; 500 pounds of organic coffee flavored with 52 cases of vanilla and hazelnut creamer, were served; Pink's sold more than 20,800 hot dogs. Bacon-A-Fair used more than 21,000 pounds of bacon; Pignotti's sold ,more than 1,000 Pasta Salad Bread Bowls, and 1,500 Lasagna Sandwiches; Candy Factory went through two tons of ice for the Mad Hatter Monster Shaved Ice Crazy Cone; and Chicken Charlie's sold 10,000 "Chicken in the Waffle on A Stick," 2,000 orders of Shrimp Fried Rice and 7,000 pounds of Kool-Aid Hot Wings. Juicy's sold more than 75,000 of their new all-natural, hormone free hamburgers - the "All American Bacon Cheeseburger," and the "Western Burger."
Even though attendance was up, the increase in food - higher than both attendance and other indicators, such as midway rides - indicates that "people were staying longer at the fair," said Fennell.
Fair cuisine can often be considered fattening, and while the fair promoter in him likes to say to "people who are counting their calories that fair food calories don't count," he did see a new fair food trend in 2016.
"Fair food is fun, but I did notice one trend, that there was more healthy food items among all the fair foods," he said. "I did see more grilled chicken for instance, amid all the fried chicken. The vendors are offering healthier dishes, even vegan dishes, to people. People are eating healthier, so that might be part of that trend. I did notice this and it will be interesting to see if this is true at other fairs this year."