Rainy days for two three weekends and a new, untested CEO might seem to be obstacles for the annual Rodeo Austin, but they were overcome with fresh changes to the event, including an expanded footprint on the grounds that included a craft beer tent, free music stage and more food vendors. The result? The annual celebration of all things Austin had a very strong year.
The success indicates that the fair has been effectively positioned for the future, whose plans include a new arena and other improvements.
Attendance for the fair was about 258,000 which according to Rob Golding, CEO of the fair, "was a very strong year, "We were up about 8 percent in ticket sales and the carnival. No records were set, but it was a very stron
Golding was recruited for the position in August of last year, with no fair experience but more than 40 years experience as a commercial real estate developer in Austin. According to Golding, after an initial job search conducted by the board of directors, the parameters of the position were modified and Rodeo Austin stake holders looked towards their own back yard. "The bottom line is that they wanted to use the rodeo to build on events year-round, making us more relevant to the popular culture. We had seen continued improvement over the years, but we had sort of plateaued. We are looking to become more relevant and visible."
Towards that goal, Golding's background certainly will prove instrumental. On the drawing board for Rodeo Austin is a multipurpose, enclosed area that will either replace or add onto the Travis County Expo Center. "Ultimately, our board decided what is needed the most is this new facility, and that played right into my background, and we will be pushing that very hard with the city and county, and finding a funding mechanism, and Rodeo Austin is the premier event."
With an increase in attendance and spending, the fair seems on the desired course to show potential growth justifying that new facility. To bring in more people, the fair added attractions that reinforced the essential appeal of the event and modified the marketing of the fair to improve its community outreach.
Austin is the music capital of the world - which makes the fair a desired stop on many a music act's touring route - but it also means that there are dozens of other stages competing with Rodeo Austin. In addition to the many venues, festivals such as South by Southwest and even Texas events, such as the Houston Rodeo & Livestock Show, can also "hinder" booking. "You want to bring in a mixture of acts on their way up with classic acts, but it has gotten more expensive," he said. "Production costs have risen between 20-30 percent compared to recent years, and we were hamstrung by going directly head-to-head with other events."
Technically, while this year's line up produced no sell-outs, several were standing room only. On the main stage, acts included: Dwight Yoakum, Charley Pride, Elle King, Cole Swindell, Fitz and the Tantrums, Bobby Bones and the Raging Idiots, Randy Rogers Band, Chase Bryant, Kenny Rogers, Neal McCoy, Josh Turner, Patti LaBelle, Old Dominion, Cody Johnson and Kevin Fowler. "Talent buying has become more difficult and it wasn't easier this year," he said."
On the other hand - appealing to Austin's multitudes of music lovers - the free outdoor stage featured about 100 different acts - which provided added-value to the ticket price and ensured that in the live music capital of America music remains a crucial component to its annual rodeo. "We look at the outdoor stage as an incubator for a love of the younger acts, and they also bring in a new diverse audience as well. We were able to test drive a lot of groups that will soon be on their way up."
The new outdoor stage was strategically located on the Northside of the grounds, next to the Craft Beer Garden and a Wine Tent, both new additions under Golding's leadership. "We wanted to create an Austin-Festival like experience. We also wanted to give people more value for their ticket, even if they were not going to the paid rodeo and concert. We want to give them value, other entertainment choices and make the overall experience better."
Fair cuisine was augmented with the introduction of a dozen food trucks - which added to the approximately 70 food vendors, which included both independent food vendors as well as concessionaires subcontracting with Crabtree Amusements, the midway provider for Rodeo Austin.
As Golding explained, Food Trucks are "very much part of the culture in Austin, so seeing a food truck is very natural" to the fairgoer, he said.
The new appearance of the mobile dining option didn't upset the traditional fair food sellers, mainly because there was an overall increase in food vendors, as well as new Food & Beverage additions such as the Craft Beer garden. Golding also made sure that the "trucks were scattered throughout the fairgrounds. We have 128 acres and we really wanted to use our acreage in better ways. We didn't put the trucks in the middle of the midway, but near for instance, the show barn or the wild west show, where there really weren't any food options before."
Food trucks also brought a new energy and eccentricity to the food scene at the fair. "A local taco truck named El Cruz Ranch was extremely popular, as were the specialty burgers offered by Wagon Wheels. Mighty Cone, a local vendor, who offered fried chicken and avocado served in cones, all served out of a repurposed military vehicle," he said. "Coffee vendor Lucky Lab continues to be a popular stop as well, offering pastries, drip coffee and outstanding espresso beverages."
He added. "Food spending was up. More vendors were offered, and the gross of the independent food vendors overall was up approximately 20 percent. More notably, alcoholic beverage consumption was up. Food and beverage is a key ingredient in any Austin event."
The Rodeo also marketed the fair differently, improving its outreach to diverse communities. "We pushed our marketing in different directions, and we used Spanish-language advertising for the first time. We used social media in more diverse ways, looking to get a larger Hispanic demographic as well as a younger demographic."
The new marketing approach seemed to work. Crabtree Amusements had a record midway at Rodeo Austin, and Pat Crabtree noted that there was a very robust turnout by the area's massive Hispanic population. "We had hear things weren't so good attendance-wise, that Hispanics were afraid of going to the fairs," he said. "People were scared, and those immigration raids sent shocks waves throughout the Hispanic community. But we didn't see any of that in Austin. It was a great event.
"Midway revenue was up, we had a great year," said Golding. "This was the second year for the midway to be orientated on the east side of the fairgrounds and it was very successful. The center of the midway is designated for children's rides, and the reception of this layout was positive."
The Crabtree Amusements midway featured 56 rides. New new rides including Super Nova 360, and a bigger Pirate Ship and three or four new kiddie rides, said Crabtree. The most popular rides were the Ferris Wheel and the carousel.
Rodeo Austin renewed its contract with Crabtree Amusements at this year's fair. "We had a record midway even though the first two weekends were a washout. But the new team at Austin really got on board with advertising and marketing. Their new promotions of the events really worked well."
Unlike some events, Rodeo Austin struck him as forward looking and willing to change. "They came up with a new lot of new ideas, like wine tastings and food trucks. They are not wiling to keep doing the same old, same old. I expect this fair will grow even more in another couple of years, especially with the new arena that is planned."
For his first fair at the helm, Golding said "what surprised me most is how many different parts there are, but we have only a staff of 17, and we rely on more than 1,000 volunteers, who are very dedicated to the mission of the rodeo."
With a new facility on the horizon and creating a festival atmosphere to augment the rodeo presentation, thinking outside the box seems the direction Rode Austin is unmistakably headed. "Don't be satisfied what you did last year, don't be complacent," he said. "Every single day you come to work, is a new day and I feel you must continue to reinvent yourself at every opportunity."