How do you create fanfare for opening day of a fair, celebrate your community's heritage, fulfill the mission of your organization, and build stronger ties with that community?
For the 105th Alameda State Fair the answer was a cattle drive.
About 150 steer were driven by 60 cowboys and cowgirls through downtown Pleasanton and into the Fairgrounds to celebrate the Fair's opening. Nothing like bringing a herd of mooing livestock in the middle of town to grab attention, but the stunt succeeded because the fair worked to tie the spectacular opening with local businesses, sponsors and the community.
"We partnered with our downtown community for the cattle drive," said Angel Moore, Marketing and Commun
ications Manager. "People were reserving patios at restaurants three weeks in advance so they could have a great view. We ordered giveaways of hats and fans, and we gave out more than 5,000 free tickets. We partnered with stores on Main Street to give things out, and we listed retailers, restaurants and stores for those giveaways, we made them all part of the cattle drive."
Thousands of spectators and participants enjoyed the cattle drive, and a special Western Weekend followed, including ranchers rodeo, horse show and prizes in the Action Sports Arena. " Our mission is the celebration of our community. We are in the heart of the Bay Area, the heart of Silicon Valley, and we bring in new technology and all the programs that STEAM (Science, Technology, Engineering, Agricultural, Machinery) and we had those programs," she said. "Our mission is to also celebrate the heritage of our community, that is our western heritage in the Bay Area. Cattle ranching, is the history of our community and we wanted this year's fair to celebrate that."
The cattle drive also "was something you couldn't miss, and that's how you want to open the fair, with a big splash," she said.
This bovine moving exhibition provided opening exposure that built on a very effective marketing program pushing the fair attendance up 3 percent, attracting 463,783. This fair has been on a steady growth trajectory, with back-to-back fairs showing increasing attendance. The weather was generally attendee-conducive, with no rain but some days reached triple digits - 105 - 108 degrees. "The cooler days were better attended, but when it was warm during the day, the people really turned out at night."
"It's been one of the best Fairs in every way," said CEO Jerome Hoban. "We sincerely appreciate the community's enthusiasm and support for the first ever Opening Day Cattle Drive and Western Weekend. Top that with the stellar concert lineup, our 4th of July celebration, live Action Sports and an amazing season of horse racing and it really was the Best Summer Ever."
Looking for Value
Moore pointed out that spending at the fair was equally robust, with 10 of the 15 concerts being sold out, and spending up more than 3 percent in both Food & Beverage and midway rides. While some of this increase can be attributed to positive signs in the economy, the appeal of value remains evergreen even in a place with a seeming booming economy like Silicon Valley.
"We do live in a place with good employment, but as everybody knows, housing and other costs are much higher here than the rest of the country," she explained. "In the Bay Area people have a lot of choices, but they are looking for discounts, and we have discount tickets, kids free days. Families still have a budget, and they were looking for discounts. People are out spending, our per caps were up, but they are also looking for discounts. We had more Groupon sales this year."
One very telling metric Moore pointed to was the "Feed The Need Food Drive," which resulted in 23,987 pounds of food donated, totaling 19, 989 meals. But year-to-year participation increased 59 percent in 2017. The program - similar to promotions used universally throughout the fair industry - entailed a day with free admission for four non-perishable food items. "People were looking for discounts, but they also wanted to support the community, give back to the community."
While a cattle drive may have proven to be an effective focal point for opening day, the fair also developed a very successful marketing plan, spearheaded by a Best Summer Ever theme. This tagline was used in various ways and lent itself to visual marketing - for example, changing the images to a Ferris Wheel or a Corn Dog - weaving iconic fair images into the Best Ever phrase everyone is familiar with. "We tied to the Best Summer Theme into everything, from the corn dogs to the action sports, and it was able to speak all areas of the fair," said Moore. "It was a great theme, because we were able to do a lot with it and we kept the messaging consistent. It is going to be hard to top that theme."
Best Summer Ever
The Alameda County Fair had an advertising budget of $455,000, which Moore said was about the same amount as the 2016 expenditure, with funds shifting away from TV and radio and more into digital advertising and social media marketing. "Social media is getting more followers, especially now that Facebook has purchased Instagram," she said. "In our market, there is much more digital and social media now, and the traditional media of radio and TV are shrinking. Also, it is substantially less expensive than radio and TV advertising.
In April, the Alameda County Fair was one of a only 10 organizations - and the only fair - chosen by Facebook to take a 2-day seminar, held on one of the company's campuses. "They showed us a lot of things about how to use Facebook better and more effectively," she said. "It was two days of teaching and learning and we learned a lot of cutting edge techniques, and were able to get a much greater value out of our fair marketing on Facebook."
Since social media is about making personal connections - it is the social network after all - the fair incorporated story telling into its Facebook presence, utilizing video, interviews, and Facebook live. "We wanted everyone to tell their story, we had kids with their animals, the woman who makes the corndogs, we had all these people involved with different parts of the fair tell their story," she explained. "We got tremendous feedback, and strengthened the personal connection people have with their community fair."
She added, "people really learned about how unique the fair is. We have a vintage jewelry seller, who is a second generation vendor. We also had a Pony Ride, and people on social media were asking questions about how they treat their ponies and they learned that the ponies are rotated, and they are treated like royalty. I think personalizing our social media marketing with story telling had a big impact."
Butler Amusements was the fair's midway provider, designing a 52-ride midway, about the same-sized footprint as previous years. A refurbished Graviton was a new ride for the fair this year, said Moore. The most popular rides were the Giant Wheel, Inversion and White Water Flume. "My personal favorite was the flume ride and there always seemed to be a line, so I know it was popular," she added.
Entertainment for the fair - a mix of free with admission and paid reserved seating concerts, was heavy on nostalgia acts and country music - included: Sugar Ray, Con Funk Shun, Plain White T's, Jana Kramer, Tower of Power, John Michael Montgomery , ASIA Featuring John Payne, Rose Royce, Clint Black, Ann Wilson of Heart, Sheila E, America, Wynonna & the Big Noise and Night Ranger. In addition, tribute acts were also showcased, including Super Diamond, Queen Nation, and Foreverland The 14-Piece Tribute to the Music of Michael Jackson.
She said that 10 out of the 15 shows were sold out, but the main marketing thrust was not through social media or other promotions. "We had the ability to sell out mainly through our e-blasts and email distribution," she said. We were better able to target out concertgoers, and we are really proud of our robust email and it shows us the value of having a strong connection with your base."
She also credited the line up that they developed as having an effective appeal, which ranged from Tower of Power and Sheila E. - local music legends with a strong local following - to country superstars Clint Black and Wynona Judd. "We were thrilled with this year's line up, we worked very hard with a booking agency," she added.
Does that mean that fair entertainment has become more of a buyers than the seller's market that has persisted for the last several fair seasons?
"No," she said. "It is still very difficult. Costs are rising, and we got lucky this year because a lot the acts were doing a circuit of fairs, so the routing worked in our favor this year. It is already becoming more difficult for next year, and we are already booking now for the 2018 fair. It is not getting any easier and this year was not easier than last year."
About 70 food vendors were at the 2017 Alameda County Fair - and despite this being nutrition-crazed California - fair cuisine staples remain the top three sellers - Corn Dogs - 34,103; Funnel Cake - 32,904 and BBQ Turkey Legs - 16,998.
Food at the fair was also promoted by the 4th Annual SNACKDOWN - a competition that encourages new food concoctions at the fair. This year's Grand Champion was a
crowned Doritos Corn on the Cob, and other winners included the Deep-Fried Mac & Cheese Balls, Chicken & Rice Pineapple Bowl, the Chickle and the Gelato Donut Sandwich. "We do SNACKDOWN for the new food, but people still love corn dog and the funnel cake. They want the traditional fair food."
It's those traditions - even when refreshed with a spectacular cattle drive opening - that made the 2017 Alameda County Fair successful. "For all us, our goal is to bring a fun fair to our community and we want each fair to better than the year before," said Moore. "We live in this community, this is our home, and what we want is for families to keep coming to the fair, and to keep building memories here."