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Maricopa County Fair posts big attendance gains
Ran April 10 - 14 on the Arizona State Fairgrounds


By Austin Rooney

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"You can't go to the fair and not have a good time," said Karen Searle, executive director for the 2013 Maricopa County Fair in Phoenix, Arizona, when asked what she enjoys about running the fair.  While this may be a matter of opinion, the fact that the fair boasted a 24% increase in attendance this year suggests Searle has a valid point.

The Maricopa County Fair, which ran from April 10-14, sprawled across the Arizona State Fairgrounds, and boasted a wide variety of attractions, rides, vendors, and activities. Searle said she thinks a combination of inexpensive pricing, beautiful weather, unique attractions, and effective advertising made the 2013 fair a rousing success.

Karen Searle and her husband Michael both have an intimate understanding of fairs, having started out as entertainers. Michael, with his years of working as a professional clown, and Karen, who had been performing an animal act, decided to try their hand at management, and started their own company, Fair Executives. Nine years ago, they managed the Maricopa County Fair for the first time.
"I think the fair has grown in most ways since we started," said Searle. "We're far too busy to enjoy it as spectators now, but that's a good thing."

Searle said the biggest attraction this year was the fair's monster truck show, which was advertised heavily in both print and television ads. Other popular events included the motocross show, and the livestock auction, which drew in more than $800,000.

Some of the great entertainment at the fair included the kangaroo show (Aussie Kingdom), the monkey show (Wild About Monkeys), the dog race (Fido 500), and the balloon show. Searle said all of the attractions were free with admission.

Regular admission to the 2013 fair was $9, but the fair ran many promotions which often featured free admission. Searle's "Free 'till Three" promotion, which she has been running for nine years, offered free admission until 3 p.m. She also said the fair promoted "Read to Ride," which encouraged children to read books for free admission and four free carnival rides, "Uniform Day," which offered free admission to anyone in uniform, and "Seniors' Day," which offered free admission and free carousel rides to senior citizens.

Even with all of the promotions, Searle said the fair still turned a profit through their vendors. In fact, revenue for this year's fair was up from last year.

The 27 food vendors spread around the fairgrounds offered a wide variety of unique foods, including the popular "chicken on a stick," and the brand new "chicken and waffles on a sick." As the Maricopa County Fair's website aptly points out, "it wouldn't be a fair without food on a stick!"

The thrill-seekers at Maricopa were not disappointed either. Searle pointed out some of the brand new rides for 2013, which included the Vertigo, a 100-foot tall tower which swings its 24 passengers through the air while it goes up and down. Also new was the Pole Position Coaster, which is an Italian-made world-class coaster composed of three levels. Each coaster car is painted like a racing car, and will spin and free fall while maneuvering the track, complete with sound effects to dramatize the ride. Searle said the carnival was provided by Butler Amusements.

Searle said her advertising budget was around $100,000, which she spent on a mix of television, newspaper, radio, and billboard advertisements. Searle also took advantage of social networking websites such as Facebook to create an event page, which she said received much more attention than in previous years.

"It's a challenge for us to keep our very fast-paced world entertained," said Searle, explaining that using websites such as Facebook help to connect with the younger generation of fairgoers. "Fairs are an important part of our past, and I think as we change and adapt they'll be an important part of our future."

As for the future of the Maricopa County Fair, Searle and Fair Executives will once again manage the fair next year. While she has not yet began to discuss changes for next years' fair, Searle said she will definitely bring back the more popular attractions, namely the monster truck show.

Still, despite some of the bigger and flashier attractions the fair has gathered over the years, Searle said the heart of running a fair will always be in making people happy and providing cost-effective fun for families.

"My favorite part of directing this fair without a doubt is being able to provide an affordable family entertainment venue that does so many different things for different people," said Searle. "We got a lot of emails this year from kids saying the fair really had an impact on them, and that really means a lot to us."

Searle said she appreciates everybody involved in the 2013 fair, and thanked those who attended.

"I have no plans for retirement in sight," said Searle. "I'll keep doing this as long as they'll have me."


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