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Contra Costa Fair - New CEO brings success

7/12/2013

By Austin Rooney

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When the U.S. economy first started to run into trouble in early 2008 many businesses and industries felt the hit, the fair industry being no exception.

For years after the initial downturn, some fairs and carnivals have struggled with attendance and smaller financial profits as a result.

Fortunately, many fairs, such as the Contra Costa County Fair in Southern California, have been seeing major improvements recently.

The Contra Costa County Fair, which ran from May 30 - June 2, posted an impressive 30% increase in attendance on its opening day as compared to last year, as well as a 9% increase in attendance overall; 54,000 attendees over the four-day period.

One of the major changes the fair can attribute these numbers to is its new leadership. In April 2012, former banker and lifelong carnival enthusiast Robert Williamson took over as CEO and manager of the fair, and implemented many changes in the way it was run.

"This year's fair was great," said Williamson. "I think being under new management, using a different style of advertising, and hiring a new marketing team all helped make it a success."

When Williamson took over as CEO in 2012, he said he arrived with only 30 days to prepare for that years' fair. Since that didn't give him a lot of time, this year he was able to spend more time making the fair his own.

Some things were kept similar to previous years. The carnival rides were provided by Midway of Fun, which has provided rides for the Contra Costa fair for many years, said Williamson. There were more rides this year, however, and a bigger kid's area, with more than 36 rides total.

The fairgrounds are home to a year-round skating rink, which was open during the fair, as well as a remote-controlled (RC) car track, which was included as well. The local RC car enthusiasts built a special dirt track through the middle of the fair, and offered rental cars which could be raced.

The concert series included a variety of different styles of music, including country artists The Chris Gardener Band and R&B artist All 4 One.

There were some major changes in the way the fair was run this year, according to Williamson. The fair's budget was $2.3 million overall, with $40,000 spent on advertising.

Marketing is usually a challenge for the fair, as it sits between two different advertising markets, the Bay Area and Sacramento.  Williamson said in the past the fair went with an internal team, but this year he outsourced it to an expert who ran the marketing campaign as well as the fair's social media pages.

"Facebook and social media are a big part of our advertising campaign, and it's all free, so we try to use that as much as we can," said Williamson.

The major way Williamson has been changing the fair is through strengthening ties to the local community. In fact, much of the first day's attendance numbers are due to a promotion through the local food bank, in which attendees got free admission if they donated three cans of food.

Through that promotion, Williamson said they were able to provide 5,500 meals to those less fortunate.

"I've really been working on community relations," said Williamson. "I really try to give back to our local homegrown roots and I'm trying to build those relationships. It's going well. We have increased attendance, our concessions were up, and our exhibits were up. We can't complain."


Williamson said he believes the more the fair engages the community, the more volunteers they will receive.

Those volunteers will someday become full-time workers, and eventually they will take over as managers. It's a strategy Williamson finds easy to believe in, since it describes the story of how he became a fair manager.

"I grew up showing animals at fairs through a 4-H Club," said Williamson. "It's always been something I've been interested in."

Later in life, Williamson became a banker, but he said he used his vacation days going to help out at his local fair, running the animal areas and helping to coordinate the livestock shows.

In 2007, he was presented with an opportunity to apply for a specialized fair management program, in which the selectees were able to shadow a fair CEO and learn the trade.

Williamson was selected, and attended the training. After finishing training, he went on to manage the Butte County Fair for a year, and then moved on to manage the Fresno County Fair for another three years.

"You have to have good relationships with the people who grew up going to fairs, and then recycle them through so they become your volunteers and supporters," said Williamson. "Without the community's support, no matter what size fair you have you will not be successful."

Since he started running fairs, Williamson said he loves working in the industry and interacting with other fair supporters.

"I love that it's something new every day," said Williamson. "I could be out on the grounds helping out with maintenance, building something, landscaping something, and then in the afternoon I could have a business meeting down at city hall. You never know what the day's going to hold."

While managing the Contra Costa County Fair can be time consuming, Williamson said he still tries to make it out to other fairs with his family when he has the time.

"It's a great way to have some time to relax and have fun, and also to see what other people are doing and steal ideas," joked Williamson.

As for the future, Williamson said he is optimistic about the next fair, and expects it to be a success as well.

"We want to keep increasing everything the way it's been going," said Williamson. "We'll keep increasing the fun, increasing the attendance, and giving people those great family memories."

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