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79 years of the San Mateo County Fair


By Laryssa Wirstiuk

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The San Mateo County Fair, held annually in San Mateo, California, recently completed its 79th year, the most successful one in the fair's history. Governed by a Board of Directors who work closely with organizers to embody the fair's slogan "where tradition meets innovation," the fair consistently wins top awards from the Western Fair Association. 
This year, guests could enjoy all nine days of the fair, including concerts - from June 8th to June 16th - for just $17 (presale price). Children and seniors paid only $15 for the same pass. Special promotions included a kid's day, a senior's day, a day with free fair admission between the hours of noon and 3 PM, a day with discounted fair tickets for those who donated cans of food, and a school day with $5 admission for anyone with a student ID.
San Mateo Co FairThis year's fair sponsors included beverage giants like Bud Light and Pepsi, recognizable fast-food chains like McDonald's and T.G.I. Friday's, and local newspapers and radio stations. An aggressive social media campaign included information and engaging content shared via Facebook, Twitter, Pinterest, and YouTube accounts. The fair's YouTube channel features video footage from the most recent and past fairs; the most viewed video - with more than 1,000 views - is a 30-second commercial advertising the 2011 fair. The San Mateo County Fair Facebook page boasts more than 17,000 "likes," while the Twitter account is followed by more than 10,000 users.

"The fair ran an aggressive social media campaign with numerous contests and incentives to grow the social media. The social media campaign was a big success this year," says Matt Cranford, fair and festivals event manager.

In addition, fair organizers advertised in the following media: TV, radio, billboard, print and online. Fair organizers would not reveal the advertising budget.

"We have developed an integrated marketing, advertising, public relations and social media program with a solid team. The successful numbers demonstrate that our program and content are resonating with the community," says General Manager Chris Carpenter.

As a result, this year's fair had record-breaking attendance. Organizers announced that attendance exceeded the planned goal of 120,000 attendees, a 20% increase in attendance from 2012. This year's fair also exceeded attendance for the 2011 fair, which was one of the largest attended fairs in several years.

San MateoThis year's grounds entertainment included pig races, Chinese acrobats, a hypnotist, a children's theater, a petting zoo, a rainforest adventure, and contests. The contests celebrated outstanding achievement in categories like agriculture, creative home arts, culinary arts, and gardening, among others.

"Pig racing continued to be the single-most popular entertainment at the fair. Other popular attractions this year were the technology department with frisbee-throwing robots and an exhibit where kids can learn to build apps and video games and other tech-related activities. This was a big draw this year and attracted new fairgoers," says Cranford. "The traditional livestock and agriculture were very popular again, and the auction also did very well this year. The grounds acts are a big favorite for parents with kids. The Cutest Show on Earth was a good example. Parents and children really enjoyed this program where kids participate in a circus-style show."

On June 16th, the fair celebrated San Mateo's local Hispanic community with a day called "Dia de la Feria." According to the 2010 Census, the San Mateo County Hispanic population is 182,502 or 25.4%. Free concerts on this day featured Spanish-language music acts like Mariano Barba, Los Yonics, and Rocio y Su Sonora.

Butler Amusements MidwayOn other days, the free concert series included acts like Starship featuring Mickey Thomas, Tower of Power, Three Dog Night, The Whispers, Morris Day and The Time, Aerorocks (an Aerosmith tribute band), and Queen Nation (a Queen tribute band). On the Blues and Brews stage, numerous rock and blues bands performed.
"Our concert series is free with fair admission ticket, but we offer gold circle seating for an additional fee," said Cranford. "Three concerts were sold out. The rest all had good attendance."
Partners with the San Mateo County Fair for many years, Butler Amusements provided the carnival midway, which included the Zillerator Roller Coaster, the 1001 Nights, the Giant Gondola Wheel, NItro, Zipper, Gravitron and more. The Zillerator is consistently the fair's most popular ride.
"Butler Amusements had their best year's sales ever working with us according to Butler Amusement's management," says Cranford.
In addition to traditional fair food like funnel cakes, barbeque, and other fried items, other food items catered to the health-conscious. Many foods were served in appropriate portion sizes using low-fat cooking methods like grilling or baking. In addition, some food offerings used fresh, locally-grown produce.
"We included more healthy options for fairgoers in addition to the traditional fair food like funnel cakes, which are very popular. Although most fairgoers still prefer to eat traditional fair food, with more younger families attending the fair the moms are requesting even more healthy options and we will be increasing this in the coming years," says Cranford.
Healthy dining options include steamed artichokes, veggie burritos and tacos, salads, made-to-order pasta and unusual items like fried watermelon.
Most notably, the fair works closely with the community to promote local business owners, artisans, and initiatives, one of which is a partnership with local schools. For example, elementary students with perfect school attendance were eligible for free fair tickets, and students who read a designated number of books could also enter the fair free of charge. In addition, organizers offered local teachers the chance to bring students on a behind-the-scenes tour of the fair.
Organizers are currently busy planning next year's fair and making changes to accommodate the community's response. According to fair management, changes are far too numerous to mention, and the dates for next year's fair will be released soon.

"We have already started planning based on input, research and data from our fair attendees and the community, for next year's 80th Anniversary Fair," says Carpenter.

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