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Technology & Listening to Customers: How A Hall of Famer Turned Around the California State Fair

8/16/2013

By Timothy Herrick

Photo courtesy of CA State Fair

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How does one of the oldest fairs in the United States turnaround declining attendance and revenue?  They hire a hall of famer.

Rick Pickering, a fair veteran who was inducted into Western Fair Association's Hall of Fame earlier this year, took the helm of the California State Fair (officially known as California Exhibition & State Fair), in time for its 160th  anniversary celebration.. The 17-day even ran July 12-28 in the Sacramento, the state capitol.  After two years of decline, under Pickering,s guidance, the fair experienced a turnaround in attendance - over 697,000 attended the 17 day-event, with daily attendance growing by 6.5 percent and  averaging 41,003 people per day (compared to 38,502 in 2012).

The attendance surge crossed many consumer categories, with upticks indicating that Gen X Photo By CA State Fair&  Y - the millennials who are also new parents - have finally realized that this California tradition is cool. "We were up across the board," says Pickering. "Full-paid children,s admission was up 22 percent and  full-paid adults went up 23 percent. Our parking was up too, which tells me there was an increase in people traveling from further away and walking grounds. We had complaints of stroller grid-lock, which is something you always want to hear." Admission fees were $12 for adults and $8 for children, the same price as 2012.

Pickering is quick to insist the surge in attendance during his freshman year was due to "having a good product and good people on staff, and also a rebounding California economy." He also credits luck: the gods of fair weather smiled on Sacramento this summer. "Last year there were several 100 degree days, but this year it was mainly clear, in the 80s and 90s --  perfect fair weather."

Expanding Social Media

But Pickering is also being modest. He implemented significant changes to the event, affecting the marketing, physical layout and schedules for concerts and fireworks. His leadership is certainly as responsible for the 2013 revival of the California State Fair as the lack of rain and heat. The most pivotal catalyst creating success was Pickering,s expanded use of social media. "We did extensive marketing through social media, our Facebook page had more than 50,000 likes, almost doubling from the year before," says Pickering.

Pickering took full advantage of the main mode of communication in social media: pictures. According to Pickering, not only did they enable more uploads of pictures from attendees, they added the pictures to not just to the fair's online presence but also to television spots broadcast daily throughout the entire region. "Our tagline was 'memories made daily', and we had people submit photographs of themselves being at the fair," says Pickering. "We revised the fair commercial, that aired on television, every two to three days. If you were at the fair yesterday,  you could be on television tomorrow. The more people watched, the more people came."

The fair created dozens of "photo-ops" throughout the grounds, further encouraging attendee interaction with social media platforms. He also set up Social Media Help Desks throughout the fairgrounds. He created more reasons to take pictures and made it easier for those pictures to rapidly appear on the web, maximizing both the reach of this internet marketing tool and the interactive experience of the guest during event. "We accessed a younger clientele through social media," he says. "But we made our social media more accessible to everyone."

Finding Your Demographic

During the months of planning leading up to the fair, social media also proved to be an effective medium for communication with attendees. One key piece of feedback resulted in modifying the physical layout of the grounds. "We widened the walkways, with more open spaces,"  he says.  "We made it very pedestrian friendly. We moved trash cans, added more seating. Before, people said they felt like they were in a maze. We just made it more convenient to walk the fair."

Concerts were included in the admission price with special VIP seating available at  an additional cost. The concerts ran the gamut of styles, always with an eye on the diverse population of this northern portion of the country,s most populous state.  Each evening,s musical entertainment targeted a category - Retro-Rock, R&B, New Country, Old Country, Cotemporary Christian, Teen Dance, and Latin. Some of the diverse lineup included: Weird Al Yankovic, Zendaya Coleman, EnVogue, Night Ranger, Air Supply, Hoobostank, Anna Victoria, Kool & The Gang, Grand Funk Railroad, the Four Tops and Leanne Rimes. "We paid attention to our markets, he says. "Whenever you can have your entertainment match your demographic, that is the sweet spot you want to hit."

Another change was the firework display. Previous years, fireworks lit up the sky every night of the fair, but only for three minutes. A less is more theory went into effect in 2013, resulting in more anticipation for this fair staple and longer stays at the event. Instead of every night for three minutes, the fireworks were scheduled for 15 minutes on Friday and Saturday nights. "No one ever remembers a 3 minute firework display and because it was so short, people took it as a signal the fair was over and began to leave," says Pickering. "When they are longer, people stayed for the show and might get something else to eat as they watch the display. They stayed at the fair longer."

Food & Rides

The hot food item at this year,s fair was actually one of its coldest - Spaghetti Ice Cream - enjoyed by 4,500-plus according to California State Fair supplied data. As Pickering  explains, a hard frozen bock of ice cream is pushed though  an "extruding" machine, similar to a pasta maker, creating a tangle of ice cream noodles. A fried ball of chocolate represents the meatball, and strawberry or cherry sauce represents the marinara. "They sing in Italian as they make it," he says. "It,s really a desert show."

Other newer concessions doing a noteworthy business were Colossal Gelato and Cardinali Woodfire Pizza, although staples such as corn dogs "and anything wrapped in bacon," were as popular as ever. "You can tell the best food by where the fair staff eats," he says.  Food & Beverage grossed $7.6 million, up about  $450,000 from 2012.

There is an adjacent farm to the fairgrounds, whose produce was also sold, giving parents healthy snack choices for their kids, including grapes, pears and peaches - fruits the Golden State,s agricultural industry is known for. In addition, 2,924 pounds of fresh fruit and vegetables were harvested and donated to California Emergency Foodlink, aided by about 500 fair volunteers. The State Fair Wine Competition had 2,625 wine entries and the State Fair Beer Competition had 640 brews entered. 

Butler Amusements - which has been with the California State Fair since 2009 - ran the Midway with 72 rides, generating about $4 million, which was on par with last year. But, as Pickering points out, last year was an 18-day fair - one day longer than 2013 - and deep-discount programs were implemented for the rides on many of the nights. "We had one less day of fair, not the same level of discounts," he says. "Two of our largest days generated more than $400,000 on the midway. With that mind, I,ll take the fact our numbers were flat compared to last year any summer. I,m satisfied with those numbers."

The Grandstand featured 422 Thoroughbreds, 32 Mules, 24 Quarter Horses and 24 Arabians competing in 72 races. $1,051,769 was paid out in purses.

Iconic Installation

Tyear,s California State Fair also linked a Southern California icon with this 160 northern California tradition. The iconic "C-A-L-I-F-O-R-N-I-A" letters that have long adorned the Disneyland Resort were installed on the grounds in time for Opening Day, "The "C-A-L-I-F-O-R-N-I-A" letters were popular with millions of Disneyland Resort guests and Cal Expo is a perfect destination to continue their legacy," said Mary Niven,  Vice President, Disney California Adventure Park. The symbolic letters previously stood near the entrance of Disney California Adventure park in Anaheim for a decade, and were generously donated to Friends of the California State Fair in May 2012. Soon after, Golden 1 Credit Union sponsored the effort to install the massive letters that stand 11 feet, 8 inches and weigh 5,000 to 13,000 pounds each. "We have enjoyed a great partnership with Cal Expo and the California State Fair for many years," says Donna Bland, Golden 1 President and CEO. " And, because Golden 1 is celebrating its 80th anniversary this year, we felt this would be a fitting way to demonstrate our support of the communities we serve while providing an opportunity to make memories for the hundreds of thousands of Californians who attend the State Fair and Cal Expo events each year."

"Through this generous gift from the Disneyland Resort and the sponsorship of Golden 1 Credit Union, families and visitors will have a great backdrop to capture their memories of "Food, Family and Fun" at the California State Fair," said Pickering on opening day of the fair.

Pickering Philosophy

Previously, Pickering had helmed the Alameda County Fair, the largest in the Bay Area of California. Moving from a deputy position with the Orange County Fair, Pickering began in Alameda in 1999 and was praised by officials for being hard working and detail oriented. Alameda attendance grew 44 percent from 2008 to 2012, making it one of the fastest growing fairs in North America. A highlight of his last year at the Alameda event was the cooking of a 777 lb. hamburger, the video of which went viral, causing an internet sensation.

The California State Fair is hosted by the Cal Expo grounds, a 900+ acre facility whose permanent features include Raging Waters-Sacramento, Cal Expo RV Park, Cal Expo Harness Racing and Sports & Wagering Center an RV park, Cal Expo Harness Racing and Sports & Wagering Center and 18 rentable facilities.

When Pickering was appointed to head a fair that began before the American Civil War, he says it was a "humbling experience and a great responsibility," but said his overall mission was "to return the fair back to basics - Food, Family & Fun."

In addition to focusing on fair basics, Pickering also credits another simple philosophy behind his success with the 2013 California State Fair: "Embrace new technologies and listen to your customers."

CA State Fair

 

 

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