Some California fairs - like the OC Fair in Costa Mesa, California - draw millions of attendees and aren't threatened by financial burdens. In other parts of California, small- and medium-sized fairs are struggling and depend on volunteers to sustain them. The Santa Cruz County Fair is one example.
"We've had a lot of ups and down. The fair was in big financial trouble two years ago, right about the same time that the state got rid of subsidies in capital improvements and repairs," said Fair Manager David Kegebein. "The fairgrounds are about 80 years old, and a lot of infrastructure is in need of repair."
Kegebein grew up on the fairgrounds. As a boy, he participated in 4H and worked at the fair during the summertime. Kegebein's father was a maintenance worker who eventually went on to manage the fair for a number of years before retiring.
"Over the years, since my dad retired, there have been a number of different managers with an average life span of two years. It's way more comprehensive than people realize," said Kegebein. "We're going to have 400 non-fair-time events at our facility this year. All of those different pieces to the puzzle."
Luckily, the fair is run by a devoted group of individuals who volunteer their time to keep the fair alive. Two years ago, Kegebein was able to organize the volunteers to help build the business and modernize the current systems. The fair has a management team of between 8 and 10 people with various areas of expertise. Administrative professionals volunteer in the office, and maintenance volunteers help with planting and maintaining gardens.
"You can't really operate a medium or small fair without a tremendous amount of volunteers. I'm a volunteer, and so is the rest of my team. I'm very lucky to have an amazing crew of people. It's been slightly more than a full-time job for the past few years. We put 200-300 man hours per week toward it," said Kegebein.
In addition, the fair is also supported by a non-profit organization called the Heritage Foundation, which raises funds and conduct public relations activities on behalf of the fair and its programs. The Foundation's goal is to establish a reserve fund of $500,000 and raise $100,000 annually through fundraising, grants, and personal donations. Cash flow from the fairgrounds alone cannot support big ticket items like repairs.
The Santa Cruz County Fair was founded in 1885 or 1887 (historians can't agree) but moved to its current location, which currently serves about 250,000 Santa Cruz County residents, in 1941. This year's fair took place from September 10 to 15 and drew approximately 67,000 attendees. Traditionally, the fair brings in between 60 and 70,000 people, but Kegebein admits that attendance hasn't touched 70,000 in a few years. Average attendance is 64,000.
"The fair does a much better job in tracking attendance now than it did 20 years ago. We use turnstiles now," said Kegebein.
Kegebein does not believe in offering promotions for admission or midway tickets.
"All of us volunteers are working very, very hard, and we're not really big on promotional giveaways. People need to come out and support us to keep this thing going. And you need to have dollars to keep this thing going," said Kegebein.
To attract visitors to the fair, the organizers spend about $115,000 on advertising, with a focus mostly on television and radio.
"We're in a pretty heavy Hispanic market, and they get most of their information from the radio," said Kegebein. "With the general population, you've got to hit Facebook, the e-mail list, all different media sources."
The midway is provided by Brass Ring Amusements Midway of Fun, a family-owned and operated carnival business that has served the California fair circuit since 1991. CEO Harry Mason has more than 35 years of experience in the carnival industry. This year, the midway became "green" with the replacement of 80% of old incandescent light bulbs with new LED-style bulbs. The Giant Wheel, which used to consume more than 100 amps of electricity, now uses only 12.5 amps.
"We're in the same market as the Santa Cruz Beach Boardwalk, which has one of the premier rollercoasters on the west coast, so amusements and the carnival are important but not quite as popular as at fairs that are more remotely located," said Kegebein.
The fair shies away from offering big-name entertainment in favor of animal and livestock exhibitions. A small concert series included acts like No Respect and Keith Anderson. However, according to marketing surveys, the first reason that attendees come to the fair is to see the animals. New to the fair this year were three camels that children could ride.
"We have a huge spectrum from horses and felines to camel races, turkey races, and an exotic bird show. We have a small animal farm, a petting zoo, and a whole nursery for baby domesticated animals," said Kegebein.
The second reason people attend the fair is for the food. This year's most significant increase in spending was on concessions.
"Food concessions went up about 20%, partly because of the increased attendance and people spending a little more money," said Kegebein. "We're a strong agricultural community, overall, and the economy is slightly improving. People are more willing to spend money."
One eye-catching fixture on the fairgrounds is the Rodgers House, which stands at the front entrance to the ground. Built in the 1870s and moved to the grounds in 1998, the house is a national landmark and serves as a museum.
"As you're driving up the long driveway, it creates a nice entrance to the property," said Kegebein.
The 2014 fair is already scheduled for September 9 to 14.
"We made a huge amount of changes this year with layout, exhibits, and moving current departments to new buildings. We're always on the lookout for new attractions, especially animal-related attractions," said Kegebein. "Next year we'll probably let some things play out and settle in.