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Rodeo Austin: Rain Fails to Dampen Texas Spirit


By Timothy Herrick

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Less than ideal weather, yet overall revenue was up?

At Rodeo Austin, what boosted the figures in spite of meteorological challenges was the success of its rodeo and concert series at the enclosed Luedecke Arena. For Johnny Philipello, Chief Operating Officer, this dichotomy reinforced his confidence in the fair industry.

"I could wish for better weather," said Philipello. "But people are very interested in our events. I would think these are positive signs for the fair season, people like going to the fair if the fair offers them the events they want."

Despite Rainy Days
Just how less than ideal was the weather? It rained on the peak-times, including weekends of the 16-day event, and even when  skies were clear, the temperatures  plummeted below 40 degrees -  even to freezing - far from the normal 70 degree temperatures this part of the Southwest experiences in March. "Attendance to the fair was down by about 50,000," said Philipello, adding the total was about 250,000. "But our rodeo/concert arena gross ticket sales increased. The one is not reliant on the other. We also showed a 7 percent increase in our livestock exhibitors."

Philipello added the mission of the fair is to promote western heritage and education. "We gave out more than $500,000 in scholarships."

While many areas of the outdoor component of the fair, including food and beverage sales and the midway, "took a hit because of the weather," said Philipello. "The overall feeling is that we had a good fair this year."

"Attendance was slightly down due to the unpleasant weather we experienced," said Sarah Van Ert, Marketing Coordinator.  "However, we did set a few records in the areas of Competitive Events entries, Scholarship Giving, Youth Auction proceeds, and Website views."

Music City Competition
The March timing of the fair coincided with Spring Break as well as the South by Southwest music festival, an internationally renowned showcase for musicians attended by music industry members and music enthusiasts worldwide. "Rodeo Austin benefits from overlapping with Spring Break, because families frequent the event during their time off from school," said Van Ert. "Historically, this week boasts the highest attendance, as young families are excited to get outside and enjoy the improving weather. In Austin, we also have as South By Southwest, a large music festival. It could be argued that the event competes for attendees, but it also brings in a large amount of out-of-towners and even individuals from other countries that we wouldn't typically attract."

Austin earned the moniker of "Music City," because it is home to one of the highest number of music venues of any city in the world. Its local music industry has been said to be worth upwards of $1 billion. Increasingly, with the South by Southwest festival overlapping Rodeo Austin, visitors to the Lone Star State in the month of March are putting both events on their Austin itinerary.  "We had 50 Italians visiting one day, they came to the front office," said Philipello. "They were in town for South by Southwest, but had never been to a rodeo before. People are looking for the Texas experience, and we are capitalizing on that more and more."

The concert  line-up included a mix of old and new, and included:  Clay Walker, Loretta Lynn, Dustin Lynch, Thompson Square, Chris Young, The Temptations, Josh Turner, Josh Abbott Band, Willie Nelson & Family, Eli Young Band, Lee Brice, Austin Mahone, Scotty McCreery, Capital Cities, and Kevin Fowler Dwight Yoakam. "Country music is our mainstay, but we mix it up with the tried and true music, like Willie Nelson, who everybody loves, to newer country acts, like Capital Cities and Dwight Yokum, who have that hipster vibe and bring in the kids on spring break," said Philipello.

Depp & Nelson
On March 9th, Rode Austin attendees were treated to a special music treat when fair stalwart, Willie Nelson had a special guest sit-in his entire hour-long set; Johnny Depp. According to Examiner. com, a media/entertainment news website: "Johnny Depp, looking somewhat incognito and was introduced as simply ‘John.' They were all amazing onstage together. What might have made Johnny stand out a little was his unique style, both in the way he dresses and plays lead guitar."

While this unannounced guest star created a buzz among the internet circles of music aficionados, it also showed that even though the Rodeo is the star attraction - as is typical among other rode-centric fairs, the concerts last about an hour and follow the evening's rodeo competition - Rode Austin has become more aggressive when it comes to its music programming. "We increased our spend for entertainment by more than 10 percent this year," said Philipello. "This gave us more room when it comes to our booking. I think it was an affordable year for booking, even though it is still a sellers market."

Because of the increase in entertainment spending - which resulted in only modest increase in the ticket price - Philipello said they were able to become a more valued stage in a very competitive music market. With the rodeo/concert attendance showing an increase, this uptick proved to be the silver lining in the rain-plagued fair, nudging overall revenues up above the previous year's total.

 "We had felt pinched for the last couple of years, but this year we had better entertainment. There are so many venues in Austin, we have to compete with more stages. The challenge is ensuring the acts stick to our radius clauses. They do us an honor when they do come and play, and we offer our customers exclusive acts."
Midway Down
Crabtree Amusements provided the Midway for Rodeo Austin. "The Midway took a hit with the weather," admits Philipello. "But on the good weather days, they exceeded expectations, there were long lines for the Ferris Wheel and roller coaster." 

Social Media Contests
The marketing mix has remained consistent in recent years.  "We spread our advertising budget across all venues including traditional and new media," said Van Ert. "We utilized billboards around Austin, a radio and TV buy, print advertising in both livestock magazines and local magazines, online advertising and social media. Rodeo Austin has an active presence on Facebook, Twitter and Instagram. "

The social media promotion has been particularly effective in the form of contests. "We engage audiences with contests, daily schedules, and lineup announcements for entertainers," said Van Ert.

Philipello added that a popular promotion has been new take on the old game show, Name That Tune. "We have a bit of a song tied directly to a performer and whoever is the first to guess wins free admission," said Philipello. "Social media allows us to increase our reach to more and more of our audience. 

Rodeo Austin is a 501c3 nonprofit organization, with 16 full time staff, 2,000+ volunteers during the fair and operating budget of $10.5 million. And, except for the weather, the fair business was strong. "I think the downturn in the economy is ending," said Philipello. "People who have the reserves to spend seems to have grown. The Texas economy was somewhat insulated in the down economy, but the fair is benefiting from people who stay home to take their vacations. We offer affordable entertainment. We also had a strong year for sponsorships. We just signed Coors Beer and they had a great first fair with us."  

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