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Santa Barbara Fair and Exposition: 25 magical years


By Linda Van Slyke

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At a quarter-century, the Santa Barbara Fair and Exposition is going strong, and that's no hocus-pocus.  This year's theme was "Magic," reflecting the long-term magic of transforming a former equestrian center into a full-fledged fairgrounds.

A Bit of History
Back in the 1950s, the Earl Warren Showgrounds was originally developed as a permanent home for the Santa Barbara National Horse and Flower Show.  The website tells us that today it is "a 34 acres multi-use property" that includes an equestrian arena, livestock facilities, exhibit halls, an in-line skating hockey facility, a reception garden, and an RV parking lot.

Fair CEO Scott Grieve explained that Santa Barbara is "a really small district that is wedged in between two other large ones.  Because our district is so small, we mostly grow citrus fruit, cut flowers and things of that nature.  We've always concentrated upon all things equestrian, and still feature about 20 horse shows per year on our grounds."

He continued, "Nevertheless, we've grown from simply adding on a carnival, to also enhancing the animal aspects, the exhibits, the entertainment, and all else that goes into the making of a fair."

Speaking of Themes
Evidence of this year's theme was prominently displayed.  Grieve said that they are not ones to "put a theme on a poster, and that's it."  He elaborated, "We have a great staff here that carefully matches our decor to our themes.  This year we had all these cut-out images of magic-related things.  We even named our stages with incantations such as ‘Abracadabra.'"  

Grieve added, "When we had last year's Wizard of Oz format, we painted a yellow-brick road on pathways inside the gate.  We've won a number of awards for our fair themes.  We're already brainstorming about what next year's will be."

Marketing Strategies 
Marketing, of course, is a huge part of any fair's magic.  In order for themes to become dreams (and vice versa), strategies must be tailored to the community at hand.   Grieve explained that the fairgrounds are located right next to Freeway 101, a main thoroughfare "which everyone seems to travel on at one point or another."  Butler Amusements is usually able to set up their "Giant Wheel" about a week in advance, and this serves as a huge reminder to passers-by that the fair will begin again soon. Grieve also noted that Santa Barbara is only a few hours from the Mexican border, and that California in general has "a huge Hispanic population."  This year's Sunday-afternoon Hispanic concert drew big fair crowds.  It included a rodeo, some bull riding, and a six-hour concert.

Grieve further explained that with California's budget constraints, all the fairs there were "cut out of state money."  This had led to some additional cooperation amongst them. Grieve said that "a lot of intermingling" has taken place among Santa Barbara's, Ventura County's and Santa Maria's fairs.

He added, "Ventura is much bigger than us, and they have a full-time marketing guy, James Lockwood, who's really good.  They allow us to share and utilize his services.  We pay him  a fee, and he adds us on.  We're only 40 miles away from the Ventura fair, and James has a great feel for all the media outlets in the area.  We therefore get a very experienced person for a really great rate."

Because of these financial constraints, Santa Barbara's total 2014 advertising budget was only $30,000 (much lower than in previous years).  Grieve stated, "We do a lot of local newspaper ads, a lot of radio, and a lot of TV - probably about a third each.  We're also in the process of exploring how to best utilize social media."

This year's attendance was down 6% from last year's.  Grieve explained, "Our usually-wonderful weather was fairly uncooperative on Friday night and Saturday.  Also, Easter happened to come very late this year, which threw off school schedules and put the fair in  direct competition with this year's Earth Day Festival."

Nevertheless, Grieve was happy to also report that this year's gross actually rose by 6%.  He attributes this rise to a number of factors, one of them being an increase in food sales.  He joked, "Although there were fewer people in attendance, I guess they just ate more!"   Grieve also mentioned that the 2014 children's entrance fee had gone up from $4 to $5, and the parking-lot fee had increased from $5 to $10.  This parking-fee increase  served a double purpose of increasing revenue and of encouraging patrons to instead  choose the nearby free parking and free "San Francisco trolley" shuttle sites.

Fun and Funnel
Although this year's fairgoers displayed a hearty appetite for all of the food selections,  they were especially enamored with the funnel cakes.  Grieve explained, "It's almost a mystical situation.  We have a guy who's done our funnel cakes for years and years - and for all that time he's had an hour-long lineup to buy them." "One woman was seven months pregnant.  She came to the gate and asked, ‘Can you just let me in for a funnel cake?'  We went with that, and she ran right in and got one."

"Our fair entertainment is strongly rooted in the community.  Because Santa Barbara itself is an overall mecca for big-name entertainment, we realized long ago that we can't compete with that.  We can, however, offer local artists a chance to be seen and heard.  We therefore concentrate on traditional fair entertainment and local acts, and that's been working really well for all concerned." 

"Of course, the biggest entertainment that people can get here and nowhere else is the carnival itself.  Provided by Butler Amusements, it includes a lot of spectacular rides.  One is like a giant hand with spinning fingers that lift and turn at all different kinds of angles.  I'd just love to meet the engineer who thought that one up!"
"As our next quarter-century begins, we give thanks for our past accomplishments, and eagerly anticipate all those that lie ahead.

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