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Business Up at Drought-Stricken Merced County Fair

7/11/2014

By Timothy Herrick

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Located in the heart of California's Central Valley, the Merced County Fair is one of the premier events celebrating the Golden State's agriculture industry. The other edge of that sword is that few California Fairs have been as impacted by the severe drought currently plaguing California as the Merced County event.

This year, the state government issued severe water use restrictions and the ongoing lack of rain seems especially acute in 2014. But in spite of an atmosphere of low-expectations and dread, the Merced County Fair saw modest but notable increases in various segments of the fair, including attendance; introduced well-accepted new events; and implemented an effective expansion of social media marketing. 
Up Is Up

"The increase in business was not huge, but up is up," said Tom Musser, CEO of the Merced County Fair. "The fair was great.  But there is always room for improvement."

The drought undeniably suppressed the agriculture portion of the event as well as the overall enthusiasm. "The amount of produce and hay exhibited for competition was down," he said. "Cherries, nectarines and apricots have been hard hit by drought.  Some people are out of work and unable to attend."

In addition, cost increases may have also stifled fair business. "Price increases due to drought were especially noticeable in food prices," said Musser. "The menus had an increase in price because the product costs more.  Also, California increased the minimum wage by $1 per hour."

But people still turn out for their annual fair, and the amount of fairgoers experienced an uptick over last year's numbers. "Attendance was up 7.09 percent, a total of 73,465 people," he said.

Price Promotions
As might be expected in an economically repressed region, paid attendance was down, a side-effect of the fact the most impactful promotions were price oriented – free admissions and steep discounts. "we had aggressive promotions to try to get families out early on Sunday and other free admission promotions. The most effective promotion continued to be our $5 admission price for anyone six years or older."

Other price-oriented promotions included: "Opening day is seniors day with those 65 years and better receiving free admission," he continued. "Thursday is kids day with those 12 years and younger receiving free admission.  We tried a new promotion this year with opening on Sunday at noon instead of the usual 3:00.  We offered free admission from noon until 3:00; "Free Till 3".  This promotion brought in 3,097 people, but mostly in the final hour."

A conclusive tally is still being calculated. Stake-holders are still analyzing if an acceptable balance between higher volume and decreased admission fee revenue was achieved.  "We are weighing cost vs benefit of this promotion for getting people in and enjoying the rides and food," he said. 

Positive Signs
There are many silver linings in this year's event that erode the notion Merced County was  down.  The resiliency of the California farming industry continued to surprise Musser. "I expected it to be harder to sell livestock this year for our 4H and FFA exhibitors," he said. "But just the opposite happened. We had the best junior livestock auction ever.  The support for our youth is still strong."

Another sign that the regional economy may again be on an upswing was a robust business in the Commercial Building. This is essentially the "Merchant Tent," where mainly area business sell products and/or promote their business. Demand for booth space was so brisk a waiting list had to be created. "We sold out of booths, which hasn't happened in years," he said. "We had a wide variety – jewelry, cookware, solar panels, knives. There were 60 indoor and 40 outdoor booths. Everyone I talked to said their business was good."

Some Commercial Building vendors from 2013 not only returned but grew their footprint. "The California Lottery took a booth, which was the second time in a row, but they increased the size of the booth," said Musser. "They were testing the idea last year. They were extremely busy this year."

The California Lottery sold an estimated 14,000 "Scratchers" sold during the 5-day event.

The Merced County Fair featured 36 food concessions, with gross revenue showing a modest increase, some of which was likely due to nominal cost increases in produce, meat and labor. While the fair tends to stay away from "the gimmick food that larger fairs have, we have a great line-up of food with a variety of treats," he said. Although Merced County Fair fairgoers displayed traditional fair pallets. "Top gross was Dean Williams of Red & White Concessions with corn dogs," said Musser.

New Rides
On to the midway, Butler Amusements had a revenue gross on par with last year, with three rides that were new to the Merced County Fair – Footloose, the Zombie dark ride and Wet Boats – a "kiddy" ride.  Per-Capita spending may not have showed an increase (or measurable decrease), Musser said that the midway did debut improved appearance and amenities. "The rides had new paint jobs, they looked great. We with Butler have really been developing that area. We changed some fence lines that made for better traffic flow. There's more pedestrian walks and lawn space, we added new seating areas and improving the landscaping. It made for a better midway experience."

Paid entertainment included Wednesday and Thursday auto races, a Friday night Tractor & 4 x 4 Tractor Pull, and Bull Riding on Saturday. Sunday night, which had an admission cost of $20/ $25 at the door (the other events had a $5 admission fee), was Jaripeo Ranchero, an Hispanic celebration evening that is part concert and part full-blown, old-school Mexican rodeo. "Fifty Four percent of our area is Hispanic, and this is the day we honor that heritage, and it was  a big seller. The grandstands were filled, a near sell out."

He added, "we brought in a local promote for the Jaripeo Ranchero, and the marketing included several local radio stations, three of which are Spanish language."

Music acts, featured at the Outdoor Theatre with free admission, included Lincoln Brewster, a contemporary Christian act; Classic rockers  the Marshal Tucker Band and War; and True 2 Crue, the Motley Crue tribute band. Other free entertainment featured throughout the grounds included Great American Animal Entertainment  -- petting zoo and Cowboy Boot Camp; Tadpole the Clown, Steve Lord singer/guitarist, and a daily antique tractor parade.

Beer & Art
A new update on the agrarian roots of the event was the "first Home Brew competition. This grew very fast, there was a lot of demand for the competition and we had several competitors. It was a lot of fun. The winner was an almond chocolate beer."

Another new competition combining contemporary trends of found art and DIY culture was the "Farm Junk" competition, a metal sculpture contest, where participants welded together various objects – generally found on a farm – to form a unique work of art. "The winner was a giant eagle that used the hood of a 1957 GMC pick-up truck. It had a 10 foot wingspan and the feathers were made of lawn mower blades."
Social Media Expansion

The Merced County fair has a marketing budget of $58,000, which Musser admits is limited. Like other fairs, Musser tries to utilize all media formats, and also like other fairs, print is declining and online rising. What marked the 2014 advertising and marketing was a widely expanded Social Media presence, especially Facebook and Twitter. Social Media's low cost may have meant the fair was not as hamstrung by the constraints of its advertising budget, but this rapidly developing marketing tool may create new opportunities, it is not without challenges and concerns.

"What we are seeing with fairs and all businesses is that social media is now central," he said. "Marketing used to be basically advertising with  radio, newspapers, billboards, and bumper stickers. Maybe items like pens and pencils with your logo.  Now we hardly do any print and all those other things while important, they are antique. We are expanding our FB and Twitter, which required additional manpower."
  He continued, "This has been very helpful in spreading the word about the fair.  The most popular is our fair photo contest with pictures taken at the fair and posted.  Visuals, pictures, are very important and are very popular."

One issue with social media is trying to identify what data to analyze. "With  FB, you can take a look and see X number of likes and it can be a big number, but you have to look at who is clicking like," he said. "We get likes coming from all over the world, but I doubt somebody in India is going to attend our fair. You constantly have to monitor social media, to use the information you're getting."

Careful analysis of the marketing information produced by social media is just one aspect of  social Media's hyper communication. The give-and-take with fairgoers is also public, thus diligent monitoring of the discussion is required. "I like the back and forth, and it is extremely important to hear from your customers. On the good side, it is nice to hear kudos, telling you what is going right, and it is also good to have constructive criticism, so we can do something better. But on the bad side, you can get a lot of vulgar responses and other sort of comments that are not good and you have to remove them as soon as possible."

Social Media is the way the world is now and Musser is realistic about accepting its rapid, ever-changing nature. "Social media just a few years ago was an add-on, an extra," he said. " Now it the main promotion of the event with some of the traditional means less meaningful each year.  No matter what we are doing with social media this year, it will change for next year as the medium has become critical."

California Barometer
This mid-sized regional (annual budget $1, 588, 740) is state-owned –the 35th District Agricultural Association. The State of California has 54 District Agricultural Associations, responsible for 78 fairs. The Merced County Fair is one of the first fairs of the season for California, and is often seen as barometer of the economic state of California fairs.

The California drought's impact on the state's fair seems likely to be negative through the rest of the season. "My thinking is that weather and drought are going to play a bigger than normal role this year," said Musser. "Here in the central valley, the drought is causing higher unemployment that is normal this time of year.  As the summer moves on, reduced harvest will probably have a negative effect on fairs."


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