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Let It Be: San Diego's Fab Fair Gets Back to Beatlemania

7/28/2014

By Timothy Herrick

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The 24-day San Diego County Fair presented by Albertsons/Sav-on, attracted 1,457,130 according toTim Fennell, CEO, who claims this is the 2nd highest attendance in the history of the fair, first held in 1880. In addition, revenue showed notable upticks in several segments, including, food concessions, midway ridership and merchandise sales.

This increase in purchasing indicates consumers are more comfortable parting with their hard-earned disposable income. "Spending was up at the fair, maybe the economy is a little better this year," said Fennell. "It's not just the fair showing positive growth, all our events were up, including the horse show. Hopefully there are more jobs being created and there's more consumer confidence out there this year."

The Del Mar Fairgrounds include Surfside Race Place, Horsepark Equestrian Center and the Del Mar Golf Center. The 22nd District Agricultural Association, a California state agency that owns and operates the fairgrounds, the San Diego County Fair,  the Del Mar National Horse Show, Professional Bull Riding (PBR) and The Scream Zone. The Fairgrounds hosts more than 300 events annually.

This being drought-stricken California, rain was not a factor when it comes to the weather, but weather perfection made the San Diego shoreline unseasonably appealing. "We had perfect June weather, and it would have been all time high but when we get the warm weather, we compete with our beautiful beaches," said Fennell. "We lost a good 30-40,000 because of the weather."

On the plus side, the fair, spread out over five weekends, and was closed all four Mondays. "We traded a weekend for a weekday," he added.

The Beatles Theme
The other reason this year's San Diego event could be described as fabulous may be found in its 2014 theme - The Fab Fair. The Beatles hit America in 1964, forever changing the world. The San Diego County Fair's celebration of the 50th anniversary of the "Fab Four" appearance on The Ed Sullivan Show (and their first U.S. hit songs, music tour and release of their groundbreaking film, A Hard Days Night) practically revived Beatlemania in Southern California.

The San Diego County Fair celebration of the birth of the British music invasion with "The Fab Fair" attracted multiple generations of fairgoers. "Our board president came up with the idea, and we all agreed, everybody loves The Beatles," said Fennell. "There was a very clear popularity to the Beatles, and it was a way to talk about history and the 1960s. They affected everything, music, fashion, politics. The also cross generations, it's not just baby boomers. The kids of baby boomers grew up with the Beatles and so did their kids."

The theme was drawn out with a 40-foot high Yellow Submarine, Beatles inspired uniforms for the workers, and a major exhibit of everything Beatles, which included rare memorabilia discovered overseas. "We sent people over to London, and worked with people and museums over there, and we developed relationships so we could put together a really thorough exhibit."

He added, "when we develop a theme we worked with schools and the community to tie in as much education as possible. The Beatles were a natural."

According to Fennell, shortly following last year's fair (the 2013 theme was Video Games) - about 40 people, including staff and board members - "brainstorm" about the theme for the fair, setting goals and devising ways to best to carry through those themes.  The Beatles and British invasion music of the era had to be well-represented. The Fab Fair promised 24 days of Beatles music, which was played by a variety of tribute acts, including Britbeat, British Invasion, The McCartney Years, and the Fab Four. Beatles music was played live every day of the fair. "The Fab Four have been here before and they have a guy who plays Ed Sullivan to introduce them, in keeping with the 50th anniversary, it is very humorous," said Fennell,. "I was surprised how every night, the shows were almost a full-house and the exhibit was packed."

Themes & Education
One of the strategies of the fair is to have a pop-culture oriented theme, which Fennell admits years ago first met with some resistance by the regional agricultural interests in the fair, "Some of the agricultural people felt they were taking the spotlight away from the mission of the fair, but you can't argue with the numbers. We've been able to grow attendance to our fair and our other events, and we put the revenues back into the facilities."

With the historical context of the Beatles as gateway to discussion of the social changes of the 1960s, the educational mission at the heart of the fair was mollified. In turn, the agricultural inception of the fair is strengthened by an expansion of awareness of California's agricultural industry. "We broadened the theme which brings in more people and that exposes them to more agricultural exhibits," said Fennell.

While Beatles A-Z could be heard daily, there was other major headliners at the fair's multiple performance spaces. Stages at the San Diego State Fair included the Plaza Stage, Coors Light Rock On Stage, Ford Dealers, Paddock Stage and the Heineken Grandstand Stage, which featured other headliners including Toni Braxton & Kenny "Babyface" Edmonds, Huey Lewis & the News, REO Speedwagon, America, Taylor Hicks, Kristian Bush, Leon Russell,  Fee Waybill and The Tubes, Grand Funk Railroad, Darius Rucker, Jeff Dunham, Third Eye Blind, and the 10th Annual Gospel Festival featuring Fred Hammond.

Revenue Streams
The San Diego County Fair operates an Independent Midway, contracting with 14 midway operators, for 82 rides. The midway was up 5 percent, with the top 10 rides being: Crazy Mouse, Grand Wheel, Sky Ride, Magnum, G-Force, Fast Trax, Olympic Bob Sled, Sky Flyer, Alien Abduction and Carousel. "There are pluses and minuses to having an independent midway," admitted Fennell. "But from our standard, we sell all the tickets and control the sales. The rides do bring in the people, and the people spend money. We keep the look of the midway consistent. All the staff, all the ride workers, all wear uniforms, which we design."

Merchandising is another revenue stream this fair has cultivated. Their in-house graphic artist created a fair logo that was used on various souvenirs and knickknacks. "We work with a merchandiser, but we do it all in-house," said Fennell. "That's an advantage we have, because we created a revenue stream."

Fennell, estimates that the San Diego County Fair merchandise generates a few hundred thousand dollars of revenue, he recommends "keep it basic - some kids and adult items - apparel and accessories, pens and pencils.'

According to Fennell, the Beatles and people's love of the music and the optimism they engendered had an effect on increasing per-capita purchasing. "People were staying longer at the fair, and if they stay longer, they spend more money," he said.

What they were frequently buying was something to eat. "Food concession revenues were 9.24 percent higher than last year - and Premier SMG, the fair's onsite cater which serves alcohol and handles grandstand F&B, was up by more than 16 percent. Fair cuisine stats include: 15,000 pounds of bacon by Bacon-A-Fair; more than 3,000 Martha Stewart hot dogs and more than 2,000 Emeril-Bam hot dogs sold by Pink's 20,000 pounds of whole wheat cinnamon roll mix, 4 tons of cinnamon & sugar and 500 gallons of cream cheese frosting used by Country Fair Cinnamon Roll and 21.5 tons California grown potatoes used by Tasti Chips.

Fennell said that Chicken Charlie was "probably the most successful food vendor, and their Krispy Kreme Triple-Decker Cheeseburgers were a hit at this fair." (20,000+ of this donut/hamburger concoction were sold during the 24-day event.)

Speedier Promotions
The fair's marketing showed little change, except for the typical trends of less print media and an expansion of social media promotions. "Our promotions were very balanced - we promoted the theme, food and items, and we promoted the value," said Fennell. "We are promoting more through social media. You can put the promotions out the next day."

Fennell sees social media enhancing  the bedrock of fair marketing. "The best promotion is word of mouth," he said. "If you have a customer who has a great experience, and they tell another someone else, that is the best. With social media, that word of mouth gets disseminated much more quickly."

The Fair paid tribute to Tony Gwynn, Baseball Hall of Famer and beloved player for the San Diego Padres, who passed away on June 16th . "We made up special programs for the day, and we ran a promotion that if anyone had a San Diego Padre ticket, they got in for free. We had about 4-5,000 who participated, and we had some press, newspaper and radio mainly, but that promotion was done almost entirely through social media."

Having a pop culture oriented theme may be unusual for U.S. fairs, but the San Diego County Fair is probably more traditional that the theme indicates. For Fennell, innovation is not just the key to success, it has long been part of the fair business, at least in San Diego. "If you keep your fair relevant, have new programming, and keep it educational, fun and exciting, you are going to have a good fair," said Fennell. "You have to think outside of the box, and be entrepreneurial, and make good business decisions."


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