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CEO Injects New Action into Alameda County Fair

8/11/2014

By Timothy Herrick

Photo courtesy of Flickr | John 'K'

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The Alameda County Fair air needed action, decided its CEO, Jerome Hoban. Hoban has been in the California fair business for 22 years, joining the Orange County Fair while still in college and was its CEO before moving north to Alameda last year, taking over as CEO a few weeks before the 2013 fair. Last year, in his words, he acted basically as "an observer."

This year, now fully at the helm, Hoban and his team created the Action Zone, which featured had spectator-friendly stunt events such as the Artic Olympic Dive Show and the Keith Sayers Freestyle Motocross - FMX.

Not only were entertaining thrills - and great price (free!) - key, but the location. The Action Zone was positioned in a section of the fair where attendees were once scarce. Now fairgoers had an excuse to see more of the fairgrounds and linger at the fair.Photo By Flickr | John A dead zone was reborn as Action Zone, uplifting the overall fair in the process.
"We placed the Action Zone in what was a dead area of the fair," said Hoban. "Having an attraction there created a better traffic pattern and spread the crowd throughout the fairgrounds.  We promoted the Action Zone as something new, and we got more television coverage, which was a ripple effect. Traditionally, free events are not highlighted, they will not draw people to the fair, but once people got there and realized there was something else to see, people stay for it."

Night Time/Right Time
The Action Zone was one of several new programs initiated by Hoban. His objectives were to improve crowd flow and to modify the event format so those crowds are encouraged to stay longer at the fair. "We've made it more of an evening fair," he said.

The hours of the fair were not extended, but some live events now emphasized the evening portion of the fair. Pre-Hoban, the Alameda County Fair's concerts - which are free with admission, but on a first come/first serve wristband system called "Best Seat" - were two short sets, at 7 pm then 8 pm. Instead, the shows now began at 8 pm, with the artists performing a longer, single show. "People used to come and just stay for one of the shows and leave, now they stay through the show."

Just because the music is over doesn't mean the lights go out. After the concerts, a video presentation,  a "Tribute to Alameda," a documentary type film accompanied by music was shown,  followed by a fireworks display. "We gave people a reason to stay longer into the evening, and when they do they are more likely to buy something more to eat or drink. The Tribute to Alameda really caught on too, it had great word of mouth."

Brett Eldredge, Eddie Money, Credence Clearwater Revisited, La Unica Sonora Santanera, CoCo Jones, Paul Rodriguez, JT Hodges, True2Crue, Ashanti and America. Fair circuit stalwarts, Night Ranger, closed the Alameda County Fair. The format was changed for Independence Day, with music at the grandstand all day with the Red, White & Blues Festival (This special day-long event tied into the fair's tagline of ‘Taste the Red, White and Blue').

The Bay Area has an internationally recognized and renowned local blues scene. By tapping into the local talent pool and fan following, they attracted new fair attendees. The Red, White & Blues Festival was an entire day of music -1 pm -9 pm,  showcasing blues musicians such as JC Smith Blues Band, The Bay Area Blues Society Caravan of All Stars, Ron Thompson & The Resistors,  Wanda Diamond and Grady Champion. A more extensive fireworks display concluded this July 4th extravaganza.

"It was one of the best attended days of the fair," said Hoban. Because of security issues, the Alameda State Fair had a moratorium on the fireworks show, but the problem has been resolved and the fireworks returned on July 4th. "People came just to see the fireworks on July 4th because they hadn't had them in so long. It was the biggest day of the fair, with 57,000 attending throughout the day"

Midway Layout
According to Hoban, midway revenue increased over last year, although exact figures were unavailable. This area of the fair also went through a presentation make-over. The midway layout was altered to enhance visibility and improve crowd movement. "I walked through the midway with Butler Amusements to figure out the best ways to improve the design of the midway," said Hoban. "We worked together implementing layout changes."

The two major changes to the layout occurred at the back and front. "We moved the big White Water Flume Ride, which is their largest ride and very popular, to the rear section of the midway, which draws people towards that area just by its sheer impressive size. We changed the entrance to the midway, making it more defined, with lit archways. It was very confusing last year because of trees."

Making the entrance more pronounced and visible, he added, "created a line of sight that could be seen by more people and from a longer distance."

Equine Partner
Another segment of the fair that Hoban changed was horse racing. The Alameda County Fair set up a partnership with the Oak Tree Racing Association, a private nonprofit horse riding and racing association, with an international reputation, especially among equestrian circles. "This is a horse racing fair," said Hoban. "Oak Tree has a national reputation and brings prestige to the horse racing event."

In addition, to prestige, the new branding of the annual horse racing resulted in other benefits. "There was more energy in the grandstands. They helped with several capital improvements, providing for a better experience. There were higher pursues available. The Fair had more exposure, capital dollars and more racing fans at fair.  All the numbers were up, from the food & beverage sales, the sizes of the purse, the number of bets."

Marketing Same
One area of the fair that did not undergo significant change was marketing and advertising. The advertising budget is about $475,000, and that amount - as well as the breakdown of the media mix - Radio: 37 percent, Pandora:  2 percent, TV: 36 percent, Billboards: 7 percent, Buses-Transit: 7 percent, Newspaper - BANG 5 percent, Mobile Campaign 3 percent, and Online 3 percent - was essentially on par with last year. "We are driving more traffic to the website, and we are positioning the brand," said Hoban. "I suspect we will be changing the media mix next year to a greater extent."

One of the more successful online marketing programs was a free ticket with everyone who "liked" the Alameda County Facebook Page (71,000+), creating a population of "fair ambassadors" which both promotes the fair but also builds an email database, which in turn is used to promote other fairground events. "With social media, the communication with the fairgoer is immediate and we were able to do promotions more quickly," said Hoban. "We are looking at the marketing and will be changing our social media program. The free ticket with the likes of the Facebook page was important in establishing the brand and social media presence, but you have to keep the marketing fresh so next year we will likely change direction."  

Compared to last year, the Alameda County Fair Attendance was up 22 percent with a total attendance of 475,726 - and while much credit can go to some new initiatives implemented by Hoban - last year a 7-day heat wave coincided with the fair, the stifling heat curtailing attendance and overall enthusiasm.  Luckily, the weather was on the side of the fair for Hoban's inaugural year as skipper.

Perhaps the best proof that improved traffic flow, value-added events and format changes resulted in more spending by fairgoers was found by the food concessions. Food revenue was up about 46 percent, according to Hoban, indicating that while attendance increased, people were spending more at the 2014 edition of the Alameda Fair. Some of the hot fair cuisine items being the Pickle Hot Dog and Mac and Cheese Stuffed Bacon Burger as well as the standbys such as Corn Dogs, Turkey Legs and Spaghetti Ice Cream. "You have to have the inventive foods, but you also can't go to a fair without having fried corn dogs."


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