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Drought, Fire & Heat Unable To Stop Cali's Blue Ribbon Fair

8/18/2014

By Timothy Herrick

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Severe, state-wide drought, days of heat wave when temperatures reached triple digits, and sporadic wild fires - these challenges failed to suppress turnout and revenue for the California State Fair. Not only did the fair go on in spite of the lack of cooperation on the part of Mother Nature, compared to last year, there were more fairgoers and they spent more this year.

The 2014 California State Fair, which ran July 4-27, saw attendance reach 740,445, an 8 percent increase over last year, which included 11 percent growth in paid attendance; pre-fair ticket sales doubled this year, enormously aided by a Groupon promotion. "We changed some promotions and we did a lot things right," said Rick Pickering, CEO of the California State Fair. "Spending was up in all areas, so maybe the economy is also a little better than last year."

Tried & True: New & Blue
The most popular promotion was the Wells Fargo Tuesday Kid's Day, which featured free admission for Kids and $1 rides, attracting 75,957; for the first time in more than 10 years, State Fair attendance levels exceeded 70,000 visitors on four separate days. (other than the Kids Day promotion, the record-breaking days - 7/19, 7/26 and 7/27 - were weekend days). "We had five days of triple digit heat," said Pickering. In addition, wild fires also plagued the park the days just preceding the fair and also during the fair - "during the first Kid's Day we had to close down for several hours," said Pickering.

An improving economy may have been one factor contributing to a successful 2014 event, but the effective hedge against other adversity was an overhauled marketing approach, which included targeting younger adults and other market segments, expanding the fair's social media platform and coming up with a clever and attention-grabbing marketing theme.

The fair contracted with a new advertising agency, according to Rick Pickering, CEO of the California State Fair, and a key to the 2014 success was a tagline that reflected a very contemporary ironic sensibility that both celebrated and parodied fair traditions - Every day is a Blue Ribbon Day at the California State Fair.

"Any State Fair is old fashioned, but I see this as a challenge, not a weakness," said Pickering. "You want to continue to embrace your tried and true. How do we repackage in a way that is Americana, that is showcasing what we people like about and expect at the fair, and how we use technology to present it?"

Blue Ribbon is a universally identifiable aspect of any stereotypical state fair, but the use of it as a marketing message inspired state pride - that may have been somewhat ironic but it was pride nonetheless - in the general public, making the media coverage of the 2014 California State Fair more positive. "The blue ribbon is iconic fair imagery, and in our advertising we used with the best iconic California scenery, like the Golden Gate Bridge, Redwood Forests, the Hollywood Sign, and our California Wine country vineyards," said Pickering. "Certain members of the media think of fairs as only corn dogs and cotton candy, but the blue ribbon campaign really showed the best of all our California communities. We are the only state-wide fair."

Young Adult Surge
The fair, according to Pickering, geared a "State Fair by Night" marketing campaign targeting 20-24 year olds - college and university students - emphasizing "the live entertainment and the variety of food opportunities, using more psychedelic colors, through social media and targeted marketing. "The whole college buzz is what happens in the evening. The fair is fun nightlife that only comes around once year."

The result was that anecdotal evidence shows that this demographic, "showed the biggest growth. Our hourly records show we had our biggest surges in attendance during evening hours."

Advertising, Marketing & Social Media
The California State Fair had an advertising budget of is $1,227,500, was consistent with last year's amount and includes both creative and ad placement costs. In 2014, the fair sliced its print advertising cost by nearly a third, going from $70,000 in 2013 to $44,000 in 2014; other old media suffered similar loses - Radio went from $144,000 to $90,000 and TV from $374,000 to $335,000 - one old medium that increased was Outdoor advertising $112,000 to $168,000. New Media, as might be expected, grew from $133,000 to $164,000. " We switched ad agencies for 2014 and our media mix shifted as we tried to attract new audiences to the Fair," said Jennifer Castleberry, Marketing Director.

In addition, the California State Fair also ramped up its social media presence. "We used social as a way to communicate with fans and provide responses to their questions as quickly as possible," said Lara N. Popyack, Media Director.

The social media expansion was fueled internally by a team of college interns. The fair's Facebook page garnered 108,419 likes; during the fair the team posted 162 FB posts, 362 Tweets and 66 Instagram photos. The team manned a Social Media Help Desk at the fair, so "patrons on the grounds could better post pictures. "Social media is really separate from marketing, it gets the word out and also we can track comments and feedback that better helps us refine the event," said Popyack.

Other changes for the year was an improvement to the physical layout and a newly designed patron map. Some famed landmarks gained new monikers - e.g. the former Animal Nursery became the Baby Barn, the midway - was no longer known as Main Carnival but Magic Midway. The names were chosen, according to Pickering "because they better described where things were located. We changed the East Gate and West Gate to the Blue and Green Gate, and painted those entrances those colors."

Another amenity was widened walkways and "20 percent more shaded seating areas," said Pickering.

Horse Racing Revamp
The equestrian contest component of the fair was also addressed by marketing and renovation, expanding the loyal niche of horse racing aficionados at the Golden State annual fair. "We're a racing fair, and horse racing had a rebound," said Pickering.  Cal Expo reinvested  in the equestrian infrastructure, including renovations to the horse racing barn, grandstands, pedestrian walk way and the cool down section. "We also increase our active horse recruitment, and got horses from Oregon, Nevada and Washington.  Nevada and others elsewhere never ran in Northern California before, which increased our spectators," said Pickering. "We also came up with a new color palate for the tote board of burn orange dark green."

Pickering stated that the Butler Amusements operated the midway, which had 72 rides and "revenue was up considerably." In addition, the Toyota Concert Series - which is free with admission but has reserved seating available for an added cost, was well attended. "Pat Benatar, Joan Jett and Mercy Me were the highest selling shows," said Pickering.

Food revenue also increased and added media attention. "The Jack Daniels Churro wrapped in bacon was a favorite, as was the spaghetti ice cream," said Pickering. He added that the Food Channel did fair cuisine coverage, and the Thin Crust pies from Cardinali Woodfire Pizza was especially popular."

World Cup Trade Off
Prior to the State Fair, a new, 8,000-seat professional soccer stadium - Bonney Field - opened on the Cal Expo grounds, with five matches taking place during the fair, all Bonney Field attendees gained free admission to the fair. The popularity of soccer in the U.S. is on the rise, further fueled by the fact that California is home to large immigrant and ex-pat populations from Europe and Central and South America. In July, the World Cup Soccer Championship match induced a national case of soccer fever in the United States, especially as the American Team was winning games in the early part of the tournament. The World Cup overlapped with several days of the fair, which was a doubled edged sword. "Soccer fans attending the games came to the fair and boosted attendance," said Pickering. "Soccer is widely popular in California. But that Sunday of the final game, our attendance was down 14 percent."

The severe drought afflicting California was noticeable at the state's premier outdoor event.  The Cal-Expo grounds were able to reduce water usage by 18 percent. "To help reduce water usage during the fair, we left half of the main lagoon dry and moved our freestyle motocross show to the dry lagoon," said Pickering, thereby actually turning a negative into a positive. "There was now 360 degrees of sightlines so it was a better audience experience. We took the opportunity to pass out pamphlets and talk about the drought and water conservation."
 
The California State Fair this summer was one of overcoming challenges while simultaneously reinventing the marketing message, and how and to whom that message is transmitted. For Pickering, the guiding light was the resiliency of the fair goers, vendors, fair volunteers and other who "helped produce one of our most successful fairs. Resiliency sometimes shows the strongest during adversity and this year, the state of California, through drought, heatwave and fire, stepped up to celebrate our state by choosing to spend their time and fortune to make this a successful, state-wide event."


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