The Orange County Fair welcomed more than 1.3 million fairgoers in 2014, a healthy number but a decline compared to the year before. The decrease was minimal and more than off-set by a nominal admission increase.
The attendance dipped 2.67 percent, but "we had a ticket price increase of one dollar, so our revenues were better this year than last, even with the decline in attendance," said Doug Lofstrom, CEO.
The OC Fair, as it is more popularly known, lasts 23 days and spans two months (July 10 - August 11). The first OC Fair was held in 1890 and since 1949 has been held on the 150-acre Fairgrounds in Costa Mesa, a city which has long evolved beyond its rural and agricultural roots.
The OC Fair has become more urbanized, reflecting changes in the Southern California region. OC Fair stakeholders overcame an attempt by then Governor Arnold Schwarzenegger to sell the fairgrounds in 2009, and current Governor Jerry Brown has opposed any state attempts to terminate this traditional event from the Golden State.
More Ups than Downs
In 2014, while attendance may have dropped compared to 2013, many revenue segments increased. "Per capita spending was up, food spending was up, the people who were here were spending more," said Lofstrom. "Our paid attendance was up over last year. I would rather have more people buying a ticket than just passing through the turnstiles. We had six days that we exceeded 80,000, which was a record."
While an estimated 446,800 Fairgoers received a free or discounted admission to the fair, via promotions, special days, donation drives and coupons, the annual season passes - Super Pass - increased by 11 percent, to 13,875.
The OC Fair faces steep competition that is more sleek, contemporary and local, such as Disney Land, Knott's Berry Farm and Universal Studios. The OC Fair has remained a mainstay of Southern California by sticking to the foundation of what a fair offers.
"We give the consumer choices," said Lofstrom. "We are entertainment. But in many ways, we are not in competition with the more famous theme parks in this area. We create the fair experience. If we are providing our customers good value with our exhibits and midway, then the fair resonates with our demographics."
For 2014, cooperative weather also helped. He added, "we had some unseasonable warm and humid days, but for the most part we had good weather. We had a good fair."
The main concern for most California fairs this year was the severe drought and resulting water usage restrictions that have affected everyone in the state. According to Lofstrom, the California drought had "no tangible impact" on the fair operation. "It was fairly negligible," he said. "We are very mindful of all the conservation measures from the state, and there were no new mandates before the fair started."
He added that for the Fairgrounds, "there was more of an impact, we are not watering all our grass. The most noticeable has been with the landscaping, and we are not having some other events on the property this year. But for the fair, we are still bathing our animals."
The regional economy is not as reliant on the agricultural industry as other parts of California, so the economic ramifications on farm family and employees was not as strongly felt by the fair. "Orange County is on the coast, so we are not as big an agricultural fair as other fairs in the state, so our fairgoers are not as affected," said Loftstrom.
Marketing & Promotion
The OC Fair's marketing budget of $900,000 was about the same as last year, and in terms of how it is spent, television still holds the largest slice of the pie: 34 percent - TV; 24 percent - Radio; 20 percent - Out of Home; 12 percent - Newspaper; and 10 percent - Digital. "In 2014, digital increased, and newspaper decreased due to poor print circulation," said Robin Wachner, Communications Director.
Social Media while also expanding, is still under the communications purview, as opposed to marketing. "Social Media has grown as far as outlets and users since 2009," said Wachner; 2009 was the first time the fair experimented with this new online networking phenomena.
"In 2009, we were just kind of putting stuff out there and hoping someone was listening via Facebook and Twitter. We still find those two social outlets to be our most valuable," said Wachner. "Instead of shouting it out into the air, we are more strategic. Social Media tracking software has allowed us to answer questions and address concerns and questions within seconds of it being posted. It enables us to stay connected and have an ongoing dialogue with our audience. We use Twitter as customer service since people are more likely to take complaints and questions to that medium. Instagram is newer on the horizon and because the Fair is so visual it allows us to share the Fair with our audience on Instagram without spending a dime."
The OC Fair enhanced its partnership with the Orange County Transit Authority (OCTA) and this summer, together they expanded their marketing of the OC Fair Flyer program, where transit buses transport fairgoers from eight different locations to the fair. In place since 2006, this year they improved getting the word out, boosting ridership 31 percent. "Mass transit has not been our way of life in Southern California, but that is starting to change," said Loftstrom. "I think our marketing is resonating with the customer, and public awareness about the environment is rising. More and more people like taking the bus to the fair."
According to Loftstrom, other successful promotions were even more targeted. Rise & Shine, which reduced admission on the first hour of Saturday to only $3.00, was especially effective. While weekends are high attendance, "this hour is not the prime time for the fair," he said. "The discount jump-started the fair. We were able to drive the gate higher during a slow period."
There were 23 nights of live entertainment, including some sell out performances. Nonetheless, there was a noticeable decline in ticket sales compared to last year. "We sold about 13,000 less tickets this year," said Loftstrom. "We had a banner year last year, so it is difficult to top that. It is important to keep in mind that we sold nearly 139,000 tickets."
The live entertainment offerings for the fair took place in three venues: Pacific Amphitheatre, The Hangar at the OC Fair, and the Action Sports Arena. The grandstand is the Toyota Summer Concert Series in the Pacific Amphitheatre and featured such acts as The Offspring; Pat Benatar & Neil Giraldo; and Lynyrd Skynyrd. The series included two sold-out nights of Rebelution, Iration and. The Green.
The Hangar at the OC Fair, with 50-foot high ceilings of an airplane hangar, is budget-priced and a main showcase for the plethora of tribute bands: Journey Unauthorized; Zeppelin Live; The Ultimate Tribute to Depeche Mode; Hotel California; Rumors (Fleetwood Mac); Queen Nation as well as Mariachi Sol de Mexico de Jose Hernandez.
The Action Sports Arena had standing-room-only crowds at its demolition derby nights - Orange Crush, Motor Home and Damsels of Destruction.
While crowd size was healthy by most standards, there were only seven sell-outs this summer. "Almost half of our shows last year sold out," explained Wachner.
The reality is the 2014 entertainment market was more of a sellers market for the OC Fair, which diluted the quality of live entertainment line-up. The higher level of difficulty in booking, compared to 2013, impeded 2014 live entertainment success. According to Wachner, there was "less entertainment inventory in the market and with that, more competition," she said. "We had to pick up some shows that we might not have otherwise selected to fill all 23 nights."
Southern California may be the show business capital of the world, but that also means a lot of competing venues as well as other routing issues. "We do business in one of the most competitive markets in the world," Wachner explained. "It's always difficult to book shows. It's also greatly amplified by our need to book 23 consecutive Fair dates. Like any big market, bands are more likely to perform here, but no one bases their routing on what we do here."
The OC Fair cannot influence the decision how an act is routed in mid-summer. "If they are routed in through Southern California mid-July through mid-August, and the show makes sense for us, demographically, financially, then we will take a stab at it," she said. "If it's not routed, it really ceases to be a factor."
Other entertainment included include Mark Yuzuik, Hypnotist, Chinese Acrobats, All-Alaskan Racing Pigs, The Magic of Frank Thurston and Russell Bros Circus. First timers at the OC Fair were the Dragon Knights Stilt Walkers, which "was very entertaining for guests," said Wachner, and The Wild West Turkey Stampede, where a flock of turkeys chase and swarm over a remote-controlled "Big Red" truck. The act combines agricultural education and entertainment, and was presented to sold out crowds through their 5-day appearance. The Wild West Turkey Stampede was "new and insanely popular and entertaining," she added.
Food Sales Up
The 2014 OC Fair featured 92 individual food booths. "Food revenue was up 4 percent, alcohol was up 10 percent," said Loftstrom. "It's an indication that Californians like our product, and continue to spend."
New fair cuisine standouts were, the "Bacon Wrapped Jack Daniels Churro from Bacon A-Fair was very popular," said Wachner. Another popular new food item was "the Pop Rocks Donut from Texas Donut," which caused a fairgoer sensation "due to its bright color and pop rocks aspect," she said.
She added, "the winner for Best Fair Food was the Chile Relleno Pretzel Burger from Grantsburgers."
Midway revenue was up 6.28 percent. According to Loftstrom, there midway featured four new rides and the top five rides were Crazy Coaster, La Grande Wheel, Sky Ride, Rave Wave and Wild River.
Ray Cammack Shows provided the OC Fair midway, which consisted of 63 rides and 56 games. RCS has provided the midway for the OC Fair for 20 years. "Ray Cammack Shows is one of the finest midways in the country," said Loftstrom. "They do a great job with their rides, the merchandising, the games and their midway beautification."
"It was a great for us, our revenue was up," and they did a great job of promoting the fair," said Tony Fiori, Vice President of Marketing, RCS. "The wrist band days on Wednesday and Thursday were more popular than last year, people are always looking for value, but sales were stronger this year."
New for the OC Fair was the Top Swinger, the OMG and Pelican Splash, a kid float ride.
From a carnival's perspective, one of the benefits of a what is tantamount to a five week fair, is "that we have Mondays and Tuesdays off, which is a very nice thing for the employees, and gives us more time to wash the rides and clean the midway."
Like many large-scale fairs, the OC Fair is really not one fair, but a collection of fairs. Even if overall attendance dips, and some segments - such as live entertainment - under-perform because of external market forces - other segments, like the midway and food offerings, show notable increases. The result is that the whole is more than the sum of the parts.
The final verdict is that OC Fair had a robust 2014 edition, but Loftstrom is reluctant to credit an improving economy as a factor. He sees this year's OC Fair as has part of an upward trend, inspired mainly by a recommitment by fair organizers and staff to the fair business. "For the past several years, the fair has had some very strong growth," said Loftstrom. "That doesn't necessarily mean the economy is doing better, because the fair has done well during some very tough times. Customers have a joyful time at the fair, there is always a niche for the fair."
What it comes down to is constantly improving all the diverse segments of the fair, while keeping in mind that the traditions of these annual events is what the core customers want preserved. "Make sure your offer good programming and good value," Loftstrom explained. "The fair is a gathering place for community. We are not a cultural festival or an ethnic fair. We mirror our demographic, the goal is to offer a slice of Americana."