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Pima County Fair: Finding The Right Changes Continue Winning Streak

5/11/2015

By Timothy Herrick

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You can't expect different results by doing the same thing. Instead, by doing different things you can hope to attain better results.

For the Pima County Fair -which ran April 16 - 26 and is considered the largest county fair in Arizona - new changes mean reaching new demographics and increasing attendance. The Pima County Fair has been on a steady upswing for the past 10 years by consistently hitting the change/tradition sweet spot: keeping intact the agricultural roots and family orientation of the fair while adding and/or expanding new content that attracts new audience while not disrupting those traditions. 

No drastic overhauls were necessary for the 2015 fair, just enhancing the new things that worked. The fair featured six new midway rides, its first Christian Rock concert - accompanied by innovative marketing with new local partners, a more diverse concert line up that expanded its Hip-Hop and Latino offerings and the return of the Grand Canyon Pro Rodeo, featured on two nights - one of which was a record-breaking attendance for that day. 

New Audiences
"We keep trying new things to find new audiences," said Launa L. Rabago, Entertainment and Marketing Manager, Pima County Fair. "The intention is to strike a balance between delivering what is expected and adding new content." 

Key to selecting content is to find what will attract audiences you have not gotten yet.  "The core fair audience is beginning to age, so you have reach beyond that core to everyone in your community," she said. 

Rabago estimates that attendance was up 5 percent over last year, reaching more than 308,000, continuing a pattern of year over year gate increases. Spending increased about 8.3 percent over last year, but shifts in spending patterns indicated an uptick in younger fairgoers. "Our attendees spent differently this year," she said. "We didn't see as much spending on beer, however we had three shows that pulled an under 21 audience. Parking was up and admission was up, it was our 2nd best year for concessions (non alcohol).  People are funny and it's interesting to see and try to understand how they budget and what they budget to spend on at our fair.  Each year is different."

In general, the improving economy seemed to have a positive impact.  "People do seem to have more money to spend this year," said Rabago.

Although Arizona suffered during the severest years of the economic downturn, Rabago insisted that the fair was not as affected as other segments of the Tucson area economy. " Interestingly, we really saw our numbers increase by huge percentages of 14 - 17 percent during the recession," she said. "We became the staycation as people were unable to vacation and we remained and continue to be affordable."

Even with positive signs in the local business climate, affordability is still key to the fair's appeal.  "The Pima County Fair is cheaper than a local movie ticket and the savvy fair attendee knows how to save at the fair," she said. The fair survived during the toughest years of the economic downturn, but even in an improved economy, the fair remains mindful of the need to remain affordable  - the concerts and rodeos are included in the price of admission - and give attendees value. "Arizona's economy is turning around but we are not yet there" 

Record Breaking
The 2015 Pima County Fair had six record breaking attendance days - concerts by R5 and Baby Bash accounted for one of the record days, as did a $2.00 ride night that also featured Journey and BeeGees Tribute bands. Another effective promotion was a Dominos Pizza Delivery Coupon with free until 5:30 admission. Also, the final Saturday featured the second of two  Rodeo nights, followed by a Joe Nichols concert which  pumped attendance to a record gate. 

According to Rabago, the fair had its best midway gross with ride spending up by 27 percent. The Pima County Fair midway, which features more than 50 rides, has been provided by Ray Cammack Shows for more than a quarter of a century. The most effective ride promotions were 10 rides for $15 pre-sale tickets and a $2.00 ride night. The midway featured six new rides -Galaxy Coaster, OMG, Pelican Splash, Wacky Worm, Monkey Maze, and Big Top Swinger. 

Undeniably Awesome
In addition, the fair found an effective theme that advertising and promotional efforts could coalesce around. Our tagline, 'Undeniably Awesome' seem to register with people," she said. "We found a catch phrase that people can say and remember."

The fair's advertising budget is nearly $ 300,000, and in terms of expenditures, marketing objectives include support of local media outlets. "I buy locally only, and no one gets left out except some of the print as there are just too many publications for it to make sense. I purchase radio, TV, print, outdoor, bus stops and benches."

The fair was very aggressive with social media in 2015, an approach carried over from the previous year. Rabago stated that the fair has more than 500,000 followers on various social media platforms. "The trick to successful social media marketing is to engage your followers, let them feel that they have a voice and a choice in making decisions about what promotions and artist they'd like at the fair, let them voice concerns and address issues with the followers when it is appropriate," she said. "You need to have a marketing plan to retain the followers after the fair or you end up losing a captive audience during the interim."

According to Rabago, the most effective promotion was not a price discount but organizing multiple events on the opening Sunday - April 19 - that attracted new and diverse audiences. "We held a matinee concert on a Sunday afternoon with R5 that brought families in really early, then did a Latino event with Baby Bash in concert, combined with a car show, later that evening which brought in an additional and different audience."

The evening also highlighted an anti-bullying theme, which included "free admission for kids who signed and brought in a pledge not to bully, Ages 10 and under free admission with pledge."

The Pima County Fair has always engaged social issues with its promotions. The fair was one of the first to explore issues such as Holocaust remembrance and AIDS awareness. This year, the fair focused on Anti-Bullying programs. 

"We try to be either educational and socially responsible," said Rabago. "We want to provoke thought and discussion, and hopefully create a better understanding of the issue. Also, the social topics bring media attention to the issue, and to the fair."

Entertainment Booking
The fair also added its first "Faith" night with Switchfoot, a Christian Rock Group who is also gaining some crossover success in Alt-Rock circles. "We combined the night with the local alternative rock radio station, then the large Christian Format Station and took the event to the faith based community, who brought their congregations out to the fair."

Finding those acts that will bring in people through the gates yet keep within in the fair's budget is an increasing challenge, and often requires thinking outside the box, such as with the Switchfoot concert. "Booking acts is getting more difficult," she said. "You don't have a crystal ball, and you need to make educated decisions based on local radio to see what acts are getting popular. There's more competition from casinos and festivals for the artists that fills a fair."

One solution has been to increase headline diversity to include the "hip, newer rock acts, Hip-Hop and Latin music," she said. "We continue to book a diversity of music, because that's where we see our newest audiences and younger faces. We weren't sure at first if the Hip-Hop artists could work within the fair context, but we added a second night this year." 

Even though the fair has "a responsibility to protect the tradition of our event, this fair has always been trail-blazers. We have a responsibility to also reflect our community, and we were at first surprised how well Hip-Hop music was received, and the numbers that resulted from booking these acts." 

New Rodeo
The other major entertainment change for the Pima County Fair was the addition of a rodeo, expanded to two nights. "The Rodeo was a great draw, probably getting more than twice the people it did last year and was responsible for one of our record breaking days," said Rabago. 

According to Andi Tedder, State Secretary of the Grand Canyon Pro Rodeo Association (GCPRA), which started in 1978, said the second Pima County Fair rodeo - she said it is officially promoted as the Pima County Fair & Rodeo, produced by the (GCPRA) - attracted nearly twice the number of attendees - the fair had built some new bleachers to accommodate the crowds - had more than 400 new entries.

"Our association includes professional cowboys, cowboys who participate in the Professional Rodeo Cowboy Association (PRCA) and working class cowboys, men and women who work during the day at other jobs but compete in rodeos," she said. (The GCPRA features women contestants).

"Arizona Fairs usually have some form of rodeo, so the Pima Fair was unusual for not having one," said Tedder. "The response this year was great. We attracted more rodeo families, people who follow and or participate. I think the word got out after last year. And I think it drew new crowds from the community. The Rodeo is great entertainment, and cheap entertainment. People came out to watch the rodeo. The Pima Fair is a good fair for the rodeo."

Always Striving
Weather mostly was cooperative, conducive to what people expect from the Arizona climate until a closing cold snap negatively impacted attendance. "We had fair weather but it turned cold on us the last day of the fair, which I feel affected the attendance that day," said Rabago. "Our last day of the fair, we normally close out with a Latino talent and its normally one of our strongest days of the fair. This year we had Los Recoditos in concert and while the day was successful, I feel it should have been up much higher, given the artist's marquee value."

She added, "Arizonans don't like it when the weather gets below 70."

So, except for one day of weather that was less than awesome, the Pima County Fair lived up to its marketing tagline of Undeniably Awesome?  "We strive to do our best each and every year," said Rabago. " We've broken records for over 10 years in a row now. The hard part of having that pattern is always having to beat this pattern."

Rabago joked, "it's tough being so awesome."

The fair might have exceeded expectations again this year, but Rabago is far from willing to rest on her laurels. Less than two weeks after the fair's conclusion, she was in analytical mode trying to figure out what can be changed for next year.

"On a more serious note, we always expect to do great, and sometimes it doesn't work for some reason." She cited that an example of one night that under-performed. " I booked Jeremih, a hip hop act, and although the night was successful, I expected a record breaker and it wasn't," she said. "Jeremih is very hot right now and I can't explain why he didn't pull huge numbers.  So, although we were up, I felt we were going to be up even higher."

She added, "I will probably spend the summer scratching my head and trying to figure out where I went wrong on these down days and be sure to improve areas that needed it and repeat the areas and promotions that did well." 

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