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Butler Midway Up 25 Percent at Maricopa Fair

6/3/2015

By Timothy Herrick

Photo courtesy of Maricopa County Fair

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The Maricopa County Fair may not be the biggest county fair in Arizona - that distinction belongs to the Pima County Fair - but it may be the fastest growing. Maricopa County is, where Phoenix is located and this area is considered one of the fastest growing in the United States, and the fair - which ran April 8-12 - saw increases in attendance and revenue, keeping pace with its market. 

"We are growing every year," said Karen Searle, Executive Director, who estimated attendance at the 2015 exceeded 70,000. 

"The area is growing with new families, and they are starting new traditions with their families," she explained. "Fairs are a very inexpensive way to spend the day, it costs less for a family of four to come to the fair than it does to go to the movies. They can enjoy tPhoto By Maricopa County Fairhemselves for less, it's an affordable day, and they are actually making memories." 

She added, "Attendance was up, the carnival was up, the livestock auction was up and our beer sales were up. Everything was up."

Midway Growth
The Maricopa County Fair midway - provided by Butler Amusements and featuring 35 rides - saw a remarkable increase. According to Butler Amusements, onsite gross ride revenue was up 25 percent. "It is a big metro area, and Phoenix craves entertainment," said Sean Butler, Unit Manager, Butler Entertainment. "There are a big concerts, a lot of entertainment, but it makes sense for a county fair to be popular in this market because it is an alternative for families. People come here for affordable entertainment and they stay all day.

Butler said it was the company's fastest growing fair in terms of ride revenue. "Every year has gotten better," said Butler. "Maricopa is a very strong fair, a growing fair. The fair has been doing a great job promoting the fair, and our rides. The clientele is realizing that the fair is good, clean fun."

Fueling the growth has been effective promotions, such as unlimited wrist bands - according to Butler, they sold more unlimited ride wrist bands - which run $20 - $30, depending on the day - at the 2015 Maricopa County Fair than any previous edition. "People came, they went on the rides, they played games, they spent all day at the carnival," he said. "A lot of families spend all day the fair, that's why they like the wrist bands." 

Butler Amusements participated in its second Read to Ride program at the Maricopa County Fair, a community outreach program children from K through 6th grade, who read four books, and bring a completed form on the Thursday, which was Student Appreciation Day, received both free admission to the fair and a free ride. Butler described that Thursday as phenomenal - he used the same term for the following Friday as well - "it was a great promotion, the kids really turned out with their families." 

In addition to the Read & Ride Program, the fair also offered "5 rides for $5 for school field trips, which was very successful," said Searle. 

The fair also runs an attendance-boosting promotion - "Free Until 3" -on weekdays (Wednesday to Friday) of the fair. "We've been doing this for 11 years, and we've seen these dyas have grow every year," said Searle. "We've seen growth in our daytime revenue. Wednesday and Thursdays are typically slower times anyway. With the free admission, they spend more at the fair and stay longer."

New Butler rides at the fair was the Zillerator Roller Coaster, Spinning Pole Position Coaster, and the Pirate Jets, a kiddie ride. The carnival company has expanded its children and family offerings, which some industry has seen as a trend. The population of the Phoenix metro area has been growing, which has included more families coming to the great paragon of affordable family entertainment, the local county fair, but Butler also pointed out that "ride manufacturers seem to be introducing more family rides, so when you want to buy a new rides, that's what is being shown to us."

Butler added, "We've had a great run at Maricopa, we play a lot of events in Arizona and this one has grown every year," said Butler. "The community really loves and supports this fair. They were waiting for us this year."

Economy & Weather
Also helping the Maricopa County Fair's 2015 continue its growth pattern was cooperative weather and a noticeable economic recovery. "You really can't beat Arizona spring weather," said Butler - and the economy has shown an improvement, "you can really see the change in the economy this year. People have more disposable income, and you see that not only in the ride gross, but that they are playing more games, spending more, staying longer. Things are turning around." 

"We had absolutely beautiful weather," said Searle. "Last year, there was our first heat wave, but this year we had an absolutely perfect weather."

She added, "I believe our economy is picking up. Based solely on the fair, people came out and spent money."

The advertising budget is $102,000, which included less print, more online, billboards and television - which is "very expensive in this market but has a good reach. We tried to target more segments of the population with our TV advertising." 

Phoenix is a growing area, accompanied by a growing - in terms of cost and outlets - media market. To better market the 2015 event, the Maricopa County Fair went both old school with an increased use of fliers and other hand outs and new social, with an increased social media presence. "We changed our advertising, and were looking more at grass root advertising, like hand outs. The cost of advertising phoenix is very expensive, and there are a lot or events in the Spring, like baseball and basketball that we have to compete against to get our message out.

The old school methods also include a direct mail post card - targeted to specific neighborhoods, and for the second year in a row, partnering with the restaurant chain, Culver's, which according to Google has at least 10 locations in Maricopa County. "They handed out more than 100,000 fliers to their customers," she said, "That is huge." 

For the new school methodology, the fair created a new position to exclusively handle social media. "We had been doing Facebook and other social media, but that has expanded and you really need somebody whose sole job is social media," said Searle. Previously social media marketing was up to her and other staff members, but this year they "stepped away from it," allowing someone to focus fully on the virtual marketing through online networking. As a result, followers and likes "grew substantially," said Searle. "You need a professional now to handle it, to concentrate on social media. We ran more contests, especially around our motorsports, and food, like Deep Fried Coffee, which seemed to take off on Twitter."

Food Coverage
The fair featured 25 food vendors, about the same as last year. The food segment was not immune to the growth of the fair. " We had a few food vendors who had record years," said Searle. 

The hot food item was Deep Fried Coffee - "little balls of deliciousness served in a cup with whipped cream, people love their coffee here and if you love coffee you love Deep Fried Coffee," explained Searle. In addition to having a Twitter following, this Maricopa County Fair signature food item gained other media exposure. "We got a lot live TV broadcasts this year from the Phoenix morning shows," said Searle. "They broadcast from 4am to 9am, and the fried foods play a big part of the live coverage, but they especially like the Fried Coffee. It's a big television staple. We had exceptional live coverage of the fair every day. 

Other fair cuisine promoted included Flaming Hot Turkey Legs, the Mac Doggie Dog and Deep Fried Hamburgers.

The fair features numerous Motorsports events in the Sanderson Ford Arena, including Lawn Mower Races, Flat Track Motorcycle Racing. Monster Trucks, Demo X (demolition derby) High Flying Freestyle Moto X , and Monster Trucks and Tough Truck Racing. "Motorsports go over very well with our audience, especially monster trucks," explained Searle. "It is definitely more cost effective for us than big name concerts, especially when you cost out production." 

The motorsports events are included in the price of admission, and is in keeping with the fair's philosophy of keeping this affordable and giving families reasons to linger. "People are spending more time at the fair, and we are giving them enough to do, and they are staying for the two meals at the fair."

It's a philosophy that has paid off in continued growth. "We were up," said Searle. "Anytime we are up, we are happy." 

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