The 26th annual Santa Barbara Fair & Exposition - April 29-May 3 - increased admission by one dollar, going up to a still affordable $8.
Attendance was approximately 47,500, about the same as last year, and the increased admission cost did not instigate a setback for the Santa Barbara Fair & Exposition. "The fair went pretty well, and paid attendance was exactly the same as last year," said Scott Grieve, Chief Executive Officer, Earl Warren Showgrounds.
What the Santa Barbara Fair & Exposition has excelled at is responding to their community, innovative marketing and overcoming challenges ranging from coping with the current drought to replacing nationally known headline entertainment with new options.
"Every year, they spice up the Santa Barbara Fair," said Sean Butler, Unit Manager, Butler Amusements, who provides the fair's midway. "They bring new entertainment and activities, it's a very good fair. It's a beautiful area and fairgrounds."
Attendance remaining even with last year is something that the Grieve takes in stride. "You can't be way up every year," he said. "There are many things out of the control of your organization that affects attendance. There are lot more festivals and other competition in this area, but the Santa Barbara fair still fills a niche, we have loyal followers."
Up Then Down
Grieve added that the weather was very cooperative, and although no record attendance days were recorded, there were welcomed attendance upticks. "The Friday the year before we were way down, this Friday we went way past, more than double what our attendance was last year."
But after the Friday high came a low - Saturday's gate was lackluster at best - which he blames on the stiff competition from both the Kentucky Derby and the heavily promoted "Fight of the Century," - Floyd Mayweather, Jr. vs. Manny Pacquia. "That drew away people," said Grieve, noting that the next day, the fair's closing Sunday, "was a near record."
The fair implemented a new marketing campaign in 2015, with a clever theme -"Let's get MOOving!" - an imaginative juxtaposition of the fair's agricultural roots - promotional images on posters and YouTube videos showcasing spotted bovines on midway rides, skate boarding and dancing - with a community awareness message encouraging more active lifestyles. "We were tying it into the Michele Obama campaign," said Grieve. Let's Move, an initiative launched by the First Lady, is a nationwide attempt to address healthcare issues such as the rise in childhood obesity and diabetes. The Let's Get MOOving! marketing pitch echoed the intention of the initiative, and in addition to having the agricultural tie-in (MOO), it also reflected what Grieve feels is Santa Barbra attitude.
"Active lifestyles are popular in this area," he said. "We have a lot of joggers and people who exercise. We had local dancer troupes and promoted dance competitions. In the Children's Pavilion, we had pedal car races and hopscotch competitions. We had Spanish dancing. We had lots of events for the children to get them up and moving to understand the value of an active lifestyle."
Local community entertainment acts that put the move in MOOving at this year's Santa Barbara Fair & Exposition included: Santa Barbara Ballet, Rhythm Gymnastics of Santa Barbara, Power of a Dream Tour, and Baile de California "We made the commitment about five years ago to go with local entertainment," said Grieve.
The fair used to bring in nationally known music acts, but the booking costs and inconsistent return on that investment became prohibitive. "Finding someone who could draw crowds got more difficult and expensive," he said. "There was too much risk for the fair. Now we promote the local entertainment, local bands and dance groups and we also have traditional fair entertainment, including hypnotists, magicians and jugglers."
This traditional fair entertainment included magician Frank Thurston, hypnotists James Kellogg, Jr and James Kellogg, III as well as new acts - Something Ridiculous, a comedy acrobat duo and Arty Loon, who combines magic, juggling, puppetry and balloon twisting.
The one exception to the free entertainment was a Hispanic night that featured the Ezequiel Pena and the Super Jaripeo Carnaval y Baile (Rodeo and Dance), which was held in the Stadium at Santa Barbara Fair and Expo and required an additional admission.
"The Hispanic show and rodeo is always well attended, and another company promotes it," said Grieve. "The promoter takes the risk and we get the beverage and food sales."
Otherwise, the local entertainment "brings in their local followers and friends," he said. "We have not seen any significant decline in attendance going away from the nationally known acts."
Downscaling the entertainment also nudged on grounds spending. "People would come to the big concerts and leave," said Grieve. "With the local entertainment, they spend more time at the fair and that is what you want. The more time they spend the more likely they'll go on the rides, play a game or eat that second meal."
The fair's advertising budget is a modest $40,000, and the general trend is "we're going away from television, and doing more radio and online. We are doing local online news sources, more than print." The fair hired a new marketing person, he said, with an emphasis on "Facebook and Twitter, but we are still kind of finding our way with our social media."
The 2015 Butler Amusement Midway at the Santa Barbara Fair & Exposition featured 29 rides. Flying Bobs, You Tube Fun House, Jumpin' Jumbos and Pole Position Giant Spinning Coaster all had not been at the fair for a few years. They were brought back along with perennial favorites Fireball, Wave Swinger and the Giant Wheel, again the highest grossing ride of the Santa Barbara event. "We bring staple rides, but we also interchange a few rides every year, so we always have a variety and keep it fresh for the customers," said Sean Butler.
Pirate Jets is new ride that further expanded the kiddie selection of the Butler midway. "The kids love it, it's a new, cute ride," said Butler. "There is more to it than other jet ski rides, there's more color and a soundtrack to it."
The Butler Midway at the Santa Barbara Fair& Exposition remained steady with last year. The onsite ride gross was on par, with a slight increase from the 2014 fair, and advance sales were the same as 2014. "Santa Barbara was a successful fair," said Butler. "the Mayweather fight hurt attendance, but I think we did well."
The fair featured 14 food vendors, not counting midway food vendors, according to Grieve. At Santa Barbara, the cuisine tended towards traditional fair food, including cotton candy, corn dogs, popcorn, funnel cakes and churros. In keeping with the Let's Get MOOving marketing campaign, "we did have some vendors who were offering healthier foods along with their other selections. Mexican food was the most popular, there was one vendor who always had a line, which is how I tell if a food is good."
He added, "all the food vendors told me they were up, they had a good year."
Probably the most significant challenge for the 2015 Santa Barbara Fair & Exposition was coping with the worsening California drought and increasingly restrictive, state mandated water usage restrictions. "We have brown lawns, and we have torn up one lawn by an entrance gate and replaced it with drought-resistant landscaping," he said. "We do not have any water rides, and we are doing different cleaning measures with horses and livestock as well as other areas of the fair.
Butler noted that that the fair staff had "issues with any leaky hoses, and we still use hoses for food wagons and some general washing. But they made sure all the fittings were tight and secure. The fair was very accommodating, but they are monitoring water usage closely, like other California fairs, and you can see they are making sacrifices because of the regulations, not watering lawns."
Golden State water usage restriction has become the rule and not the exception for Butler, a carnival company who works dozens of California dates each year. "Keep in mind, every town or city in California has their own water restriction," he said. "The restrictions are a little different for each fair. We are very careful about not wasting water. We wash our rides every few days instead of every day, which is not as much as we like."
He added, "I am more concerned about the impact on the local economy. But the local farmers, they have less money, but the fair is chance to spend time with their family, it's a special occasion. The fair is holding steady. Maybe we haven't grown in the grosses as much as we would like, but they growing slowly. The families are supporting the Santa Barbara Fair."
And, except for the $1 rise in admission, Grieve pointed out that no other extra costs due to water usage related issues was passed on to the fairgoer. In fact, Grieve expects that even though attendance showed little growth, overall revenue was up, which he attributes to an improving economy. "There are definite signs that he economy is better, there seems to be more jobs and people are spending on entertainment, spending has loosened up. People were spending more at the fair, and they were staying longer."