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San Bernardino County Fair Still Assessing Impact of Fatal Accident

7/8/2015

By Timothy Herrick

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Sabrina Gordon, 31 years old, died at San Bernardino County Fair in an accident at the FreeDrop USA platform, a free-fall ride Operated by FD Event Co. LLC. It was the first time this attraction - and the company - was at the fair. 

According to local reports, the non-mechanical attraction requires participants to jump - without harness or rope - from a 36-foot high scaffolding-type structure onto an airbag, which rises 13 feet from the ground. 

It is not clear why Gordon, a U.S. Navy veteran, suddenly fell to the ground. Firefighters and paramedics found Gordon lodged between the scaffolding and the airbag. She was airlifted to Arrowhead Regional Medical Center, where she soon died from her injuries.

Respect & Sensitivity
"Our thoughts and prayers are with the Gordon family," said Geoff Hinds, CEO/General Manager San Bernardino County Fair. Few fair mangers ever find themselves in such a difficult and contradictory position as Hinds. The accident brought more media attention than the fair ever experienced in its 68 year history. As of press time, the San Bernardino County Sheriff's Department still had no update on the investigation. 

The incident happened on the Thursday of the fair. "We responded with all available resources and the accident continues to be investigated," said Hinds. "The safety of our guests is first and foremost, the most important thing with that in mind.

Obviously, the seriousness of the incident entirely overshadows the rest of the fair, which is a shame because all other aspects of the 2015 fair were positive. "You have to handle this situation with dignity and respect for the victim and her family," he said, adding that because the investigation was continuing, he was unable to fully talk about the accident. 

As a fair manager, "it is definitely one of the most difficult situations to be in, so in that respect it is one of the worst fairs in my career."

But, because of an effective new marketing campaign that resulted in an attendance increase and across the board jumps in revenue, "it was one of the best fairs I've had in my career in terms of numbers."

Numbers Up
The San Bernardino County Fair ran for seven days, May 23-31 - but closed two weekdays. Hinds described the weather as "very good," and attendance reached approximately 136,000, about 9.28 percent higher than in 2014.

"Attendance was up close to 10 percent over last year despite being closed on Tuesday and Wednesday for the first time," said Hinds. "Our carnival was up 28 percent, and had the best year ever.  Food was up 13 percent, and parking up close to 8 percent."

Hinds pointed out that those two week days were always "under performing for various reasons." Hinds said that many of the graduations by local schools "fall over the Tuesday and Wednesday, so those are always tough days to pull in people," he said. 

In addition, much - Hinds estimates about 40 percent - of San Bernardino is a bedroom community for the Los Angeles metro-area, "those days were just meaningful for us, and most people here wait until the weekend to come to the fair," he said.

New Marketing
The fair also made the most of its $80,000 advertising budget. "We focused on the social media, mainly Facebook. We were doing a lot more postings with key words that were relevant to a younger demographic. We made the ads more attractive, and we made more videos, ranging from 10 seconds to five minutes, which showed the different attractions of the fair." 

He added that, "We utilized an aggressive new marketing campaign, that targeted new demographics" - millennials and young families -  which Hinds described as a "new generation of fans for the fair. They tended to be the most interested in the wide variety of food and attractions. We maintained a similar presence in other areas, so we didn't alienate what is sort of the core group that traditionally comes to the fair. We added new pieces to our overall marketing."

Mainly the fair "shifted from traditional print," to more social media and online marketing," Hinds explained. In addition, the fair implemented a "gorilla-type marketing, which putting up highly visible street signs and additional billboard ads. We mainly had more placements and higher visibility, adding more locations and on streets where there was higher traffic or where the signs were unexpected. We also partnered with local businesses to increase the visibility of the ads." 

Coupled with radio and other ads, "we had a higher saturation in the community than previous fair," he added. 

Flume Ride
The midway was provided by Helm and Sons Amusements, and Hinds attributes the growth to the marketing of the fair, and a $5.00 pre-sale entry promotion, which encouraged more spending. The new ride for the year was the Big Splash (Flume Ride), a rare water-ride for any fair in drought-stricken California, but as Hinds explained, "the water used was reclaimed water, there was no excess water used for the ride."

He added that the fairgrounds are only 120 miles from Death Valley and San Bernardino County is essentially a desert. "We have long been pretty cognizant of the water importance of water conversation, we are used to not having a lot of water. The new regulations have not caused a problem for us." 

The fair featured 29 food vendors and according to Hinds, the best selling food item was a Deep Fried Philly Cheesesteak Burrito, "because it was good." 

Kellie Pickler
The San Bernardino County Fair grandstand, which has a capacity of 5,000, and featured a range of entertainment, including Monster Truck Mayhem, Desert Rage Demolition Derby and American Daredevil Motorsports Stunt and Thrill Show. The "concert main stage" showcased Kellie Pickler, Rock Revival Tribute Festival and Great White. State funding cuts have meant less national acts being booked over the years, but with little to no impact on attendance.  "You have to be cognizant of what your community is looking for, and then spend the time finding the right act," said Hinds. "You can find the triple platinum stars, but the cost is prohibitive and they won't necessarily bring in people. Kellie Pickler has a lot of brand recognition from American Idol and Dancing with the Stars, she felt very relevant to our customer-base." 

Pickler was able to hit the sweet-spot for this fair, boosted by a more effective marketing campaign. People came to the fair and were ready to spend. "I think it's a sign that the economy is improving and people are willing to attend relevant events," said Hinds.

But the challenge remains how to ensure the long term success of the fair whose reputation has been besmirched by a fatal tragedy still under investigation. Hinds said the accident did not seem to impact attendance on the closing weekend, nor harm the back-to-back events the fairgrounds hosted following the fair. 

How to fully understand the impact on the fair, and what sort of long-term response should be developed, is still unknown. "It is the worst kind of experience any event professional ever wants to go through," Hinds admitted. "The long term effects on the fair will still have to be measured, I do not know what they will be."

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