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Santa Barbara: Attendance Uptick, Pirates & Butler Amusements Extension


By Timothy Herrick

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The Santa Barbara Fair & Exposition found a counter intuitive result from a change most fairs dread: an increase in the price of the fair admission resulted in an uptick in attendance. 

It wasn't an overall increase - but at the suggestion of their midway provider, Butler Amusements - the fair increased its weekday admission to match the weekend cost.
Up 3 Percent
According to Scott Grieve, Chief Executive Officer, Earl Warren Showgrounds, the previous strategy was to boost the weekday attendance by creating an incentive for the weekdays of the fair. "Butler talked us into looking at it differently, and it worked,"

Grieve estimated that attendance reached 48,528, and overall increase of about 3 percent, and a five year high.

"We just thought that the weekday price was a little low for such a high income area and compared to similar events that we play it was too much of a discount," said Sean Butler, Unit Manager, Butler Amusements. "We think that the price worked this year and we did not hear any complaints from our customers."

Originally, Grieve anticipated that the cost would "push more people to the weekend," but admittedly, it was hard to create a metric due to the fact that the weekdays and weather for the opening days - which also happened to be weekdays - was less than optimal. "The first day was windy and cold," said Grieve. "Thursday was windy."

In other words, weekday meteorological conditions negatively impacted attendance, regardless of admission costs. But the end result was an attendance increase, and in many segments of the fair, spending was higher. 

Food Spending 
"Food was up 7 percent and our alcohol sales were went through the roof on Saturday night," he said. 

"The fair features 14 food vendors, "we have a limited area, we try not to duplicate cuisines, we have one Mexican food vendor, for example, one oriental, one for barbecue, etc."

He added, that the vendor selling deep fried items did very well. "They were selling deep fried Twinkies, and this year they were doing deep fried pork chops, which did really well."

Midway spending apparently did not benefit as well as other sectors from the spending uptick at the fair. Butler blamed the weather for impeding ridership. "The midway was down a little bit compared to last year, but it was a little chilly compared to 2015," said Butler.

The Butler Amusements midway featured 29 rides, including two new rides for the Santa Barbara Fair & Exposition, a KMG Inversion and the A.R.M Quasar. Butler said the top three rides were the Giant Wheel, Inversion and Pole Position Coaster

Beneficial Updates
A few seemingly minor updates to the fair also seemed to encourage spending. The presale for tickets was up nearly 70 percent, which Grieve credited with an expanded, fundraising ticket sale program with regional schools. The schools have a fair ticket sale drive, where they receive 15 percent of the cost. "It's a huge fundraiser for them, you have PTA members selling tickets, and it's become a huge marketing thing for us."

Another upgrade is that the fair had ATMs onsite and accepted credit cards for admissions - "we were an all cash fair," he said. 

The uptick in presale tickets combined with the convenience of credit card purchases, Grieve saw as  fuel for increasing sales. "My theory is that people come to the fair with a certain amount of cash to spend and if they have already bought the ticket, or if they buy the ticket with a credit card, they save the cash to spend on food and rides."

According to Grieve, the local economy "is improving compared to last year, the unemployment rate is down, and housing prices are up, which is always a positive sign. The state has gotten out of its deficit, and the last three budget cycles have been favorable to fairs. We have kind of slowly gotten back into the boat."

California's drought was still apparent at the fair, although no new restrictions were in place. "We can't make everything green around here, the drought can still be seen, it is the 5th year of the drought."

He added, "water rates continue to go up. We use recycled water for the landscape. Two years ago we mandated a 25 percent reduction in water usage. We already ripped out parts of the lawn. We are not required to go any lower than we have, but you do the best you can." 

Yo Ho Ho
The Santa Barbara Fair & Exposition also discovered lost treasure with its marketing theme this year - Pirates. Yo Ho Ho and a Barrel of Fun, which the fair emphasized throughout the grounds, including an exhibit building renamed Pirates Cove, which featured interactive and educational displays on the role of pirates in history. The two free concert stages at the fair also were renamed Shiver me Timbers Stage and Walk the Plank stages. "We did a lot of different things, we had a poster for the fair that looked like a treasure map, said Grieve. "We had a big pirate shop near the box office. We kind of went crazy this year with our theme."

Of course the most famous pirate in contemporary pop culture is Jack Sparrow, star of Disney's Pirates of the Caribbean movie franchise. While an appearance by Johnny Depp was apparently cost prohibitive, instead a regional pirate performer - Capt'n Jack Spareribs' Shipwreck Show, featuring Maynard the Talking Monkey. The act - Voted Best Family Fun in the San Francisco Bay Area 7 years in a row, according to the fair's website - was described as "a fast paced mix of swashbuckling, rib tickling, pirate mayhem combined with magic, juggling, ventriloquism and the world's worst pirate jokes." "He was a big hit," said Grieve.

Butler willingly walked the plank for the Santa Barbara Fair & Exposition. "We brought our Pirate kid ride and some of our staff wore pirate hats to get into the pirate theme," said Butler. "We also had our Maxtron digital board on the Giant Wheel show different pirate images to tie the rides in with the fairs theme."

The closing Sunday of the fair - an optimum weather day - featured the fair's traditional Hispanic Concert - "It was one of our best in attendance, Sunday is historically family day for Hispanic families," Grieve said. "The adults go to the concert and they turn their children loose on the midway." 

"The fair exceeded expectations," said Grieve. "We negotiated a new carnival contract with Butler Amusements, which was our second straight renewal, and will take us together through 11 years."

"Santa Barbara is a great event for Butler Amusements," said Butler. "We were very excited to extend our partnership for another three years.  We hope to have record setting years for many years to come and we look forward to that beautiful Santa Barbara weather every year." 

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