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El Dorado County Fair: Attendances Reaches 10 Year High

8/12/2016

By Timothy Herrick

Photo courtesy of

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The El Dorado County Fair attracted more than 60,000 and that should be its best fair ever. But as the whims of record keeping often dictate, there's a qualifier. About  10 years ago, the fair had a 'fluke' year - attendance at 65,000 - but with this qualifier, the fair is considered its best showing fair in 10 years.  

"Probably reaching that number again is unattainable, we do not know why it happened, but this year was the best since then," said Jody Gray, CEO, El Dorado County Fair. "It was comfortable crowd, and we had to use the shuttle lots because the parking on the grounds were filled."

The fair has actually had steady growth in the last 10 years, so this was the best fair in recent memory, and not because attendance and spending was up. The fair seemed exceptionallPhoto By y well run this year. The metric she uses may be statistically inaccurate, but makes total sense. "People were having more fun this year, and they seemed super happy," she explained. "At any fair, there are people who come into the office to complain about something. But did not have one negative comment, no one came into the office to complain, not one. I can't remember the last time that happened."

Cowboys and Carousels
The fair's marketing theme this year combined western and fair culture - "Cowboys and Carousels" - a perfect for what is essentially a southwest fair.  The theme was carried out through the marketing, and in the garden decorations - about 100 civic organizations and patrons, ranging from "4-H Clubs to regular citizens," she said - sponsor gardens on the fairgrounds, and expressed the theme in their decorations - many of which were zero-scape gardens that require no to little water for upkeep, a lingering symptom of California's ongoing drought crisis. (Although, the crisis was alleviated somewhat this year - many stretches of lawns were green instead of brown this year, and livestock caretakers were once again allowed to bathe their animals.

Themes for the fair are submitted during late Summer and through the Fall, and then narrowed down to three favorites, which are given to graphic artists on staff, and then the theme is voted on. "We had a lot of fun with this theme and it fits the fair. We had a Cowboy & Carousel cake made, with Fondant icing, that was really spectacular." 

Gray pointed out that like other fairs, the El Dorado Fair brings tradition and nostalgia to the fairgoer - people return each year for what they know and love. For instance, the fair is in a rustic setting - "we're not an asphalt fair," she said - and the rural and agricultural community are great supporters of this annual celebration of everything El Dorado. But of course, the fair also changes every year, with new rides, food items, and marketing. 

Complex Makeover
But for the El Dorado County Fair, the 2016 edition was the latest iteration of an evolution that began more than a decade ago. As Gray describes it, the El Dorado County fair had a target audience of young adults, some big name entertainment and more of a party atmosphere. During the last ten years, there has been a concerted effort to change the dynamic of the fair, evolving it into a more family and community oriented event. 

"We changed the emphasis of the fair," he said. "We increased the security, and are known as one of the safest fairs around, and we increased our emphasis on the local agricultural industry and on family and community. We became really focused on being a family, affordable and safe event." 

The community turns out for the fair, and the regional demographic tends towards family and local farming. "There's commercial farmers, farmers markets and a big chicken industry. People here have a lot of property, so they have horses and chickens, it's very down to earth."

Gray admitted that the fair had gotten negative reputation and was in financial straits when she took over as CEO in the early 00s. "They were spending a lot of money on bands and we were losing money," she said

What ensued was a program of revitalization of the fairgrounds. "A lot of repairs were needed, so we revamped structures, did a lot of repairs, reinvested in the facilities," she said

This reconditioning the infrastructure eventually increased the non-fair, year-round businesses, which in turn of course helped the bottom line. "We increased the interim rentals of the fairgrounds, making us more financially viable."

 The fair itself began to cut some expenses - like costly bands - and implemented smarter marketing. "Families were growing in the market, and we focused our marketing on Moms, who are usually the deciding factor on what their families do and spend money on." 

2016 Improvements
In 2016, the hard work and extensive makeover again paid off. Although revenue numbers were still being calculated, Gray said that spending was up near record levels, especially in Food & Beverage and at the Midway. In addition, local non-profits raised over $215,000 and the Junior Livestock Auction sale totaled almost $360,000, which were either record or close-to-record setting amounts, "We did very well this year in terms of numbers," she said. 

Much of this boost can be attributed to an improving economic climate. "The economy has gotten better," she said. "Our livestock was up 15 percent, and that is directly related to more consumer confidence. The carnival was up 15 percent. People feel better about spending and unemployment is down." 

In addition, the fair's online presale tickets were up 50 percent, and analytics indicate a wider reach for this year's annual event, with attendees visiting from other counties statewide. 

The breakdown of their media spending for marketing and advertising changed little from last year - 9 percent print; 64 percent radio; 12 percent billboards; 2 percent social media; 9 percent direct mail. And 4 percent grass roots (posters, postcards, lawn signs), but those allocations under-report the expanded online presence of the fair. 

For  example, in addition to multiple E-blasts and E-newsletters to more than 10,000 fairgoers on in the database, the other media outlets, including newspapers and radio stations, highlighted the fair on their online and social media platforms, including running online contests, social media mentions, and banner ads. 

The fair also executed its social media marketing more effectively in 2016.  The El Dorado Fair has 8,643 Facebook Followers, but interactions during the event were 219,887, up from 129,091.   In addition, 26,597 Facebook followers shared fair posts. On Twitter the fair had 1,723 followers, with 2,400 impressions during fair,  11,000 in June  and more than  21,000 during the three months leading up to Fair.  The fair also utilizes Pinterest and Instagram.  

Precise analytics on how this social media marketing translates into attendee figures are not yet possible, but given that social media still made up a small percentage of the marketing budget, it's a tremendous bang for the buck. But promoting on these 21st century platforms takes a skill and finesse, and thinking outside the old media box. "On social media, contests do not work, you can't really use social media to sell, that turns followers off," Gray explained. 

Instead, the intent is engagement. "We post a lot, we do a lot of cute pictures, cute videos, trivial things that inform people," she said. "We post funny stuff, like a horse playing in a pool. And, we interact. We respond to comments, engage our customers.  You don't want posts just to be liked, you want them to be shared, which creates a networking. We had more than 26,000 shares, which is great."

While periodically Gray and other staff members will post on social media, there are two twenty-something staff members who do the majority of the postings as well as responding to comments. "You have to stay on top of it, it is very immediate. The more you act, the more action you get. People will dialog about what is at the fair, and that makes it fun and informative."

In other words, success social media means approaching it as the unique media platform it is, simply a new venue to apply old methods. "It is not an advertisement, don't treat it like it is," se said. She added that the El Dorado Fair's approach to social media has been so successful in recent years that at the most  recent annual convention of the California Fair Alliance, Gray gave a presentation on social media. 

Mobile Friendly
Another virtual change was revamping the website, which not only made it more accessible and easy to navigate, but it was a sweeping that change that made the entire website mobile friendly. 

Like many fairs, the El Dorado County fair has had a website for almost two decades, and while much of it has been updated over the years, the older sections that rarely change, such as About Us, have remained in older formats that are fine on the desktop or lap top but do not interface well with smart phones. "Everyone uses their phones these days for the internet, but our website was so much of a nightmare. So now the website was more mobile friendly, and we could direct people to the website from social media or other links." 

The analytics bear this out, with 35000+ hits in June, an increase of  4 percent, but with 24 percent more pages viewed and people staying on each page 18 percent longer. Leading up to the fair, there was a 2 percent increase in website visitors - 51,000+  and page views up 24 percent, reaching 130,424 page views; 33,000 were new visitors to the website. During the fair, "we are up 33 percent on page views during fair than during fair last year with 17 percent less bounces."

Paul Mauer Shows Midway
The midway was provided by Paul Maurer Shows, featuring 24 rides, and a fair debut of the Rockstar. "It was a record year for the midway," said Gray.

There were 35 food vendors, with a handful being fundraising stands for local organizations and the bulk being commercial vendors. The "hometown" favorite was 20/30 Club Tacos, made by a community service club whose membership are all under 40. One of the most popular food items at the fair was Ricardo's Hawaiian Feast, "a pineapple was scooped up, but not all the fruit," she explained. "and  filled with meat, chicken, beef or pork, and with coleslaw and rice. It was really good."

Other food vendors included: Fairtime Fudge; Wende's Hit & Miss Ole Fashioned Ice Cream (ice cream made by a John Deere tractor); Cool Kettle Corn; Willamette Valley Pie Company; O'Connor's Woodfire Grill and B&B's Concessions.

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