The 23-day Orange County Fair attracted 1.34 million this year, up 3.3 percent from 2015. A compelling advertising camping, an eclectic entertainment line up and new landscaping were some of the factors that contributed to the continued growth of this 126-year-old Southern California tradition, which had a $34.7 million budget in 2016.
The weather was optimum, with some very hot weather, but many hours of ideal Southern California Summer, with the famous coastal breeze that Costa Mesa, only 6 miles from the Pacific Ocean, is known for. Initial, unaudited gross revenue of the fair was a robust $58 million. For Kathy Kramer, Chief Executive Officer, perhaps the most meaningful metric is the customer service rating via fairgoer surveys, with 2016 reaching 4.54 out of 5.
Great Vibe & Energy
"Our customer service ratings were exceptional and we're proud to have produced this great community event," said Kramer. "This year's Fair had a great vibe and energy. We enjoyed nice weather on average and our Fairgoers seemed to really love the changes we made with layout and programming."
Although the 2016 fair is technically the second for Kramer -whose previous experience included Vice President of Business Operations, Northlands in Edmonton, Alberta and Deputy Director of the Phoenix Convention Center - last year, she had only been in her current position for a few months. The 2016 fair was the first time at the helm after a year under her belt. "Last year, since I was only here about six months, it gave me an opportunity to enjoy and observe the fair, she said.
One of the major changes she implemented this year was a layout improvement that removed sight-line impediments. "We changed the layout design to enhance the sweet spots of the fair, I know that some folks were not able to see all the lights and sights to visually enjoy the fair," said Kramer.
In addition, the new CEO spearheaded the creation of Country Meadows, an expansion of Centennial Farm, a 2.3 acre working farm. Country Meadows featured "vignettes about agriculture," she said "We reprogrammed the space, to feature more farm exhibits, Americana and Folk Art. The decor was beautiful, with redwood fences. It was very hands on."
Kramer pointed out that the fair's Exhibit Team did an exemplary job in creating more interactive and hands on exhibits. "The creative team behind our exhibits this year was very creative in how they used the space. Agriculture initiatives continue to drive the fair, it is the foundation of the fair. We want to bring awareness of agriculture into an urban environment. Our Exhibit Team has even more agricultural programming ideas for 2017."
The farming programming went beyond typical demonstrations to relevant seminars. "We used agriculture in subtle ways, we had chefs talking about culinary experiences, we had home canning presentations, we had junior chefs talking about nutrition and education. With our programming, we can be a conduit to healthier eating habits."
Customer satisfaction surveys indicated that the additional agricultural programming was positively received, with 85 percent responding the programming increased their knowledge of agriculture, and "76 percent said they felt it was important or very important to have agriculture at the Fair," said Kramer.
In addition, "We made changes to the layout of the grounds to give a more open feel including removing visual barriers, improving the flow of foot traffic and adding more seating and picnic tables with shade. We almost doubled the amount of shaded seating this year. It all has to do with the fun fair. Seating has a lot to do with the comfort level of people coming to the fair, they want a rest period. If there's a place to eat people have a tendency to stay longer."
"In terms of the economy in general, since both attendance and revenue were up it is certainly a good indication that the economy has improved," said Kramer.
The Fair's advertising budget was $1.2 million, a mix of traditional and digital mediums were used with little changes to the mix from 2015. Kramer described the social media usage by the fair as robust, focused on the major platforms: Facebook, Twitter & Instagram. New for 2016 in the social media realm was the fair's use of Facebook Live, which featured "live videos that proved very popular with fans," she said. "We had very robust interaction with our fairgoers on Facebook Live."
Get Your Fair Face On! was the fair's marketing theme and the visage motive expressed in the tagline manifested itself in social media. "The theme worked great, because it was very interactive and we had a great online response with photos," she said. "We had a lot of tagging on social media, we did a lot of pre-fair promotion to have fairgoers get their favorite fair face, to get them excited about the fair. It was very interactive, we had an online photo mosaic, it was a great campaign."
The images showed the happy faces of "biting into donuts or on the thrill of ride, we wanted all of your emotions, and we had great images which we worked into our logo," she said. "It showed the guest experience. The marketing campaign was successful, and it was a teamwork effort. We have a think tank that we throw stuff at and discuss. Get Your Fair Face On! was successful because it brought in photography so everyone could be a part of it."
RCS Midway UP
Ray Cammack Shows (RCS), who has been providing the Orange County Fair midway since 1994, featured 65 rides, and according to the fair, unaudited gross carnival ride sales exceeded $9 million.
New rides for the fair included Twister in the Main Carnival and Puppy Roll in Kiddie Carnival, which Chris Lopez, Vice President, RCS, said "was a Bear Affair from Gold Star, but redone with a Dalmatians theme, it did great."
Top rides included: La Grande Wheel, Euroslide, Wild River and Rave Wave. Top children's rides were the Wacky Worm, Survival Island and Pirates Island.
Lopez estimated that the midway was up 7 percent in ride revenue compared to 2015, and cited the various promotions, such as the We Care Wednesday donation drives, which offered free admissions, as giving a strong boost to ridership. According to fair statistics 47,824 generous Fairgoers donated more than 28 tons of canned food, more than 76,000 children's books, more than 37,000 pounds of clothing and some 150,000 school supplies through the Wednesday programs. In addition, 13,365 kids participated in the Read & Ride Program, where free carnival rides were exchanged for book reports.
"These promotions helped tremendously," said Lopez. "The Orange County Fair has always been a fair that is not afraid to think outside the box. They are doing a great job in marketing as well as operations."
RCS has an unusual route for a carnival company, it specializes in long fairs such as the Orange County event. According to Lopez, the company only sets up for nine different events and says that more often than not, "we have grass growing under our trailers by the time we leave."
The season has been an upbeat one for RCS. "We're on course for a record year," said Lopez. "We've been up at every single location. We have good weather, in Orange County it rained opening weekend and the area has had a drought and been battling wildfires, but that didn't affect the fair so much this year as in the last couple of years. It's not as much in the news. The fair had a lot of the same enthusiasm and mojo."
Lopez added that unlike previous presidential election years, the often tumultuous 2016 has not dampened fairgoer attitude. "Usually consumers are a little more cautious in election years, historically that has been the trend. But it has been our good fortune that hasn't happened. People are spending, it hasn't been an issue. I attribute some of that to the economy, which is better this year."
The fair features two stages - the Toyota Summer Concert Series - which mainly featured classic rock stalwarts, including Boston, Earth, Wind & Fire and Styx as well as lesser known but well established cult bands like the B-52s, UB40, The English Beat and a Reggae double bill of Ziggy Marley & Steel Pulse. The other stage, the Hangar, mixed original groups such as Ozomatli and Mariachi Sol de Mexico de Jose Hernandez, with a line up of tribute bands including: Dead Man's Party (Oingo Boingo); Hotel California (The Eagles), Journey Unauthorized (Journey), Queen Nation (Queen), and Zeppelin Live (Led Zeppelin).
The Toyota stage had nine sellouts during the fair, while the Hanger had 12. While the entertainment marketing is challenging to say the least for the Orange County Fair, the fair "finds a balance with acts that fit our market," said Kramer. "We also provide acts an opportunity to route through Southern California, and we are not as restrictive with a radius clauses. We're a lot more lax and that works in our favor. Plus, it's nice to have a 23 day window to book."
According to Dan Gaines, Entertainment Director, Orange County Fair, a seller's market persists when it comes to booking headline entertainment, a trend he ties to the economic recovery. ""There seems to be greater consumer confidence, which would imply a sellers' market. Buyers seemed more willing to commit early, which has been a little different than we've seen in the past few years," he said. "This was truer for the more affordable tickets and sales for the shows with higher ticket prices were slower."
Unaudited Food & Beverage concession revenue was over $28 million, with 45 concessionaires and 100+ locations. "What's become the norm is vendors at the OC Fair work to be innovative each year by offering unique foods and designing their stands to be beautiful and engaging which creates a whole foodie experience that goes beyond the deep fried and on a stick of the traditional fair experiences," said Kramer.
She pointed out several new food items that whet fairgoer's appetite this year: French Toast Bacon Bombs, Bacon-Wrapped Chicken Legs, S'Moreo Texas Donut, Chicken in a Waffle on a Stick and Dole Whip.
The fair issued some remarkable fair cuisine stats: 5,000 pounds of potatoes were baked and wrapped in bacon; 5,500 hot dogs were covered in 20 gallons of homemade Pepsi syrup and served in a glazed donut bun from the Bacon A-Fair booth; Chicken Charlie wrapped 12,000 pounds of chicken legs in bacon, served 13,000 waffles stuffed with chicken on a stick and battered and deep-fried 40,000 Oreos; Juicys smoked 75,000 turkey legs; 10,000 French Toast Bacon Bombs from Bacon A-Fair made breakfast acceptable any time of the day or night: Biggys Meat Market served 6,000 Bacon-Wrapped Pork Belly on a Stick; 3,000 Chile Relleno Pretzel Burgers (winner of the 2016 Concessionaires' Cup) were sold by Tasti Burger along with 204 tons of potatoes and 509 gallons of cheese sauce sold as Tasti Chips.
In terms of food trends, Orange County Fair food chefs have jumped on the Bacon Bandwagon. "Bacon continues to be the be "the fair ingredient that is being used more and more. There's a real creative integration of bacon with other food."
Another trend has been more healthy options. "We've had gluten free items for a few years, but I've also noticed things like hormone free sausage and grass-fed beef items, and while they are traditional fair experience foods, individual vendors are integrating these things."
For 2017, Kramer would like to erase the divide between the agricultural exhibits - which emphasize buying locally produced vegetables, meats and other food products - and the fair's food concessionaires, which sell massive amounts of food, most of which are produced elsewhere.
"Post-Fair, we will be looking at opportunities and working with key distributors," she said. "We need to have a hands on collaboration, and bring our local suppliers together with our food vendors and build that relationship."
Did 2016 exceed expectations? While the answer yes, Kramer qualifies that it was not her expectations she wants to exceed. "We were up in attendance, up in revenue, we had a great fair and made some changes that were well received," she said. "It's a collective to put on a very affordable, family friend event. People love this fair and I think that's why we had a great fair this year."