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Ugly Dogs & Community Support: The County Fair With a Globally Viral Contest

9/16/2016

By Timothy Herrick

Photo courtesy of

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Few fairs get the media coverage the Sonoma-Marin Fair received. The Today Show, Good Morning America, Stephen Colbert, USA Today, BBC, Inside Edition, New York Times, the Discovery Channel, German and French TV - as the saying goes, the list goes on and on. Nearly everything with a Facebook newsfeed probably heard about the fair - well maybe not the fair - but the fair's signature event -- The World's Ugliest Dog Contest. 

Pictures of these unattractive but lovable canines went viral, in both new and old media: In addition to previous list of media coverage, the AP News Wire sent reporters and Snapchat sent two videographers, covering it as a 'Live Story Event.' 

Small Town Contest
"It's a small town contest, that's part of the appeal,Photo By " said Erin Post, CEO, Sonoma-Marin Fairgrounds & Event Center. "It brings a lot of media to the fair. The contests highlights that all pets are loveable, and encourages the adoption of pets. People come back year after year for this contest."

The international notoriety may not increase significantly the total number of fairgoers - although the day of the World's Ugliest Dog Contest is always well attended - and not often the news coverage minimizes, and often outright fails to mention, the Sonoma-Marin County Fair that hosts the event. In fact, the fair marketing department usually has to remind winners and reporters to mention the fair, not always successfully either. People worldwide talk about the viral story of the ugly dog contest, the actual fair, not so much. 

But this 50+ year old contest distinguishes this 77 year old California tradition. "We are known because of the contest, but we also recognize people know about the contest without knowing about the fair," she said. "But it is still a great event, it makes us unique."

"The World's Ugliest Dog Contest is just one of the coolest events, just a great atmosphere to be a part of," Harry Mason, CEO, Brass Ring Amusements. "It's just a great community and the Ugly Dog contest is one of the coolest events you ever see. It's so much fun and the people love participating in it." 

Manger Comes Home
Post, 29 years old, grew up in the area and was actively involved in the 4-H and livestock contests, and during her 11 years away, "When I wasn't living away, I was always following the Ugly Dog Contest," she said. "It's something that makes the fair special." 

This year was her first at the helm of the fair she had grown up attending and participating in, it was where she fell in love with the fair industry and decided to make outdoor agricultural exhibition events her career. Before taking her current position, Post worked most recently as Livestock Agent for Colorado University and her gigs included Director of Programming Ages 8-18 at the Adam County Fair, also in Colorado, and intern for the Western Fair Association. She took the reins of the fair only three months before the fair.

"It was wonderful to be back home, and many things were in set in place, like the vendors, the carnival and the sponsors," she said. "The marketing theme had already been chosen. All the balls were set in monition. I mainly asked a lot of questions and made observations. My eyes were open."

Better Than Average
Post couldn't ask for a better inaugural fair to begin her tenure. Mother Nature cooperated. "The weather was great," she said. "A little hotter than average, in the 90s, but we had great weather." 

More than 60,000 fairgoers came through the gates, it was the highest attendance by nearly 5 percent since 2012. "After a record-breaking year in 2015, we took a small dip in paid attendance and our numbers remain strong, surpassing the 5-year average," she said. 

The fair has been on an upswing in the past decade, Post noting that "we had decreasing attendance until about 11 years, but since than things have improved."

Drought Impact
The impact of the California drought was also less severe this year. "Overall it has been a good year for rain, compared to the last few years, though we're not completely out of the woods yet."

The local farming communities are heavily into grapes for wine making and the dairy industry - Sonoma-Marin not only has a strong dairy industry -  "and the drought really impacted that industry because of the grazing, but there has been better grazing this year," she said.

While the fairgrounds still follow serious water restrictions, "we are encouraged, there is a difference this year. Our lawns were greener than they have been," she said.

The fair also was able to continue the water conversation method. "We got the youth involved, and they were able to demonstrate how to better conserve water, and to make people more conscious of the how much water they use and waste." 

Going Local
Water conservation awareness was another aspect of how the fair is interwoven with the community it serves. Further enhancing the community theme of the fair,. the Sonoma-Marin Fair Goes Local was the 2016 marketing theme. The fair's marketing budget was about $57,000 - 60,000, with allocations about the same as last year, including radio, newspaper, magazines, cable TV, movie theaters, digital outdoor, outdoor signage. The theme had already been selected before Post came on board, but she felt that the theme emphasized the underlying mission of the event.

"It was a great theme, our local community has been so supportive of the fair, and we tried to emphasize local businesses, and that buying local supports the local economy," she said. "We were able to showcase a lot of local talents." 

This year, the fair "boosted" more of its Facebook posts, and admittedly the most successful campaign was through the World's Ugliest Dog Contest. Social media is one area Post hopes to expand more effectively in the upcoming year. "Social media is not being used as much as it could be, so I am looking at how we can increase our presence," said Post. "For social media to work well, the fair has to have a year-round presence, not just during the fair."

The "Go Local" theme was expressed in an ongoing exhibit: "Stories of Innovation, Creativity and Connectivity" that highlighted the past and present of the Sonoma-Marin region. Local businesses were also highlighted in their own exhibit: "Flourish - Innovators and Makers of Sonoma and Marin Counties." Local-themed contests: Grow Local, Cook Local, and Craft were also held. 

The regional agricultural industry has evolved - fueled by the "locavore" movement and other factors - increasing the number of smaller farmers and other food purveyors. "We created a list of local food suppliers and a lot of the fair vendors were able to source some of their food through these suppliers and we also wanted more smaller and local vendors at the fair," said Post. 

Pay One Fair
In addition to the World's Ugliest Dog Contest, a unique feature of the fair is its One Price Fits All policy. The Sonoma-Marin County has a pay one price admission fee. For $15 adults/$10 Children, attendees see headline entertainment and get unlimited rides. 

"The pay one admission makes our fair special and the community really enjoys the fair," she said. "Where else can you ride all the rides you want and see the great entertainment at the fair." 

The fair is chock full of many traditional fair attractions, including the Great American Petting Zoo, AgVentureland and Great American Pig Races, as well as other agricultural events, such as Milking Demonstrations and a Poultry Showmanship contest. There's also a wine tasting exhibit - vineyards are an important part of the regional farming culture. 

While local musicians and other entertainers expand the entertainment roster at the fair, the headline stars had drawing power: Tower of Power, a classic Soul band, famous for their distinctive horn section, has been part of the music scene since the late 60s and in fact are from the Marin County area making them local favorites as well.  Joe Nichols, a country superstar with  six #1 hits and eight Top 10 singles, Hinder, the multi-platinum rockers, and LeAnn Rimes, who has sold more than 44 million albums, won two Grammy Awards, three Academy of Country Music Awards and 12 Billboard Music Awards all performed.

The fair featured 30 food vendors and according to Post, Funnel Cakes are always a leading favorite at the fair, most likely helped by daily Funnel Cake eating contests. In addition, a cinnamon roll concession stand returned after a two year absence," Post said. "I think the food vendors did really well. I heard a lot of positive feedback. We were able to offer people who came to the fair a huge variety of food, there were so many options. It was very positive."

She added, "my favorite vendor was a smoothie stand, so I was happy about that." 

Brass Ring Amusements
The Sonoma-Marin Fair midway featured 34 rides, including a new Diamond Wheel, two-story Fun House, and a Steeple Chase slide, which Mason of Brass Ring Amusements, claimed is one of only three in the U.S.

For the midway provider, having unlimited rides universal for all fairgoers can be a challenge. "The pay one price is unusual, you work on a per cap basis," he said. The revenue is admittedly lower than typical fairs, "but the attendance was good this year and we were up at this year's fair."

He added, "you want rides with a smaller foot print, that way you keep the crowd moving."

This is the 12th year for Brass Ring Amusements at the Sonoma-Marin Fair. "Not all fairs are about the biggest profits," he admitted. The Sonoma-Marin Fair fits well into his mid-June routing, and he genuinely likes this stop on the route. "It's a beautiful fairground, and the people working the fair are wonderful," he said. "You would never have known this was her first fair, it was very professionally run."

Another bright spot has been the apparent economic recovery in California. "The economy is better than last year, people are spending more, it's been a good season so far for us," said Mason. 

For her Freshmen Fair, Post remains circumspect as she reviews the 2016 edition of the fair she grew up with and now runs. "I'm still in an assessment mode" she said. "I'm learning the next step. I haven't put the entire process together and I'm looking forward to learning the next step. There are a lot of unknowns."

Immediate changes however, are not a priority. "I look forward to continuing the heritage of the fair, and having a strong fair next year," she said. "There are things we can do better, but they are minor tweaks that we will be making through the next several months." 

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