The Big Fresno Fair has been on a roll. For only the second time in its 133-year history the fair broke the 600,000 mark for this 12-day event.
When was the first time the milestone was reached?
"We had a fantastic fair," said Lauri King, Deputy Manager, Big Fresno Fair. "We were just barely short of a record breaking year. It couldn't have gone better, we had beautiful weather, and a lot of attractions for fairgoers to enjoy.
The 2016 Big Fresno Fair reached 605,870; last year was the first year the 600,000 marker had been crossed with 608,269 people. The difference between the two attendance figures might be reasonably described as statistically measurable but essentially insignificant. King points out there was a mere 0.39 percent
difference from last year's attendance total.
"It was less than half a percent difference than last year, so that is really the same or equal to last year, which was a record year," said King. "At the end of the day, that's less than 1000 people."
Slight is probably too strong an adjective to qualify such a mild dip. What was evident however is that people who came spent more on food than last year - a 9.3 percent increase in food spending for the 83 Food Vendors at the 2016 Big Fresno Fair - overall food revenue hit $6,729,722. Overall revenue was up at the fair, according to King, which can be attributed to an improving economy, a more concerted effort to reach the young family demographic, and new marketing programs.
"I think people do have more disposable income this year," she said. "People also tend to stay closer to home, and taking their mini-vacation at the fair is one way to make the most of their budget. We give them good value, but I think the spending shows. Many families chose to stay local for their entertainment and The Big Fresno Fair provides a family-friendly and affordable option to do so. The economic times are getting better in this area compared to last year."
She added, that "fair food is one of the biggest attractions to the fair, people come here eat their way through the fair."
The fair featured 83 food vendors and King noted the biggest selling vendors were: Fabe's Churros & Gelato (Mint Milkshakes with Mug, Coffee Milkshake, S'more Milkshake, Nutella Milkshake, Alcohol Gelato, Churro Dog, Churro Gelato and Energy Drink Gelato Float); Country Fair Cinnamon Rolls ( Cinnamon Rolls with Variety of Toppings and the Cinnamon Rolls Sundae) Chicken Charlie's (Deep-Fried Bacon-Wrapped Guacamole, Deep-Fried Bacon S'more and Chicken in the Waffle On Stick) and Big Bubba's Bad BBQ (Tri-Tip Sandwiches, BBQ Beef Sandwiches, Dinner Plates, Kids Meal, Pork Rib, Turkey Legs and Kabobs).
While healthier options have been available at the fair for a few seasons now, unlike some California fairs, the Big Fresno Fair Fairgoer goes off his diet. "It's the one time of the year that people can indulge and so they do. They load on the calories for one day."
Typical fair cuisine items have their followings, but everything bacon seems to have had its day and this year King noticed a preference for desert type items. "People seemed really to go for the sweet treats this year, things like three story milkshakes and a lot of different ice creams. The donut hamburgers and the chicken and waffles sold well, but it seemed this year's trend was that more people were interested in dessert."
The 600,000 mark was also sustained by the fair's outreach to young families. Gen X/Y moms and dads and offspring were catered to in a variety of ways, including attractions, enhanced amenities and craft beer. The Table Mountain Rancheria Park is a prime example; this complex includes a newly renovated Meyers Water & Wildlife Tree, an interactive exhibit on the water system of the Central Valley, Cloud Tank, which has been used for aerial shots and underwater effects more than 300 movies; Reptile House, the Big Fresno Fair Farmer's Market, Dairyville USA, Cow Palace Milking Barn, Miner's Town -a two-story rock mountain, complete with mine shafts, coal mining carts, a Wild West saloon facade and an old fashioned water wheel, and Catfish Falls, which connects to the Meyers Water & Wildlife Tree via a bridge and features an impressive two-story waterfall, a "catch and release" fishing hole where you can catch real fish with barbless hooks. "It's much like Disney's Swiss Family Robinson," said King. "It's essentially a giant jungle gym for the children and the whole families."
To hit the sweet spot when it comes to this family demographic, the key is to be interactive, hands-on, and designed for the whole family - with the youngsters being at that the center of attention. But families need a place to eat after playtime, so the Big Fresno Fair increased its seating and shaded areas in 2016. "We added over 50 picnic tables, and shaded areas, which give people time to take a little breather. We created a new craft beer area, with more picnic tables and market umbrellas, which serves only beers made in California. Craft beer is a huge market, and the demographic is for younger fairgoers and younger families, we are providing an avenue for that demographic to come to the fair."
What is different about creating attractions for 21st century families? "You have to incorporate technology," she said. "Everyone is going in different directions, and they use technology, so you have to capture them by first incorporating what is familiar."
Big Times Are Back
The fair's marketing theme was two-fold - it's traditional tagline - Big Times Are Back was augmented with the 2016 theme of Home Grown Happiness . "We had all the things that are grown in the Central Valley, with different pictures of corn dogs, rides, all things associated with going to our fair."
This campaign, resplendent with fun and nostalgia, was supported by an advertising budget of $263,565. Media placement for 2016 was: 17 percent print; 21 percent radio; 46 percent television 16 percent online. "The biggest change in our media mix was an increase in digital, including Facebook that performs very well for us," said King.
The Big Fresno Fair Facebook page has more than 61,700 fans, Twitter has more than 9,600 followers and Instagram with 9,100 followers (The fair has also added Pinterest and Snapchat).
Another factor pumping up attendance has been a mostly effective entertainment lineup. The fair remains committed to live entertainment, featuring ticketed-acts for all 12 (plus two weekend matinee shows) nights of the fair. "Having some big name entertainment is part of our identity," said King. "The entertainment adds energy to the show you can't get anywhere else."
She added that the concerts were part of the most effective social media contest the fair conducts, Text-To-Win Front Row Concert ticket.
The Table Mountain Concert Series is the fair's paid ticket entertainment. The best draws were Gabriel Iglesias, who sold out for the 4th year, Cole Swindell on Opening Night and Banda MS. Other acts include The Cult , Marie Osmond, MercyMe, Three Dog Night - Blood, Sweat & Tears With Bo Bice!, The Offspring, and FloRida - the two matinees for the "teenybopper audience" were Olivia Holt and Daya.
"We try to hit every genre - country, classic rock, Comedians and a Christian Night," she said. "This was the first time one of Hispanic concerts [Banda MS] sold out, which we are very exited about. They did an amazing show."
The fair faces increased competition from a proliferation of other venues, including casinos, driving up costs in this hot California market. King said they average between three and five sellouts per fair-making 2016 on the low side of that metric - but overall, headline entertainment is a profitable, if costly draw. "We are probably spending between 8 and 10 percent more and I am not anticipating that it will not increase again. Some of the prices people are asking are getting a little staggering."
The strategy for the fair is creative booking, which means booking an eclectic array of entertainers, but choosing acts that are not typical fair acts, such as The Offspring. King emphasizes that the fair looks to a variety of sources for booking, often working with different tours to get the routing advantage.
"Sometimes you can get an act that is playing San Francisco, and we can get them for the next night," she explained. "You do not always want acts that are usual fair shows. They draw a different crowd to the fair. We are getting more creative in deals, with different sliding scales based on ticket sales. You pay what you are walling to pay them or what they are asking for, you take the gamble and hopefully it pays off."
Butler Amusements provided the 53 carnival rides at the 2016 Big Fresno Fair midway, which included two new midway rides: Inversion, and Quasar. According to King, the most popular rides were the White Water Flume Ride, Giant Wheel, Ex-Scream Machine Coaster, Inversion and Pole Position Coaster.
While many California fairs have not used a Flume Ride due to water restrictions caused by the ongoing drought in the Golden State, which admittedly is not as severe as last year. The Flume Ride-as well the water used in the Table Mountain Rancheria Park - are only in use "for the 12 days of the fair, and is more than off-set by our water use policies," she said.
In fact, water usage has been reduced by 20 percent due to these measures, which included a "dry" Livestock Show, Drought Resistant Landscaping - three grassy hills replaced drought resistance landscaping, and the removal of more than 25,000 sq. ft. of grass from the Kiddie Land Carnival area - and half the lawn in the front of the Administration building - which were replaced with decomposed granite and concrete.
"The waterfall and Flume ride only operate during the fair, and we cut back in so many areas that we are able to have them at the fair," said King. "The drought is still significant but not quite as rigorous as last year. It also our obligation to educate people about the drought and we continued to that at the fair."
Other new attractions for the 2016 Big Fresno Fair included camel rides, Discover the Bayou, Extreme Creature Feature and GASCAR Crazy Animal Races. Like the new marketing, more catering to younger families and an improving economy, these new attractions helped sustain attendance so the 600,000 mark could be hit two years in a row.
For King, her favorite aspect of the fair was nine days of Live Horse Racing at the Brian I. Tatarian Grandstand. "I love to see the horses, and the feel, touch, smell and the heart-pounding action and of course you can strike it rich," she said.
The Live Horse Racing makes the fair unique, and she pointed out that while the following for horse racing "is not growing and there are fewer horses in the Central Valley than they used to be," the appeal is that the loyalty of the local fan base has endeared to her this Fresno tradition.
"The love of horses and the horse racing here is unlike anywhere else," said King. "The support from the community is tremendous, it is really unbelievable, there's nothing like it anywhere."