At the California Mid-Winter Fair, which ran March 2-11 this year, a wide range of attractions include agricultural exhibits, demolition derbies, and a lot of community interaction.
According to fair CEO Allen Phillips, “Because we’re in the desert we like dirt events,” he laughs. “That was a large part of our entertainment this year. We have events that included racing, a Demolition Derby, and Monster Trucks. We also had stock car races and freestyle motocross racing,” he attests. What the fair doesn’t have is a rodeo or horse racing. “Long ago we did a rodeo, but one of our local communities took that over, and we do not want to step on their toes. Instead, we’ve adopted these other events that people enjoy.”
This year marked the 110th for the fair. “At the beginning, we were a district agricultural association. The associations were started by the state of California as a way to showcase all the many agricultural commodities that the state has to offer. Today, we’re still centered around agriculture, but we’ve really expanded to reflect the community spirit, their desires and diversity,” Phillips explains. “We’re one of 58 different agricultural associations in California. There are certain similarities between them, but also a lot of differences, because it all depends on the community in which they’re located.”
Of course, the fair has now stretched beyond its agricultural roots. “We have many carnival rides now. And over the years, I would say we have added more of the thrilling rides, the rides that appeal to the big kids. The Zipper is always very popular, and we had a new ride that we added this year, Star Tower. That was an ultra-high, swing-type ride. It was similar to a ride they used to call the YoYo, but it was very high off the ground.”
The fair started introducing rides as far back as 1949, based on photos that Phillips has found. “We had rides and attractions back then, for sure. A lot of the things they had in those days were more of the side show type of attractions, however, things like the Strongest Man and the Wolf Woman, the types of attractions that P.T. Barnum started with,” he relates.
Today, along with rides, the fair’s livestock program is still a huge component of the event. “We have a variety of competitions in terms of the livestock, including some that involve our 4H participants with different animals. We have competitions such as who has the best steer, that type of thing, and we have various classes within those competitions. Some of them include the showmanship of the kids, adult showmanship, and even VIP showmanship.” Phillips explains that with the latter category, community VIPs are invited to participate and work with the kids for approximately 30 minutes “to get a little education for them. It’s all a lot of fun.” The culmination of all the competitions is an auction. “The kids who do well have the opportunity to auction off the animal they’ve worked with.”
The Mid-Winter Fair also features a range of live musical entertainment. “Music is a big component of the fair,” Phillips says. “We try to have a combination of touring acts, tribute acts, and local acts on our three main stages. We also have grounds entertainment that includes magicians, circus performers, and even hypnotists,” he reports.
And Phillips hasn’t forgotten edible fun, either. “In the food category, we definitely have all the standard carnival fare, especially those items that are the most popular regionally. People are always wanting to come and try new things; that’s part of the fun. But for some reason our staples are curly fries and funnel cakes and those typically out-do anything else.”
This year, Phillips tried something new with his food vendors. “We did something called $2 dollar Tuesdays between 5 and 8 p.m. on Tuesdays. We had all of our food vendors offer a $2 item at that time, whatever the concessionaire wanted to offer. That way people could come and try a lot of different things without breaking the bank. We had a lot of takers for that promotion,” he asserts.
“It was our first year to try that, and I think it went very well. I got the idea from the California State Fair. They did something similar, allowing people to sample many different food items. It’s something the concessionaires will continue in the coming year for us. Maybe it will even get bigger, because it is a draw for people, and ultimately it is about getting people in the gate.”
Phillips says the total average attendance at the fair is in the 100,000 range. In terms of marketing the event, he uses a combination of traditional media and social media. “I come from a tech background, and so because I am familiar with social media, we try to use it as much as possible,” he says. “The cost is good there, and we can do targeted ads, and do some promos for free. We also do billboards, magazines, papers, newspapers, and some TV commercials, too. So, it is really a combination of everything that we do to promote the fair. Honestly, I don’t know if one works more than another,” he says.
Phillips points out that in terms of promotion, the fair is essentially caught in a generation gap. “The elders – we have a lot of snowbirds who come to our area – may not be as tech savvy or it’s just not their thing, and they want to see the newspaper and TV ads for the fair. The younger generations, the Gen X and Gen Y kids, they want to see the information on social media. So,you really have to do a combination of the two right now.”
Phillips wants people to know that despite all the fun that the fair offers in so many different areas, the best thing about it from his perspective, is the fact that “It brings the residents of our valley together as a community. Kids showing livestock develop friendships that can last a lifetime, even if they are from different towns or in rival clubs. I talked with two people who’d met 25 years ago at our fair, and they are still best friends. We have a family who comes to the fair every year, and they pose for a photograph at one of those little black and white photo studios which we have here. They come every year to take a new photo,”he says. “It’s stories like those that are the best. The fair is a way in which our community comes together and celebrates who we are.”