With a wide range of eclectic events and exhibitions, the Sonoma-Marin Fair offers something for everyone. The annual June fair is located in Petaluma, Calif., and ran the 20th to the 24th this year, packed with activities.
According to fair CEO Allison Keaney, the most popular event is the Ugly Dog Competition. This year marked the 30th anniversary for the competition. “That is our biggest event during the fair,” she laughs. “We are known nationally for that contest, and we had 14 entrants this year. The top prize winner gets to go to New York and appear on the Today Show. It’s a wonderful way we try to focus on advocacy and adoption for animals that aren't always the cuter ones, but still need and deserve loving home. We have 3 judges, a local celebrity, someone from ABC, and someone from NBC, all on the judging panel. Our pet runs alongside that, with vendors and advocacy groups set up to encourage adoption and provide information for families.”
And the Ugly Dog isn’t the only popular event. “We also have a popular Farmers Day event, during which we held a variety of farm related activities, had a stick horse race for little kids, a hay-bale-tossing contest, obstacle course, horse agility event, and boot scramble.” Also exciting for fair visitors are the Sunday Sprint Car Races, held on a dirt track.
Another strong draw: the pre-fair wine and beer competitions. “We have two North of Gate wine competitions, professional and amateur, and our Shades of IPA beer competition before the fair. The winning wines are poured in our wine garden during our events and at Taste of the North Gate.” The Taste event is a ticketed entrance, for $20 Taste of the North Gate attendees can try foods from local restaurants and receive a wine glass to take home after tasting the winning wines.
And popular foods?
“Taste of North Gate celebrates our district as being a huge part of the dairy industry, so we sample a lot of cheese at that event, as well as tomato bisque, crostinis, and chocolates,” Keaney relates. “Throughout the fair, we try hard to make sure we have a good breadth of food vendors. We have funnel cakes and corn dogs, which do well of course, but what’s amazingly popular are fried vegetables, such as deep fried zucchini and mushrooms. Our Chinese food vendor and Hero sandwiches vendor are also very popular.”
As to the most popular ride at the fair, Keaney goes with a classic. “Everyone always rides the Ferris Wheel,” she says. Midway of Fun was the carnival ride vendor.
“We like to do something new and different every year. As a fair manager we try to balance things patrons love and are endearing, with finding something new, fun, and delightful they can enjoy. This year we played with some location changes that worked well, we moved our petting zoo and agriculture exhibits to the livestock and barn area, and it pulled our patrons into the barn area to see the animals.” The reason? “There tends to be a line of division, there’s livestock and everything else, our grounds are narrow and long, so not everyone makes it back to barn.” Keaney also changed up the entrance gates. “We had two near the front of grounds and one in the middle versus two in the middle and one in front, and that was helpful to spread out the crowd. In the coming year, we are looking for fun ways for the public to celebrate our 80th anniversary next year,” she attests.
There were a variety of new activities in this this year’s iteration. “This year, Kids Day partnered with local North Bay science organizations, putting on exploratory activities for students. At the fair, the local high school robotics team brought their robots to interact with fair visitors; the forestry service came to speak on forest health, and the science behind trees. “We had an instant ice cream demonstration, an astronomer brought his telescope, and a local amateur radio organization demonstrated how radios work and can be made at home.” Special event days aside, the fair also brought in an exciting new butterfly exhibit. “It drew people into our commercial space, we had 1000 butterflies in an enclosure inside the building. Guests could walk in and receive an orientation about how to interact with butterflies. They were given a wand with nectar, to hold as they walked through the habitat.”
The fair began in the 1850s built on horse racing, as were many California fairs. “There was a lot of horse racing into the early 1900’s, but that became less popular so by the 30s, when our permanent fairgrounds were established where they are now. That was when the Fourth District Agricultural Organization was founded. It’s not a county fair, it’s a district fair,” Keaney explains. “The mission of the modern fair in the last 80 years has been as a community-gathering place and to advance agriculture for the area. We also are on the site of one of the first air mail carrier spots in the state.”
Gate pricing this year was $18 for adults, $12 for kids under 12 and seniors, with children under 4 always free. The fair held special promotional days including Kids Day, when all admissions were $12, Heroes Day for first responders offered tickets at $15, and Senior Day provided senior admissions for just $6. Pay one ticket pricing included all events, concerts, and all carnival rides, making it a terrific bargain for families. Only the Sprint Car Racing, priced at $10, and the Taste event at $20 required additional ticketing.
To market the fair, Keaney relies on social media, particularly Facebook. “it has s been very successful for us especially this year, because we used some intentional scheduling and analytics, and we identified how successful it was. We are on Twitter as well, but not very actively, and used Instagram also. Our demographic for this fair was the Facebook audience,” she reports. The fair’s website, radio, and print media were also used to promote this year’s event.
Attendance was flat, but Keaney terms the fair “successful but still pleasant.
We have great main stage entertainment, and we fill concert lawns very well. Weather plays a huge part, so when we have really hot days, some folks stay away.”
Speaking of music, the big draws this year were Smashmouth, En Vogue, Clay Walker, and 38 Special. “We like to have something different each night, country R&B, pop, that way we can serve our entire community.” Local entertainment from bands to dancers performed at secondary stages; all entertainment was free. “We are waiting with bated breath to see what acts we will have for our 80th anniversary next year,” Keaney adds.