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Fairgoers Find Time for Fun at California's OC Fair
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Time For Fun!  was the marketing tagline for the OC Fair. Rarely does promotional copy so acutely capture the attitude of the public while epitomizing the essence of what a fair provides.

The pandemic shutdown nearly all fairs and other outdoor events in California, and while the state reopened fully by June 15, many fairs still cancelled in 2021.  The OC Fair, which opened July 16 and ran through August 15, was the first major, full-fair in the Golden State since 2019 and the marketing theme struck a resounding chord.

“1,055,770 people attended the OC Fair,” said Michele Richards, CEO, OC Fair & Event Center. “We are very happy that so many fairgoers chose to attend the OC Fair and attendance numbers will no longer be a goal we are chasing. We produced a safe, enjoyable and profitable Fair and our customers had great experiences. Attendance was lower than in 2019 and that was both expected and perfectly acceptable.”

Fairgoers agreed. An OC Fair guest survey recorded an overall enjoyment rating of 4.2 out of 5. Other indicators also showed that fairgoers valued their fun. “Spending in all major revenue areas (concessions, carnival, parking, admissions, etc.) was up from 2019,” she said. “We had a goal to produce a profitable fair and we will meet that goal.”

Midway Fun

“People were happy to be outside, they were happy to be at the fair,” said Chris Lopez, Vice President, Ray Cammack Shows (RCS).  “They were riding, and they just wanted to stay longer. My guest services people said they received lots of complimentary remarks. They were grateful to have some sort of normal back in their lives.”

The RCS midway had a smaller footprint than pre-pandemic Orange County fairs, the result of the labor shortage (the company received its requested H-2B workers, but like other carnivals American workers from full timers to local temps are in short supply) as well as a new ride layout that allowed for more social distancing.  According to Lopez, in 2019 RCS featured 68 rides and 57 games – 2021 had 59 rides and 49 games.  

Despite the shrinkage, the midway showcased five new rides – Moonraker, Windsurf, Liberty Wheel, New York New York and Winky the Whale --  although, their debut was delayed a year.  Top grossing rides for the 2021 OC Fair were Skyride, La Grande Wheel XL, Euroslide, Rave Wave and Titan.

The midway was so far the largest for RCS in 2021 – a story all too familiar among carnival companies – with their route disrupted by cancelled and/or highly truncated fairs, up until the OC Fair, the company jerry-rigged a make-shift route of shopping center parking lots and other still dates.  Attendance was robust at these events, with customers enthusiastic and spending.

But nothing compares to an actual midway at one of California's premier outdoor events. “It was a birthday every day. Every day was a special day for us at RCS. Just to be back at the OC Fair and seeing familiar faces again. We were truly grateful to be up and running.”

Anything else different about the demographics in 2021compared to the pre-pandemic fairs?

“I saw more families this year, “ said Lopez. “They were utilizing our guest accommodations, the shaded areas for sitting or eating that we have set up. Those were used more I noticed because they were staying longer.  I also noticed more customers coming back this year, going to the fair more than once.”

New Marketing Normal

Another difference from pre-pandemic fairs was promotions. OC Fair marketing usually included a plethora of price promotions and other discounts, most of which were entirely eschewed in the pandemic era.

 “We didn't have those promotions and we were still meeting capacity,” said Lopez.  “I think we all we reevaluating if those price promotions are helping, if not even hindering, the fairs.”

Discounts and other more sensationalistic marketing efforts seem uncalled for given the global crisis with which all communities  still commute. The clarion call of Time For Fun! may have been the focal theme, but the marketing needed to include information about the new ticketing system (only advanced ticket sales and daily ticket sales at 75 percent capacity were permitted) and other restrictions.  

“We held fewer in-person events and limited promotional opportunities with partners,” said Richards. “There was a lot of effort spent educating the public about advance ticket sales and limited capacity.”

According to Richards, the marketing budget was reduced by 50 percent compared to 2019. “Zero was spent on print and less than 1 percent on radio with the rest evenly split between digital and TV,” she said. The fair's social media was entirely overhauled, focusing more on information and engagement than deals and giveaways.

 “We increased the amount of customer service done in real time – and it was already a big load,” she said. “A lot of effort was spent educating people on advance ticket sales and limited capacity and answering their questions through social media.”

The fair rolled over eight headliners and nine tribute acts were rolled over for the 2021 lineup, which had  20 concert sellouts at The Hangar and nine sold-out shows in Pacific Amphitheatre.

Bounty of Our Counties

Agriculture also underwent a makeover with the newest exhibit – The California Fresh Exhibit: Celebrating the Bounty of Our Counties – which was created by OC Fair staff and is aimed at educating consumers and highlighting the state's diverse specialty crops. “It did not replace other programs, but added to the OC Fair's efforts to educate the community about agriculture,” she added.

The fair featured 80 food stands, which, according to Richards, included introducing several new twists on fair cuisine, such as “a buffalo chicken waffle cone, banana cream funnel cake, watermelon taco with Tajin and chicken lumpia topped with ice cream.”

One of the nation's longest fairs, the 2021 OC Fair not only proved that California fairs are back in action, but that even under extraordinary pressure and circumstances, fair staff and stakeholders can ensure that the show not only must go on, but will.  California events were in a state of uncertainly until the June 15 announcement.  The OC Fair didn't get the green light until April 22nd, nary three months before opening.

“There were many versions of 2021 OC Fair plans, budgets and health and safety protocols developed prior to the Fair Board voting on dates in April,” said Richards.  “There was a lot of work that went into executing this year's OC Fair under changing circumstances; it was a challenging endeavor that was done in a shortened time frame during a pandemic.  Amid an ever-changing environment, the team did a very thorough job of planning and training to prepare staff and partners for a safe OC Fair.”

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