Rodeo Austin Busts Records With New Family Focus
The 2019 Rodeo Austin presented one of the hottest concert lineups in recent memory, a robust 90-ride midway and of course, one of the most anticipated rodeos in the annual circuit. The event has been on upward trajectory in recent years, with an attendance increasing to 285,000, 5 percent up from 2018 and this year’s weather was basically 14 out 15 days being sublime Texas spring-like weather (one day was cold and windy).
But the key to this events success has been a refocusing that didn’t ignore the concert & rodeo fun of the event, but looked at the overall event and the changing demographics of the area. The new path has been making Rodeo Austin an event for the family.
Not that it wasn’t a family friendly event before, but the addition of a plethora of agricultural and other fun, educational, interactive exhibits, family-friendly promotions and an grounds-wide improvement program that include increased amenities such as more rest areas and restrooms has helped broaden the audience for this celebration of Austin’s very funky version of western culture.
“I think our continued increases in attendance, especially our fairground attendance, is because we have become more family oriented,” said Rob Golding, CEO, Rodeo Austin. “Families are bringing in the kids to the fairgrounds to enjoy the day. That definitely has been the trend.”
This family orientation direction came about when stakeholders changed their operational philosophy. “We concluded we’re not in the rodeo business or the carnival business, we’re in the family entertainment,” said Golding. “That meant, we need to make it a fun experience, and make it affordable. These two points were important and we now provide family entertainment opportunities. We also talked up and promoted the fact that 89 cents of every dollar generated goes to support the charitable mission of our nonprofit.”
Added-value programming was key to the new strategy. “The secret sauce for Rodeo Austin is in keeping ticket prices affordable. We have events for families to come to. We are doing more marketing, but everything is directed at trying to increase ticket sales and controlling ticket costs. It does cut into the bottom line, because production costs increase, but the challenge is getting the same return on that investment and that has been offset by the growth in families. Once a family goes through the gate, pays the admission fee, there’s a lot of family entertainment and things to do and see for that family.”
Much of the new programming for 2019 coincided with the charitable mission of the event to promote western tradition and agriculture. “We had multiple events for school aged kids that centered around our western heritage and ag education. We added a lot of agriculture educational content and put in more activities related to western heritage. These were things for families to enjoy.”
According to Golding, other specific family-friendly changes were a result of “listening to our patrons. We added a significant number of new restrooms, shade tents and hand washing stations throughout the fairgrounds. We improved our parking and we are turning over the parking lot four or five times during the course of each day. We wanted to make coming to the fairgrounds a pleasant consumer experience, and the changes were very well received.”
In addition, the fair modified programming and marketing to better address research indicating the changing demographics of the area “We diversified our marketing and programing diversity to reflect the diversity of Austin. For example, we had a Hispanic Heritage day, throughout the fairgrounds, with music on our outdoor and indoor stages and other events. We set an attendance record that day.”
Golding said there were several other record days set, including a sold out show opening day with Aaron Watson on the rodeo ticket. Other sell Outs or near-sell outs were Ronnie Milsap, Josh Turner, Midland, and the Randy Rogers Band. He added that the ticket sales for the rodeo and concert shows also set a record at $2.9 million.
“The booking climate, pricing of entertainment and the business itself has changed,” said Golding. “In Austin, we face a lot of competition. It wasn’t easier this year, but it wasn’t any harder than it has been.”
The midway was provided by Crabtree Amusements and featured 90 rides, and a larger overall footprint. Golding had the midway moved closer to the entrance to ease the expansion. “We wanted to make the midway front and center. We relocated a few rides, and put the major attractions like the Ferris Wheel and Merry-go-round right inside the front gate, which are huge and iconic and very family friendly. We changed the layout to make more room in the midway, which made room for more rides, but also better use of the rides with better flow and more options.”
Crabtree Amusements made other changes to the midway, including more rest areas for patrons, with the cumulative result of making a visual impact for fairgoers. “We freshened up the midway. We wanted people to see a different midway..”
In other words, the midway changes enhanced the “wow factor” of the fairgrounds. Golding said several new rides had their debut at the 2019 Rodeo Austin, with the most popular being “the Monkey Maze, which is not a ride per-say, but a walkthrough entertainment.”
It was the second year for a cashless midway at Rodeo Austin. “The response was much better this year, people were more used to it, and really makes the midway more family friendly and accessible.”
Diversifying Program & Marketing
Golding would not disclose the advertising budget for this year’s event, although it was relatively unchanged from previous year. Reflecting the distinctive music and arts culture of Austin in the Texas landscape, Rodeo Austin revived its perennial tagline –Where Weird Meets Western – with the major changes to this year’s marketing was an increase in social media-based discount promotions and a more extensive outreach to the Hispanic market.
“What changed in our marketing this year was a real focus on communicating with perspective attendees through social media. We executed flash sales, discounts, and bounce back coupons. The area is growing and we were intensely aware of bringing new families to the fairgrounds.”
Spending on targeting and reaching the Hispanic market increased by 5 percent, an obvious direction given the expansion of the Hispanic programming within the event. “We spent a lot of time marketing to the Spanish segment this year, developing materials and social media specifically geared towards them.”
He added, “we stayed pretty constant with our traditional media – print, radio, TV, etc. – spending. We increased our digital marketing, which now represents about 20 percent overall. A lot of the digital media channels are new for rodeo but it is growing. Digital advertising helped overall with the carnival attendance.”
The Rodeo Austin fairgrounds featured 70 food vendors, with recording spending on F&B, up about 10 percent compared to 2018. The newest addition were Food Trucks – “Food Truck culture is big in Austin, and we had about 20 to 30 this year, some only booked four or five days out of the run. We had food trucks selling everting from barbecue to gelato, which was new and very popular.”
Austin-centric cuisine proved to be the favored fare at the fair, including Rappalo’s Pizza and the Texas Chili Queens. “Spending was up dramatically for all our food vendors.”
Golding also noted that the Austin economy has also experienced a noticeable turnaround. “The economy was our best friend this year, people are more upbeat.”
An improved local business climate combined with a deliberate redirection of making the event more family focused was a winning strategy 2019. “We exceeded our budgeted revenues. All our revenues were up, the bottom line was very healthy. Rodeo Austin met our expectations. If we are not moving forward, we’re backing up, and we’re not backing up.”