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San Mateo County Fair Adjusts & Pivots to Attendance Upticks & Record Midway Grosses
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The San Mateo County Fair went into 2022 with a reasonable but not overly optimistic forecast. Running in 2021, the San Mateo was one of a few  California Fairs to get the green light – and the only Bay Area County Fair – and the fair benefitted from an outbreak of the only game in town syndrome – few other entertainment venues of any kind were opened at all last year and the community was ready to shake off the lockdown shackles.

But in 2022, the scenario had changed. Would the fair be able to compete within a fully operational entertainment milieu amid a cascade of new normal impediments including labor shortages, increasing inflation, soaring food costs and supply-chain disruptions?

As Successful

 “The 2022 County Fair was surprisingly as successful as the 2021 Fair,” said Justin Aquino, Fair Manager, San Mateo County Fair. “The 2021 Fair was very successful compared to pre-pandemic fairs but we came to an understanding that various factors led to this 2021 success. We were the only Bay Area county fair to be held during the summer of 2021. We were the first mega event to reopen in the Bay Area.”

The 2021 event, which opened with capacity restrictions, full-masking and other protocols in place, attracted 85,000, on par with previous years, but also reason not to remove much caution from the optimism.  “We understood that these same factors wouldn't happen again so we thought we were being realistic in what our 2022 Fair numbers would be but we were wrong and in this case being wrong was just fine.”

Aquino could think of at least 15,000 reasons why he was happy to be wrong about his 2022 forecast. This year, “We were over 100,000 paid attendees,” he said, pointing out that this year beat not only the downscaled 2021 version but pre-pandemic events as well. “We were up in paid attendees from 2021 and 2019. It was remarkable seeing the support from our community again.”

The 2022 San Mateo County Fair is a prime example of coming back full throttle in a crowded entertainment landscape by emphasizing a return to its community-centric strengths with  diverse entertainment and promotional days encompassing more populations that make up San Mateo County that included Gloria Gaynor, The Commodores, Sugar Hills Gang and regional favorites  the San Francisco Gay/Lesbian Freedom Band, which highlighted the special Family Pride Day, Los Yonics, who headlined Dia De Feria – and Sammy J, a “hot” Australian/Maori reggae for the first-ever – “Pacific Islands Day.”

In addition, the fair commemorated a segment of the agriculture industry many fairs overlook with its new  Farmworker Heroes Appreciation Day, featuring special concerts with original music by Abel Sanchez & the Prophets honoring the legacy of Cesar Chavez and the United Farm Workers Union as well as a Farmworker Heroes Exhibit with premier screenings of the new documentary, A Song for Cesar.

If the secret is knowing your mission and your market, it was a secret the 2022 San Mateo County Fair successfully implemented with the interactive and animatronic: From Expedition: Dinosaur to its 31-ride midway by Butler Amusements who debuted a new Century Wheel and Scorpion.

2022 vs 2021

But the San Mateo County Fair also offers a unique example of the long term benefit of an actual fair within pandemic conditions as opposed to holding a truncated fair with drive-thru and online components. Most California fairs selected to go the latter route, but San Mateo went with the former. What was the effect of having a 2021 fair on the 2022 fair? “The best positive we could have ever had,” said Aquino. “Hosting a 2021 event was filled with risks. We did not know what to expect. Health and Safety guidelines were changing by the day. We were coming from a period of time that we weren't able to accrue revenue from our largest pre-pandemic stream which is year-round events. But we learned how to adapt and pivot if necessary."

Hosting a 2021 fair ensured that we would be open for 2022. Planning the 2021 fair was much more difficult than 2022 as the 2022 fair was intended to always be at full capacity with an understanding that our experience planning and hosting a 2021 fair would make it easier if we pivot and adjust.”

A major component of this learning process was implementing new crowd control and other procedures due to the global crisis while keeping the team focused on the fair's annual objective – exceeding fairgoer expectations. “The health and safety guidelines required gave us a greater perspective of what we needed to do to provide a safe and joyous experience for our guests which allowed them to stay longer and spend more money,” she said. “It really helped us determine what was really needed to have an amazing fair experience.”

“In 2021, the fair was a modified event, customers pre-purchased admission for specific sessions and attendance caps were enforced due to the pandemic,” said Andrea Stillwell, Director, Butler Amusements. “The fair also was dark on Monday. The 2022 fair did not have attendance caps, was still dark on Monday and we were able to safely host crowds similar to the pre pandemic Fairs.”

Innovative & Traditional

The fair's marketing tagline “Where Tradition Meets Innovation” drew attention to another new community-centric county fair program – The Department of Innovation, which included a Makers and DIY Workshop and Hands-On STEAM Activities.

According to Aquino, the fair's advertising budget was higher than 2021 but lower than 2019. The ‘pivot and adjust' ethos Aquino espoused in navigating the often perilous pandemic waters was no more apparent than the reformatting of the fair's marketing. “We put in a lot of work in revamping our social media presence during the pandemic and for the 2021 fair when we had to budget less on traditional/inorganic means of marketing such as television, print, radio, etc.,” he explained. “Our organic success in 2021 helped us emphasis the importance of continuing the enhancement of our social media presence onto 2022.”

One lockdown-era workplace change – the remote office is also being reevaluated. “Most interesting was that our social media coordinator during the 2021 fair was working from home,” he said. “Work from home during a live event pre-pandemic would have been considered event blasphemy. But the pandemic gave us an opportunity to make work from home possible if being live wasn't an option and though we were still very successful in our social media communication in 2021, it was much better in 2022 because our social media coordinator was in person.”

Butler Amusements Midway

The Butler Amusements Midway featured 31 rides, about the same as the downsized 2021 event, but proving that the popularity of amusement rides is evergreen, the midway achieved consecutive revenue records. “Butler did set a ride gross record for the San Mateo County Fair in 2021 and then broke that record in 2022,” said Stillwell, who added that top grossing rides included Giant Gondola Wheel, Extreme Scream Machine Roller Coaster, and Wacky Worm Coaster.

“We are still seeing some of the post COVID restriction boost in attendance and spending but not quite the same levels as 2021,” she said. “[San Mateo County Fair] grosses were still up compared to 2019 and 2021.”Our hope is that COVID restrictions on outdoor events do not make a return. We are still struggling with an employee shortage as many carnival companies are.   With that said, we are optimistic regarding the balance of the season as we are confident customers will continue to see the value in attending local fairs & festivals over traveling long distances.”

It seems that fairs such as the San Mateo County Fair, who know their mission and their market, seem to be the best able to convince their communities of the value of a community fair. “They had a definitive action plan in 2021 despite all of the new COVID restrictions and were able to successfully implement and utilize an online reservation system. They have their fingers on the pulse of their customers and regularly create an event tailored to their community needs. We are very grateful to have such an innovative partnership.”

She added, “We believe that Dana Stoehr (CEO) and her excellent management team at the San Mateo County Fair are the main contributing factors in Butler's continuing trend in breaking carnival ride gross records two consecutive years in a row.”
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