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San Mateo County Fair Builds Increased Attendance and Positive Guest Experiences
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A smattering of chilly days may have suppressed ride revenue at this year’s San Mateo County Fair but the other sectors of this Silicon Valley event all moved in a positive trajectory. Increases in attendance, spending, participation in projects and programming plus a star-filled concert lineup marked what many call the largest annual outdoor community event in California’s Bay Area.

Fair officials have deemed the 2018 San Mateo County Fair event another tremendous success. “We measure our success on many factors, but the number one factor is the fair guest experience,” said Dana Stoehr, Chief Executive Officer for the San Mateo County Event Center and Fair. “Our fair guests had a wonderful time. We could see it in their smiles, we heard it from their comments and they confirmed their satisfaction through our onsite fair survey.”

Attendance Up 9 Percent

Turns out, there were thousands more satisfied fairgoers than last year. Stoehr reported that fair attendance was up nine percent over 2017, with more than 127,000 people attending, an increase of about 9 percent over 2017.

According to Pennie Rorex of Rorex Marketing Solutions and a spokesperson for the fair, while no attendance records were set, records were set in admissions revenue, concessions revenue, and pre-sale revenue. “Fair revenue was up 18 percent,” she said.

Part of this increase can be attributed to a continued economic upswing in the area. “One of the key indicators of favorable economic recovery in our area is the most recent report indicating that the unemployment rate is just 1.9% in San Mateo County,” said Rorex.

While Rorex didn’t specify what segments of the fair saw increased revenue, she did point out that that the midway was not one of them.

The Butler Amusements midway featured 30 rides, including new to the fair the “90’ Super Shot Drop Tower and “returning after several years’ absence were the always-popular bumper cars, “she said. “While pre-sale wristband revenue was up, overall carnival revenue trended downward 7 percent. We attribute the decline to several cold weather nights when temperatures dipped into the 50s.”

“Our guests experienced the fair through all their senses,” said Stoehr. “They tasted the fair’s newest food item, an award-winning Nutella, caramel, bacon-topped funnel cake. They touched the furry baby animals in the petting zoo. They sniffed the aroma of smoking turkey legs on the grills. They watched the chair-stacking Acrobats of Hebei China with wide eyes and listened to really great music on our four stages.”

We Build the Fun

Taglines and marketing themes are key to the San Mateo County Fair brand. Last year, the fair went back to the 60s and celebrated the 50th anniversary of the Summer of Love. This year’s theme was literally more constructive. – “We Build the Fun,” said Rorex. The hard hat became a ubiquitous symbol of this year’s tagline, worn by everyone from the animated pig who posed with a clipboard in front of the Ferris Wheel in the much of the fair’s advertising to fair staff.

“The San Mateo County Fair team were the ‘architects of family fun’,” she continued. “The theme was brought to life throughout the fair including staff and volunteer t-shirts, and signage. Our fair operations manager even wore a hard hat during our media tour.”

The marketing budget was about the same as last year, with online promotions driving the campaign. “The largest percent of our budget was spent on digital marketing,” said Rorex. “San Mateo County is located in the Silicon Valley, a global center for high technology, social media, and more. Thus, our fair guests are digitally oriented.”

The new twist this year was to make social media presence more interactive and immediate by utilizing Facebook Live, creating an ongoing series -- Mackenzie’s Fair Faves – featuring their own fair personality – Mackenzie, an exuberant twenty-something who went to different parts of the fair conducting interviews and offering commentary. The short, app-friendly segments were upbeat, refreshing – an irresistible insight into the fair.

“Mackenzie averaged four live streaming broadcasts daily, highlighting a variety of fair elements each day—from livestock, to food, to exhibits, and more,” said Rorex.

Education & Entertainment

The San Mateo County Fair claims to be the Peninsula’s premier community event for Bay Area family fun and entertainment, providing a diverse experience through education, inspiration and entertainment. According to Rorex, more than 6,000 exhibit entries were received (another increase over 2017). In the Youth Exhibits category alone, more than 1,250 entries were received—the most popular category being color photography. The annual Livestock Auction held on the final Saturday of the fair, generated $178,700 for 4-H and Future Farmers of America members.

Other highlights of the 2018 extravaganza were: AgVentureland and Petting Zoo, with more than 40 animals including miniature goats and donkeys, woolly llamas and furry alpacas. The fair also showcased a replica of the Brazilian Rainforest, a 6,500 sq. ft. exhibit that showcases exotic reptiles, birds, and invertebrates.

In addition, the fair’s Black History Museum highlighted the contributions that African Americans have made to this country. In addition, the fair offered DroneZone, First Robotics and STEAM Competition, that included both a robotics competition and a drone simulator.

Before Northern California became tech capital of the world, the region had a long, literary tradition as the home of many great writers and poets. The San Mateo County fair keeps this tradition alive by hosting a literary competition open to writers of all genres, including bloggers, poets, short story writers, lyric songwriters, and spoken-word artists. The event is the result of a partnership between the San Francisco Peninsula Writers and the San Mateo County Fair. For more than a decade the fair and the San Francisco Peninsula Writers have joined together to highlight the literary arts during the fair’s annual run. The Literary Stage features workshops, panels, author presentations, one-act plays, interviews, and an annual author day book sales and poetry readings. “The result of this collaboration is that our literary arts program has more than doubled over the years,” said Stoehr.
Daily entertainment at the fair included Captain Jack Spareribs, the magician, juggler, ventriloquist pirate, the Chinese Acrobats of Hebei and Pig Races.

The highlight of the fair was its 2018 Concert Series that featured many beloved musical acts including Sheila E, TLC, Sugar Ray and the Average White Band. In addition, the concert series featured Dia de la Feria, featuring multiple Latino artists such as Grupo Anhelo, Los Caminantes, Los Yonics, and Banda Arkangel R-15.

While general admission seats are free with fair admissions, the San Mateo County Fair did a bigger business this year with its reserved, premium seat program. ““Our biggest act was TLC,” said Rorex. “Our Gold Circle (reserved) seats sold out a month before the fair opened. On the day of the show, fair guests started lining up for the remaining 1,500 free seats hours in advance.

To accommodate the anticipated overflow, our fair erected a 16’ video screen at a nearby outdoor venue; everybody got to see the show—either live or via video.”

Booking an effective live music lineup remains a challenge for most fairs, especially those in such competitive markets as northern California. While talent buying conditions may not have improved from last year, Rorex emphasized that the fair’s relationship with its booking company has never been more important. “Selecting entertainment is always a vital and complex part of the fair planning process,” said Rorex. “We value our partnership with our talent buyer who expertly manages our entertainment package.”

Did the 2018 San Mateo County Fair exceed expectations? “There are areas of the fair that exceeded expectations, and areas of the fair that offer growth opportunities,” she said.

But the true measure of success came from the individual fairgoer experience, and Rorex pointed to the fair’s assessment measuring system that indicated a positive outcome for fairgoers. “What we are most proud of is the fair guest experience—our fair guests shared in-person and in our fair time electronic surveys that they value the San Mateo County Fair.”
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