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Tim Fennell, San Diego County Fair CEO Retires After Remarkable 27-Year Run

Long Time San Diego County Fair CEO, Tim Fennell, retires

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After nearly three decades at the helm of the highest attended fair in California, Tim Fennell has announced his retirement.

Appointed CEO of the Del Mar Fairgrounds in 1993, Tim Fennell has helmed the San Diego County Fair, turning it into a block buster event, attracting 1,531,199 fairgoers in 2019, becoming the 6th largest fair in North America last year, according to the annual Top-50 list compiled by Carnival Warehouse.

In addition to the fair, Fennel supervises more than 300 events annually, including the San Diego County Fair, the Del Mar National Horse Show and The Scream Zone. A tireless advocate for fairs, fairgrounds and the San Diego County Fair, during his tenure the state was convinced to reinvest in the Del Mar Facility, which is operated by the 22nd District Agricultural Association. These reinvestments included $280 million in capital improvements, such as building the Grandstand, Wyland Hall Activity Center, and a $5 million-dollar wetlands and habitat restoration project in the San Dieguito Lagoon.

Fennell is not the only one leaving the fair. Due to the COVID-19 pandemic, which cancelled the San Diego County Fair as well as all the other events booked a the Del Mar Fairgrounds, a reported 58 percent of the 157 workers employed by the 22nd DAA will be laid off in November. Carlene Moore, who became Deputy General Manager in 2019, was named Interim CEO.

 “On behalf of the entire board, I would like to recognize Tim for the three decades he has dedicated to the Fairgrounds,” said Richard Valdez, Board President, and 22nd DAA. “We wish him all the very best as he embarks on his much-deserved retirement.”  

Fennell is an East Coast transplant, having grown up in Connecticut, where he started his live event and facility management career. During the late 80s, he was the Northwest Regional Manager for a fortune 500 company responsible for providing food and beverage service to nine major sports, recreational and entertainment facilities throughout the Northwest. He later became the Executive Director of the Portland Memorial Coliseum Complex/Civic Stadium, before taking the helm of the Del Mar Fairgrounds.

Some highlights from his San Diego County Fair include:

  • Produced and implemented a new mission statement with an emphasis on agriculture, education, entertainment, and recreation (1993)

  • Restructured organization, establishing a number of new key management positions such as: Security Director, Box Office Manager, Event Manager, Horsepark Manager and Environmental Planner, resulting in a more secured, controlled, and customer service-oriented facility

  • Expanded annual fair theme beyond an agricultural slogan and into a relevant, fun, marketing tool and attendance driver.
  • Set Annual fair attendance and revenue records.

  • Established a paid parking program, which produced gross revenues of more than $4 million.

  • Established Hispanic Marketing and Outreach Program targeting San Diego County and Tijuana.

  • Grew annual cash sponsorship revenue from $45,000 year-end 1992 to more than $4 million currently. 

This is an impressive litany of accomplishments, making Fennell a consummate manager. Before he starts the next chapter of his life, Fennell agreed to be interviewed by Carnival Warehouse, where during an in-depth discussion, he offered some candid observations about the industry and the fair he has served for nearly three decades.

Carnival Warehouse: What are your retirement plans?

Tim Fennel: I certainly want to consult. I have done consulting off and on over the years. I plan to enjoy life. The greatest asset in life is having a sense of humor. A little sense of humor goes a long way. I want to thank all the people I've had the pleasure of working alongside with all these years. I want to thank all the fair partners, the ride operators, the commercial vendors, everyone. I look at all of them as partners, and I can't thank them enough. It's been a wonderful adventure, and I appreciate all the wonderful people I've worked with.

CW: Anything you won't miss?

TF: I answer to nine board members, all of them appointed by the governor. I have had 65 bosses over the years. I have loved some of them much more than others.


CW: You did not begin your management career in the fair industry. How did you come become CEO of the San Diego County Fair?

TF: I came to a convention in San Diego in 1992, and I went to the convention and to the Del Mar Fairground. It was opening day of the races. I fell in love with the fairgrounds and the area. San Diego is beautiful. When I head they were looking for a CEO, I pursued the position and about six months later, in March of 1993, I was hired.


CW: Was San Diego your first fair?

TF: My first fair was somewhere in Waterbury Connecticut, when I was a boy. My only memory is that it had two Ferris Wheels. They looked like they were a 1,000 feet tall, it scared the living daylights out of me. The next time was in high school, in Saratoga State Park, I was on a date. The barker at one of the games was so aggressive that he turned me off, to be honest.  


CW: How do you feel your management experience helped you with fairground management?

TF: I feel I brought a business sensibility and approach. I brought a can-do attitude and an open mindedness. One of my biggest challenges had been dealing with the state government bureaucracy. What makes us different, and makes most other fairs in California different from fairs throughout the U.S., is that that technically we're a state-owned facility, but we are totally self-funded. We have to adhere to civil mandates and those purchasing requirements can be stringent. It's tough to run a business, but with the mandates it's like swimming the English Channel with one arm tied around your back. If I had any advice to offer it would be directed at legislators, because they don't want to fund these fairs, and they fail to take into account the economic impact of not just the fairs, but the fairgrounds. The San Diego Fair, the annual fair, has a $249 million positive economic impact, but the fairground has over a $650 million impact. We're responsible for tens of thousands of jobs directly and indirectly and huge tax revenues. You have to persuade legislators look at the overall impact.

CW: The San Diego Fair is #6 on the Carnival Warehouse list of top 50 fairs – the largest fair in California (Orange County Fair is # 8) in 2019. Why is the San Diego Fair so popular?

TF: When I got there in 1993, by attendance we were the 13th fair. I'm a big believer that you got to have something for everyone and we do. We have 80 rides, rides for the teenagers, for the young adults, and for the kids. We have entertainment for everyone on eight stages. We have horse racing and you can bet on it. There are more than 100 food opportunities, from healthy food to “fair” food, I'm thinking fried food. And you can come shop until you drop. Look at your market and make everyone in your community comfortable. Our fair is 27 fairs, we have festivals within festivals. We have something for everyone.

CW: A hallmark of San Diego County Fair marketing has been your themes. Did you start theme-based marketing at the fair?

TF: No. But, when I first got here, we had themes like a lettuce theme, a pig theme. What a way to turn on kids and the people living here to come to the fair!  Try to get an inner-city kid excited about a lettuce theme. Let's have a theme, that is exciting, attractive, and then you get all the kids and you can expose a greater population to the educational opportunities at the fair. When we theme our fair, we don't just come up with catch phrases. We have theme throughout the fair, staff uniforms, everywhere. Our survey shows that up to 20 percent of people come just to see what theme will be. Don't just have a slogan.

CW: What makes a good theme?

TF: Tie it to the community, make it interesting, make it new.

CW: Is there a turning point for the fair that you feel pushed it into as one of the top fairs in the U.S.?

TF: When I first came here, it was March and the fair in June already planned, and I saw there was no Hispanic influences at the fair, or even the music. When you are 40 miles North of Mexico, and the population you serve is 45 percent Hispanic, but you're not getting 20 percent of them as your customers, then you have to make a change. I started reaching out to the Hispanic population, and started marketing to them. We also started marketing in Mexico. That was a huge turning point. We expanded our talent buying, exhibits, food & beverage to accommodate these customers.


CW: Why an independent midway?

TF: The independent midway is not for every fair. It is difficult to do if you're not a bigger fair. But if you are big enough, I highly recommend it. You're in control, you can cherry pick different rides and ride operators. When you work with 11 to 12 different operators, instead of one operator, you can get a better piece of the revenue and you have better control over your fair. I've seen fairs that are dictated to by a ride operator, because the fair has given up so much control. It's not for every fair, and it takes more work and you have to have the staff, but you can get 5-to-10 percent more on the revenue split.

CW: What is the biggest challenge to holding a month-long fair?

TF: Well, because our fair starts early in the season, schools are still in session. A lot of school teachers work during our fair and getting good help is a challenge. Another challenge was that some of the neighborhood restaurant associations, complained that when I went from 22 to 24 days that we would be taking2 business away from them.

I worry about the fair because we're losing a lot of key people. We're losing more than half the staff because of the Coronavirus, but even before this summer we lost a lot of higher staff before the layoffs. I lost a talent buyer, a parking lot manager and a person who was doing layouts is no longer involved. We've lost a lot of institutional knowledge and that could be make it difficult moving forward out of this pandemic.

CW: Several California fairs have phased out headline entertainment, yet the San Diego County Fair continues to host big names. How important is ticketed headline entertainment for your grandstand?

TF: Going forward, I don't see it getting any easier. I've always believed in big names, but you have to do your homework. If you have good entertainment, you can sell tickets and you can make money or at least break even. Then there's the ancillary revenue, like food & beverage sales. With Country & Western, you sell a lot of beer. When you get a younger crowd, you look to sell more ride tickets. Quality entertainment is key. Buy wisely, schedule easily.

CW: How optimistic are you about the future of headline entertainment at fairs?

TF: Talent buying is more challenging. You have a gazillion music festivals and they overpay for talent, that drives the prices up. Indian casinos overpay for talent, they make money on the gambling. The price of talent keeps going up. It's more challenging now, but in my opinion, that's why you have to buy wisely.

CW: What has been the biggest change in the fair industry that you have seen in your tenure at San Diego County Fair and one that you had no conception of when you started?

TF: If you're asking me what is my biggest accomplishment, it is that within the first 5 years, I was instrumental in changing the business culture of the fairgrounds. There was an 8:00-5:00 bureaucratic, Monday-to-Friday mindset. We're not Monday Friday, were Sunday to Sunday, 7 days a week, 24 hours day even because we are boarding horses here. We went up from selling our facility for 100 events to 300 events per year. I created a sales team, an event team, hired a fulltime box office manager, and a fulltime head of security. Changing the mindset was the biggest change.
I was told that the county didn't do multiple year sponsorships. The Attorney General first said you can't do it, but then we worked to get the rule changed. We had to get legislation, but I pushed ahead and weathered the anger. I hired a sponsorship coordinator, who was paid on commission, and we created five year sponsorships. We went up from a quarter of a million to well over $4 million in sponsorships.

CW: Is there a secret to making new ideas work?

TF: Hire the best the best people, treat them fair and square, give them cool things and then get of their way. If you have great people, it's a team effort and will be successful.

CW: When the fair comes to town, what do you look forward to the most?

TF: This may sound funny, but I look forward to the Security Bike Team. When I was working at the Portland Coliseum, they were the first facility I knew to have a Bike Team in the parking lot. When I came to Del Mar, we didn't even have a chief of security. I hired the #2 guy from Portland, Michael Murphy, he was our first chief of security. He recommended we bring in a Bike Team, and since 1994 through 2019, we've had a bike team, 99 percent of whom are law enforcement. They're mostly men, mostly well over 200 pounds, but they have the best people skills. I love those guys and gals. They live on the grounds during the fair, they stay-in-the-jockey day and night.

CW: What is your favorite fair food?

TF: We have a lot of great food operators, but if I had to pick one it would be Chicken Charlie, a restaurant in the local area, but they have two or three stands, and have lots of different types of food, some of it is deep fried, but he also has healthy food. I forget what it's called, but he sells a half a pineapple, scooped its guts out and puts all types of fruit inside, and either chicken or shrimp. It's to die for.

CW: What is your favorite ride?

TF: I have a natural fear of heights but I've parachuted. In 2002, we had an Elvis theme and we had the Flying Elvises and I jumped with them.

CW: Did you dress like Elvis?

TF: Yes, of course! I dressed like Elvis.

CW: But that's not really a ride.

TF: I love the Ferris Wheel if I had to pick one.

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