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Hold on tighter – Fairs expect smooth ride but smaller budgets

By   /   Sunday, March 15th, 2009  /   Comments Off on Hold on tighter – Fairs expect smooth ride but smaller budgets

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While many organizations are revising their business strategies as they feel the financial pinch get tighter, county fairs have adopted a no-sweat attitude, opting to stick with a tried-and-true business plan: family entertainment at affordable rates.

“We’re doing the same kinds of things this year as we have done in previous years: cutting costs and putting an emphasis on the great deals fairgoers can expect,” said Scott Grieve, chief executive officer of the Earl Warren Showgrounds, where the Santa Barbara Fair and Expo will be held next month.

Grieve said fair executives across the Tri-Counties are re-examining budget allocations and their sources of income, which include percentages from vendors, event planners who rent the showgrounds and the companies that supply carnival rides.

Admission is one of the larger streams of revenue for fair organizers. At a recent meeting, the Ventura County Fair’s planning committee discussed increasing gate fees by $1 for 2009, while Grieve said the Santa Barbara Fair will be charging the same rate they have since he was brought on board.

“Our admission fees – $3 for children and $6 for adults – are the lowest you’ll find at any fair,” Grieve said. “We had considered increasing it, but eventually decided to keep it where it is, which is a reasonable price. The school of thought is that instead of taking a vacation or going to Disneyland, many local families will have a ‘stay-cation’ arrangement.”

Santa Barbara Fair publicist Angela Miller-Bevan thinks the popularity of the “stay-cation” concept – taking a vacation without traveling – will give tri-county fairs an attendance boost this year.

She said people “are looking for ways to entertain their families close to home, and the fair is a perfect way to accomplish that,” she said. “Community members can be entertained and they don’t have to go very far; it’s right here in their own backyard. What we are hoping to hammer home are the discounted prices visitors can get when they purchase tickets in advance. It’s really a deal.”

Incentives like discounted tickets are just another way organizers are getting people through the gates.

Ventura County Fair CEO Barbara Quaid said this year’s advertising strategy would not be much different from last year’s, in which the Internet, radio and TV advertising, fliers and direct mail were used in the marketing strategy.

Grieve said publicity can be a little tricky, “as we have to be very judicious with our budget right now. We’re trimming down on spending in every way we can.”

Grieve said this is true for most area fairs. Despite being administered by the Department of Food and Agriculture’s Division of Fairs and Expositions, fairs don’t receive tax money.

“Only funds raised by the fair support the activities, pay the bills and maintain the buildings and grounds,” Quaid said.

Despite the beginning of a sluggish economy, both the Ventura County Fair and the California Mid-State Fair in Paso Robles experienced attendance increases in 2008.

Quaid said the Ventura County Fair attendance total was up 3.7 percent in 2008, setting an attendance record for the second year in a row. Mid-State Fair attendance increased almost one percent.

Mid-State Fair CEO Vivian Robertson also said the number of concert tickets sold jumped more than 10 percent in 2008, and revenue from concession stands was up almost 12 percent.

“I feel very blessed to see the strong numbers,” Robertson wrote on the fair’s Web site. “We experienced favorable weather – especially at night – entertainment was awesome, incidents were down and I really appreciate the responsible, well-mannered crowds.”

Quaid and Grieve agreed that weather can be have a huge factor on fair attendance.

“Sometimes it gets up to 100-plus degrees in some of the nearby communities,” Quaid said. “When it gets hot, people hop on the train and come to the Ventura County Fair.”

“Two years ago, we had our biggest and most profitable year yet,” Grieve said. “We had great weather that year, so a lot of people came out. Last year it got pretty hot and attendance dropped a bit. It was still a good year, just not great like it was the year before. This year looks pretty good.”

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