August 13, 2022
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Summer fairs and festivals plan their post-pandemic comeback

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Santa Barbara’s Fiesta parade in 2019. (courtesy photo)

Large-scale fairs and festivals will return this summer across the Tri-Counties, after two years of cancellations and restrictions due to the COVID-19 pandemic.

Tourism experts and event organizers are bracing for a return of travelers from near and far, creating an economic ripple effect when visitors spend in the region. Among the events returning to full capacity and normal operations in 2022 are Old Spanish Days Fiesta in Santa Barbara, the Ventura County Fair in Ventura and the California Mid-State Fair in Paso Robles.

“There’s a lot we bring,” said Colleen Bojorquez, CEO of the Mid-State Fair. “It’s more than just the money coming in, but the sense of pride for your local community and being able to provide entertainment, fun and a place to showcase your baked goods, photography and see people you haven’t seen for a long time.”

Bojorquez said the most recent data available shows the Paso Robles Event Center, including the California Mid-State Fair in Paso Robles, generated about $79 million in spending impact in 2015. The Mid-State Fair also employs more than 630 people, she said.

California’s network of fairs in 2015 generated about $4 billion in economic activity, benefiting local and state economies, according to an economic impact study by the state Department of Food and Agriculture’s Division of Fairs and Expositions. About 75 fair organizations are part of the California fair network, Bojorquez said.

The California Mid-State Fair will occur July 20-31 at the Paso Robles Event Center. Around 400,000 visitors usually attend the fair, Bojorquez said. They come from San Luis Obispo County was well as Bakersfield, Fresno, San Francisco and Los Angeles.

“A lot of the hotels for our bigger shows are booked around the area, so it’s a nice little stimulant for our community,” Bojorquez said.

The Santa Barbara County Fair is scheduled for July 13-17 at the Santa Maria Fairpark in Santa Maria. The fair this year will be as close as possible to the pre-pandemic model, said Rebecca Barks, a public relations and sponsorship coordinator.

The typical fairgoers are from Santa Maria, Santa Barbara and San Luis Obispo County, she said, though many people also visit from Bakersfield.

The event helps boosts the local economy both on and off the fairgrounds. Visitors spend their dollars at surrounding businesses, including hotels. And most vendors at the fair are local or come from the surrounding area, Barks said.

“We are partnered with five different hotels, and they will fill up, plus the additional hotels,” she said.

In April, the Santa Maria Valley Strawberry Festival returned to the Santa Maria Fairpark and offered three days of food and activities, including carnival rides and entertainment. The 2022 festival saw sizable profits, Barks said.

“Even though we had lower amounts of commercial booths and food booths, we saw higher sales,” she said. “We got out of our strawberry festival profiting more than we had in years past.”

The county fair is three times as big as the Strawberry Festival, Barks said.

After two years of cancellations, Santa Barbara’s annual Old Spanish Days Fiesta will offer a complete celebration this summer, with the return of the historic parade and other events. Fiesta will run Aug. 3-7.

The biggest change this year is the route for the horse procession, called the El Desfile Histórico parade, moving to Cabrillo Boulevard along the waterfront, instead of State Street. State Street closed to cars as pandemic-related restrictions swept across California in 2020 amid the pandemic, and the barricades and outdoor dining operations do not leave room for the parade.

Maria Cabrera, La Presidente of this year’s Fiesta, said Santa Barbara hotels and restaurants always fill up with Fiesta attendees. Travelers also book hotels in Ventura, Carpinteria and Santa Maria, which helps the surrounding cities with tourism dollars.

“I’m hoping that by now everything in the city has been booked,” Cabrera said. “This is important for the town. It’s beneficial to all.”

Old Spanish Days recently held its annual Fiesta Ranchera celebration in Goleta. The gathering featured restaurants and catering companies offering tastings. It’s a way to drum up business.

But more than two years into the COVID-19 pandemic, not all restaurants are back to normal.

“A number of restaurants closed,” Cabrera said. “People have moved out of town. People have gotten older.”

Event organizers needed to ensure there were enough restaurants, catering companies, bakeries, wineries and breweries to provide for the 400 attendees at Fiesta Ranchera. This year’s event had lower attendance than before the pandemic, when about 1,000 revelers showed up, Cabrera said.

The Ventura County Fair is scheduled for Aug. 3-14 at the Ventura County Fairgrounds in Ventura, after it was cancelled in both 2020 and 2021.

The fair attracts more than 300,000 attendees, according to event organizers.

A busy summer tourism season is already underway in Ventura, said Marlyss Auster, president and CEO of Visit Ventura, the visitor and convention bureau for the city.

“We do know people come to the fair and we’ve been busy,” Auster said. “It’ll be interesting to see how the fair does impact the rates and occupancy because we’ve been holding pretty high occupancy and rates lately.”