New Dates, Good Weather Work Well for California State Fair

6 Aug

The midway at the California State Fair, Sacramento

New dates were a winning formula for the California State Fair, Sacramento, which abandoned its traditional Labor Day close to run July 14-Aug. 1 this year, drawing 741,189 attendees, a 10 percent increase over last year. Norb Bartosik, CEO and general manager, said the fair spent $1 million marketing the date change, making extensive use of billboards and working the new social media as well. “You’d have to live under a rock not to know about our date change,” he said.

The paid gate was up 11 percent and the carnival, provided by Butler Amusements, was up $200,000 from $3.3 million last year to $3.5 million this year, Bartosik said. Part of that is the increase in attendance, but it’s also because carnival owner Butch Butler understands the tough economy and the need for liberal discounts and promotions, Bartosik added.

“Last year, on Kid’s Day, he sold $70,000 worth of $1 ride tickets,” Bartosik said. That was phenomenal then, especially since the fair ran when school was in session in 2009, so that income happened from 5-11:30 p.m. But this year, the first Tuesday (Kid’s Day) with 66,505 in attendance of which 18,000 were kids, Butler Amusements racked up $166,000 in one-dollar ride tickets, and that does not include other income, including wristbands good for all rides which sold for $30 on weekdays, $35 on weekends.

And then, the unimaginable happened. On the second Tuesday, with a 73,363 attendance, of which 32,000 were kids, Butler sold $198,000 worth of one-dollar ride tickets, Bartosik said.

Throughout its run, the fair offered discounts and incentives in deference to the fiscal crisis the state is in and the fact that they are located in the state capital. Big O Tires offered a buy-one, get-one-free gate admission promotion and saw a 30 percent redemption, Bartosik said.

Food concessionaires were encouraged to discount prices by 25 percent, in return for which they received a 25 percent discount on rent, from 24 percent of the gross to 18 percent of the gross. The idea was to give fairgoers a break. While the fair’s share of income from food and drink will be off 10-12 percent because of the discount, the overall result was an increase in the gross, Bartosik said.

Ovations Food Services also added some new stands and filled some holes created when the fair changed dates and lost some traditional concessionaires to Southern California fairs with conflicting dates. One, a new Big Bear Barbecue with an adjoining beer garden, was quite successful, Bartosik said.

Some of the traditional food stands did come up flat or down from last year, he said, and the plan is to take a look at the mix. A newbie, Jungle George, who sold wild meat, from lion burgers to deep-fried scorpions, did very well, he added.

The fair started out in a heat wave, but after day 6 of 19, the weather was perfect. Kids were out of school. Entertainment was strong and all was good. Weird Al Yankovic was the hit of the show, selling all of the 1,500 paid seats and drawing 9,500 people. Reserved seats were generally $10-$15, though Martina McBride tickets were $49. Bartosik said he spent $560,000 of his $600,000 budget on talent.

A new exhibit, Days of the Dinosaur, which Bartosik saw and booked at the International Association of Fairs & Expositions convention in Las Vegas, was packed, he said. The show was booked through Neste Event Marketing, Nashville, Tenn., and this was its first West Coast appearance.

One incident marred the end of the fair and Bartosik is still dealing with the fallout. A pregnant cow, part of the fair’s nursery barn, which is managed by veterinarians at UC Davis, escaped when being moved from trailer to pen. After a two-hour chase that saw the agitated cow rampaging through the grounds prior to opening, the vets finally decided to shoot the animal, having failed to tranquilize it. Unfortunately, it took multiple shots to kill the animal and the headlines and public reaction were vitriolic, the worst incident Bartosik has seen in 37 years in the business.

The annual budget for the California State Fair and Exposition is $29 million, of which 50 percent is generated during fairtime, Bartosik said. This year’s budget is slightly less than last year.

Depending on horse racing dates and a review of the date change, tentative dates for the 2011 California State Fair are July 13-31. – Linda Deckard

Interviewed for this story: Norb Bartosik, (916) 263-3247

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