Kid-Centric Fair, from Selena to Sales Pitch, Worked for Pomona

11 Oct

Midway at the L.A. County Fair, Pomona, Calif.

If a wall of record heat hadn’t descended the last week of the Sept. 10-Oct. 3 Los Angeles County Fair, Pomona, attendance would have far exceeded last year. Dale Coleman, VP of sales, marketing and creative programming for the fair, credited a combination of family-oriented marketing and kid-friendly programming for the slight increase despite the weather.

Attendance was estimated at 1,375,000, compared to 1,372,000 last year, during 23 days of fair. The fair closed on Mondays and Tuesdays.

Coleman singled out two entertainment options that were departures from the norm and somewhat risky that turned into huge successes for the 2010 fair. Selena Gomez and The Scene, a Disney star, sold out the 9,000-seat grandstand, grossing about $230,000 on Sept. 18. And Our Body, The Universe Within, was a first-ever successful gate-within-a-gate for the fair, something Coleman said they generally avoid doing because historically, gates-within-gates fail.

“It’s the first time we made the conscious effort to see what happens with a tweener act,” Coleman noted of the Selena booking. They further decided to make it an all-paid grandstand. Typically, the fair charges for the best half of the 9,000 seats and the remainder are free with fair admission. For Selena, every seat was paid, with prices ranging from $15-$125. It sold out five days before the concert. The Pomona fair was Selena’s only L.A. area appearance. Her draw was “a classic example of what parents will do for children,” Coleman added.

Wilson Events books talent for the fair, Coleman said. Other hits in what is billed as the End of Summer Concert Series included Hall & Oates, grossing about $100,000, which is a nice number for the Pomona fair for paid/free combo shows; Bad Company; Teena Marie; and Boyz II Men and En Vogue.

The revenue goal from concert tickets was $1.1 million and “we exceeded that by over $100,000,” he said.

Our Body drew 75,000 people, far exceeding projections, Coleman said. Tickets to the attraction were $7, or $5 online. At museums, they charge $20-$25, he continued, and the organizers had originally sought to book Our Body as a non-fair event. Coleman suggested they visit during the fair, when 1.4 million people would be potential traffic, even though “I’ve never once seen a gate inside a gate work. I cringe because I’ve seen too many things go up in flames.” The exhibit occupied 11,000 square feet and the usual length of stay was probably 30-45 minutes.

There was no controversy surrounding the exhibit, which shows sliced, plasticized bodies so people can see the muscle and tissue inside. While some such shows draw protestors, Coleman said that was not the case in Pomona. “We reached out to five major medical institutions in the surrounding areas and asked them to be partners and set up areas inside the exhibit and bring doctors and medical students and talk to the public about what they’re learning. It was all about education and health and we had zero controversy. It worked beyond anyone’s expectations.”

On the marketing side, the emphasis was families. “We saw a lot more moms and dads and kids,” Coleman said. For the past few years, the fair’s advertising campaign has been more L.A. Cool, a tongue-in-cheek appeal to Angelenos to recognize that Pomona is their fair, even if it isn’t located west of the 110 freeway. “This time, we focused on the family. I have a nine-year-old son and most of my associates have young children. We know that if someone presents something that will make them happy, we’re likely to make that happen.”

The spots featured children saying why they wanted to come to the fair, but the L.A. cool tone was not abandoned. One way-cute child announces he wants to come to the fair “to connect with my parents at a deeply emotional level. Obviously it was a  joke, but while funny and cute, there is a message there. Another shows a little boy in front of a Bumble Bee ride, saying he likes the fair because being dizzy is fun. We wanted to convey that coming to the fair is a good thing, a unique family day. We are definitely going to stay on that message the next few years.”

Revenues were up in most categories, Coleman continued. Partially that was due to a change in the fair layout. An outdoor covered exhibit area (100,000 sq. ft.) was cleared for the carnival and those exhibits were moved so that they were around the 300,000-sq.-ft. of indoor exhibit space, creating an obvious retail area. “We created a lot of synergy in and round our exhibit halls for commercial business,” he said.

Ray Cammack Shows was pleased with the new layout and the carnival revenues were up, he added.

Sit ‘n Sleep, a major mattress retail chain, was a new sponsor this year and that marriage worked very well, Coleman continued. Overall, the sponsorship program held its own, bringing in $2.2 million in cash.

Sit ‘n Sleep is known for its commercials featuring owner Larry Miller and his accountant Erwin sparring over discount prices with the tagline, “You’re killing me, Larry.” The fair worked with that vibe, featuring Larry in various cutouts throughout the grounds, appropriately garbed for the area and telling people what to see at the fair. A Sit ‘n Sleep float (a mattress) was in the nightly parade, more often than not with Larry on board throwing out dust mite plush he had made for the kids all along the parade route. “People were yelling, ‘You’re killing me, Larry,’ all over the place,” Coleman said. Sit ‘n Sleep set up a store in Building 5. “They sold a lot of beds. They want to do it again next year.”

Returning major sponsors included Coca Cola, Ralphs Grocery Co., and McDonald’s, to name a few.

Ralphs sold discount tickets to the fair for the first time, and ended up logging a substantial 140,000 tickets sold the first time out of the box. Adult tickets were $10 at Ralphs ($17 at the gate), children $6 ($12). Ralphs also promoted a food drive where fairgoers who brought five cans of Ralphs brand food were admitted free. Last year, that promotion netted 60,000 cans of food. This year, it soared to 90,000 cans.

Other sponsored promotions included McDonald’s Wednesdays, offering $20 wristbands good for fair admission and all rides, with sales up 80 percent from last year; Weekend for Heroes, with retired or active military, police or fire professionals admitted for $1; and Dodger Day, when fans wearing Dodger blue were admitted to the fair for $5, half of which went to charity.

There were multiple discounts and yet, “full price admissions grew from 40 to 52 percent from 2009 to 2010,” said Sharon Autry, fair communications director.

About the only aspect of the fair that did not meet revenue goals was horse racing. There is a scarcity of horses and the industry is struggling nationwide, Coleman said. “We did okay, but it’s an area that is tough.”

Parking  was $10, $15 preferred. Some beverage prices were lowered, including $1 less for beer.

Dates for 2011 are tentatively Sept. 3-Oct. 2. — Linda Deckard

Interviewed for this story: Dale Coleman, (909) 865-4057; Sharon Autry, (909) 865-4262



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