Does California State Fair need a change? With its attendance flat, some say yes

From the Sacramento Bee
"The fair needs an overhaul in a significant way," said Doug Elmets, a Sacramento public affairs consultant and spokesman for the thriving Thunder Valley Casino near Lincoln. "It is essentially the same old thing with markedly different advertising every year.

"The entertainment is essentially the same every year. The midway is the same. Everything is so predictable. If you've been there once, you've pretty much done it."

"The fried food seems to be the most entertaining aspect of the fair," said Elmets, "and that's a sad commentary when you look at the healthier lifestyle people are living.

"If that's the selling point, it's a good indication of why they need to look at where they've been."

Elmets, who grew up in Iowa, didn't attend California's fair this year – but he plans on going to the Iowa State Fair in a few weeks.

"I think state fairs are a thing of the past unless they're in a state like Iowa, where candidly there isn't a lot of competition," he said.

 

Before the State Fair opened on July 12, Cal Expo general manager Norb Bartosik made what in retrospect seems like a wildly optimistic prediction: If the weather was mild, he said, the fair could attract 800,000 visitors.

The weather played its part, with only three 100-degree days recorded during the run of the fair. Discounted entry fees and ride wristbands helped boost visitors' interest, too. But when it was all over Sunday, the fair had drawn a total attendance of not quite 692,000.

So what happened?

Bartosik blames economic factors in a region still struggling to emerge from a steep downturn. And yes, he blames the heat.

"Considering the weather and the economy, I'm very pleased," he said. "Sacramento is still in a tough economic downturn. We live and die by what's happening in the local economy."

Other observers think the region's difficult economy is only one piece of a much more complicated picture. The California State Fair, they say, needs to change.

"The fair needs an overhaul in a significant way," said Doug Elmets, a Sacramento public affairs consultant and spokesman for the thriving Thunder Valley Casino near Lincoln. "It is essentially the same old thing with markedly different advertising every year.

"The entertainment is essentially the same every year. The midway is the same. Everything is so predictable. If you've been there once, you've pretty much done it."

For some fairgoers, that sense of sameness – let's call it tradition – is exactly what they cherish about the fair.

Missy Johnson, 36, who works in downtown Sacramento, spent Saturday at the fair with her two teenagers. The family goes every year, she said, because they like the exhibits, not the rides.

"A fair is just a fair," she said. "What can you change about it?"

A little here, a little there, at least in the eyes of State Fair officials. Three years ago, for example, the fair shifted its run date from August to July in hopes of attracting visitors who preferred to attend the fair before school started and dearly wanted to avoid the siege of August heat on the midway.

In doing so, Cal Expo – which is owned by the state but operates independently, receiving no financial help from the state general fund – erased a $1 million shortfall. This year's fair is close to making its $16 million budget, said deputy general manager Brian May.

Because of the change in dates, as well as a reduction in the number of days the fair lasts, Bartosik said it's unfair to compare attendance figures from past years.

Instead, he said: "Our carnival gross was up this year. Our food gross was up. People who were here spent money. We just got them out in lower numbers."

And fair officials don't think a drop in total attendance numbers is necessarily a bad thing: Because total attendance includes unpaid courtesy admissions – for vendors, employees and the media – they consider paid admission data more reliable.

"We have made a concerted effort over the past couple of years to reduce the number of courtesy admissions in hopes of driving the paid attendance up," said May.

Tough competition

May said many people bring their families to the fair in order to share their own childhood traditions. He said the fair does introduce new featured exhibits every year.

"The fair is part of the community," he said. "People come out and see the things that really represent the culture of California. And I think it's just fun and exciting."

Even so, paid attendance has basically leveled off over the past several years. The number of paid visitors this year was 523,838, not quite 1,500 more than last year but down from almost 793,000 in 2003.

A decade ago, smack in the middle of the August heat, 1 million visitors (including 850,000 paying visitors) streamed past the twin golden bears at the front gates to attend the fair, with its bounty of fried food on a stick, its carnival midway and its livestock and farm exhibits.

Even before the economy soured, the numbers had begun slipping, with 941,500 visitors – and a paid attendance of 641,210 – in 2006.

The challenge facing the State Fair, critics say, is making itself relevant as an entertainment option in a region with access to San Francisco, Reno and any number of Indian casinos; keeping its seasonal carnival attractions exciting compared with a quick trip to Six Flags Discovery Kingdom in Vallejo or Disneyland; and making unhealthy fried things sound appealing in a region known better for fresh California cuisine.

"The fried food seems to be the most entertaining aspect of the fair," said Elmets, "and that's a sad commentary when you look at the healthier lifestyle people are living.

"If that's the selling point, it's a good indication of why they need to look at where they've been."

Family fare

The flat 2012 attendance numbers don't reflect the nationwide trend for fair visitors, said Marla Calico, International Association of Fairs and Expositions education director.

Across the country, she said, 85 percent of fairs increased their attendance last year, and one-third of those reported record attendance.

"Fairs typically thrive in most markets in times of economic concern," Calico said. "They provide quality family entertainment at an affordable level.

"It comes down to the essence of what a fair is. It's a community event. People have found that in tough times, they really rally around the community."

Mike Testa, who manages events as the Sacramento Convention and Visitors Bureau's senior vice president, has found that attendance at smaller local festivals varies according to how family-friendly the event is, how carefully planners target their demographic and whether the event is free.

"At the State Fair, they have to present their event on a broad scale and hope it appeals to a big crowd," he said.

For the record, he attends the fair every year with his family. It's a tradition for them.

"We took my daughter's picture in front of the Ferris wheel this year," he said. "We have a picture of me in front of the Ferris wheel when I was little, too. For me, a lot of the appeal of the State Fair is reliving those memories."

But with a population that's grown to 2.1 million, including newcomers from around the state and the country who don't relate to Sacramento in terms of agricultural roots and long-ago small-town sensibility, the region's memories include the State Fair less and less.

Elmets, who grew up in Iowa, didn't attend California's fair this year – but he plans on going to the Iowa State Fair in a few weeks.

"I think state fairs are a thing of the past unless they're in a state like Iowa, where candidly there isn't a lot of competition," he said.

 

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