Hot Weather Scorches Cal State Fair

Despite severe temperatures, organizers call 2017 Sacramento fair a success

  • by Mary Wade Burnside
  • Published: August 9, 2017

California Governor Jerry Brown and California State Fair CEO Rick Pickering tour one of the exhibits at this year's fair.

The hottest July in a decade did not have as bad  an effect on the California State Fair, Sacramento, as it might have, and CEO Rick Pickering credits that in part to advertising that 10,000 square feet of shaded space and misters had been added for the event.

Attendance for 2017 came in at 636,628, down 5.47 percent from last year’s 673,473, “although given the heat, we probably should have been down 13-15 percent,” Pickering said

More than half of the 17-day fair, held  July 14 to 30, registered temperatures over 100 degrees, and six of  those days were weekends. “You can’t make that up,” Pickering added. “You throw a beautiful party for your whole state and the weather is hot.”

The 2017 fair was the 50th anniversary since CalExpo moved to its current 800-acre site, and the 164th fair altogether. To commemorate, the fair honored its agricultural roots with an exhibit called “The Best of California…Celebrating Farm Workers’ Rich Contributions to Food and Agriculture.” The exhibit’s ribbon-cutting was attended by Paul Chavez, son of Cesar Chavez, who co-founded what would become the United Farm Workers. Also on hand was the union’s current national president, Arturo Rodriguez. Gov. Jerry Brown toured the exhibit, which was fitting for more than one reason. As a new governor in 1975, Brown signed the California Agricultural Labor Relations Act, which allowed collective bargaining for farm workers. And when his father, Pat Brown, was governor in 1962, he had a vision for the new fair site and contacted his friend Walt Disney to have the amusement park’s “Imagineers” collaborate in the design of the current grounds.

Fairfield, Calif.-based Butler Amusements provided about 65 rides for the midway, which consisted of kiddie and adult sections. Richard Byrum, vice president of Butler, said the carnival was down about the same percentage as fair attendance. The most popular rides were the water log flume ride, the giant gondola wheel and the two roller coasters.

On July 26, 13 days into the fair, a man died at the Ohio State Fair after an arm of a KMG-manufactured Fireball gondola ride broke apart from the attraction’s main structure. Earlier this week, severe corrosion that was not caught by an inspection was cited as the cause.

Butler Amusements had a similar ride operating at the California State Fair and shut it down immediately, Byrum said. It remained on the grounds for the rest of the fair. “We left it in place and left the lights on at night,” Byrum said. “It would have created a hole in the midway. We have no plans to use it until we get the green light.” After corrosion was determined to be the cause, Byrum said Butler was evaluating the next move.

In addition to the heat, the accident cast a bit of a pall over the enthusiasm of riders, Byrum said. “The only thing that perhaps was an issue was the publicity in regard to the accident,” he added. “It creates a mindset that rides are not safe. California is pretty fortunate. It has a great rides inspection program. It has the first state-mandated ride inspection permit in the country for traveling carnivals, enacted in 1972. That’s a good thing.” Shutting down the Fireball did result in positive reviews for the fair being proactive, Pickering added.

Ride wristbands cost $35 each day, Byrum added, the same price as last year.

Food numbers were not available in early August, but Pickering expected them to be flat or down. Items that suffered because of the heat included baked potatoes, funnel cakes and even ice cream. It is difficult to track bottled water numbers, he added. One product that did well was the wine slushies, a newer offering that picked up sales this year. That fit into the expanded, award-winning California State Fair Kaiser Permanente Farm with a farm-to-glass exhibit showcasing the state’s winemaking grapes. This was a 20,000-sq.-ft. area near the wine garden.

“We exhibited all the products that go into creating things we enjoy drinking,” Pickering said. This included hops, barley, juniper, agave, potatoes and, of course, grapes.

Fair officials also are contemplating the future addition of marijuana as a crop into the event’s farm showcase, following the legalization of recreational marijuana last fall. “Cannabis will become a large agricultural product in the state of California,” Pickering said. “We will be very prudent. We will start very slowly and work with other state agencies on what they believe should be showcased.”

An idea to show a movie outdoors on the side of a building turned into a unique and successful marketing opportunity. Instead of screening a movie, the fair used high powered projectors to cast advertising, sponsor information and state fair commercials on the fairgrounds’ iconic water tower.

“We decided to start small and see where it goes,” Pickering said. “We are located alongside a major freeway, so we know people could see it from the freeway. That helped spread the message after dark. There also were a number of media stories that helped promote the fair by showing things we were projecting on the water tank.”

The fair spent $10,000 to rent the projectors, instead of plunking down the six figures it would cost to purchase each projector. Pickering said the fair might stick to renting the equipment. “We have to scratch our heads and see if there is a sponsor who would like their name in lights to help us,” Pickering said. “It’s easier to get a sponsor to pay $10,000 to rent them. We’ll continue to refine it and do cost analysis to see the benefits.”

In other marketing, TV advertising targeted families headed by Millennials in spots Pickering called “hipster” advertising, saying that it would be “cool at the fair” as a double entendre. The fair also works with area bloggers to help get the message out about the fair and the event had more than 200,000 “likes” on its Facebook page, which was a personal record.

The fair also put mascot Poppy to work with a series of videos, showing the bear getting up in the morning and brushing his teeth and putting on his California State Fair T-shirt. Then, in the next video, Poppy arrived at work and started high-fiving people and shaking hands. “So that was cute,” Pickering said.

The commercials can still be seen on the fair’s YouTube channel. Around 60,000 fairgoers downloaded the fair’s new and improved app, which was introduced last year to help people navigate the fair and find food. “The challenge is when you get thousands of people using phones and the data link, which is requiring service,” Pickering said. “We were happy with the new technology.”

The app also was used to create a scavenger hunt for fairgoers, who could visit 10 locations identified on the app, take a photo and post it to a scorecard. “Once they had all the pics filled in, you took that to guest services and received a gift,” Pickering said. “It was a way of moving people into parts of the fairgrounds they perhaps had never seen before.”

The fair’s primary concert offering, the Toyota Concert Series on the Golden 1 Stage, is mostly free with 1,200 gold circle seats—out of a total of 4,200—offered for $20 or $25. The acts that did the best, including Melissa Etheridge, Brian McKnight and Trace Adkins, “speaks highly of the demographics to the California State Fair,” Pickering said. “That’s three very different genres.”

The fair spent $500,000 to purchase 17 acts, Pickering added. The fair’s year-round operating budget is $28 million.

General admission was $12 adults and senior citizens, and children for $8 has been the same for several years, Pickering said. There also were several promotions that offered 30 percent off the ticket price.

Fair officials did raise the price for parking, he added, from $10 to $15. “We did an exhaustive study of the region and they preferred raising the parking fee over raising the admission price,” he said.


  • by Mary Wade Burnside
  • Published: August 9, 2017