Dale Coleman, VP Sales, Marketing & Creative Programming, Fairplex

REPORTING FROM POMONA, CALIF. — The L.A. County Fair in Pomona, Calif., opened to big numbers Sept. 3, welcoming 92,000 visitors opening day and almost 275,000 people over the first three days. The fair faced over 100-degree weather last Wednesday and Thursday, slowing attendance. Now they rely on new attractions and authenticity to bring out enough fairgoers to beat last year’s 1.4 million visitors.

Dale Coleman, VP Sales, Marketing & Creative Programming for the fair, said “attendance is about even right now.” Attendance was tracking up the first weekend but weather got in the way of success. “The last two days were unbelievably hot,” said Coleman, “but Wednesdays and Thursdays are usually the slowest days for a fair anyway, so hopefully we got the heat out of the way on days we could have most afforded it. “

Ray Cammack Shows is providing the carnival at L.A. County Fair for the 27th year. Director of Media Marketing Tony Fiori said that the midway had a busy first weekend but also suffered from the heat.

“The weather has been detrimental to us but, all in all, it’s been going good,” Fiori said. “We can plan for a lot of things,” he added, “but we certainly can’t plan for 108-degree weather.”

An equine competitor cools down before a race. The fair hosts horse racing each year.

One way the fair keeps visitors coming even in hot weather is through promotions. There is a promotion for each weekday, including McDonald’s Wednesdays when consumers can get entry and unlimited carnival rides for $20 by purchasing passes at the fast food franchise. Other days, unlimited carnival ride wristbands cost $50. Book Drive Thursdays offer fairgoers the opportunity to enter for free until 6 p.m. with the donation of one book — a promotion that helped during the heat wave. “Over 4,000 people took advantage of the book drive our first week,” said Coleman. Admission prices for weekdays run $12 for adults, $7 for children ages 6-12 and $9 for seniors; weekends cost $17 for adults, $12 for children ages 6-12 and $14 for seniors. General parking is $10 every day, with preferred VIP and valet options for $15-$25.

The fair’s most successful promotion is its partnership with grocery store chain Ralphs, where tickets valid any day of the week are available for $10. “Last year we sold over 100,000 tickets through Ralphs, and that promotion is already up 100 percent from this time last year,” said Coleman, who predicted that the promotion is going to “devastate the numbers that it did last year.” Season passes were a successful promotion last year, with about 30,000 units sold at $24.99.

“Years ago we sort of tried to compete with Disneyland, but they have a lot more money than us and a lot bigger brand than us. The thing you have to stop and realize is that Disneyland doesn’t draw nearly as many people as we do in the month of September. No one does. You name it, we outdraw everybody — period,” said Coleman.

Last year the fair counted almost 1.4 million visitors. “Instead of having a theme, we just try to educate and be wholesome and real,” he said.

A multitude of attractions — updated, new and familiar — drive fair traffic. 

The Great White exhibit features a live shark tank.

One new attraction is the Great White Exhibit, with a live shark encounter. “The shark encounter was so unbelievably popular in the first week that the L.A. County Fire Department had to come and figure out some crowd control,” said Coleman. He said that getting the tank of sharks in building five was logistically challenging because the tank is “part of a semitruck, so it took a bit of cranking the steering wheel.”

“We have Mojo’s Jungle, which is a cute monkey and snake thing for kids; Wilderness Ridge with lumberjacks and bears; Esmerelda’s Traveling Circus, which is literally a little circus; and Pet’s Ahoy, which is a pirate-themed show with domestic animals,” listed Coleman. There is also Ray Cammack Shows with 70 rides and FairView Farms.

The “Our Body: Live Healthy” exhibit was rebranded for its second year with a focus on health. “I’ve seen many gate-within-a-gate attractions come to the fair and they never work,” said Coleman, “but this one has had unbelievable lines.” The attraction features cadavers in various stages of dissection and focuses on education. Tickets for that attraction were $8.

“The bodies exhibit has really allowed us to open up our school program to middle school kids, too,” said Coleman, who added that the fair is expecting 120,000 students this year who, he hopes, become fans of the fair for a lifetime.

The flower pavilion, featuring exhibits made out of plants, has a national parks theme this year.

“We have wine tasting and a flower pavilion; there are lots of surprises that you wouldn’t necessarily expect at a typical county fair,” Coleman added.

Fiori said that the best thing about working with the L.A. County Fair is that “they do a great job of bringing new things in that make people want to come.” He said that “you can’t see everything in one day — and that’s excellent because what we need is return customers.”

Sponsorship numbers are down this year. “Our sponsorship program is about as successful as any in the fair industry, if not the most successful,” said Coleman, “but we had a number of multiyear agreements that ended in the last year and some of them haven’t renewed and some have renewed at a lesser amount.” Sponsors still include Toyota, Ralphs, Coca-Cola, Budweiser and other large brands, of which Coleman said, “we’re very proud of our corporate representation.”

There are also 19 nights of grandstand shows, which can be challenging to book. “There is serious competition that the Indian casinos create because they’ll pay top dollar, all the acts have radius clauses and we only have a set number of days to book the talent — it’s like a jigsaw puzzle,” said Coleman. A limited number of tickets for the grandstand are available free with admission, but tickets can range from $18.50-$25 for grandstand seating and $75-$125 for floor seating.

Concert series ticket sales are tracking over 25 percent up from last year. Coleman wouldn’t reveal the talent guarantee, but said, “it’s a lot — it made me wish I had taken guitar lessons.”

Coleman said that even with the heat wave there are a lot of positive signs for the fair. “Time will tell. We’re doing fine, but 23 days is a long run. As we found out on Sept. 11, 2001, anything can happen. There are beautiful mountains to our north, but I’ve seen years that those mountains are all on fire — knock on wood that it’ll be a quiet month,” said Coleman.

The L.A. County Fair runs Sept. 3-Oct. 2.

Interviewed for this story: Dale Coleman, (909) 865-4057; Tony Fiori, (602) 763-2363