The California State Fair opens today with a new leader for the first time in nearly two decades. His charge: revitalize an institution that has suffered an attendance decline.
Rick Pickering, Cal Expo's new general manager, said he knows he has to move carefully as he tries to introduce more high-tech attractions into the fair while maintaining it as a beloved summer showcase for California agriculture. At this year's fair, for instance, a show hall filled with rows of caged rabbits sits next to the 5th Dimension, an exhibit in which visitors walk through exotic, 3-D locales.
The fair is reaching out to young people through social media as well.
"I've got people who want the corn dog stand in the same place, the funnel cake in the same place (every year)," he said. However, "If you're not paying attention to where society is going, you're going to miss the future audience."
Pickering said he follows the "80-20 rule" he learned by managing the last 14 Alameda County fairs. Eighty percent of the fair must remain unchanged, and the rest should be fine-tuned.
During his last four fairs, Alameda saw a 44 percent rise in attendance, according to Angel Moore, spokeswoman for the Alameda fair.
The State Fair hasn't had the same success. Paid attendance fell from 847,099 in 2001 to a recent low of 461,477 in 2009.
Reasons often cited for the decline include the recession, competition from other entertainment offerings, hot weather and a public perception of the fairgrounds as outdated.
Since taking the job in late December, Pickering said, he has met with officials from the Cal Expo board, the California Farm Bureau Federation, UC Davis, the Governor's Office, the California Department of Technology, a handful of media outlets as well as fair attendees to hear different perspectives on the fair.
"It's not about me. It's about what the people of California want to see in their State Fairs," Pickering said.
On Thursday, he dedicated one highly visible addition to this year's fair: giant hand-me-down letters spelling "California" that were donated by Disney's California Adventure when the theme park was remodeled.
Other new attractions include spaghetti ice cream; Vertigo, a ride that swings people 100 feet in the air; and the 5th Dimension, designed by a company based in Britain called Amazing Interactives.
The 5th Dimension exhibit puts fair-goers in 3-D locations, created in real time, with smells and sensations that correspond with the graphics, said Amazing Interactives employee Jimmy Wilson, who was setting up the exhibit on Wednesday. People can climb a "creepy castle" while a witch lobs spiders and centipedes at them, he said.
This year's fair also will have a "social media help desk" where tech-phobic adults can try their hand at Facebook, Twitter and Instagram.
Signs at the fair indicate scenic photo ops, and ads encourage people to bring stuffed dolls of the fair's mascot, Poppy the Bear, with them on vacation. The hope is that they'll upload photos to the fair's website, bigfun.org, and tweet the mascot's mug far and wide.
"We'd like to see Poppy at the Eiffel Tower," Pickering said.
Cal Expo board member Rex Hime said such digital marketing is one of the main things Pickering emphasized so far. It's "one of the better advertising campaigns we've had in a long time," he said.
Doug Elmets, a Sacramento public relations consultant who has been critical of the fair in the past, said he's heard good things about Pickering's efforts so far.
"New management equals new energy, which equals new ideas – and that's clearly what you're seeing here," Elmets said. The previous management, he added, was "resistant to change and largely blind to the declining attendance and desire to find new ways to generate attention."
Norb Bartosik, who ran the fair for 19 years, said he wishes Pickering and his team "all the best," but he disputed the idea that the fair had been stuck in the past under his leadership. For instance, he said, the fair has always had an exhibit that showcases science or technology.
"We were constantly trying to experiment to do things different and make things different," he said.
Bartosik said the fair suffers from a bigger problem than the kinds of exhibits it stages. Cal Expo, he said, badly needs a face-lift.
He and former fair deputy general manager Brian May worked for years on a new master plan that called for developing part of Cal Expo's 350 acres in order to raise money to revamp the fairgrounds. At one point, the Cal Expo board entertained a plan to build a new arena for the Sacramento Kings on the site.
"You've got a fair that was built on the property in 1968," Bartosik said. "It's gone through lots of changes. It's now time to catch up with the major deferred maintenance of the facility."
Cal Expo receives no funding from the state. Yet California requires it to operate as if it were government-run, leaving it "twisting in the wind," said Assemblyman Roger Dickinson, D-Sacramento.
If Cal Expo were to sell or rent part of its property, the state would net all the profits, Dickinson said. He introduced Assembly Bill 1069 in February to change this, but the bill stalled in the Assembly Appropriations Committee. A similar bill he authored in 2011 stalled as well.
"We withhold (Cal Expo) the opportunity to act like a business and take advantage of (its) assets to improve (itself)," Dickinson said.
One major change made during Bartosik's tenure is starting to produce positive results for the fair, said Marla Calico, a spokeswoman for the International Association of Fairs and Expositions. In 2009, the fair shifted from August to July – to capture many kids who otherwise would be back in school.
The move likely hurt attendance at first, since it takes time for visitors and vendors to adjust to a new schedule, she said. But by 2012, paid attendance had increased to 523,838.
Even though it doesn't attract the crowds it once did, the California State Fair remains "one of the top 50 fairs in the United States," Calico said. She added that fair attendance is often affected by uncontrollable events such as the weather. When the temperature soars to the triple digits, the crowds at Cal Expo get thinner.
No fair is immune. This year's attendance at the Alameda County Fair, for instance, dropped to about 391,000 from the high of 534,000 that Pickering set in 2012, Moore said. Pleasanton experienced six days of higher than 100-degree heat, a day of rain and a public transit strike during the course of the fair.
Call The Bee's Jeffrey Dastin, (916) 321-1037.