State Fair makes small changes to attract more visitors

As the California State Fair’s attendance declined from its historic high in 2001, some called for wholesale changes – bigger music acts, greater presence from the California tech community and a broader, less ag-centric approach to programming.

But that’s not Cal Expo General Manager Rick Pickering’s approach to the event, which hit its highest attendance that year with 847,099 attendees. The fair opens Friday and runs through July 27 at the Cal Expo Fairgrounds.

In his second year at the helm, Pickering is looking to steadily make modest changes that attract new visitors to the 160-year-old fair, while keeping those that already love the fair coming back. His approach produced steady attendance increases at the Alameda County Fair, which he lead for 14 years.

“Here at the California State Fair we’re constantly looking at how to keep certain things the same,” Pickering said. The desired outcome is a broader customer base.

A modest bump in last year’s attendance may earn him some credibility among fair critics, who have complained about stagnant, bland programming . In 2013, fair daily attendance grew 6.5 percent to 41,003. Total attendance grew to 697,045 over the 17-day fair, compared with a total attendance of 693,034 for the 18-day 2012 fair.

Agriculture still plays a strong role in the California and Sacramento economies, Pickering said, so rather than run from the fair’s roots, Pickering wants to use it to point to the future of agricultural technology – from aquaculture to GPS-guided tractors.

“Music, entertainment and agriculture all come together at the State Fair,” Pickering said, who also led fair trade associations.

Strolling the fairgrounds recently, Pickering offered a glimpse of how he hopes to enhance the fair experience. Pickering sweats the small stuff– a poorly placed vendor here, a misaligned concert venue there. He moved the cooking demonstrations closer to the farm, asked designers to be more cognizant of how things look from stroller height and is adding more shaded areas.

“You can never have enough shaded seating,” Pickering said.

Pickering said he’ll

spread out the music genres to create a balanced lineup, which opens with John Kay & Steppenwolf on Friday.

Pickering was just one of hundreds of people looking at the details in preparation for the fair opening.

The Vandewarker family and hired staff were busy getting their The Bacon Habit food stand ready for operation this week. Amber Vandewarker is a schoolteacher most of the year. She, her husband, his dad and her brother-in-law do three fairs over the summer.

“The days are long. There is always something unexpected,” Vandewarker said.

Near the livestock area, Emilie Owen, of the Oregon-based Great American Entertainment Company, was busy unloading the tiny goat, sheep, piglets, fawn, llama and wallaby that inhabit the petting zoo.

But some of the changes are very 21st century . The fair revamped its website and continues a push started last year to make better use of social media. To help get people to the more than 2,000 events happening during the fair’s run, officials launched a “Plan Your Fair” feature on the website. Unlike previous years, where guests would study a static schedule, the new online tool asked people to log on using an email address or linking to their Facebook account, explore events, then add them to the user’s online calendars.

Jennifer Castleberry, the fair’s marketing manager, said the static schedule will return to the website as a result of some resistance, but that people who used the tool found it useful. Part of the new marketing push is to encourage fairgoers to award themselves a blue ribbon and post their selfie to social media under the hashtag #statefairCA.

At least one previous critic of the State Fair thinks things are headed in the right direction and approves of Pickering’s go-slow approach.

“It is clear that they are trying to appeal to a broader demographic because of the intense competition that exists particularly when it comes to entertainment,” said Doug Elmets, a Sacramento political consultant. Elmets said in the past the fair hung its hat on fried food offerings, which runs counter to many Californians’ attempt to live and eat more healthily. “People have limited discretionary dollars and they have to decide where they want to spend that money.”

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