Mid-State Fair

The big gigs pay off for the Mid-State Fair


An entertainment lineup featuring the biggest names in rock, pop and country has enabled the California Mid-State Fair to remain financially strong despite the poor economy.

The fair, which runs Wednesday through July 31 at the Paso Robles Event Center, once again offers performances by some of music’s hottest acts. This year’s lineup features Disney pop princess Selena Gomez, pop-rock bands Train and Maroon 5, and country acts Lady Antebellum, Sugarland and Jason Aldean.

“The Mid-State Fair — as long as I’ve been in fairs, and that’s going on 30 years — has been the entertainment fair in California,” said Rebecca Desmond, acting director of the state Department of Food and Agriculture’s Division of Fairs & Expositions. “People come from far away to go to Paso. It’s a destination spot for them. It’s something they plan on.”

Industry peers put the fair on par with the New York State Fair and the Houston Livestock Show and Rodeo in terms of entertainment.

Tom Keffury, the fair’s director of marketing, said the fair faces a unique challenge in regards to entertainment.

“We’re a business model that’s based on traditions, but we have to come up with something to pique people’s interests” and attract crowds, he said.

According to Desmond, county fairs must find a balance between the “great old traditions that people rely on” — such as livestock auctions, agriculture competitions and quilting exhibits — and the contemporary needs of the community.

“One of the missions of the fair is to showcase the community as it is currently,” said Desmond, former CEO of the Siskiyou Golden Fair in Yreka.

The Mid-State Fair’s strategy to offer top entertainment is paying off.

Over the past five years, the fair reported a net profit on concert ticket sales three times and a small shortfall twice, losing about $21,000 in 2006 and almost $24,000 in 2009, according to a Tribune analysis. The fair netted a profit of nearly $547,000 in 2008, topping $302,000 in 2007 and $235,000 in 2010.

And that’s not counting admission fees that concertgoers paid.

That in turn has enabled the fair to boast an overall average net profit of just under $910,000 a year from 2006 through 2010 — remaining financially viable enough to host a wide range of activities to attract the public.

A closer look

Over the past five years, fair organizers spent an average of $4.1 million annually on entertainment, according to financial statements the fair provided The Tribune. That figure includes free and paid ticketed concerts, the Miss California Mid-State Fair pageant and so-called “grounds acts” such as pony rides, pig races and mutton busting.

At the same time, ticketed concerts brought in an average of $3.4 million each year, the fair said. Additional income came from sources such as admissions, exhibitor fees, commercial space rentals and concessions and carnival profits, as well as a horse show and other events held at the Paso Robles Event Center.

“The entertainment we offer is very important to us and, I truly believe, to our fairgoers as well,” fair CEO Vivian Robertson said.

Fair officials highlighted the strength of the acts playing the Main Grandstand Arena, which seats up to 15,000 concertgoers.

With the exception of country star Keith Urban, who sold 10,600 tickets in 2006, all of the fair’s top-selling grandstand acts over the past five years have been rock or pop-oriented, fair records show.

Legendary rock band Aerosmith and teen pop sensation Justin Bieber sold more than 14,000 tickets each in 2007 and 2010, respectively. Other popular past acts include bluesy singer-songwriter John Mayer and classic rock bands Journey and Heart.

“Rock acts carry a certain amount of sizzle with them,” Keffury said, noting that country acts are typically connected with county fairs.

One of the fair’s most profitable returning acts is “An Evening of Music & Wine,” which invites concertgoers to sip local wines while listening to soft rock and smooth jazz. The concert series has generated a profit of at least $72,000 annually over the past five years.

“These are people with songs that you know and that most people really love,” Keffury said, including Michael Bolton, Boz Scaggs and Kenny Loggins. “It’s just a fun time. Everybody’s up dancing.”

This year, the grandstand acts generating the most ticket sales are Train/Maroon 5, Selena Gomez, Sugarland, Lady Antebellum and country rocker Kid Rock.

Promoting big names

To encourage sales, Keffury said the fair tried a new strategy this season: selling tickets as stocking stuffers.

Tickets for Lady Antebellum and Sugarland went on sale two weeks before Christmas, resulting in strong early sales.

“Obviously, the No. 1 thing that sells tickets is the act (itself),” Keffury said, noting that both bands are relatively new to the country scene.

Lady Antebellum, which snagged five Grammy Awards earlier this year, played the fair’s free Fort Frontier Stage back in 2009.

“Now they’re on every radio station you listen to,” he said. The fair spends about $300,000 on publicity each year, reaching out via radio, television, print and billboards to potential ticket buyers as far away as Bakersfield, Fresno and Monterey.

“I’m spending the overwhelming majority of (that) money to market the concerts,” Keffury explained, noting that the fair doesn’t focus advertising dollars on “corn dogs and Ferris wheels.”

According to Keffury, two-thirds of concert ticket buyers live in San Luis Obispo and northern Santa Barbara counties. The rest come from outside of the area, including Los Angeles and San Francisco.

“We are quite proud to showcase such stellar and diverse entertainment for all our visitors,” Robertson said. “The entertainment is parallel and paramount to our success.”

By the numbers

Here are Main Grandstand Arena ticket sales for the years 2006, 2007, 2008, 2009 and 2010. Shown are the number of concert tickets sold, the revenue generated by each concert and the cost of each concert. Data courtesy of the California Mid-State Fair.

2006 shows Tickets sold Revenue Cost of show
Jesse McCartney/AlyAJ 3,647 $69,208.00 $120,000.00
Ne-Yo, Mya, Cherish 2,789 $38,259.00 $81,500.00
Larry The Cable Guy 6,268 $231,428.00 $300,000.00
Paul Simon 6,340 $314,648.00 $325,000.00
Velvet Revolver 3,638 $133,854.00 $260,000.00
Keith Urban/Warren Bros. 10,660 $494,268.00 $410,000.00
Carrie Underwood/Phil Vassar 7,793 $194,529.00 $130,000.00
Steve Miller Band 8,655 $251,278.00 $195,000.00
Michael Bolton 3,779 $165,400.00 $92,500.00
2007 shows Tickets sold Revenue Cost of show
Aerosmith 14,321 $929,234.00 $750,000.00
Stevie Nicks 6,616 $293,594.00 $275,000.00
Bob Dylan 6,413 $284,226.00 $290,000.00
Daughtry 5,370 $163,006.00 $150,000.00
Godsmack/Hoobastank 4,445 $132,674.00 $150,000.00
Martina McBride 5,778 $258,468.00 $250,000.00
Dierks Bentley/LeAnn Rimes 4,928 $147,410.00 $175,000.00
Rascal Flatts 11,268 $750,922.00 $700,000.00
Chris Botti 3,071 $145,225.00 $62,500.00
2008 shows Tickets sold Revenue Cost of show
John Mayer/Colbie Caillet 11,030 $520,320.00 $437,500.00
Toby Keith 9,177 $500,186.00 $405,000.00
Steely Dan 4,651 $235,204.00 $275,000.00
Stone Temple Pilots 7,765 $336,250.00 $183,000.00
Alan Jackson 6,975 $345,104.00 $304,000.00
Matchbox Twenty 4,693 $235,136.00 $300,750.00
Rod Stewart 10,857 $833,683.00 $800,000.00
Fergie 9,106 $442,500.00 $307,500.00
Boz Scaggs 4,022 $182,250.00 $71,000.00
2009 shows Tickets sold Revenue Cost of show
Carrie Underwood 6,679 $387,933.00 $530,000.00
Journey/Heart 13,890 $631,590.00 $350,000.00
Kelly Clarkson 4,412 $191,428.00 $176,500.00
Styx & REO Speedwagon 2,515 $102,055.00 $210,000.00
Tim McGraw 8,332 $547,735.00 $605,000.00
KISS 6,949 $403,663.00 $510,000.00
Judas Priest/Whitesnake 3,556 $157,152.00 $175,000.00
Black Eyed Peas 7,948 $426,330.00 $401,000.00
Dave Koz 3,166 $150,825.00 $65,000.00
2010 shows Tickets sold Revenue Cost of show
Justin Bieber 14,162 $542,150.00 $300,000.00
Jeff Dunham 4,749 $203,704.00 $200,000.00
Offspring/311/Pepper 7,092 $296,400.00 $200,000.00
Sammy Hagar/Buxton Hughes 2,639 $125,495.00 $157,500.00
Intocable/El Nuevo Galope 1,051 $42,415.00 $73,500.00
Aerosmith 7,999 $626,225.00 $800,000.00
Toby Keith/Trace Adkins 6,688 $444,335.00 $425,000.00
Keith Urban/Kris Allen 7,336 $500,710.00 $412,500.00
Weezer 2,627 $106,030.00 $185,000.00
Kenny Loggins/Firefall 3,944 $171,600.00 $70,500.00
Related stories from San Luis Obispo Tribune