San Diego County Fair brought out another huge crowd this year

Nearly 1.6 million people flocked to the San Diego County Fair this summer — just shy of the all-time record set last year but still the best back-to-back performance the fair has seen in its 137-year history.

First held in 1880 before settling into its permanent Del Mar digs in the 1930s, the fair is California’s largest — and one of the five biggest in North America. This year’s rendition welcomed 1,565,933 visitors in the 26 days between its June 2 kick-off and its fiery July 4 finale. That’s slightly less than the all-time high of 1,609,481 set last year. Before that, the busiest fair had been in 2012, when the turnstiles clicked 1,517,508 times.

Variety is and will always be the key to running a successful fair, said Tim Fennell, the fairgrounds’ CEO and general manager.

“One of the things that sets us apart is we do have something for everybody,” he said. “We try to present a very balanced fair, with something for everybody — whether that’s food and shopping or the exhibits or the concerts or coming out to see the livestock.”

Fairgrounds officials pored through a wide range of metrics on Sept. 12 at the monthly board meeting of the 22nd District Agricultural Association, which runs the state-owned fairgrounds. Guided by an increasing array of data points, they hope to sustain the fair’s bulging popularity into next year, the planning for which is well underway.

Food revenues reached $18.99 million this year, with the hungriest fairgoers coming on June 11, when they chomped down an average of $14.20 worth of grub. The Ferris wheel and other rides generated $10.41 million in sales, while $3.7 million more came from the 259,355 cars that parked at the fairgrounds.

Almost 5,400 people took this year’s post-fair survey, nearly twice as many as last year. The survey, which helps steer the strategy for next year, captures the bright spots as well as aspects that will need some attention.

For one, the fair is seeing more regulars: 86 percent said they attend every year, an increase of 3.1 percent over last year and nearly 6 percent over 2015.

And while headliners in this year’s Toyota Summer Concert Series included Patti LaBelle, LeAnn Rimes, Grand Funk Railroad and Toby Keith — whose June 9 concert was such a hit that fairgrounds officials are looking to put more emphasis on booking country acts — the survey suggests that it’s the fair’s scores of exhibits that are its biggest draw, as slightly more than 70 percent of respondents listed exhibits when asked why they attended.

But despite a growing emphasis on the festivals within the fair — especially its beer, liquor and wine events — far fewer respondents said that’s why they attended, tallying 46.8 percent after 54.7 percent in 2015 and 53.9 percent last year.

The appetite for the fair’s culinary offerings also appears to be waning, with 67.6 percent saying food was a draw compared to 72.5 percent in 2015. Food was also the most-cited item when respondents were asked what one thing they would change about the fair. (Parking, prices and traffic round out the other top wishes.)

Another underperformer was this year’s “Where the West is Fun” theme. The survey showed that the Wild West aesthetic didn’t resonate quite as much as last year’s Alice in Wonderland-meets-steampunk theme. Nearly 54 percent of respondents this year said the theme didn’t weigh at all in their decision to attend, while fewer than 25 percent said it had a “big” or “some” influence — significant departures from last year.

Fennell expects to announce the 2018 theme at the DAA’s Oct. 17 meeting.

“If you have a great theme, more people come out. A lot of fairs have a slogan and they call it a theme, but here we take it from the front gate to the back gate and everywhere in between. It keeps things fresh and helps us reinvent the fair every year,” he said. “Next year’s will be good, trust me.”