Barrett-Jackson: Fairgrounds were 'not profitable'

Though the Barrett-Jackson car auction's first three years at the Orange County Fairgrounds showed signs of success, officials said the cards just weren't in place for a fourth year to happen.

The overhead was too high for a sufficient profit margin at the Costa Mesa venue and an optimal 2013 date couldn't be arranged, said Craig H. Jackson, chairman and CEO of the Scottsdale, Ariz.-based auction house.

"We've loved the community and the area," Jackson said. "If they build a bigger building, we'll come back to the venue. But there are a lot of venues we can go to."

Barrett-Jackson has received offers from elsewhere in the meantime, he said.

He wouldn't specify if the auction is coming back to another part of Orange County or to Southern California, only that an announcement will be made in January.

Jackson said his organization — which dubs itself as having the "world's greatest collector car auctions" — was looking for its usual late-June date in Orange County. He wanted to avoid the "June gloom" earlier in the month, but found the rest of the month wasn't working out either.

June 15 and 16 is Father's Day weekend, which wasn't optimal, and because Barrett-Jackson relies on its television coverage from the Speed channel, Jackson said, June 22 and 23 were out too. Speed will be covering Le Mans, the famed 24-hour endurance race in France, during that time.

Later dates were out because the fairgrounds preps for the Orange County Fair in July, and having it at earlier dates would be too close for comfort to Barrett-Jackson's auction in Palm Beach, Fla., in April.

"This is bittersweet," Jackson said. "I wanted this to work, but there were a lot of things that collided at the same time with Le Mans."

Barrett-Jackson not renewing its year-to-year contract is an expected $500,000 loss for the fairgrounds, said Jerome Hoban, CEO of the O.C. Fair and Event Center.

"It was a surprise to us," Hoban said of Barrett-Jackson's decision. "We were working on what weekend [the event] was going to be, but they had concluded within their camp that it was not profitable."

The car auction, which the fairgrounds had hosted since 2010, was one of the facility's biggest events of the year, he said.

About $14 million in sales came from the July auction, organizers said at the time, with nearly 54,000 people attending the three-day event.

Phil Neri, Barrett-Jackson's vice president of sales and marketing, in a letter to Hoban was complimentary of fairgrounds staff.

"Despite our joint efforts to drive attendance and bring sufficient attention to the event in a very busy area of Southern California, we have been in a negative position for three straight years," Neri wrote. "Like the fairgrounds, we are in business to achieve a profit.

"The relationship and partnership with the fairgrounds has been stellar. This decision was very difficult on our side ... "

Kim Glen, marketing director for the Costa Mesa Conference and Visitor Bureau, said her organization has had a "really good relationship with Barrett-Jackson. We know they love the city of Costa Mesa and enjoy working with us."

"We're optimistic that they'll come back," she added.

Hoban echoed the sentiment and said he was hopeful for a 2014 Barrett-Jackson event in Costa Mesa.

He called their decision "not a goodbye, just a delay for 2013."


Tent woes

On the first day of the Orange County 2010 event, Barrett-Jackson seemed to be too big for its new venue, Jackson said.

The auction was using the newly opened Hangar, a building reminiscent of an airplane hangar and gymnasium. The Hangar's doors were opened to an extension tent that overflowed outside.

The fairgrounds people have "been great to work with, but the problem is we outgrew the Hangar the first year," Jackson said.

Then, finding that rental tent too small, Barrett-Jackson officials decided to use their own "tent" — one that was 200 feet wide, 63 feet high and some 200 yards long. The facility, which housed the cars up for auction, was used in 2011 and 2012 on the fairgrounds' parking lot.

But setting up, maintaining and transporting that tent from its storage place in Arizona was costly, as were aspects like air conditioning, heating and lighting, Jackson said. It all cut into the bottom line. There were some tensions with the fire marshal.

Jackson said he had hoped the 2013 setup could be like the first year and utilize a rented tent that overflowed from the Hangar into what's now called the Main Mall section of the fairgrounds.

But fair officials didn't seem keen on allowing a sufficient tent, which would need anchoring holes drilled on the now-stylized concrete of the Main Mall, Jackson said.

A tent larger than the 2010 one, pending the fire marshal's approval, may have been possible after exploring other anchoring options, Hoban said.

"It's certainly not a non starter," he said.

Jackson said he didn't want the fourth Orange County event to be downgraded from its previous years.

"Either we do it our way, Barrett-Jackson-style, or we don't do it," he said.

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