A Washington D.C. Suburb growing in population that often seems more culturally progressive than the rest of the stage, Fairfax Virginia is unique. Not surprisingly, the county has a unique county fair, that has long combined typical fair elements of rides, fair foods and agricultural exhibits with a full-throttle festival that includes Alt-Rock headliners, eight stages of entertainment, and a Silent Disco.
Celebrate Fairfax! Festival is a mash-up of a local fair with Coachella but also a family-friendly event on a 25-acre intimate fairground that had by all accounts a successful 2017 edition.
Attendance ranged around 75,000 and event organizers claimed that attendance had increased over last year,
although exact figures were not available. However, other metrics such as an increase in sponsorships and beer sales, about $139,000 beating a previous record by $20,000 .
Attendance is difficult to exactly quantify because the fair sells several different ticket packages, including unlimited ride wristbands and VIP experiences for the headline acts. About 40 percent of the ticket sales are online, which Barry Feil, President & CEO, Celebrate Fairfax! Festival describes as "rain-proof money, and that has been rising.
"We are thrilled with this year's fair," said Feil. "Every year this Festival exceeds our expectations in some way because we are constantly making changes and trying out new programs."'
The 2017 Celebrate Fairfax! Festival was the 36th edition of the fair, younger than many similarly-sized fairs in Virginia. The event's original moniker was the more traditional Fairfax County Fair (and it is often referred to simply as the fair), but according to Feil, about 15 years ago, with agriculture not the driving economic force in the community, the annual celebration of Fairfax rebranded its event. "Celebrate Fairfax! Festival better reflects the hybrid event that we are half country fair and half music festival."
This year's main headliners were Bush and Everclear, bands that not only have a following, especially among the young families headed by Gen-X parents, but a history of performing at the event. "We chose bands that will bring in the beer revenue," he said. However, booking headliners was "more difficult this year, it gets tougher each year and prices are increasing."
He credits East Coast Entertainment, a Richmond, VA-based talent agency for finding the right acts, but like other fairs and comparable outdoor events, competition and radius clauses continue to cause entertainment price inflation. "The DC area is very competitive, but there's also a new casino that opened in Maryland, and there's a festival in Delaware and their radius clauses cover us."
But Feil insists that "you make your own luck."
Big names may bring them in the door - the attraction is that for a $15 gate admission you are seeing bands that usually charge tickets of $50 or more - but the Celebrate Fairfax! Festival features eight stages and more than 130 acts, which in addition to a children's stage are mainly other musical acts that have local, regional and online streaming popularity. The opposite scenario occurs, instead of the intensive seller's market that fairs and festivals booking headliners must endure, the non-headliners are "most definitely a buyers market."
More than 2,000 applications were received for the 130 spots. "It is totally the opposite problem for the non-headliners," he said. "People come here for all the music."
The typical night's format - which smoothly blends the fair and festival components of the event - highlights the headliners that bring in the other entertainment parts.
Usually the bands start at 8:00 and after their approximately 90 minute set, the nightly fireworks go off, the midway reopens and the other stages of the festival present live music. "We want to overwhelm with them an experience, to give all our customers the best time ever," said Feil. "At night, the entire fair changes, we have great shows, fireworks, concerts starting on four other stages. We want them to have trouble deciding to leave. Our goal is to have return visits."
"Everything is top notch with the Celebrate Fairfax! Festival, the advertising, the sponsorships, and the community really came out to support them this year," said Dominic Vivona of Amusements of America.
"They do a great online ticket sales, especially the wrist bands. The carnival company has been the Fairfax midway provider for more than two decades, predating the renaming to highlight the festival aspect of the event. "It's more like a city fair than a county fair, and it's a more lie a festival. There is a very different atmosphere."
The Amusements of America midway featured 40 rides - the footprint is smaller than other fairs, the festival being essentially situated on a parking lot. "It is a challenge, but once it is set up, the flow works really well, between the rides, the Kiddieland, the food court area, there are sidewalks between the different areas, we had a great flow."
The new ride for the Celebrate Fairfax! Festival was a new Free Fall and Sky Fall. Vivona estimated that the midway revenue was up approximately 10 percent. "We had a very good year, it wasn't a record. People seemed to be spending more than they did."
Feil pointed out that the closing Sunday of the fair saw the return of the dreaded Virginia heat, with temperatures in the 90s, which negatively impacted attendance. "It was horrendous, you are always competing with the weather. On Sunday you are competing with family activities, people are staying at their pools or in air conditioned houses. But the people at the fair seemed to be going on the rides though, the midway did well."
Although Fairfax county is often seen as an upper middle class area, that demographic can be misleading. The economy and workforce are more mixed in Fairfax than the media might lead one to believe, and Feil said that the "economy is status quo. We are certainly not seeing what we saw in 2006 and 2007 but I do sense people are more overly cautious this year. Once people are out, they spend money but they are wary about how they spend money, and I don't know if it's our current political situation or that people are just worried. A large part of our county living check to check is the norm, even though other areas of the county have a very high average income."
Craft and artisanal beers are all the rage, and a new feature at the festival was the Sunday Brew, which showcased 13 local and regional breweries, and included two stages of non-stop entertainment and other beer-focused activities and exhibits. "We didn't do as well with the Sunday Brew, but it was the first year and it was on our worse weather day. But we always try something new at the fair and we will do it again next year and we will do it better."
The fair featured 33 vendors, designated in two food court sections (an additional eight food vendors were brought in by Amusements of America. Feil pointed out that "Two of our vendors this year were featured on the Cooking Channel show Carnival Eats - Phat Boyz Catering and Stay Cheesy Food Truck."
The hot food item was a new cuisine innovation -Chocolate Moonshine's fudge, which sold ¼ pound servings of fudge, "both regular and alcohol infused."
He added, "we had an Indian food truck that was new and did really well. With the food trucks, we only want to do a few of them. We have a niche with our traditional fair foods. Food trucks are a big part of culture, but we try to limit them."
Nonetheless, food spending was up. "Anecdotally, I heard from food vendors and all of them did really well this year, sales were up, food spending was up."
For families, the fair featured a Children's Avenue that may not have agricultural exhibits of other fairs, but this more 30,000-square-foot area features a Robotics Pavilion, S.T.E.A.M.( Science, Technology, Engineering, the Arts and Mathematics) works tent, children's crafts and a Thomas the Tank Play area. "Parents are starved to do things with their family, and they come here for a good value, and stay six hours. We work very hard to keep our programming fresh every year."