Threats, both natural and man-made, loomed over the 2013 edition of the Georgia National Fair. While meteorologists warned of the potential of a tropical storm making land fall in the southeast , the October 3-13 festival of farming also coincided with a federal government shut down. The fair itself is not a federal program of course, but the squabble in Washington D.C. that forced a 17-day closure of government offices, also meant employees had to go on furlough. With so military bases and other government offices within its prime market, what the impact on the event would be was unknown.
As luck would have it, fears were allayed. The storm stayed off-shore - although there were two days of rain - and the government shut down resulted in no apparent affect on attendance, which recorded a small but noteworthy uptick. "The fair went well, we were up in spite of the threat of the storm and the government furloughs," said Michele Treptow, CFE. Director of Communications, Georgia National Fairgrounds & Agricenter.
The problem with the government shutdown was that as the nation headed into uncharted legislative waters, the surrounding news coverage created an atmosphere of hysteria. What the ramifications would be had fair organizers anxiously waiting with fingers crossed. "All sorts of things were possible, with the threat to the economy and the people receiving furloughs," said Treptow. "There were the same worries the year of the September 11th attacks, you just don't know how people will react. But in the end, everyone recognized the fair as a safe place and good value. The fair proved to be a respite for families from all of what was going on."
The fair attendance was 449,885, an increase of approximately 1 percent, or about 4,490 more people than last year. In these days of cutbacks and attendance declines, even small increases are both notable and welcomed. Plus, it shows the fair attendance continues in the right direction. "This Fair's performance was extremely satisfying in light of the turmoil going on around us," said Randy Moore, executive director. "Fairgoers in search of an escape turned to our traditional, agriculture-centered Fair."
Fair attendance highlights also included the best Tuesday and best second Thursday on record. In actuality, incremental increases in attendance have been the case for this celebration of Georgia agriculture since 2010, indicating that the post-recession resurgence for the event has been sustainable.
The state-sponsored Georgia National Fair started in 1990, and while barely an adolescent in fair-years, the National Georgia Fair is considered not just the largest fair in the state of Georgia, it has been one of the fastest growing fairs in the industry as well as the recipient of an astounding amount of accolades, including being designated a "Top 50 Fair" by Amusement Business magazine and carnivalwarehouse.com. The Georgia National Fair has won 93 awards from the International Association of Fairs and Expositions for its livestock and horse events, competitive exhibits, and communications programs. In addition, it was named a "Top 20 Event for October" 15 times by the Southeast Tourism Society and was designated as one of "Our Best 202 Things About the South" by Southern Living magazine.
The Georgia state legislature founded the fair - and about 12 percent of it's budget is derived from state funds, the remainder coming from fair admission fees, sponsorships and other operational revenue. The agriculture roots of the fair - and the importance of the fair as a high-profile showcase of the industry, the main impetus behind the formation of the event - were reinforced this year with the debut of Georgia Grown, a 20,000-square-foot building sanctioned and funded by the state, where Georgia grown and made products were sold.
"The Georgia Grown building was well received by Fairgoers," Moore said. "It was an opportunity for the public to appreciate and understand the value of agribusiness to Georgia."
"Peaches, Peanuts and Pecans," joked Treptow, who was also quick to point out that the bounty for sale at the new emporium far exceeded those three Georgia-famous food items Much of the popularity of the Georgia Grown complex during its freshman year can also be attributed to the fact this retail showcase effectively dovetails with the very hot foodie trend of locavore cuisine. "The local food movement, the farm-to-table meals and people trying to eat healthier show how much of interest in fresh and locally produced foods," said Treptow. "Our research shows that people are coming to the fair for the traditional fair events, and it's not just people in farming. People are interested in the food and the activities, the things here you can't see anywhere else, even at other fairs in the state. They don't have the same agricultural emphasis that we do."
Affordability is a key priority for the fair, underscoring its family appeal. The most successful promotions were discounted admissions and ride armbands as well as a two days of free admissions for military personnel and their families. Only two nights of paid-concerts were held, both current and/or rising country super stars: Hunter Hayes (CMA New Artist and Grammy Nominee) and Love & Theft; and Justin Moore with Thompson Square (CMA & ACM Vocal Duo of the Year). Free concerts included an oldies show featuring the "Original" Coasters, Drifters, and Platters; Colby Dee; The Atlanta Pleasure Band; Redhead Express; and "Divas Through The Decades", a stage show presenting songs by Patsy Cline, Diana Ross and the Supremes, Tina Turner, Gloria Estefan, Shania Twain, Dolly Parton and Carrie Underwood.
"The big name acts this summer were just too expensive, and when we did have them more nights, our attendance was a little higher," said Treptow. "But when the recession hit, our funding was cut so we cannot afford as many big names, because we want to keep the tickets affordable and we do not want to go higher than $30. It is more important to provide good-value to all our fair goers, we had more than 30 acts including a lot of free music."
Strolling acts include a new version of Shenaniguns!, a "cowboy vs. desperado" old-west comedy act, Rhymin' Simon the Peddalin' Poet, a verse-maker who makes up "positive" rhymes on the spot using visitors name, and Washboard Willy, an interactive act that combines music, sound effects and comedy. Treptow seeing the washboard impresario being followed around by an enthusiastic crowd of young adults said "It was very impromptu, All ages love Washboard Willy, he is the type of entrainment you only see at the fair. Teenagers and young adults love the special things that can only be found here."
Treptow would not disclose the fair's advertising budget, but she said "we did see an increase from the state. We rely on the state for our advertising and marketing budget, and that has been going down in recent years, but this year we saw a small increase."
How much of the uptick in attendance is attributable to the marketing budget increase, Treptow declined to speculate about. The Georgia National Fair did expand its social media platform, particularly on Facebook and Twitter, and offered a Mobile App, "which was very popular," Treptow added. "The social media worked best for promotions, which we were able to post and got immediate feedback."
Otherwise, the media mix tended to be the same "Traditional newspaper, radio and television. Online we did more behavior and contextual advertising," said Treptow. "We did increase slightly our billboards. Billboards work the best for us, especially in the Atlanta area." The fair is approximately 85 miles from Atlanta.
Reithoffer Shows is the midway provider. "They took a chance on us 24 years ago, and so we are loyal to them," explained Treptow. "The Rethoffer midway is very popular, safe, clean and professional. They have everything from kiddie rides for small children to big Ferris Wheels. Two new rides were an Artic Blast ride and a Space Roller, which was a super spectacular type ride with large arms that twist and turns in different ways, it looks like five rides in one. The Midway is the highest grossing part of the fair."
Coming after school has started - the state legislator mandated the mid-October timeline because it was after harvest time and because the Georgia summer weather can be too hot for extensive recreational activities during the day - the fair runs writing competitions for 4th, 5th and 6th graders around the fair's annual tagline - "There's Magic in the Fair" was the 2013 promotional hook. "We want to involve all ages in the fair and the writing competition was very popular," said Treptow.
The Georgia National Fair may be the new kid on the block for the fair industry, but it has already established itself as a Peach State tradition. "We are starting to see second and third generations of fairgoers. The millenials that come came here when they were kids," said Treptow. "We've always provided a good quality product and worked to maintain that reputation. We meet expectations, exceed those expectations, give good value for the dollar and make sure the experience is favorable to families."