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Tennessee Valley Fair: Surprise after surprise


By Linda Van Slyke

Photo courtesy of TN Valley Fair

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The Tennessee Valley, thus named because it serves as a drainage basin for the Tennessee River, actually encompasses areas within a number of states:  Tennessee, Virginia, North Carolina, Georgia, Mississippi, Alabama and Kentucky.  Key cities within this overall region include Knoxville and Chattanooga in Tennessee, plus Huntsville and Muscle Shoals in Alabama.
Wikipedia explains that Knoxville is "the most populous metropolitan area in the valley," as well as the location of the Tennessee Valley Fair (and its precursors) for over 90 years.  Sarah Thompson, Director of Public Relations & Advertising for the fair, is very proud of what she calls "our spunky little city."  And rightfully so...
It turns out that Knoxville, past and present, is filled with surprises.  Did you knoPhoto By TN Valley Fairw, for example, that Knoxville was "occupied alternately by both Confederate and Union armies" during the Civil War?  That it was the site of the World's Fair in 1982? 
That Blount County, just south of the city, was once a hub of abolitionist activity?  That Knoxvillians very vigorously pursued the creation of a national park in the Smoky Mountains?  That Knoxville remains a "repository of Appalachian culture" to this day?
The Knoxville area has long been a center for innovative science and technology.  The Tennessee Valley Authority, signed into being by then-President Franklin Delano Roosevelt, 

"provided much of the electricity needed for uranium enrichment at Oak Ridge, Tennessee, asrequired for the Manhattan Project."  (Yes, the Manhattan Project...)  
These are just a few of the eye-openers that this part of the world has to offer.  The Tennessee Valley Fair is especially proud of its Eastern Tennessee heritage and prioritizes it's showcasing.  While doing so, it provides hundreds of jobs and hundreds of thousands of tourism dollars to Knox County each year.
Sarah Thompson, herself  "from this area," also emphasized its rich country-music tradition.  She pointed out that Kenny Chesney was born in Knoxville and has played at the fair.  When Randy Travis was "first big," he too was there.  Thompson enthusiastically reported, "We have a great tradition of having some of the best country concerts around...  We tend to focus on country artists, especially the new ones who are on their way up."
Two of the wonderful headliners from this year's fair were Randy Houser (who had a "sell-out crowd" and was "so fabulous to work with") and Lee Brice (who also had an "awesome crowd" even though a "huge thunderstorm" had rolled through right before his show). 
Thompson said that this year's gate admission price was $9, which has been "the same for the past three years."  She added that "most things other than the rides and the food are free."  This overall deal even includes general-admission seats for the headliner concerts (on a first-come, first-served basis).
TN Valley FairThe admission fee also includes "a hypnotist, a magician, a juggler, all the exhibits, a Kiddie Land Fun Tent, a Princess Party with live Disney characters, arts and crafts where the kids can come in and make something to take home from the fair, and so much more."
Thompson continued, "We have 3,200 contests, and there's a huge variety of events you can enter. For children we have a Lego Extravaganza.  We did a Pinterest Interest contest that was huge this year.  We try to come up with themes that are different from the traditional cooking and quilting ones."
One particularly unique contest, Bedazzle Your Bra & Cap for the Cure, was launched in 2010 and is still going strong.  Thompson explained, "One of our fabulous volunteers is a breast cancer survivor, and she came up with this idea for a contest that could give the money back to
Susan G. Komen."
"There are about 75 bras on exhibit, and each year they get funnier.  There's a Dynasty bra, a Kermit the Frog bra, etc.  People who enter have usually been affected by breast cancer in one way or another.  This gives them something real positive that they can participate in while going through what they're going through."
The Tennessee Valley Fair also has its very own version of Andy Griffith's Mayberry.  Although only a two-hour event, it packs a wallop (as Andy might say).   TVF's Mayberry Day includes a whistling contest, a pie-eating contest, and "a local Barney Fife who is spot on from Don Knotts' character."
TN Valley FairThe midway was provided by Wade Shows, and Thompson stated that "it was their 11th year here."  She added, "They bring between 50 and 55 rides each year.  The Big Wheel with the LED lights is a real favorite - it's something all kinds of people can enjoy because it doesn't shake you up all over the place.  Especially at night, there's something real magical about seeing it all lit up."
Thompson reported, "We had an awesome year this year, which was our 94th annual fair.  We experienced a 12,000-guest increase over 2012, which was a very solid year as well.  We're still in the process of tabulating our exact totals, but right now we're looking at about 153,000 for 2013.  We're really pleased each year to see the fair continue to grow."
She attributes a lot of this success to the power of social media.  Thompson explained, "I was reaching, on average, 190,000 - 200,000 individuals per week with my efforts on Facebook.  The strategic use of Facebook is really just invaluable.  It's not free because it takes a lot of effort to run it, but it's invaluable to us."

Thompson takes her role as a "PR practitioner" quite seriously, and sums up her marketing philosophy with these words:  "I'm always trying to let people know that fairs in general are extremely important.  Some fairs are dying, and it's very important that communities rally around them.  At the heart of each fair is agriculture, and we really need to support our farmers.  After all, where else can urban families come in, pet a cow, and begin to understand where all their food is coming from?" 


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