It's the kind of midway incident every fair manager dreads. On the second Thursday of the North Carolina State Fair, as riders began to disembark from the Vortex, the pendulum-swing ride suddenly re-started, jolting riders and causing serious injuries. Five of the passengers required hospitalization.
"The ride had stopped and they were fixing to offload when it started off again," said Donnie Harrison, Wake County Sheriff. "After inspection of the ride, we determined that it had been tampered with and critical safety devices were compromised."
The investigation initially led to an arrest of the ride operator, an employee of Family Attractions Amusement Company, who owns the Vortex. On November 8, Joshua Gene Macaroni surrendered to Wake County police on three felony assault charges. Marcaroni is the son of Dominic and Ruby Macaroni, owners of Family Attractions Amusement Company. In a statement, the company said "The owners are devastated by this accident and send their thoughts and prayers to those injured at the North Carolina State Fair."
The North Carolina State Fair midway has 108 rides. Powers Great American Midways is the midway operator of the fair, a role the company has held since 2006. Powers Great American Midways has not been named or implicated in the investigation.
"Literally seconds after the accident, we had emergency people on the scene," said Wesley V. Wyatt, Fair Manager, North Carolina State Fair. "We had them at the hospital in minutes. You tell yourself it could have been worse. We had never had anything like that happen before."
The investigation kept the incident - and the fair - in the news. When Wyatt was interviewed for this article, with the investigation still ongoing, he could not comment further on the accident. Instead of the usual subjects of state-pride and seasonal family fun that media coverage usually features about a state fair, the end of the North Carolina's event was completely dominated by the follow up stories on this horrific accident. In fact, a week later, just when the negative publicity started to dissipate, a second incident, resulted in "traumatic injury" of an employee dismantling another ride, also called "Vortex," prolonging the negative news related to the fair.
The accidents, the investigations and the lack of immediately satisfying answers to the causes of the malfunction, seem mainly responsible for a dip of more than 7,000 in attendance to the North Carolina State Fair. Attendance for 2013 was 927,563. In 2012, attendance was 965,297.
While the 2013 attendance drop is noteworthy, recent years have not been kind to the North Carolina Fair, which had a peak attendance in 2010 of 1.1 million, but since then has unsuccessfully struggled to sustain those figures. "There are a lot of economic factors in the state" says Wyatt. In addition, the North Carolina State Fair is a division of the North Carolina Department of Agriculture & Consumer Services, a part of the state government of North Carolina. Budget shortfalls and cutbacks at the state level have taken their toll on fair operations.
"The federal government shutdown also had a huge impact, people were furloughed and they were not sure if they were getting paid," he said. North Carolina, especially the Raleigh region, has a lot of military bases and federal employees. "What we could control went very well. When you have that many people on a small campus, and those basic things of toilets flushing and lights working and trash being removed all went well, you're doing a good job. But nobody really notices that."
Marketing & Promotion
The 2013 edition of the North Carolina State Fair actually was a slightly confusing though noteworthy milestone. This year was the "160th anniversary of the 1st fair, but the 146th fair," said Wyatt . While the first North Carolina State fair was in 1853, is there were several years the fair was suspended, mainly due to the Civil War, World War I and World War II. "We generally celebrate the actual number of fairs that have been held, but we didn't want to exclude the fact that this year was an anniversary of the first fair," said Wyatt.
While little could be done to circumvent the negative publicity of a midway accident, successful promotions may have made attendance healthier than it might have been otherwise. Wyatt noted two promotions - advance ride sheets at a 45 percent discount, and "partnering with the Wake County Public School System, we offered group admission prices to schools. Once a buyer entered his/her school code into the system as they were purchasing tickets, we could record that and $2 from every adult ticket and $1 from every child's ticket would be returned to the school for their use."
The fair's advertising budget was $385,000. "Our mix can be broken into thirds, 1/3 to cable and broadcast television spots, 1/3 to digital spots, and 1/3 shared by radio and print," said Wyatt "We have been expanding our electronic and digital presence. We also ran ads on streaming music sites, like Pandora. We also advertised with Google and with banner ads on the websites of radio and television stations."
The marketing took into account old-school broadcasting and new school point-casting and segmented outreach, with emphasis on quantity. "We are using more advertising outlets, both large and small," said Wyatt.
In addition, the fair expanded its social media presence through Facebook, Twitter, Instagram, YouTube, Flickr and its own Deep Fried Blog. "Our two most successful social media campaigns this year included our photo countdown to the Fair, and "Where Am I Wednesday" series that challenged fans and followers to guess where on the fairgrounds an extreme close-up photo had been taken," said Wyatt.
Sell Out Shows
According to Wyatt, the fair had a successful concert series. The concerts, whose ticket prices range from $5 to $25, are held at the 5,100 capacity Dorton Arena and included: Sister Hazel, Building 429 & Francesca Battistelli, Joe Nichols, Florida Georgia Line, Scotty McCreery, Dailey & Vincent, Who's Bad, the Ultimate Michael Jackson Tribute Band, MercyMe, Randy Houser and the Eli Young Band. "Florida Georgia Line sold out in less than 7 minutes when tickets went on sale, said Wyatt. "Randy Houser came very close to a sell-out crowd by the time the doors opened on that show."
Fair cuisine was also a highlight of the Tar Heel state event, which featured 120 independent food vendors. The deep fried pork BBQ eggroll with slaw and Krispy Kreme sloppy joe were popular items. Wyatt noted another delectable item enticing fairgoers was, "the Double Decker Doozy, a double candy apple covered in sweet treats."
Wyatt added that the agricultural component of the fair, its original mission more than a half a century ago, showed a renewed vigor this year. "We changed the exhibition format, which attracted more of the general public. North Carolina has a vital agricultural industry and people come here for the competitions. Those exhibits and events were well attended, people come for fun and education."
In spite of a serious midway accident, whose repercussions are still being felt, the North Carolina State Fair had many successful aspects and Wyatt remains steadfast in his upbeat attitude . "Except for one day where the temperatures at night went into the 30s, we had great weather and there are a lot of positives. The grounds and facilities are open all year-round and overall bookings are good. It's hard to bounce back from the type of incident we had, but we did and next year the fair will be better."