Attendance and spending increases over the previous year may be the minimum any fair strives towards. For the North Carolina State Fair, which ran October 16 -12, achieving just these modest goals also ensured the future of the fair. Last year, a midway accident and resulting negative publicity precipitated a drop of more than 30,000 attendees to the fair.
In 2014, the North Carolina State Fair - The October Original, as its new marketing campaign claimed - sought to reestablish its reputation as a safe and fun, family friendly event. And it seems that overall, they succeeded in putting this 161-year tradition (technically 2014 was the 147th North Carolina State Fair) back into a positive light. "We had gorgeous weather here in North Carolina for all 11 days of the Fair, "said Wesley Wyatt, Fair Manager
. "We saw an uptick in the number of attendees from 2013. We saw a small increase in spending. We had a safe, happy crowd, and we can't ask for much more than that."
Attendance was 929,748 (2013 was 927,563. In 2012, attendance was 965,297). Final numbers for spending were not available at the time of this report, and while there may be more work ahead for the fair to return to the 2012 levels (or its 2010 high of more than one million attendees), at least the fair significantly nullified the negative publicity. Last year, the Vortex, a pendulum-swing ride suddenly re-started after the ride was completed, jolting disembarking riders; five of the passengers required hospitalization. An investigation led to an arrest of the ride operator, an employee of Family Attractions Amusement Company, who owns the Vortex and subcontracted with Powers Great American Midways, who provides the midway. Powers Great American Midways was not named or implicated in the investigation.
Although the incident did impede last year's fair, damage to the reputation of the fair was greatly mitigated by the fact that an individual ride operator - not fair protocols of safety standards - were at fault. "People have kept in mind two things about the accident in 2013," said Wyatt. "It was a senseless tragedy and an isolated incident caused by someone intentionally overriding the safety mechanisms on the ride. Two people affiliated with the ride subcontractor stand charged in connection with the incident. After looking at our numbers for the 2014 N.C. State Fair, we believe the public understands this, and it did not dissuade a great turn out at this year's fair."
On the plus side, the response to the incident received deserved commendations. " From the response times of our law enforcement and emergency management partners, we couldn't have asked for better teamwork," said Wyatt. "You never really know if the plans you have down on paper for an emergency situation will work until you are in the unfortunate position of putting them into action. Thankfully, ours did."
Following last year's fair, organizers of the North Carolina State Fair underwent a comprehensive reexamination of its relationship with its midway provider. The result was a significant realignment of its midway contracts, and a new initiative to keep subcontracting to a minimum. "We looked critically at our carnival contract, and found places we could enhance what we were already doing to provide a safe, family-friendly event for North Carolinians," said Wyatt.
The most obvious new change is dramatically increased oversight of the midway. New stipulations include that 30 days prior to the start of the fair, a list with complete contact information of all persons and businesses supplying rides, games or concessions - the previous requirement was 14 days - must be given to the fair manage; the midway contractor also must provide copies of all insurance certificates from subcontractors as well as safety inspection reports performed by the insurance carrier and from the last fair played; and the provider must conduct criminal background checks and drug tests of all employees of the contractor and subcontractors.
The new contracting gives more authority - and responsibly - for the midway to the State Fair manager. Wyatt and his staff now determine all ride classifications - such as deciding which ride will be called spectacular, major or kiddie, what the height requirement for each ride will be, and the amount of tickets are required for each ride. Previously, these requirements were determined solely by the midway provider.
The amount of midway rides (there were 98 this year, compared to 108 in 2014), were also decreased by the new contracting procedures, in turn achieving the desired goal of reducing the number of subcontractors for the midway. "By lessening our base requirement for rides, it reduces Powers' need to bring in sub-contractors," said Wyatt. "This his year, Wade Shows and Dreamland Amusements were the only two sub-contractors at the fair, and Dreamland was only responsible for one ride."
Revenue Heads Up
Fewer subcontractors, revamped safety protocols, and fewer - but bigger rides - seems to have paid off. The fair midway revenue increased in 2014, although the payment system unique to North Carolina makes for a complicated calculation. According to Wyatt, the North Carolina State Fair receives a flat rate per paid admission. "For this, year, we would have received $3,665,110.80 based on a paid attendance of 704,829. This was an increase. Last year's paid admission was based on 699,434 people."
Fairgoers also experienced a new midway, reflecting the internal changes taking place at the midway level and further erasing last year's misfortune from the memory. This upgrade to the midway include five major new rides premiering at the fair: Inversion (Khaos), Delusion, Fly-O-Plane, Spin Zone and Comet 2. The Top five grossing rides for the fair were (in order) 1)Hit in 2000; 2) RC 48 Coaster; 3) Giant Wheel #1; 4) Giant Wheel #2 and 5) Enterprise.
A new promotion for the midway was offering "ride sheets at regular price this year online during the Fair," said Wyatt. "This was a first for us, and was a suggestion we had by fairgoers who wanted to purchase them for their children to bring with them instead of cash. We sold 4,547 sheets during the fair, or $81,846. We expect this to grow in future years."
The North Carolina State Fair featured 150 food vendors, plus 28 food concessionaires contracted for the midway. The leading sellers for the North Carolina State Fair were Deep Fried Bananas Foster - deep-fried bananas served with caramel sauce and vanilla ice cream; Twinx -Twinkie, stuffed with a Twix Bar, wrapped in bacon and deep fried; and BBQ Poppers - BBQ jalapeno peppers wrapped in bacon and deep fried. According to Wyatt, these three new items were strong sellers, and "really got fairgoers talking," he said.
A new surprise for the food selection was a fresh fruit, smoothie vendor "Tropical Delights," an item more suitable to a summer fair but surprisingly popular for the October North Carolina event. "They served fresh fruit smoothies in whole pineapples," said Wyatt. "They were unusual for us as a cooler weather fair, and were a big hit."
The October Original
The marketing theme/tagline for the fair: "The October Original" also helped change the fair discussion away from last year's accident. The fair's marketing shifted towards the unique aspects - attractions, entertainment, food, exhibits and competitions. This new focus many not have been entirely due to the 2013 incident, but Wyatt admitted that the Vortex mishap "did guide how we promoted the fair," he said, with a new emphasis being placed on celebrating the Tar Heel State, i.e. experiences "you find here that you wouldn't find anywhere else," he said.
For example, the theme was able to better promote the arts and crafts exhibits and vendors that North Carolina is known for, as opposed to "just the thrill-based carnival rides. Our staff and ad agency threw ideas back and forth in January, and we decided together this year we wanted a theme that highlighted the fair the whole experience of the fair, all our positive. The North Carolina Fair was always unique in the offering arts and crafts."
The fair's advertising budget was only slightly increased. The media buy for the fair was $479,000, which broken out by medium is: TV: $154,000; Radio: $82,425; Print: $12,425; Digital: $123,000; and Out of Home: $107,150.
Most notably, the fair expanded its social media presence to now include Facebook, Twitter, Instagram, YouTube, Flickr, and a Deep Fried Blog. The Facebook following increased from 55,000 to 105,000. "We put the majority of our effort in building engagement with our followers," said Wyatt. "An engaged fan base is one that will purchase tickets and come out to enjoy the fair, while also spreading the word to their family and friends."
Some of the social media only promotions include: Win it Wednesday, which gave away prizes ranging from concert tickets to rides and food items, and it ran every Wednesday from August to October. "We also renamed all of our photo op points, "selfie stations" during the Fair and gave fairgoers hashtags to use to tag us in their selfies," said Wyatt. "We also picked a fair fan photo of the day to promote engagement."
The fair features a grandstand, a venue used for Tractor Pull, Demolition Derby and BMX bike show. The concert series is held in the 5,000+ Dorton Arena, with ticket prices ranging from a nominal $5 to a high of $17 for Trace Adkins. Performers included Vanilla Ice, Tamela Mann, Clay Walker, Parmalee, Love & Theft, James Gregory, Brandy Clark, McClain & Before You Exit, Newsboys, Trace Adkins, and Joan Jett & the Blackhearts. "We keep the prices low and the concerts affordable," said Wyatt. The best selling shows were Newsboys, who sold out pre fair and Tamela Mann, who came within 200 seats of a sellout.
"Based on concert ticket revenue, attendee gate admission purchases and attendee carnival per cap, the concert series was profitable this year," said Wyatt. "It served to draw people back to the fair."
However, booking entertainment is an increasing challenge for the fair, and has long been far from a buyer's market. "Entertainment is always a sellers' market," said Wyatt. The October schedule of the fair seemed especially problematic because many acts had completed their Summer tours but haven't started their winter tours, making 2014 autumn routing through North Carolina a little trickier. "The one thing we did notice this year as compared to many in the past was routing," he said. "With our fair being in October, many acts have finished their summer touring and are waiting to hear what their winter schedule will look like. This can prove difficult as far as ticketed entertainment goes."