"It's nice to start a new event, get good weather and good customers," said John Strates, Director of Operations, Strates Shows. "The Horry County Fair met all our expectations, there were a lot of positives. We're looking forward to playing it next year and the years to come."
In April, South Carolina was the setting for rarity in the world of county fairs - a new county fair. The Horry County Fair -with its Strates Midway, agricultural exhibits, fair food and other Americana attractions that exemplify a regional fair -was presented on the 48-acre Myrtle Beach Speedway.
According to Steve Zacharias, General Manager, Myrtle Beach Speedway the man who acted as fair manager, there was a Horry County Fair, but he was unsure of when that event faded away. His best guess was just after the turn of the 21st century, more than a decade and a half ago. "When the new fair was being announced, people were talking about how they loved the old fair," said Zacharias.
While the new Horry County Fair was filled with fair traditions - rides, fair food, kids having fun, etc. - the main impetus was not nostalgia for or a revival of a long lost fair, but an expansion of the speedway's event activity.
"We're trying to better use the Myrtle Beach Speedway, we did our research, there was a need in an April time frame for families who wanted actives. The struggle was finding the right group to contract with."
That "group" turned out to be Strates Shows, a story that begins in 2014. Speedway officials began kicking around the idea of the fair more than two years ago, which included research and on the recommendation of a concessionaire, Zacharias contacted the Strates Shows organization. Strates was able to fit the date into their route heading north and the fair was close to becoming a reality.
Myrtle Beach Market
What may have been the deciding factor was that Strates had been eyeing this South Carolina location well before meeting with Zacharias. "I've been wanting to play a spot in Myrtle Beach for years, it's a great place for a fair, you have the view of the ocean, it's an untapped market and there hasn't been a fair there in a long time," said Strates.
Once a quasi-secret and semi-secluded shore town known mainly by East Coast surfers, Myrtle Beach has been and continues to be a growing, family-oriented resort town. The Myrtle Beach Speedway is a NASCAR track and two years ago the facility added a 5,000 seat outdoor amphitheater, which showcased the headline concerts of the fair -- Trace Adkins, Huey Lewis and The News, , Mike Posner and Montgomery Gentry. The Myrtle Beach Speedway Amphitheatre - touted as"Myrtle Beach's Premier Live Music Venue" and features permanent restrooms, concessions, outdoor bars and a VIP Gold Circle area located directly in front of the stage.
"It is a beautiful venue, and located right across from an outlet mall, it really is a prime spot," said Strates. "They also bring a lot of marketing and promotion to the table. I think we got a little bit different crowd too, we were really getting the local community and Horry County residents. We weren't getting the tourists. There were no amusement parks to compete with because they were not open yet, so it was the first place to go on rides. The word of mouth was incredible."
Did the fact that that Zacharias and the Myrtle Beach Speedway organization had never produced a fair before impede the midway? "Not in the least, not at all," said Strates. "Steve has a long history of producing high quality outdoor events, which is what a fair is. Any of the infrastructure issues of putting up rides were professionally handled. A fair is very similar to a festival or any other outdoor event, especially when you are that committed to success. What is more significant is how easy they were to work with, how professional they are, and how honest. They don't tell you one thing than do another."
Actually, the fair was first announced for April of 2015, but the unanticipated obstacles forced a postponement. "The reason it took an extra year, was the permitting process," said Strates. "We intended to play the event in 2015, but the permitting process was longer than we thought."
Part of the problem may have been that due to the lack of a fair for so long a period of time, municipal governments were unsure of what sort of permits had to be issued. "There were four county meetings that we had to attend before we were successful," said Strates. "But once the fair was announced, the local officials were very supportive, and most of them attended the fair."
Once the fair started, local news sources reported an additional permitting snafu. While Strates shows food stands were not affected, 27 vendors of food and other products were asked to pay for a $1,000 Horry County vendor permit -- $100 day. "Some vendors left, this was a surprise," said Zacharias. "There were some procedures we didn't follow this year that we were not aware of, but this won't happen again next year."
The Strates Shows Midway featured 34 rides, including the new Technical Park manufactured Dream Wheel, the Haunted Mansion, Zero Gravity, Zipper, Rock Star, Merry Go Round, Wacky Worm Coaster and Zyklon Roller Coaster and Raiders Fun House. "The Rock Star and Music Express and the new wheel were the most popular," said Strates.
Strates admits to "chomping at the bit," to play Myrtle Beach, not just because he had long believed in the potential of the market and because of the delay of a year intensifying his anticipation, but the very fact it was a new fair, which he declared "is just what the industry needs more of. Carnival companies should be partnering with people willing to risk and start a new event. The industry cannot rely on the same old routes."
Strates pointed out that there many former fairgrounds, especially in the East Cast, where fairs used to be held that have been sold and developed into housing, casinos or other structures. "I could have a great route of fairs that no longer exist. We need new fairs and new venues to continually bring new life into the business. It takes more time and effort to build something new, but it is better than the attrition that goes on in the business, where a carnival grows a fair then a competitor comes in and offers a 50 percent rate, undercuts the carnival company than reaps the benefits of somebody else's hard work. The future of outdoor events and the fair industry is starting new events and growing them, and growing with them."
Zacharias admitted, "there were some logistical issues we had to solve, with parking and other things. We have vendors on the inside of the race track. We did learn some new things that we will do better next year.
More than 50,000 attended the event, said Zacharias, who added that they were still tracking some numbers. There were days in excess of 10,000 attendees, he said. Being the first fair, there were no metrics or precise expectations of the fair's performance.
Marketing was mainly though cards, posters and radio spots. "We did TV stories, the fair created a buzz and we got a lot of media coverage. The word spread, especially through social media. We did seem to take over the town for a few days."
He added, "the fair actually brought in people who were not racing fans. They didn't realize the race track was here. They wanted to come to a fair. "It was the first time we had rides at the speedway, and that drew attention. You could see the midway with the LED lights and the big Ferris wheel from far away and people were drawn to it. It stood out far from the road."
At least one objective was clearly achieved. The reborn Horry County Fair expanded the reach of its facility. What also seems likely is that a new South Carolina fair tradition now exists in April. "I do not have any numbers to go from, but we feel it was successful," said Zacharias. "Was it a huge success? I can't say, but we are defiantly going to do it again next year, and I believe it will be an annual event."