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A Tennessee Tradition: Rain Hurts Attendance, but Family Focus Succeeds

10/14/2016

By Timothy Herrick

Photo courtesy of TN State Fair

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Attendance and spending may have dipped due to rain, but this was not considered a setback for the Tennessee State Fair. Based in Nashville, the fair has been on a steady growth path since 2010, when according to Scott Jones, State Fair Manager of the Tennessee State Fair Association, the fair became a nonprofit entity - ending its direct support from government agencies - but also strengthening the focus on a more family-friendly event.

"The fair changed and evolved," said Jones. "The event itself became more family friendly. We lost the focus of the 80s and the 90s, which was more a party atmosphere. There's no more beer gardens for example."

Millennial Families
The shift in focus coincided with a change in NashvillPhoto By TN State Faire, which, much like many metropolitan areas, is undergoing a resurgence as forces of gentrification overlap with the desire of many generation X and Y 's desire to live in urban areas. "There's a building boom in Nashville," said Jones. "We have new restaurants, condos and even two amphitheaters. We are in downtown and everything around the fairground is booming, and there are a lot of young people moving into the area. We find it a challenge to appeal to these young adults and young families who are moving here. It's nice to see the young families with strollers at the fair."

The younger demographic has also coincided with the most agricultural trend today - Farm-to-Fork. "The Tennessee Farm Bureau is a supporter," he said. "We continue to grow the show's premium, and the livestock awards are the highest in the state. We also have one of the largest elementary school programs."

According to Jones, this year more than 3,500 elementary students - compared to less than a 1,000 last year - were part of Elementary School Day and were treated to hands-on agricultural exhibitions. "The parents and young people love the ag exhibitions, and we've been pushing the farm-to-fork program, because the younger generation really wants to know where their good comes from. The agriculture exhibitions really have an appeal. We moved some of the exhibits, like the rabbit exhibits into a different setting, out of the barn and into an air-conditioned building. People loved the new building, but also they circulated more, there was a better traffic flow.

The Tennessee State Fair had an attendance down by about 10 percent from 2015's high of 115,000. "We are down 13,183 in attendance," he said. "You can't do anything about Mother Nature."

Most fairs have rain - and it's not like the Tennessee State Fair had an extraordinary amount of rain - but it was when the precipitation came that sharpened its negative impact. "We had a quick moving storm on the first Saturday and then all day rain on the second Saturday," he said. "Attendance was up seven out of the 10 days, but the rain hurt the big days. So, we were down this year."

While no record days occurred, there were signs of pent-up demand that reinforced the family friendly direction the fair has taken in recent years. "We had one of the biggest final Sundays in recent years, some of that was due to the Saturday rain," he said. " Overall we had a great fair despite two days of rain."
 
He added, the fair has been growing in recent  years and that placed the event in a very strong position. "We've had strong years, but with attendance down, you do get hurt. But that's why you have savings and you balance your budget. And you pray Mother Nature cooperates next time. But the fact we had strong days shows we are headed in the right direction." 

Midway Down 
Rain - especially on key days - has the most noticeable negative impact on the midway. Revenues for North American Midway Entertainment (NAME) were down by 12 percent, "affected by the rain," said Jones.

Jones said the midway had 30 rides, including the Crazy Mouse, new to the fair for 2016, which he also said was the most popular ride.  Returning rides to this year's far include the Flume and the Zipper, said Jones. 

With the new emphasis, the fair continued its division of children/family rides apart from the rowdier spectacular and more adult rides. "We separated the kiddie rides from the other rides, which was instrumental to our family focus. We get a lot of teenagers, but teenagers will be teenagers. Not that we have problems, but they act like teenagers and moms and dads don't really want that behavior around the young kids. So we have the kiddleland on the opposite end of the fairgrounds."

What the new kiddieland now at one end of the fair, it means more families - and more fairgoers - will be seeing more of the fairgrounds. When they did what they encountered was an increase in more roaming and free entertainment. "We focused more on the family oriented, free entertainment," said Jones. "We spend more money and had more acts that were free."

Grounds Entertainment Grows
Jones pointed out that the Nashville has an abundance of entertainers - in addition to musicians - and the fair brought in some of these entertainers, augmented by more familiar names on the fair circuit. "When I visited other fairs, I saw how the strolling grounds entertainment and the other free entertainment engages the crowds," he said. "I could see how the crowds gathered around them would grow family by family. You want something that is organic to the fair, that kids will like, because it is about the surprise and making discoveries."

While the Nashville economy may be doing well compared to more recent years, families are still budget conscious and the stay-cation mentality remains a powerful factor - the free entertainment at the fair was an added value. "Nobody really comes specifically for  the ground acts," said Jones. "But what is your best vacation - the one where things didn't go as planned, and you encountered things that surprised you. Those are the best memories, and so that is why we put more money in the free entertainment this year. The best entertainment is the unexpected entertainment. "

Some of the free and grounds entertainment this year included Korso the Magician at Heritage Court, Western Comedy Show, Mr. Bond the Science Guy, Hollywood Robots, African Acrobats at Heritage Court, Hedrick's Racing Pigs,  David Turner, Ventriloquist, Jeni Housley & Hooch (miniature donkeys); and Great Lakes Timber Show (Lumberjacks).

Nashville's growth and entertainment renown also makes it difficult for the fair to participate in headline entertainment, instead filling music bills with a variety of free acts. We book local and upcoming acts, so being located in Nashville is a plus," said Jones. "Most artists here are looking to get stage time and exposure, so it is a buyers market."

Nonetheless, "the fair has to compete for every entertainment dollar" among consumers (and artists) in Music City and bringing in headline entertainment as a separate ticket hasn't been part of the fair since government support ceased. However, the fair is testing the waters and actually had one paid ticket - a boxing match - the Tri-Star State Fair Boxing Showdown. As Jones explains,  the fair has had success filling seats for the short track racing, a local boxing promoter contacted the fair, noticing that the racetrack and 15,000-seat racetrack would be an ideal venue for a fight.  More than 10,000 seats were sold for the boxing match, an unusual attraction for  a fair.  While pleased with the result, Jones is not sure if it will be repeated next year. "But we are looking into bringing some headline entertainment back. We are blessed to live in Music City, and we do showcase other acts. It is something we are looking at for the future."

But whether music or boxing or another type of paid spectacle - there has been pro-wrestling competitions in the past - it comes down to the ideal collaborators. "You have to get involved with the right promoters, the right people, to make sure you are on the same page to achieve the success you want. With the right act, we can fill the grandstands."

Tennessee Tradition
A Tennessee Tradition was the advertising tagline this year, encouraging the newcomers to the area to adopt the annual fairgoing experience. The fair had an advertising budget of $170,000, allocated by medium:  45 percent TV, 10 percent print; 35 percent radio; and 10 percent Social Media.

The shift in spending is towards the social media component. Like most fairs, social media has been a growing - and often leading - component of the marketing, even though the expenditure is a smaller proportion. Since 2009, the fair has outsourced its social media, and this year they switched to Noise New Media, who Jones said worked with other fairs, rodeos and other local Nashville events. "It needs to be done professionally and constantly, like other advertising," he said. "We just don't have the staff to the social media like it should be one."

The most often used, and most effective, social media promotion were contests and give-a-ways. "You can track social media better than other media, especially for the contests and promotions," he said. " One new thing we tried was creating Snapchat Geofilters, targeting on site visitors during peak visiting times."

In addition, the fair also promoted more this year at a vast, local flea market and "other large community events prior to the Fair," he added.

The Tennessee State Fair does not track food sales, which took a sales hit due to the attendance decline. There were about 30 food vendors, and "roasted corn has been the top seller for years.  I think it is because people promote it as they walk and eat."

The fair has been offering space to Food Trucks, which has been "a craze" in Nashville for several years. While there was some complaints by food vendors when they first brought in the food trucks, "we found it didn't really take away from the sales of other vendors. They also tend to come and go, they don't stay for the whole fair because they have a schedule to be at certain places at certain times. They have followers on social media, so theoretically they do bring some of their followers to the fair and they may be new customers."

Rainy weather on key days is not good for any fair, but for the Tennessee State Fair, 2016 edition, proved the family-focus of the fair has been a winning strategy. "Fairs are about safety and family. We are in the memory making business and want everybody to have a fun time," he said. "We have new families coming back every year now. It only raises the bar for 2017 and hopefully the weather cooperates."

But weekend rainfalls or not, A Tennessee Tradition will continue. 

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