Heat and rain hurt many fairs this year, but the Tennessee Valley Fair had an additional obstacle to overcome: bad publicity from other Tennessee fairs.
The negative press had nothing to do with the fair, but the fair had to put up its own public relationships effort to avoid guilt by association - and that association was being a fair.
Prior to opening day, ride accidents occurred at two separate Tennessee fairs, gaining national exposure and sending shockwaves through this East Tennessee event. In August, three girls were injured after falling 40 feet from a Ferris Wheel at the Greene County Fair in Greenville, Tenn., two of the three girls were released from hospital that night, but the third girl, six years old, was in critical condition with a brain injury for several days.
In early September - the weekend before the Tennessee Valley Fair opened - a Moonraker ride also malfunctioning, injuring 14 riders, sending eight of them to the hospital, although no serious injuries were reported.
Midway ride safety was top of mind in the days leading up to the fair. "It was all over the internet," said Sarah Carson, Director of Marketing. "We opened our fair up to inspectors, had local stations cover the inspections, and we released statements to the press articulating what we value in terms of safety and the families who come to the fair."
When dealing with potentially negative publicity, Carson worked hard to "get out in front of the story and try to head it off at the pass and control the story." She added that the fair does receive a significant amount of media coverage and she can do as many as 20 interviews a day during fair time. There were nine additional interviews in the days leading up the fair all related to ride safety.
Carson said that some ride apprehension lingered the first few days of the fair, but that eventually "people were riding the rides in usual numbers."
"I thought the Tennessee Valley Fair organization by being proactive with both us and the media handled the situation in the best way possible," said Frank Zaitshik, President/CEO, Wade Shows Inc. "We met before hand and listed what each accident was, what the potential of that accident happening was. We answered many questions in regard to the accidents. While we aren't speculating on why the ride incidents occurred, we had enough positive answers to the questions we were asked."
Zaitshik said there four different Level-3 ride inspectors, including a third-party National Association of Amusement Ride Safety Officials (NAARSO) - Wade Shows always hires such a professional before every Tennessee Valley Fair, but usually just for a day of inspections. This year, because of the incidents at other Tennessee fairs, Wade Shows kept him on for the entire length of the fair. "Tennessee has its own ride inspection program, but it continues to be a work in progress," he said. "We always hired an outside third party inspector, and this fair he monitored daily operations and was able to answer the questions from the press."
Zaitshik noted that there was a large - albeit unsurprising - amount of media attention given to the Tennessee Valley Fair this year - but "It was very positive press, they asked very fair questions, and we had a safe and incident free fair."
Zaitshik agreed that the early days of the fair were off, but he would speculate as to the suggestion that the apprehension about rides was the cause. "The ridership may have been down slightly during the opening days of the fair, but I would not speculate as to the cause."
Heat & Rain
Bad publicity was not the only thing outside of the fair's control negatively impacting attendance. "The weather, was unseasonably hot, " said Carson. "Temperatures ranged from 90-95 degrees virtually every day of the fair."
And to make matters worse, the closing day of the fair - it rained - Carson pointed out that 20,000 attendees are typical on this last day of the fair; this year barely 5,000 fairgoers arrived.
"We had some very hot days and on the last day it rained, not hard enough to shut down the midway, but a steady mist," said Zaitshik, who has played this fair for more than a dozen years. "If you evaluate the ride revenue historically over five year period time, while this year's fair was impacted by a variety of factors, we still did pretty well at this fair. It is a major fair and one of the best fairs in Tennessee, which has a lot of great fairs and we are lucky enough to play several."
About 133,000 attended this year's Tennessee Valley Fair, a noticeable dip from 151,353 in 2015. In addition, "As a result of record heat and concerns over ride safety, spending overall seemed down," said Carson. "I don't think the economy here is doing very well and that played a role. People seemed to have less cash than last there, there just hasn't been much movement in the economy, and that combined with the ride accidents and the yucky weather hurt attendance."
The Wade Shows Midway featured 50 rides, including first times at the fair for the RC48 Roller Coaster, Delusion, Xtreme and Space Roller. "It was the most powerful ride line up we've ever had at the fair", said Zaitshik.
He also introduced for the first time at this fair the Hit N' 2000, a completely refurbished ride with a brand new LED lighting package, a ride originally introduced in 1978. "We are very happy it's completed, and it is a very great product and has a special place in our hearts," he said.
"With hot days, you get a larger attendance in the evening," he said. "We saw at the Tennessee Valley Fair, we were sitting around at a 4:00 on Saturday and it seemed nobody was there, but that night turned out to be a very powerful ride night, where we did very well and we were pleasantly surprised."
One major boost to the midway was an opening day wristband promotional offer - from June 1st to opening day, the fair offered $14 wristbands, "which is a very competitive price and we did very well with this promotion, said Carson.
In two years, the Tennessee Valley Fair celebrates its 100th anniversary. This year's fair's marketing theme was Ready, Set and was part of a 10-year lead up to its centennial festivities. Each year's marketing theme focused on a specific aspect of the food, such as rides, food, agriculture - and this year's theme showcased the Action Sports, such as the Tractor Pull, "which for us already a great event. We do some ads that are more generic in message about the fair, general promotions but we are also doing a countdown to our 100th fair by having a tagline each year that places an extra emphasis on one aspect of the fair."
The fair's advertising budget is approximately $90,000 with a media mix TV - 45 percent; Radio - 25 percent; Digital - 15 percent; Billboard - 10 percent; Print - 5 percent. "We made some drastic changes to our advertising in 2016," said Carson. "We pulled away from print, although print is great in certain areas, such as senior day or gospel night. We moved that money to the digital area, and we find we are getting more traction through Facebook. We also do banner ads through various partners, and we find we are getting a 2 percent click through rate, which is good."
The fair's marketing mainly targets women, ages 25 to 54 - the decision maker in the family - and has garnered more than 46,000 Face book followers, and we also has a presence on Instagram, Snapchat, Twitter and Pinterest. "We have found that creating separate event pages for concerts and the traffic pulls do really well. We get a much better bang for the buck and it really boosted the events. You create the page months in advance, and you can generate excitement. You can also update the page, but you don't want to do that too much because people get tired of that. You really just follow your own intuition as to how frequently you update the page; you really want information that is pertinent to the fan."
In addition, two weeks before a show the fair will run special promotions, such as release 10 premium tickets that are close to the stage, or on Throw Back Thursday post a nostalgic picture.
The fair has a mix of free and ticketed headline concerts. The most popular headline concerts were Styx, Gary Allan & Lauren Daigle, with Styx attracting 5,000, a near-sellout. The fair tries to keep ticket prices $30 or lower, and offers free seats in the upper deck - but booking fair entertainment has become a very expensive proposition in recent years.
"It gets more expensive every year and I get blown away when I check the prices," she said. "In 2011, it would be unheard of if somebody is asking $50,000 and now you can barely get anybody for $50,000 with any name recognition." She estimated that prices have increased across the board 40 percent over the past three years.
"We are booking earlier and earlier, trying to lock an artist down to the price, but that is getting more difficult, she said.
The main culprit has been the increase in competition, from both different venues and other events, such as festivals. "We get a lot of people in the classic rock and country genres playing other places in Knoxville at other times of the year."
It's a lament common to many fairs across the cross, and Carson added "I do not know how sustainable it is, it seems like the balloon has to burst soon."
On the other hand, Tennessee Valley Fair followers enjoy their music. "We are known for the music, and it is one of the things that draw people to the fair. They always ask can you get this artist, or that artist, some of the bigger names who used to play here. We can, but how much will they be willing to pay for the ticket?"
The fair features about 80 food vendors and Carson declined to speculate how sales were impacted by the attendance dip. "We simply rent space, we don't require concessionaires to report exact numbers," she said. "However, we almost never have turnover in our space because our food vendors are pleased with their overall sales."
But food is a major draw for the fair - "I know people who come just for the food, they pay the admission just to eat all the deep fried crazy stuff," she said. "
One of the most popular items is a local delicacy - candy apples, made by a local church group. "They're really delicious and they did really well."
One of the most popular new items was a Pizza Funnel Cake, but the best sellers seemed to be the traditional funnel cakes and cord dogs. "People like those things; they come out to the fair every year."
The other new item is actually a standard at most other fairs - beer. This was the second year for a beer garden at the fair. Last year was a soft launch to this new segment, the only promotion being signage. This year, there were some mentions on the website and guidebook, but very low key and it wasn't featured in any of the advertising.
The reason for the low-key approach is being sensitive to local customs - Knoxville is in the bible belt where drinking of any alcohol is still restricted and not as socially acceptable as in other parts of the country.
In fact, Carson claims the Tennessee Valley Fair is the first fair (not counting festivals or other large outdoor events) to sell alcohol. The Beer Garden, sponsored by Budweiser, only sold beer but sales more than double this year compared to its soft launch debut. "We didn't have one complaint either," she said.
The introduction of beer was evidence of the balance a fair must strike. "You have to communicate what you are doing," she said. "With fairs, people tend not like to change, they want to see the Ferris Wheel and eat the corn, but you need to bring in new things, and the challenge is in how you communicate change to them."