Ideal weather, a high-tech marketing campaign and increased attendance – few retiring fair managers close their careers on as high a note as David Sparks struck with the 2018 Dixie Classic Fair in Winston Salem, North Carolina. Sparks joined the fair exactly 30 years ago, and was promoted to his current position five years later. The Dixie Classic Far reached a peak attendance in 2007 with about 371,000 and while the area was hit by the recession and attendance dipped under 300,000, the last several years the Tar Heel State diversified its economy and has been on a steady rebound, which has meant a revival of the Dixie Classic Fair under the guidance of Sparks at the helm.
Two key changes he has seen during his tenure at the top have been a $10 million investment in operations, and resurgence in agricultural programming. These changes brought the fair to a changing clientele while reinforcing the traditional Americana that has kept this fair part of the regional firmament for 136 years.
Investment & Agriculture
“We have had a lot of capital improvement in recent years,” he said. “We had a lot of infrastructure work, several new buildings, and an ice rink. We have had all the roadways paved, which wasn’t the case 30 years ago. We also got the midway into very good shape.”
When Sparks took on his new position, the agriculture industry in the area had begun its downturn, a trend that accelerated throughout the 1990s and into this century. “We had a lot of small, family farms that had gone out of business over the years and those properties became residential,” he said. “But the need to educate urban people about livestock and agriculture and where their food comes from has become more important. We are starting to see smaller farms come back, where instead of having 100 acres, they have 15 acres. We have green markets throughout the area. In the last six or eight years or so, we have an even bigger focus on educating people on agriculture, about the food that is locally and regionally grown and the people are more receptive to it.”
He added, “the agriculture exhibits used to be all about the competitions, but now it is more important to have demonstrations, there’s been a whole evolution. Now even our livestock judges during the competitions will not just give his judgement, but talk about why he is looking for the particular things in the competition.”
The 2018 fair missed any remnants of the Hurricanes that plagued the southeast this season and instead had “perfect weather for all 10 days,” said Sparks. “It was sunny and warm. We had a wonderful fair.”
Mother Nature’s cooperation helped to increase attendance by 8.5 percent to 325,000.
Although no record days seem to have been recorded, a Crisis Control’s Food Day on Wednesday – attendees who brought five cans of food or imperishable items gained free entry – resulted in in 71,312 food items being collected.”
Helping to boost attendance has been a robust rebound in the North Carolina economy, “Things are really booming,” he said. “Our unemployment rate is 3.7 percent, in fact some employers are finding it hard to fill jobs. We lost a lot of the furniture, textile and tobacco industries but we really came through the recession with a very diverse economy with new manufacturing, technology and banking.”
The fair incorporated an ambitious marketing campaign that combined new technologies and a steady stream of discounted coupons. The campaign was tied into a new tagline – “Your Beacon to Fun” – and a new fair app that included a fair map and other features. But the most crucial was the more than $10,000 worth of discounts. The Beacons in the fun referred to wireless transmitters – a partnership with Beacon Technology, a local tech company – that were set up throughout the grounds. The beacons transmitted a mix of promotional alerts, ranging from grandstand acts to pig races – to redeemable coupons – flash sales for concessions, food, merchandise, rides etc. “The promotions drew a lot of people, and it was a lot fun.”
The Dixie Classic Fair App that was downloaded by 4,140 fairgoers, which in addition to the coupons were used to look up onsite fair information 92,638 times. Beacon Technology delivered 285 money-saving coupons.
The fair bumped up its advertising budget to $225,000, up from $210,000, although the increase was mainly due to the rising cost of TV and other advertising caused by the contentious midterm elections. “The prices were higher this year because of the political ads.”
Television, followed by radio, accounted for the bulk of the media buys, although the fair did increase its social media usage. “Social media spending went up, but it’s a little more hit or miss to track. With television there’s a pretty reliable source with the ratings book that tells us how many people are being reached. We had multiple daily posts featured attractions and the day’s events.”
In the 1990s, the fair featured national acts in its grandstand and a separate ticket. That eventually dwindled to only two or three nights of music, now free with admission. The fair staple was country music, but that spike in costs for that genre persuaded the fair to change direction. “We moved away from some of the expensive concerts, they just don’t draw people to our venue. We have more local and regional music, contemporary Christian and motor sports.”
The grandstand lineup included Demolition Derby, Figure 8 Racing, Truck & Tractor Pulls America’s Got Talent competitor Noah Guthrie, Christian music bands, Josh Wilson, 7eventh Time Down, and Rhett Walker Band. Both Sundays of the fair featured Gospel Fest.
According to Sparks, James E. Strates has been the carnival company for the Dixie Classic Fair since 1963. The 2018 midway featured 63 rides, including new introductions and a comprehensive midway makeover. “They are a great family, quality people, their carnival is first rate,” said Sparks. “One of the things I will be missing the most is working with this family.”
He added, “Strates Shows added many new rides; and all rides have been refurbished with bright LEDs to light up the night. New rides included The Claw, Pirate, Monster Truck, Super Trucks and Treasure Island. King’s Circus, the largest traveling three-story fun house in America, returns after more than 10 years.”
The midway featured two additional attractions, according to Sparks. “Horses, Horses, Horses” a horse show that was featured at Lincoln Center and the Team Rock Ninja Experience.
The 2018 Dixie Classic Fair also added the Majestik Spectacular Motorcycle Stunt Show. “The show combines the best motorcycle athletes with visual circus stunts and a vibrant light show to create a memorable thrill act with motorcycles flipping and flying through the air,” said Sparks.
The fair showcased 60 food vendors selling from 87 food booths. The hot new food item was Shark Kabobs, which Sparks said “was a healthy grilled item.”
While an increase in healthier fair cuisine options did not seem to be a trend, an upgrade of the concessions was definitely apparent. “A lot of the stick joints have moved out, and more canvas has moved in. The concessionaires are really improving their presentation, just steps above what they used to be. We had one stand that was three stories tall, very elaborate The concessionaires have really nice trailers, very family friendly. It guaranteed that a lot of families were staying longer and later and spending more.”
Few fair directors enjoy such a splendid swansong as Spark’s experienced in 2018. “It exceeded expectations in attendance as one of the top-selling years in the past 25 years,” he said.
Sparks came to the fair business from an unlikely starting point. Prior to his position with the Dixie Classic Fair, he worked as a producer and director for Triad television station, WXII-TV. He holds degrees in communications and business from UNC Greensboro and Wingate University in Wingate, NC. He was assigned fair coverage for the television and after he became a new father, and needed a more secure position, he applied for the fair management job. “Television and the fair business use lot of the same skill set,” he said. ““It’s been a whirlwind, and a lot of fun. I have worked with a great staff. What I will miss most is the great people I work with and those who come to the fair every year. But I am sure I will be coming back.”