Towards the top of the list of nightmares for the opening day of your first fair as fair manager is having to cancel opening day. For Kent Yelverton this scenario was not just a bad dream, but real life.
Yelverton, a civil engineer who worked 26 years with the N.C. Department of Agriculture and Consumer Services, was named Fair Manager of the annual celebration of everything tar heel earlier this year, replacing Wesley Wyatt, who retired after 38 years.
For the past six months, Yelverton was hard at work planning the fair, including putting his civil engineering expertise to use in overhauling the Park & Ride and other operational components of the fair.
Then Mother Nature intervened with plans of her own, forcing the freshmen fair manager to ponder the improbable. “We’re 151 years old and to the best of our knowledge we have never had to close an entire day and certainly never called off opening day,” said Yelverton. “Our mindset was that the state fair doesn’t close.”
Making The Decision
But the reality is there’s a first time for everything. Forecasts were increasingly dire and Yelverton and staff closely monitored the path of the storm and roughly 24 hours before the actual opening the decision was made. “We were advised by public safety officials not to open. A general notice had gone out that Thursday urging people to stay home. We saw the track of the storm, and it was leading towards the fair. We draw from a wide region, and no matter where it ultimately came down within the predicted path, it would impact people if they came to the fair.”
Once the announcement to cancel opening day was released, Yelverton and staff members hunkered down to wait out the storm. The damage turned out to be minimal, “small items were damaged, some awnings were ripped off and trash cans were blown across the grounds.”
The most major damage was a camper owned by one of the fair’s gatemen – a seasonal worker who manned a ticket redemption tent – was crushed by a fallen pine tree. No one was injured but the incident indicated the potential for destruction of this severe tropical storm. “Seeing that convinced me the right decision was made,” he said. “That removed any questions that we did make the right decision.”
In terms of programming, the only fatality was the cancellation of a concert by American Aquarian.
On the midway – provided by Powers Great American Midways – damage was likewise minimal. “We had no real damage,” said Corky Powers. “Some flags and garbage cans, but the grounds were pretty bad because of the water and mud.”
Unfortunately, the company’s old winters quarters were not as lucky. The property – still owned by the company and includes a double-wide trailer complex and office space – was destroyed by 11-foot high flood waters.
The North Carolina State Fair was one of the final stops on the fair season route for Powers. “It wasn’t our best, it wasn’t our worse,” said Powers. “We lost the first day and lost half of another day, so it really turned out pretty good.”
“We opened one day late due to the remnants of Hurricane Michael and the second Saturday, traditionally our largest attendance day, was rainy,” said Yelverton. “Otherwise we enjoyed favorable weather.”
The fair did enjoy record breaking attendance on two individual days; the second Friday (109,396) and closing Sunday (130,319). Yelverton also points out that for a 10-day (as opposed to 11 day) fair, attendance was technically a record.
But the loss of an entire day seems to have been the fateful blow from the event that impeded the fair’s momentum. Attendance reached 977,256, down 37,222 from 1,014,478.
“We do not have revenue figures yet, but we know that a drop in attendance will result in a drop in revenue,” said Yelverton. “We tried to make up most of what we lost. Certainly losing opening day hurt the fair, but it was early in the fair. The second weekend was not hard rain on that Saturday, but it was rainy day. But we had record days on both sides of the rain.”
The ability of the fair to withstand a near-crushing blow had much to do with a more a revamped advertising and marketing camping, which included an infusion of extra cash. The 2018 marketing campaign was centered around a classic tagline that immediately invoked North Carolina – “Nothing Could Be Finer” – The fair’s advertising budget was $890,000, a significant boost from the 2017 budget of $777,650.
The 2018 media allocation was: 41.66 percent –Digital, 30.47 percent – Television, 12.89 percent – Radio, 7.89 percent – Out of Home, and 6.89 percent –Contingency.
“This is the first year we have prioritized digital paid advertising over other options available,” said Yelverton. “For the Raleigh market, this is the leading activation that both traditional fairgoers and potential fairgoers find information about the Fair. We also eliminated all print advertising from our budget, except for trade publications. Utilizing skinny bundles and enhanced TV Everywhere streaming video, we were able to focus our digital spend to include not only a broad reach, but also to target niche audiences where we wanted to target messaging.”
Some marketing components had little change. The fair’s mascot – Casey Cardinal—was retained and made daily appearances at the fair and also at special events. The fair’s social media planning “stayed on target with the changes we made last year, maximizing targeting of niche audiences, creating look-a-like audiences to increase reach, promoting video with FOMO ( Fear of Missing Out)messaging.”
The most effective social media promotion was a collaboration with the fair’s local NHL team, the Carolina Hurricanes for a Fair Fan Photo of the Day program. The campaign included a contest component at #NCSTATEFAIR, where entries could win “State Fair swag,” as well as free tickets to a Hurricanes hockey game.“This promotion also allowed our Agriculture Commissioner and mascot, Casey Cardinal, to go over to the hockey game that was held during the Fair to sound the storm siren prior to the game and promote the last couple of days of the Fair,” he added.
Another effective marketing promotion was tied to the Powers midway, which featured 106 rides and included five new rides: Downdraft, Dumbo Elephants, Kraken, Mini-Trooper, and Spider. The most popular rides were the Powers Parthenon Wheel and Hit-n-2000. The promotion was Dizzy Pass, which included an unlimited ride wristband and a Fast Track Gate Admission. “It was our most popular package. We are a very midway-heavy fair and a lot of fairgoers want to come and ride all day.”
The “Fast Track Gate Admission” was a new program implemented by Kent, one of a handful of improvements intended to reduce pedestrian traffic snarls and long lines at the admission gates.
Additional upgrades included a newly paved remote parking lot, two miles from the fair, for a Park & Ride system with shuttle bus service, additional ticket sellers at the gates to reduce lines and handle increased capacity, and a new pedestrian tunnel to the fair from a nearby football stadium whose lots are used for fairgoer parking.
The goal was “to improve queue lines and improve traffic flows. The Fast Track system took out the clogs. We made sure every gate runs smoothly. We modified our gate layout, added signage and lines. We wanted to make sure that people were not spending more time than they had to outside the fair.”
More than 200 food vendors offered a range of fair cuisine at the North Carolina State Fair. The most attention grabbing new dish was Crack-n-Cheese, the winning contestant in the Favorite New Food category, voted on by fairgoers. “You start with a waffle cone, and fill it with creamy mac-n-cheese and turkey BBQ and then top with coleslaw, hot sauce and turkey cracklins,” Yelverton explained. “It was surprisingly well received, and the vendor had long lines most of the Fair.”
He added, that other unique food items for 2018 were: “Texas Pete Glazed Mini Donuts, Jalapeno Cheetos Bacon and Shrimp and Cheddar Cheese Grits Eggrolls.”
For his first time at the helm of the annual celebration of everything North Carolinian, Yelverton admits to being impressed and humbled “at all the moving parts of the fair that come together. The NC State Fair is a large event, but it is created by many smaller pieces. Every vendor, exhibitor and many others, hundreds of people, create a piece of what together becomes the NC State Fair.”
Tropical Storm challenges, implementing new operational improvements and a more ambitious market campaign were all highlights of his first year on the job. “ I believe the 2018 NC State Fair exceeded expectations. Our changes worked and our attendance numbers show that without weather impacts we would have likely broken our eleven-day attendance record.”