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35th Salem Fair Sees Record Attendance & Grosses & the Governor
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One of the highest-attended free-gate fairs in the Mid-Atlantic market, western-Virginia's Salem Fair celebrated its 35th birthday with record crowds and generally cooperative weather patterns. Attendance ranged in the fair's estimated 350,000 range and while it is a July 4th fair, with the holiday falling on Tuesday, turnout was expected to be less robust.

“It's hard to compare our fair from one year to another because of when July 4th falls,” said Carey Harveycutter, Manager, and Salem Fair. “This year, we opened in late June and the first weekend is never as strong, but we had a strong first Wednesday and Thursday and our second and third weekends went very well. We had a great run, we exceeded our five year average. All our metrics are up substantially from 2022 when we had five days impacted by rain.”

“We are extremely pleased with the outcome of this year's fair in many ways,” said Wendy Delano, Salem's Director of Civic Facilities “The advance sale of tickets was up by more than 50 percent compared to last year, rain was never a factor this year, and even those four days of wildfire smoke couldn't deter our loyal fairgoers.”

Canadian Wildfires

Mother Nature was generally in a good mood for the fair, but  smoke from the north impeded attendance. Canadian Wildfires, ravaged more than 25 million acres of our neighbor's woodlands by the mid-July.  According to the National Weather Service, smoke traveled into Virginia as a result of northerly and northeast winds pushing the plumes down the East Coast.

Harverycutter estimates that the smoke may have impacted attendance – air quality alerts had been issued and those with severe allergies and respiratory issues were warned to stay indoors – but the orange, overcast skies and omniscient burning order seemed not to significantly deter crowds or the celebratory atmosphere. “We had really good weather,” he said. “It was smoky and hazy the first few days because of the wildfires, and some days were above 90 degrees and humid. Three days we had a little bit of rain, and we had a lightening delay, that might have been impacted us.”

The fair was able not to succumb to inflationary pressures and maintained the same wristband and ride-ticket-prices as 2022. “We're a very ride-oriented fair,” he explained. “Our revenue was up substantially, way ahead of 2022, so we did not feel that inflation impacted the attendance. The people were spending money, that's why our revenue was up, not higher prices.”

Not only was this revenue uptick an indicator that consumer confidence continues unabatedly upwards, but a new post-lockdown era has arrived. “I think people are done with the pandemic,” he said. “We're done with it, we've dealt with it, and now it's time to have fun and have an enjoyable day and evening out with family and friends, and not to focus on the pandemic or inflation or the politics and come out and have some fun.”

Summer Time Fun

It was a sentiment that was successfully reinforced throughout the region with the fair's most ambitious marketing campaign in its three-and-a-half decade history. The 2023 marketing tagline and theme this year was “Summer Time Fun,” spearheaded by an online marketing campaign that meant a rethink of previous approaches.

“With Summer Time Fun we built in a new focus on marketing the Salem Fair as part of the Blue Ridge  Mountain experience,” said Harveycutter, who is also the director of Tourism for the City of Salem. “On the social side, we went heavier into video, which gets a  bigger click through rate, as opposed to static  prose posts. Through buying on social media, we used the media demographic to target people in Richmond.”

This Virginia tradition – one of the highest-attended outdoor events in the often overlooked South Western region of the Commonwealth – has long been a Late June/Early July destination among Blue Ridge Mountain denizens. But reaching the tens of thousands of potential fairgoers in the more populous Northern Virginia/Washington D.C.,  Richmond and Tidewater needed a cost-effective method than radio, still a major portion of the advertising budget, but mainly directed towards local stations, such as Star Country out of Roanoke.

“Out of market,” he explained, “I don't know who is listening to pop or gospel so it's difficult to reach people who live out of the market. With Social media, I know that I'm reaching mothers who are living in the demographic we're targeting. I was also working in key words for Facebook and Google Ad Words, and that translated into more people at the fair.”

Clear-Bag Policies

Nice weather, a healthy economy with low unemployment and gasoline prices noticeably lower than in 2022 – ideal conditions for mid-Atlantic families to head west. Promoting the fair this year required informing attendees of the new Clear Bag policies – as a security measure, no satchel or pouch bigger than wallet-size would be allowed inside the fairgrounds. It's actually now the policy throughout the venues in the city of Salem, so the fair had no choice but to comply.
However, to ensure that daypacks and fanny packs remain at home or at least easily brought back to the car, not only did fair messaging have to include a new policy announcement, but the clear-bags were made available at the gates. “They instituted clear bag polices in the arenas in Roanoke. It's a safety issue, there was some pushback but it does make people feel safer. We made reasonable accommodations for diaper bags. We had great signage, we had some long lines on opening day, but no problems.”

According to Harveycutter, the marketing “budget was pretty much same as in 2022 and is 45 percent radio, 24 percent TV and 31 percent Online. We received a $20,000 Tourism grant that was social media in SW Virginia, Richmond region and NOVA Social increased in Google AdWords but still a great deal on Facebook with good targeting.”

Deggeller Midway

The 41-ride midway was by Deggeller Amusements,  – about the same size as 2022, said Harveycutter, who ranked the top grossing rides as Giant Wheel, Americana Carousel, Dragon Coaster,  RipTide and Hydra. “Midway revenue was up from 2022,” he added. “We exceeded expectations as it was one of the top three years in metrics such as ride gross and taxes generated.”

The fair featured 55 food vendors, an increase over last year. According to Delano, inflation did turn the prices up a notch, especially in some categories as regional seafood purveyors, with lobster rolls, crab rolls, and crab fries noticeably higher. “It wasn't cheap. Each individual vendor set their own prices, but we did set a minimum drink price, so they weren't underselling each other.”

A new vendor of Puerto Rican Empanadas “Did quite well. Hot dogs and corn dogs are always popular. At the end of the night, you're watching everyone go to the same places for the to-go food, the pork rinds, kettle corn and pizza.”

Much of the uptick in the numbers of food vendors was driven by an uptick in local Food Trucks, who were invited to serve up their exclusive to cuisine to fairgoers. “We had an influx of food trucks” she said. “They had a pretty strong presence and some of them are hitting a niche audience with a good product. A few of  the trucks don't always look so good because they only serve out of one side. At the fair it is about eye appeal. Sometimes they don't have enough brightness. We worked with them. They aren't right in the center aisles. We also added some canopies. We want people to feel welcome at the food locations. My advice to the food trucks was to find a better ways to showcase the product.”

Besides the record attendance and grosses, perhaps the most historic aspect of the 35th edition of the Blue Mountain region's annual rite of summer was featured guest, Virginia's Governor Glenn Youngkin .  It was the first time in the 35-year history of the Salem Fair that a sitting governor made a photo-op visit, meeting with vendors, patrons, and concessionaires on the final Friday night of the fair. He even posed for a near-viral Instagram shot of him bottle feeding Ash the Kangaroo.

“We appreciate the Governor taking the time to validate our tourism efforts in Virginia's Blue Ridge by generously spending some quality time with us,” said Harveycutter. “We also appreciate the generosity of our fairgoers, who truly outdid themselves this year.”
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