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Cancelled in 2020, Clay County Fair Makes a Comeback in 2021 and Shatters Attendance and Midway Records
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The fair date remains a romantic classic.  One of the many time-tested midway traditions,  couples having fun and affectionately enjoying each other's company at the county fair is one of the many timeless and nostalgic cultural experiences associated with these unique events.'

But using this iconic status as a promotional tool is an idea most fairs ignore, except for Northeastern Florida. The 2021 Clay County Fair discovered its inner cupid by combining 21st century matchmaking trends with one the midway's most identifiable components, the Giant Wheel by Deggeller Attractions.

Speed Dating

“Tired of Swiping? Dread blind dates or bar scene pick-ups? Ferris Wheel Speed Dating, a modern way to meet singles!”

Speed Dating are singles events where individuals “date” numerous other individuals for a few minutes each, then afterwards people pick from among that night's dates  who has the most relationship potential and seek out a longer encounter.  What makes the Ferris Wheel Speed Dating version so ideal is the actual ride. A “speed date” lasts the same amount of time as a spin – in this case, two spins – the set-up was the women sat in the gondolas and men switched gondolas – the event concludes after everyone meets, about two hours.

The Website reads: “After the ride, singles will receive a “scorecard” to fill out on whether they would like to see that person again in the future. If two people match, the singles will be emailed about the connection. It's up to them to decide what to do from there.”

Andy Deggeller was certain that the wheel had been used by dating couples, but the first time as an official speed dating setting. Perhaps fittingly, it was also an idea that Deggeller immediately loved. “It was pretty successful. Our wheel was the perfect speed dating medium, instead of a venue having tables, people talked in the gondolas. It was all Tasha's idea.”

Tasha is Tasha Hyder, General Manager of the Clay County Fair, who scheduled this fun promotion on a Tuesday, a slow day for any fair.  “It was a very good promotion, it was the first time we tried something like this,” she said.

The entry fee was $10, which included gate admission and Ferris Wheel rides – 120 people participated in this niche promotion, marketed entirely by social media.
The target demographic for a dating event is generally younger adults – only those 18 and up could participate –  an age bracket that many fairs have been struggling to attract in greater numbers. The speed dating event had different age categories, but “we had a lot of young people. I think we matched five couples.”'

Hurdle Jumping

It turned out the promotion was one of many clever marketing ideas implemented for this year's fair, and one of the few that didn't have a direct connection to the COVID-related messaging. Last year, the Clay County Fair cancelled – and was one of the first 2021 Florida fairs that did cancel in 2020 to be held.

“There were a lot hurdles to jump over, but it was worth it” said Hyder. “But we kept our heads up, we always planned on having the fair and kept fighting uphill. We had record attendance, and the community really rallied behind us. The county was very supportive, they really wanted some return to normalcy.”

The biggest obstacle to overcome was ensuring the fair and midway would be a safe environment. The foundation of this reassurance was a 100+ page COVID plan submitted by Deggeller. Other hurdles proved to be a near-constant series of details that required problem solving solutions that would be both familiar to all fair managers, but also unique to the specific event.


Contract Rollover

For Clay County, some suppliers had staff shortages that affected delivery, and volunteer shortages also impacted planning. Another hurdle was labor – the fair uses inmate labor for clean-up and other tasks, but this workforce was unavailable due to coronavirus restrictions. While most of the entertainment the fair was able to rollover to 2021, in some cases that was not possible, most notably country legend Charley Daniels, who sadly passed away from COVID last year.  

The concerts included the Bellamy Brothers, 38 Special and Vanilla Ice, with seven of the 11 nights having concerts, the remainder being tractor and trailer pulls. Some of the concerts needed renegotiations, but the transition was relatively smooth. “We were able to roll over most of the shows, but just as importantly we rolled over all the contracts for things like production, tents, bleachers, lighting, scooters.”

The details change for every fair, but the reality is that most fair managers will soon be in Hyder's shoes – putting on a fair 24 instead of 12 months after the last fair. “We were one of the first fairs to cancel.  It's definitely harder to go two years without a fair than put on a fair than only one year,” she said. “You have to be ready for anything. You have Plan A, but you also need a Plan B, C and D. There's no playbook.”

Another key obstacle to overcome was marketing, one of the budget items not to be cut was the marketing budget. “We kept the marketing budget the same,” she said. “We had to send out more messaging that we follow CDC guidelines, that the fair is safe. We used a lot of social media, we were all over Facebook and Twitter. We had tremendous ROI on the marketing.”

The 2020 marketing campaign was to focus on the fair's 35th anniversary, but the celebration had to be postponed. “We were 35 with an asterisk this year,” said Hyder.

The marketing tagline this year was What a Ride!, expressing a sentiment that resounded with consumers. The fair had record attendance, reaching 148,000, an increase of 13 percent. “We were blessed with amazing weather,” she said. “People were ready to get outside. We did a lot of new marketing and promotions. We got a lot more people from Georgia this year.”

Record Midway

This attendance was most felt on the midway, where spending was noticeably up. “We had a record year,” said Deggeller, whose company has been the fair's midway provider for the entire three and a half decade run.  

“It's a great fair,” he continued. “They do a great job in getting out the community. They added a Sunday, which meant we had an entire closing weekend. We had a little rain, but that didn't hurt us.”

This year's fair also spanned Easter Weekend, which bucked the usual revenue trends for this holiday. “Easter is usually soft for us,” he said. “This year, we had a record Sunday.”

Last year's cancellation also postponed the debut of Deggeller's new cashless midway, which utilizes the FunTagg system. Ironically, this touch-free RIFD transaction system was ideally suited for a pandemic era midway. “This was first big venue where we used the system, it was a large scale debut of the FunTagg,” he explained. “We purchased the system two years ago but we were unable to roll it out because of the pandemic. We only used it at three events before this one.”

Although the Ferris Wheel is a  Clay County favorite – popular enough as a love connection setting – the midway did debut a Grand Carousel and a Rip Tide Coaster for the first time at this fair. And people were not only coming in droves, they were spending freely. “The unemployment is low,” he said. “The economy in Florida is doing very well compared to the rest of the country.”
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