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New CEO Increases Attendance for Celebrate Fairfax!
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When the 38th Annual Celebrate Fairfax! – known as “Northern Virginia's Largest Community-Wide Event” – need to fill its top spot, not only did event's board of directors promote from within, but found someone who had spent more than 10 years climbing up through the ranks. Ashley Morris, now President & CEO, was a student at George Mason University when she first joined the Fairfax County Fair as an intern.

Before being promoted to the top spot after the retirement of Barry Feil, other jobs at the organization she's held included Program Manager, and Chief Experience Officer, a supervisory position for customer service and guess relations. Morris had a catbird seat to witness the remarkable transformation of the fair. “When I first started, we never explored VIP experiences or updated ticket packages,” she said. “It's been exciting to have seen the evolution of Celebrate Fairfax, it has grown more experiential, with a huge wine bar, and music. We have created an experience that makes you want to stay at the festival.”

Old & New

Celebrate Fairfax! is a unique combination of old and new Americana. It has the feel of a local, family oriented fair but also is a music festival headlined by two “classic” alternative rock bands, Better than Ezra and Smash Mouth. Celebrate Fairfax! also featured 120 music performances on seven stages, with an exceptional line-up of national, regional and local artists. Celebrate Fairfax! may seem like a smaller scale version of Coachella or Bonnaroo (or considering the vintage of the headliner, perhaps Lollapalooza is the more apt analogy), the reality is what once was cutting edge appeals to the area's population, young families and professionals, the now middle-aged (or close to middle age) demographic with their own nostalgia.

“We've noticed that 90s nostalgia is not a bad thing for us,” she said. “The people coming to the fair want this music and they want to go to a family-friendly festival. We try to have something for everyone, which includes DJs and our Silent Disco, and our side stage bands play many different styles of music.”

The 90s Alt-Rock line up brings a fresh approach to what may be considered the typical local fair lineup. However, tapping into the Alt-Rock talent pool – and even some of the more popular acts – in the growing and competitive Metro-D.C. marketplace – has become as fierce a seller's market as the musical entertainment for more traditional fairs.

“It's harder to get newer bands because there's now so many venues and festivals, this really has more competition,” she said. “We're definitely seeing prices increasing and more radius clauses in contracts. The competition is huge, and prices are going for all sizes. It's a challenge to keep it affordable.”
Brew Fest

Better than Ezra and Smash Mouth played Friday and Saturday, respectively. The Sunday extravaganza closing the festival was the 3rd annual Sunday Brew, featuring 12 regional breweries, craft beer on tap, and two stages of non-stop entertainment, and beer-focused activities.  Even though this closing event was plagued by rain, “our beer sales were up,” she said. “All the exhibitors were up.”

The other main attraction was the Amusements of America midway, a 35-ride layout that was divided by the Food Court into two large sections – the main Carnival and the KidWay MidWay. The new ride for this fair was the Extreme. Other rides included: Freefall, Orbiter, Firestorm, Mardi Gras Glasshouse, Froghopper, Jet Ski, Far West Train, Family Swinger and Wacky Worm. “They did an amazing job organizing the sections,” said Morris.. “All of the ones we love were back. We love the Giant Ferris Wheel and the Crazy Mouse.”

Summer Starts Here

Summer Starts Here is the perennial marketing tagline used by the fair, but these images and other material were given a makeover. “We changed the design for Summer Starts Here, made it fresh and new,” she said.

One guiding principal for the redesign was to make it more social media, especially Instagram friendly. “Our advertising hasn't changed, it wasn't cut, but we do more social media and digital.”

The main victim was print, which except for in-kind trades, has been totally eliminated from the Celebrate Fairfax! media mix. Television has been limited to a single TV Sponsor, the local ABC affiliate, which also did live remotes from the fair. Terrestrial radio has likewise been nearly eliminated, “we proactively evaluated who we were reaching with certain radio stations. But, we ventured out with Spotify, which is an untapped app for us. It seemed especially effective with the beer connoisseur. Facebook leads the social media campaign, but other social media, especially Instagram are part of the mix.  “You catch the younger demographic with Instagram and Snapchat. You have to go what they are using and ride that wave. ”

The redesigned marketing imagery was also incorporated into expanded photo-op stations  throughout the grounds. “We had Instagram spots we created around the fair. We were trying to figure out ways to get quick exposure and we noticed that these fun, cool pictures are a way to share.”

Most importantly, these spots were thought out and deliberately designed. “You want something interesting, they can't be overly cartoony. You want all the looks on Instagram to look cohesive with our brand, matching the color schemes.”  
Morris reached out to influencers – local bloggers, social media personalities, etc. –  to provided online coverage of the fair. “Our amazing group of interns arranged coverage with some our top influencers. We reached to them, letting them fill out a press application, giving them two tickets in exchange for promotion.”

She added, “we really looked at ways to go beyond traditional media this year. With the influencers, we made a connection with their followers. We tailored different advertising to different populations, but we especially focused on families and the 21-plus crowd. We found different outlets that targeted the people wanted.”

Fresh & Healthy

The festival featured 40 food vendors, with the most noticeable trend being away from more traditional fair cuisine. “We still have the corn dogs, but we have a lot more healthy options. We provided lists of gluten-free and vegetarian options. One of the biggest things is the farm-to-table movement. We had more fresh, gourmet type food, like lobster rolls, sirloin tips. A new vendor was crab-topped baked potatoes. The food was definitely healthier this year.”

She added that the other trend was the increase in local restaurants taking stands. “It is something of a trend, local restaurants becoming vendors, but serving fresh food.”

Attendance reached more than 65,000, a successful turnout for a weekend fair with a rainy Sunday. For her inaugural fair, she feels the overall event “went fantastic. It was great to see how much  community support there is for this fair, it's truly incredible. I was really seeing it with a different set of eyes. It really does take a village.”

The turnout was higher than last year – and in fact – the 2018 downturn negatively impacted this year's spending. “Based on last year, we had some budget cuts. We were looking how best to save, and contain our internal spending.  There isn't an easy place to cut, and  you have to mindful that every cut will impact something.”

The belt tightening policy was to make small deductions across the board instead of larger cuts in specific areas. “We cut everywhere, except for the marketing. You don't want to cut marketing, but  we were smart about spending and saving money in other places of the fair.”

When it concluded, the coffers were replenished and Celebrate Fairfax! was back in business. For its new fair manager, the most satisfying aspect was that an updated fair retained its tradition. “It's amazing the involvement of the community and the different county agencies and departments love and support the fair. Everyone comes together. It's a joint effort, and really cool to be a part of, realizing how many new memories are being created and seeing folks bringing their children and really carrying on a family tradition.”
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