Although by industry standards, Salem Fair is just a "baby," within 27 short years it has managed to become Virginia's largest. Not only that, Fair Manager Carey Harveycutter explained that "attendance for this year's event was the highest in fair history as approximately 340,000 folks toured the 14-acre midway."
Zero to 340,000
So how does a fledgling fair "fly" from zero to 340,000 within just 27 years? Harveycutter generously shared some tips for doing so. He advised, "Make sure you hire good people to work with you, especially the person who handles corporate sales, the one who understands just what corporate entities want out of such an event."
Harveycutter continued, "Meet with local citizens in order to discuss what the fair brings to the marketplace. Set up a fenced area so that you can charge admission – that's often a necessity. And make sure that you have a great partnership with your carnival midway."
Harveycutter and fellow Civic Center administrator John Saunders had long felt the need for a Salem Fair. However, there had been an amusement park called Lakeside in the area, and they did not want to compete with an existing tax-paying entity. When Lakeside closed, they took that as a signal to move ahead with their dream.
However, the going was tough at first. There wasn't enough money back then to fence the lot, and so admission was free from the start. Because "it's then hard to go the other way," there has been no gate charge ever since. This, as well as the ongoing free parking, has been offset by funding from sponsorships, independent concessions, the Coliseum at the Civic Center, etc.
Harveycutter reminisced that when he and Saunders attended their first International Association of Fairs and Expositions (IAFE) conference in Las Vegas, he was in his 30s and Saunders was in his 20s. They deliberately asked attendees in their 50s and 60s to tell them "what we don't want to do." This openness to seasoned advice has served them very well throughout the years.
Country Road, Take Me Home
Neither has it hurt the Salem Fair any to be right off of a major thoroughfare within the Blue Ridge Mountains, Interstate 81. Nestled in the Roanoke Valley, Salem's locale is considered to be the "commercial and cultural hub of much of Southwest Virginia and portions of Southern West Virginia." Wikipedia also extols this area's historical trail ways and railways.
Harveycutter said, "This year we received a Virginia Tourism Corporation (VTC) grant, and we were able to take our advertising within about a 200-mile radius of the fair. This attracted people who may not have otherwise thought about us."
He continued, "We're seeing a lot more of an ethnic mix these days. More and more visitors are coming from all over, and we're now one of the top 20 events in the Southeast for the summer season. This year 25 young people from China came to our fair. They all had a wonderful time.
We also had at least two family reunions that arrived here on charter buses. We're going to work some more on attracting great groups like these."
Harveycutter concluded, "Good weather makes a fair manager look really good." And this was certainly a banner year! The July 14, 2014 press release stated, "For the most part, the weather was outstanding and as a result, ticket sales for rides were way up and the independent food operators also reported very solid gains."
The July 14th press release also reports that attendance "for the opening night of the fair was the highest since 2010 and July 4 attendance was greater than any other Independence Day in the history of the fair."
"In addition when patrons were asked to bring canned food to the fair on July 8 for the Salem Food Pantry, they responded by contributing 13,000 pounds of non-perishable food items and boosting attendance on that evening by nearly 50 percent... Creative arts and horticulture exhibits also were up 30 percent this year as 2900 individual exhibits from 940 exhibitors were on display."
This year's advertising budget was $70,000, with a breakdown of 40% TV, 40% radio, 10% print and outdoor, plus 10% social media. Harveycutter noted that this year's print allotment was a lot less than in previous years. As for social media, "it grows each year and gives you an opportunity to interact with your customers."
Harveycutter further explained, "We did text campaigns with our strongest radio station, Star Country. You could text in to win ride passes, and we could text folks specific specials. We also had a Survivor casting contest with our CBS TV affiliate, which turned out to be a great promotional idea."
The Deggeller Midway, which Harveycutter credits as being instrumental in drawing a huge crowd, was "up about 15% this year." He explained, "We did a ride promotion just about every day. Deggeller's Giant Ferris Wheel is always very popular, and the Super Nova always does well. There are also 12 to 14 kiddie rides, and the families love them."
Harveycutter added, "When diesel fuel went up, we looked for a way to help the carnival compensate for that. We began a fuel rebate program by raising our ride prices some.
Half of that raise went straight back to the carnival to assist with the increasing fuel costs."
Grounds acts were also super this year. There were a number of "firsts" for the Salem Fair, including Team Rock Martial Arts and Hilby the Skinny German Juggle Boy, Sean Watson the Illusionist from Starshine Events, and A Grizzly Experience.
Harveycutter added, "When we book animal acts, we make sure that the people take care of their animals and don't abuse them in any way."
Looking ahead to 2014, Harveycutter predicts "minimal changes" - just some tweaking concerning traffic flow and main-gate wristband sales. After all, why mess around with such resounding success?