Newly-Constituted Tennessee Fair Sees Attendance Jump

23 Oct

Exhibiting livestock at the Tennessee State Fair, Nashville.

Attendance at the Tennessee State Fair, Nashville, rose 18 percent, from last year’s 204,000 to 241,000, including a record 61,000 attendance on the last Saturday of the fair  – no small feat considering that metro government disbanded the event last year and a carnival and a production company joined forces to make sure the show went on.

Officials expected 2009 to be the last year for the Tennessee State Fair on the hilly 117 acres of land it has called home in Nashville for several years.

But Mike Williams of Jackson, Miss-based North American Midway Entertainment, which had a three-year contract to provide the fair’s carnival, decided to pair up with a local entertainment company to produce the event.

“The land was sitting there idle and we figured we could use it and create the event ourselves,” Williams said.

Scott Jones, a former fair employee who also had served as fair coordinator before, worked with Rockhouse Partners in Nashville to book entertainment, market the fair and provide events in addition to the 29 rides that NAME placed on the midway after the group rented back the property from metro government.

The event was held Sept. 10-19.

This time, all rides and events were set up on the top of the hill to keep fairgoers from having to walk up and down steep areas of property. “We knew it was going to be different so we thought we might as well change it up, and it worked,” Jones said.

“We split the carnival up and put rides around the buildings, so it had more of a street fair feeling.”

A kids zone and a thrill zone were separated, Jones said, which worked better than expected.

Chrysty Fortner, director of sponsorships for Rockhouse Partners who was instrumental in planning the fair, said the budget for the fair, which she believes will end up profitable when all receipts are tabulated, was about $1.2 million.

The producers had to be clever when it came to both entertainment and marketing. “Nashville is a hard market,” Jones said. “I’ve been doing it for years, trying to get people to bring top talent. It’s a hard market for country.”

Part of the problem, he said, is that the Wildhorse Saloon in downtown Nashville has been booking acts that typically might play a fair, including Rick Springfield, Styx and REO Speedwagon – and on a year-round basis.

“We would go for them but they are playing at the Wildhorse all year long,” he said. “It saturates the market.”

Luckily for the fair, Nashville has a lot of excellent local and unknown acts, and so auditions were held for bands of all genres that would play a steady stream of concerts in the food court.

“We even had a Beatles cover band,” Fortner said. “It was really fun family entertainment and that works well for us.”

Also, for an event that was not even supposed to be held, the fair was the site of the filming of a TV commercial, a feature film, a documentary film and parts of the ABC reality show “Extreme Makeover: Home Edition.”

After floods devastated parts of Nashville last May, “Extreme Makeover” visited Nashville to rebuild a pre-school. The timing coincided with the fair.

On the show, ABC typically sends a family whose house is being built to Disney World. Since it was not possible to do that with 325 children, they instead spent the day at the Tennessee State Fair, with country crooner LeAnn Rimes and Paul DiMeo, a carpenter on the show.

As for marketing, Fortner told media outlets that she was interested in them partnering with the fair. “Every media outlet that we bought from gave us something of significant value, whether it be midday talk show spots or access to their e-mail blast list,” she said. “If you buy radio time and get a live event and get them to send out an e-mail blast, then you are reaching a much larger audience and then I can control the message.”

The number of friends on the fair’s Facebook page jumped from negligible to more than 5,000. Fortner credits the tech-oriented employees at Rockhouse Partners for posting quips that garnered comments.

“The guy at Rockhouse would post something and we would have 515 comments, fun things that people like to do. Like, ‘Finish this sentence: He reached into the deep fryer and pulled out a _______.’ And there were tickets at stake, so it was a contest,” Fortner said.

Gate admission cost $8 at the gate or $4 in advance online or at Kroger, the same price as last year. Pay-one-price wristbands to ride the carnival rides cost $20, down from last year’s $21, because it was easier, Jones said.

A lot of details about next year remain up in the air, but Jones said a fair should be held next year, from Sept. 8-18. – Mary Wade Burnside

Interviewed for this article: Scott Jones and Chrysty Fortner, (615) 873-0924; Mike Williams, (601) 898-5533.


Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out / Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out / Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out / Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out / Change )

Connecting to %s

%d bloggers like this: