Tag Archives: North American Midway Entertainment

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.

No Record, No Regrets at a Healthy ‘Big E’ Run

22 Oct

Record crowds turned out when the sun was shining at Eastern States Expositions, West Springfield, Mass. (Photo by Kristen Bilanko)

Attendance at the Eastern States Exposition dropped 3 percent from last year, from 1,260,487 to 1,228,418. But considering 2009 was the highest attendance ever and that the fair saw a 2 percent increase on the midway and a 6 percent jump in food sales, those attendance numbers – the fair’s third highest – look pretty good.

Rain on five days during the Sept. 17 to Oct. 3 fair, known as the Big E, in West Springfield, Mass., probably kept this from being another record year, said Fair President Wayne McCary. But when the rain stopped, fairgoers did come out, leading to three single-day attendance records: 59,072 on opening day, 84,125 on the second Wednesday and 158,222 on the final Saturday.

“I think it was very evident that we would have” broken the overall attendance record, McCary said.

“Attendance was strong on every day the weather was good.”

Miranda Lambert sold out the 6,500-seat outdoor Comcast Arena Stage, with Eric Church and Josh Kelley opening. Those tickets cost $49, $39 and $29. Lambert played one of three paid concerts at the Big E, which until recently had an all-free line-up.

“Ninety-five percent of the entertainment is still free, but the cost of entertainment has driven us, in some cases, to charge for them,” McCary said. “But they are still few and far between.”

The other paid concerts were Terry Fator, winner of “America’s Got Talent,” with a show that cost $45 and $35; and Owl City, which cost $29.95. All of those tickets included the price of admission, which was $15.

Free shows included Boys Like Girls, Laura Bell Bundy, Jason Michael Carroll, The Boys in Concert and Danny Gokey of “American Idol.” The entertainment budget was $2 million, McCary said. “Our entertainment budget today is larger than it’s ever been in the history of the fair. Entertainment is more expensive, whether for concerts or other events we produce.”

That includes the 2010 Big E Super Circus, produced in-house by McCary himself, which drew attendance of 80,000.

The $15 gate admission price reflected a bit of a hike over last year, when the price was $15 only on weekends and $12 on weekdays. Now $12 is the advance price.

Fair officials also raised the price for the five-year-old “$5 after 5″ special to $6, McCary said. He noted how successful that program has been and credits it with raising the carnival midway and food prices over last year’s numbers in spite of the 3 percent attendance decline.

“It’s an opportunity to come out and grab a bite to eat and catch some free shows and spend a couple of hours at the fair in the evening,” McCary said. “It’s obviously attractive to people.” The fair is open until 10 p.m. on weeknights – although if the weather is good and the crowds are strong, the midway will stay open longer – and until 11 p.m. on weekends.

Jackson, Miss.-based North American Midway Entertainment placed 50 rides on the midway, McCary said. Last year’s carnival gross, which was not released to the public, was the all-time highest, so this year’s gross at 2 percent higher set a new record.

Pay-one-price carnival wristbands cost $25 at the gate and $20 in advance, McCary said. The economy in southern New England – with unemployment in excess of 10 percent in the Springfield area – has prompted many fairgoers to seek out deals, McCary said. The Big E also is benefitting from people who want to “staycation.”

The Big E Cream Puff Bakery produced 45,000 of the fair’s signature food, according to a press release. The event also benefits from offering some of the splashier fair foods, included deep-fried butter and fried jelly beans.

The Big E, which has an annual budget of $16 million, actually draws attendees from the six New England states and New York, but the $6 after 5 p.m. program is geared toward those who live 25 miles away or less, especially because the fair begins after Labor Day and school is in session, McCary said.

Marketing included a coordinated billboard campaign that played on the event’s end-of-summer timing, with slogans such as “The Last Taste of Summer,” “Last Ride of Summer,” and one with a baby chick that said “The Last Peep of Summer.”

The fair spent $650,000 on media buys, said Catherine Pappas, communications manager.

The Big E’s relatively new Facebook page has more than 52,000 fans. Pappas said all advertising directs people both to the Facebook page and to the fair’s presence on Twitter. “We did a lot of contesting where people could win tickets to a concert, tickets to The Big E,” Pappas said.

Next year’s dates will be Sept. 16-Oct. 2. –  Mary Wade Burnside

Interviewed for this article: Wayne McCary and Catherine Pappas, (413) 737-2443.

Down with Webster and Deep-Fried Butter Offset Rain at CNE

21 Sep

Down with Webster rocked this year's CNE.

Seven days of rainy weather or the threat of rain probably will prompt a decrease in attendance compared to last year’s 1,320,000 at the Canadian National Exhibition in Toronto when final numbers are tabulated next month.

“I don’t think we’ll be at last year’s numbers,” said GM David Bednar. “We had really good numbers for the last two years. We were doing great this year until the last weekend. In a good year, we do 25 percent of our attendance in the last weekend.”

But the final Saturday and Labor Day Monday of the Aug. 20-Sept. 6 fair either had rain or threatened rain. “The Sunday was the one decent day and it wasn’t enough to make up for the loss,” Bednar said.

Jackson, Miss.-based North American Midway Entertainment placed 58 rides on the midway, Bednar said, including the new Zamperla Skater, as well as the Drop, the Swing Tower, the Crazy Mouse roller coaster and the flume ride.

“It was a very good line-up,” Bednar said.

Like fair attendance, Bednar expects the ride numbers to be a bit down over last year.

Gate admission of $16 Canadian ($15.56 U.S.) was up $2 Canadian from last year.

“We were planning a $1 raise but the province did a harmonization of sales tax that took the admission tax from 5 percent to 13 percent,” Bednar said.

Some tax credits alleviated the brunt of that so the full 8 percent increase was not felt, Bednar said.

“But we estimated that it was going to be $550,000 to $600,000, so we adjusted the admission fee. But we did other promotions to offer people other ways of getting in.”

Admission for ages 13 and under and 60 and above was $12 Canadian ($11.67 U.S.)

Other promotions were an opening day “$8 at the Gate,” which was $8 for everybody and essentially a half-priced deal for ages 14-59; “$5 after 5” on Mondays through Thursdays; and a “little, almost stealth, promotion we did in the local neighborhood,” which was free admission during lunchtime for patrons who are in after 11 a.m. and out by 2 p.m. Patrons actually pay admission and it’s refunded for those who leave on time.

“It’s an idea we picked up from South Carolina,” Bednar said, referring to the state fair in Columbia. “It’s not nearly as big as theirs is, but it’s fun to do.”

Once patrons of The Ex pay their admission fee, most attractions other than the carnival are free. That includes the musical entertainment at the bandshell, where acts included Debbie Reynolds, Bobby Vinton, a Michael Jackson tribute act called King Michael and a band called Down With Webster that between the time they were signed and the CNE, were nominated for a Canadian Juno Award for New Group of the Year.

“They went through the roof,” Bednar said. “Never, never in my 12 years here have I seen this. There were teenage girls here at 8:30 in the morning in front of the stage, maybe a dozen of them. They were not moving. They were going to take turns going to get a bottle of water so they would have their position in front of the stage.”

During the concert, Bednar witnessed an estimated 8,000 of the 10,000 or 11,000 fans forming a “W” with their hands and holding their hands above their heads pulsing to the music for two or three songs. And then during one song, they asked everyone to pull out their cell phones, which fans waved in the air instead of lighters.

The bandshell seating is an open field so attendance is difficult to count, but Bednar estimates that it maxes out at about 11,000.

Other entertainment at The Ex included tribute bands nearly daily at the Budweiser Midway Stage, honoring such acts as Aerosmith, Led Zeppelin, Billy Joel, Frankie Valli & the Four Seasons, Bryan Adams, KISS, Tina Turner, The Tragically Hip, Genesis, Pink Floyd, Elvis Presley and more.

Patrons also could attend twice daily ice skating shows, “Rock on Ice,” presented by a group out of Quebec and featuring on six of those days 2002 Olympic gold medalist figure skating duo Jamie Sale and David Pelletier.

Last year, the ice show, presented in the 11,000-seat Ricoh Coliseum, featured Olympic silver medalist Elvis Stojko because The Ex had gotten $3 million Canadian ($2.9 million U.S.) stimulus funds from the Canadian government, similar to what the United States government did in an effort to get the economy cranking.

In addition to Stojko, last year The Ex brought in Bill Clinton for a paid appearance, an extra $1 million for marketing, plus an International Friendly Soccer Match between Portugal and Scotland.

This year, the CNE only got $750,000 Canadian ($729,000), which officials at The Ex used to purchase five trams, with a capacity of 54 riders each, to transport fair patrons from one end of the grounds to the other.

“The old ones were dated from the mid-1980s and were pulled by tractors with manual transmissions,” Bednar said.

In marketing, the CNE has a very active Facebook page. “We had the most success we’ve had with social media,” Bednar said. “We held trivia contests on Facebook in which we’d ask a simple question and get all the answers and draw for a winner and somebody will win passes. We know from watching that that when you post something like that and get 15 answers in 20 minutes, there are people who are watching you, which is what you want.”

The year-round budget at the CNE is $22 million or $21.3 million U.S., Bednar said. About $800,000 or $777,800 U.S. was spent on paid advertising.

One food item actually turned into a huge marketing tool – deep-fried butter, which was unveiled last year at the State Fair of Texas and which Bednar saw at the Florida State Fair. He then asked concessionaires at The Ex to step up and one did, and the media attention that ensued was overwhelming. In a normal year, Bednar does maybe one, if that, French-language radio interview. This year he did three. The Toronto Star even did an article with the headline, “Did butter-balls save the CNE?”

“The deep-fried butter just took off in the popular imagination,” Bednar said. “It went nuts. I couldn’t tell you the numbers of interviews we did and the comments and the number of people who asked about deep-fried butter. It was only available at one booth and that poor guy – he was doing well financially, but he was there until an hour after the midway closed.”

Next year’s dates will be Aug. 19-Sept. 5. – Mary Wade Burnside

Interviewed for this article: David Bednar, (416) 263-3800.

Horse Deaths and Midway Accident Maim Calgary Stampede

9 Aug

This couple enjoy a dance during Western Nights at the Calgary Stampede

The July 9-18 Calgary (Alta.) Stampede was down 3.5 percent to 1,145,394 from last year’s 1,186,636 because of weather, but other problems overshadowed the event, including a midway accident that injured 10 riders and the death of six horses in separate incidents.

On July 16, 10 people were hurt and two sent to the hospital after an accident on the Scorpion that took place around 9 p.m., said Mike Williams, CEO of Jackson, Miss.-based North American Midway Entertainment. The two people who went to the hospital have been released.

“One of the car carriers, which carries a set of multiple cars, came detached from one of the main sweep arms,” Williams said. “It skidded off the platform on the ride and came to rest partially off and on the Scorpion platform.”

The cause of the accident is under investigation, Williams said. “The province of Alberta has the ride in one of their warehouses where the team of engineers are doing the investigation into the cause of the incident.”

Williams noted that the incident “is unprecedented at North American Midway Entertainment” and that the ride has played, among other locales, the Eastern States Exposition (the Big E) in West Springfield, Mass., the Miami-Dade County Fair, the South Carolina State Fair in Columbia and the Canadian National Exhibition in Toronto.

The ride had been inspected prior to the start of the Calgary Stampede as well as in all the other provinces and states it had played prior to the accident, Williams said.

Doug Fraser, the Stampede’s media relations manager, said he could not comment on the accident because of the ongoing investigation, which is being handled by the Alberta Elevating Devices and Amusement Rides Association.

As for the horses, they all died in separate incidents during the Stampede. Three died of heart attacks, one during morning training, one after the chuckwagon races and one during a Western cattle-penning event.
One horse died of an abdominal aneurysm and two had to be euthanized after breaking bones.

“It was unusual this year,” Fraser said. “It’s very upsetting and unusual, but it should be noted that the six deaths were a result of totally different circumstances and that none of the deaths were the result of an on track accident.”

Morris Airey, director of animal protection services for the Alberta SPCA, said two SPCA officers are involved with the inspection of animals at the Stampede, and are still reviewing the situations surrounding the deaths of the six horses. 

“Seeing as how they were unrelated events, it makes it more difficult to pinpoint the causes or reasons, but we are looking at reports coming from the Stampede board and our own investigation to look at ways of changing the rules or preventing a recurrence,” Airey said. 

“We don’t take an outright opposition to the event,” Airey said. “In the past, we have worked with the Stampede and officials there to make substantial changes to the event. We feel we have been beneficial in preventing injury to the stock. This year was particularly bad. Six animals died in a two-day period, and it did put a lot of focus on the Stampede.”

The attendance decline was the result of rain that prompted the cancellation of one night of chuckwagon races, Fraser said.

“We had bad weather from Saturday to Tuesday,” he said. “The first Saturday, the weather was bad, but attendance varied and at one point on Monday, we were actually ahead and we had a great family day on Sunday.”

Amber Swedgan, director of communications and media relations for NAME, said Tuesday’s weather really hurt the carnival and that overall, revenues were down 4 percent from last year. Pay-one-price presale wristbands, available at area Safeway grocery stores and valid on weekdays, cost $36, Swedgan said. Otherwise, ride coupons cost $1 for one, $20 for 22, $50 for 55 and $20 for 30 coupons on Kids’ Day. Midway games were down 2 percent and food was down 3 percent, she added.

Admission to the Stampede was the same as last year at $14 Canadian, or about $13.80 U.S., for adults; and $7 for children 12 and under and free for children 7 and under.

“We felt we were able to hold the line and offer the best value for our visitors,” Fraser said.

Next year’s dates are July 8-17. — Mary Wade Burnside

Interviewed for this article, Mike Williams, (601) 842-6573; Doug Fraser, (403) 261-0242; Amber Swedgan, (601) 383-5533.