The 2021 Ravalli County Fair is over, but the enthusiasm of fair manager Melissa Saville shows no signs of slowing down.
Of course, Saville has a lot to be enthusiastic about. The fair posted recording breaking attendance and record-breaking revenue.
This is Saville’s fourth year as manager, and her third year managing the fair, since it was cancelled last year due to COVID-19. The highest previous revenue record was $155,000 in 2016. Saville says this year the fair took in $165,000 in gate revenue. She said that the revenue doesn’t include the pre-sale of gate passes throughout the summer, just the proceeds from the four days of the fair.
Carnival ticket sales were up by about $56,000. Food vendor sales were up by 75%, due in part to the fact that the carnival didn’t offer any food of its own this year because they couldn’t find enough workers. To address that, Saville expanded the “Lunch at the Fair” program where people could come and eat at the fair and get a gate pass refund if they left the fairgrounds by 2 p.m.
Saville is continually trying to make improvements at the fair, to keep everything “fresh and new.” She said that the Tuesday concert was a great way to get things started. There was no gate fee on Tuesday and this gave fairgoers a “sneak peek” of vendors and food options. About 80% of those vendors chose to be open on Tuesday, even though the barns and building weren’t open. Saville said the vendors reported that they did really well on Tuesday.
She also has worked on creating “fresh and new” promotions for the market vendors. The challenge, she says, is “How do you create a wow moment but still maintain the country fair atmosphere?” To address that, she implemented a secret shopper program. The secret shopper judged the market vendor spaces to award a $250 prize to the most impressive display. This year’s winner was Montana Mountain Creations/Bitterroot Bling.
There was also a similar program for the food vendors, with a secret taste shopper who came and tasted a featured item from each vendor. The winner of that competition was newcomer Double K Ranch, who won a trophy for “Best Fair Food.”
Saville said that the vendors really “upped their tame this year,” with all sorts of new choices of food at the fair. She said they will continue to add more food vendors for next year, but she will do that carefully as “it’s a fine line between not enough and too many” and she wants to make absolutely certain that the ones that are there are successful.
Saville is especially pleased with the bicycle giveaway they did this year. She had gone to a fair conference and heard the idea for a bike giveaway. Sponsors bought the bikes and the Public Health Department donated helmets. Then a drawing was held and bikes were given away to children 12 and under.
“People just couldn’t believe the bikes were free,” said Saville. “The kids, and their parents, were totally amazed. ‘You mean I get to take it? Yep, it’s your bike.’” This was so popular, Saville hopes to give away 50 bikes next year. She said it was a unique opportunity for businesses to advertise. “We were like the Pied Piper with all the kids following us.” She wants to do more of these “fresh, new and fun events.”
She said The Drive, a local radio station, always comes up with a fun promotion that adds to the fair. This year they teamed up with Ravalli Fun Center and the Eagles Lodge to put on a Cornhole Challenge, giving away $5000 in prizes.
Saville said that the ideas for improving the fair, to make it “fresh and new,” are practically endless. But one stumbling block is lack of volunteers. This year the numbers of volunteers was down, probably due to Covid. She said many of their loyal volunteers are older people, so covid could be a factor in their decision on whether to volunteer. The fair does have a volunteer incentive program: anyone can volunteer for a minimum of four hours and get a free gate pass. “We have so many ideas but it would take more bodies,” said Saville.
Saville and her staff take time to go to other events and to solicit vendors that they believe will be a good fit for this county fair. She said they have to start booking now because there are so many competing events all over the state.
“We aren’t relaxing – we are already preparing contracts for next year’s music, entertainment and vendors.”
Saville said that one area that was down in numbers was the exhibits. “We thought there would be more than ever,” due to people having to stay home due to Covid. The Ravalli County Fair doesn’t change for entries. Saville said this is one of the last fairs not to charge. She said about $15,000 is given out in premiums, plus additional special premiums. “I think next year there will be many more entries,” she said.
The fair has a budget of about $168,000, which pays for superintendent stipends, advertising, judges, garbage and porta-potties, premiums, ribbons, prizes, entertainment and other purchased services. About $100,000 is raised through sponsorships. Any profit goes back into the county’s general fund. Saville can request money from the general fund for specific needs at the fairgrounds.
Recent improvements that the commissioners have approved include:
• installing an alarm system as vandalism has been on the increase
• new wood for the rodeo bucking chutes
• new asphalt in food row
• new asphalt in front of the fair office
• new lighting and exhaust fans in food row
• new ticket booth at north gate
• new entryway at north end rodeo arena
• handicapped ramp which was built last year but didn’t get used until this year.
• 2 additional sets of bleachers.
Saville said that the Fair Foundation and the Rodeo Committee have also helped fund some of the improvements.
The success of the fair helps ensure that the fairgrounds can be open all year for a variety of other activities, said Saville.
“We couldn’t do it without the volunteers, the sponsors, and our staff,” said Saville. “And the 30,000 people who came and had a good time. That makes it all worth it.”