Fan Fair 2001 Planners Promise Bigger, More Varied Event

Will redesigned event lure the fans back to a "new entertainment experience"?

NASHVILLE — Don't just expect a new location — expect an entirely new entertainment experience.

That's what the planners of Fan Fair 2001 are saying as they prepare for the Thursday opening of the 30-year-old country music festival in downtown Nashville. This year's event runs through Sunday, and has the Nashville Convention Center, Adelphia Coliseum, Riverfront Park and the Bicentennial Mall as its principal centers of activity.

"It's going to be the biggest Fan Fair in [history]," said Tony Conway, who heads the Country Music Association committee that oversees the festival. "We've sold more tickets to this Fan Fair than have ever been sold to any Fan Fair. Period." For the first time this year, tickets are being sold for individual shows — as well as for reserved four-day seating for the major shows at Adelphia Coliseum. In years past, Fan Fairgoers had to line up early for each show to get the best seats.

Established in 1972 (and held at shifting downtown facilities) to enable fans to meet country stars, Fan Fair was held from 1982 through 2000 at the compact Tennessee State Fairgrounds, where the grandstand was only a few steps away from the exhibit buildings. There were also spaces for on-site camping. During the country music heyday of the early 1990s, attendance boomed, sometimes reaching the sellout point of 24,000 tickets months before the event opened. In the last three years, however, attendance sagged, which was one of the chief reasons the Country Music Association decided to relocate and redesign the event.

Because Fan Fair has historically drawn an older crowd, some observers predicted that there would be a groundswell of resistance to all the new changes, particularly the shift from one to several widely separated activity centers. Conway says he has heard no such grumbling. "To be honest, I've not had one fan complaint. Yet. I hope I get through it with none."

Loudilla Johnson, a founder of the International Fan Club Organization (IFCO), which has been a Fan Fair mainstay since the beginning, does have some worries. She reported that advance ticket sales to the IFCO show at the Ryman Auditorium on Tuesday (June 12) are down "at least 25 percent" from what they were at the same time last year. However, she noted, walkup sales may make up for the deficit. Johnson also complained that the CMA is being stingy in issuing credentials and sufficient parking passes for people who work the fan booths at the Convention Center. It is at these booths that the artists sign autographs and pose for pictures.

"I really resent the fact," said Johnson, "that we've participated in 30 years of Fan Fair — we've been there every year — and they're having a problem credentialing me to park. I'm not an exception or asking for special privileges, but I think anybody who has a $4,000-plus booth and is bringing in more than 20 [artists] to autograph should have at least a parking permit."

Conway stressed that the new location is the least of the changes involved. "It's not moving Fan Fair," he explains. "It's creating a brand new Fan Fair. What people have to realize — and they will [this] week — is that this new Fan Fair is nothing at all like the old one. The only similarities are that there will be concerts and autograph signings. But everything else is completely changed."

He dismissed the often-expressed fear that attendees will have to walk long distances in the heat to get from one activity to another. "We've got shuttle service where we're transporting you free of charge from venue A to venue B to venue C all day long," he said. "You don't have to worry about walking around downtown."

Among the new features Conway touts are state-of-the-art sound and lighting systems for the Adelphia and Riverfront shows, a United Shows of America carnival at the Bicentennial Mall, the National Barbecue Championship Cookoff and a Spanish language concert designed to appeal to the country's — and Nashville's — growing Hispanic population. Fans will have to pay separately for the barbecue and the individual carnival attractions, but there is no admission charge to enter the area. Planners hope that the carnival will help lure country music fans who have young children. The closing of the Opryland USA amusement park in 1997 has been cited as one of the causes for the drop in Fan Fair ticket sales.

"Our estimation is that [Fan Fair] is going to exceed last year's four-day ticket sale level," said Butch Spyridon, executive vice president of the Nashville Convention & Visitors Bureau. "Our number one goal was to reverse a three-year declining trend, and get it growing again. We think we've done that."