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Picture This, October 2012 — Fair Pay

 Fair pay

Carolina Renaissance Festival proves the past makes for pretty good business in the present

It took London nearly a millennium and a half to reach 100,000 residents. That was sometime in the 1500s, toward the end of the Renaissance. Attendance at this year’s Carolina Renaissance Festival, held each fall near Charlotte, should hit that number halfway through its seven-weekend run, which starts this month and goes through mid-November. “Last year, we were just shy of 170,000, and that’s only about 70% of where we know we could be,” says Matt Siegel, the event’s marketing director. Credit a business plan that’s part-theater, part-history and part-country fair. Old Country, that is.

After opening its first festival in the late 1980s outside Phoenix, where it’s based, Royal Faires LLP began looking for a second site to provide economies of scale and year-round employment for its workers. On the advice of two performers, Queen City natives Terry and Lolly Foy, it considered Charlotte, leasing 240 acres in nearby Huntersville in 1994. The original 6-acre village has grown to almost 21.

It might appear as 17 days of informal fall frolic for buxom wenches, bearded lords and rogues of all kinds, but the event is the culmination of year-long preparation incorporating cross-marketing with major sponsors such as Matthews-based Harris Teeter Supermarkets Inc. and some 1,200 participants. Royal Faires has about a dozen full-time employees and roughly 300 cast members, divided between professionals that travel the festival circuit and residents of the Southeast who get stipends for costumes, travel or other expenses. Members of theatrical or living-history groups often volunteer. “Most don’t count on the festival to make a living,” Siegel says. “They view it as amateur entertainment or a hobby.” Augmenting performers and maintenance and other workers are more than 100 vendors who sell crafts, animal rides and food. One of the biggest sellers is the oversized turkey drumstick fit for a feasting monarch.

The buildings are movable, though many stay up the entire year. The village starts coming alive in August, when an artist from Arizona arrives to paint signs and facades, landscapers begin sprucing up the place and buildings are repaired. The festival features acts on 11 stages, basking in a loose interpretation of the Renaissance, which stretched from the 14th through the 16th century. “We take a broad approach,” Siegel says. “Most characters are based on historical figures, but we don’t mandate that. We consider ourselves more of a performing-arts group.” The fair has a popular pirate weekend, though Spanish Main-maurading buccaneers didn’t become big until the 17th century.

The festival is one of dozens nationwide, some of which attract as many as 300,000 visitors. Though Royal Faires doesn’t release financial figures, revenue for Carolina Renaissance would have topped $3 million last year if every attendee paid the full $20 fare. But many are reduced-rate tickets sold through Harris Teeter and other partners, and about 30,000 attend on three weekdays that are heavily discounted for students. “We’ve got tremendous overhead,” Siegel says. “But we’re a performing-arts group that’s self-sustaining. We don’t have any public grants or government assistance.” He adds that the future of the past looks good. “The one in Arizona typically attracts 260,000 people or more. We’re confident Charlotte can sustain us and that we can grow even larger.”

— Edward Martin