An Inspirational Career with the N.C. State Fair

by | Jun 25, 2024

If Superwoman lived in the modern day, her name might be Sarah Ray. Since 2012, Sarah has served as the Public Information Officer for the N.C. State Fair, where she has taken on many responsibilities, including advertising, social media, sponsorships, special event planning and website management. Through the years, she has not only become a N.C. State Fair aficionado, but also developed many projects and ideas that have molded the fair into what it is today. Although today is her last day working with the N.C. State Fair, she has left her stamp on the fair in a way that will continue to be felt by staff and fairgoers alike in the years to come.

Growing up in the South, the N.C. State Fair is a fall tradition for many friend groups and families across the state. As a young girl, Sarah remembers attending the fair with her grandparents and her youth group. “The fair has always been a popular event in our state, but when I was growing up, it wasn’t near as popular for those of us in Harnett County as it is today,” she said. “In working here for the past twelve years, I’ve come to realize just how important this place is to people. It not only brings them together each year, but impacts generations as families continue to bring their kids here and give them lifelong experiences and make a family tradition offff the N.C. State Fair.” As a Public Information Officer for the N.C. State Fair, Sarah took on many responsibilities and played a major role in many projects that have shaped the experience people receive upon visiting the fair each year, including the Military Day Parade, accessABILITY Day, Media Day, Home Chef Challenges and Casey Cardinal, the State Fair mascot.

Sarah is not only a hard worker, but she has talents in a wide array of areas, making her the perfect fit for the position of Public Information Officer. On a daily basis, Sarah manages social media and website pages, works on marketing promotions, like advertising campaigns and branding, and responds to media requests. Each year, the N.C. State Fair has a theme that ties everything together on the grounds. For example, in 2012, when Sarah started, the very first theme she worked on was Bumper Crop of Fun, which brought awareness to the fact that the N.C. State Fair is an exceptional place for people to have fun and enjoy a variety of activities. Sarah is not only responsible for working to develop the theme of the N.C. State Fair each year, but also partnering with the art department on branding and logos to coincide with that theme. Although she has enjoyed working on all the themes, her favorite to put together was the 2021 theme Worth the Wait. “The theme of the fair each year is always a fun beast to tackle because it is one of the first ways we start to see that year’s vision of the fair come to life,” she said. “Worth the Wait was my favorite because there was so much anticipation surrounding the opening of the fair that year. In 2020, the fair was cancelled due to the pandemic, so the 2021 fair was something that people across the state were really looking forward to. It was fun to work on that campaign and bring that excitement from the public into the theme for the year.”

As the corporate world experienced many changes throughout the pandemic, Sarah stepped up to take on other duties in her role at the N.C. State Fair, including sponsorships and promotions, special event planning, and team communications lead on the Incident Management Team. “The fair is a full-time job for over fifty people year-round, so when COVID hit, the fair took a hit like many other businesses did,” she said. “However, I knew that the fair had to be better than ever for people coming out of the pandemic, so I didn’t mind stepping up to help fill in the gaps. In fact, it helped me grow in my career in ways that I wouldn’t have imagined otherwise.” In working for an event the size of the N.C. State Fair, Sarah has learned many lessons through the years that have not only shaped her professional life, but her personal life as well. “The biggest lesson I’ve learned is that the fair can’t be everything to everyone, but it can be something to everyone,” she said. “To bring in over a million people a year, we are doing something right, but we will never make everyone 100% happy every single day. We do the best we can to make sure everyone leaves with a smile on their face and happy memories made.”

Each year, Sarah and the rest of the N.C. State Fair staff create new projects, programs, special events and entertainment ideas to bring fresh activities and excitement to the fair. Sarah has had a hand in many aspects of the fair that people enjoy today, including the creation of the Military Day Parade, the revamp of fair mascot Casey Cardinal, the revamp of cooking competitions into Home Chef Challenges, and the creation of accessABILITY Day.

In 2021, the N.C. State Fair launched a special day known as accessABILITY Day, which was one of the first of its kind. On accessABILITY Day, all vendors, including food, rides and games, turn off their lights and music until 1 p.m. All live music acts scheduled to perform during this time only play acoustic sets with light amplification, and the PA system across the grounds is used sparingly. This special day, in partnership with Bandwidth, aims to make the fair more inclusive by providing an atmosphere where all individuals can attend and enjoy the fair. A chill out zone is also available on this day where people can experience low lighting and soft music inside the Jim Graham Building with toys, crafts and activities. “For many years, our fair staff responded to moms who wanted to bring their kids to the fair but couldn’t because of their child’s sensory difficulties,” Sarah said. “accessABILITY Day provided a way for them to do that and enjoy it! It was my favorite project to work on because we got to see the difference that it made for people.”

Although Sarah and her team initially planned the day with a kid-centric focus, they quickly found out this special day benefits adults as much as it does kids. “That first year, I had a mom and her twenty-five-year-old son approach me about the impact that accessABILITY Day had on them,” Sarah said. “Her son had been in the military, so many sounds across the fairgrounds would trigger his PTSD. From that time forward, this mom had been unable to experience the fair with her son. I remember her crying tears of joy as she talked with me about how much it meant for her to be able to spend time at the fair again with her son. That’s what the fair is truly about!” accessABILITY Day will take place at the N.C. State Fair again this year on Sunday, October 19th.

As an N.C. State Fair expert, Sarah has her fair share of insider tips as well as a list of all her favorite fair foods. Her top three must have foods each fair are (1) beef tips from Pickle Barrell, (2) a pretzel from Peachey’s Donuts, and (3) a BBQ Sundae from Pik-N-Pig. When talking with first time fairgoers, she not only recommends these places to enjoy a meal on the grounds, but she also gives five tips to experiencing the fair like a pro:

    1. Park in the Cardinal Lot and enter the grounds through Gate 7. By doing this, you can take the kids to meet Smokey Bear first thing and check his story times for that day. Be sure to make one of those times during your visit to the fair to learn about the importance of Smokey Bear and protecting our state forests!
    2. Stop by Cotton Park and get your photo taken with the N.C. State Fair mascot Casey Cardinal at Casey’s Clubhouse.
    3. The State Fair Flyer is not only a great view, but also a solid way to get across the grounds. It’s a seven minute, sit down, ride that will help you avoid the crowds and rest your feet.
    4. The first Friday of the fair is the best day to come. Not only are the crowds less than on other weekend days, but everything is fresh and ready to enjoy.
    5. Explore Heritage Circle and the Flower and Garden Show with an apple cider from Bright Branch Farms. These parts of the fairgrounds are often quieter but showcase a lot of history and beauty found in our state.

In addition to the N.C. State Fair, the fairgrounds host over 200 other events throughout the year. “We don’t just shut the gates after the fair and wait for them to open the following October,” she said. “We are open year-round and work on the fair all year long, while hosting other events in buildings across the grounds.” Although she loves many aspects of her job and the N.C. State Fair, Sarah’s favorite part of it all is the people that she gets to work with. “There is nothing quite like the people that the fair bug bites,” she said. “From the staff who work here to our carnival partners and the exhibitors and vendors who help us put on a great show year after year, these people are passionate, hard-working, and stick together like family.” Although she is stepping away from her role as Public Information Officer, Sarah is excited to continue working alongside the N.C. State Fair staff in her new role with the N.C. Department of Agriculture.

Starting tomorrow, Sarah will be transferring to the NCDA&CS Marketing Division to take on an exciting new role as Media Specialist. In this position, she will not only work on ad campaigns for the division and marketing projects for N.C. producers, but she will also work with growers and producers across our state to tell their stories to increase the sales of their products. “When I first started working for the N.C. State Fair, I did a lot of storytelling, so I am excited to get back to that,” she said. “I love helping people get to know their farmers and, beyond that, helping them see why they should be investing in local products.” Through telling the story of N.C. Agriculture, Sarah will encourage people to think before they purchase and support local farmers and businesses every chance they get.

As someone who has made their mark on the industry in more ways than one, Sarah is a great resource for anyone seeking a career in the marketing and communications industry. Her number one piece of advice is to find a mentor you can learn from and always keep learning. “Never walk into a room thinking that you know it all. Listen first,” she said. “Read the room and be careful where you lean your ladder. Always keep growing, learning and evolving into the best professional you can be.” By allowing your passion to drive your work every single day, you too can make your mark and leave a legacy in your career. “I look back on my time with the N.C. State Fair and take great pride in the work I’ve done here to help make this a great fair,” she said. “I know I’ve left my stamp here, and I’m proud of the impact fairgoers will feel from the ideas I helped bring to life.”

Although the N.C. State Fair staff will miss Sarah greatly, we are excited to see how she will continue to advance the agriculture industry through her work in the marketing division. Thank you, Sarah, for all that you have done and continue to do for citizens of our state and beyond. You will always have a special place in the heart of the N.C. State Fair!