Fairest of them all

Shenandoah County Fair Grounds General Manager Tom Eshelman has been honored by the Virginia Association of Fairs as this year's Fair Person of the Year. Rich Cooley/Daily

WOODSTOCK — Tom Eshelman is a “fair geek.”

Years ago, he was performing in a variety band, opening for David Ball at the Warren County Fair, when Dennis Grove, the fair’s entertainment manager, approached him to load up some equipment.

“At the end of the night, he said, ‘I’d love to have some help doing this,’ and the rest they say is history,” Eshelman said.

For 15 years, Eshelman was involved with the Warren County Fair board, contributing to improving the event’s quality of entertainment and attractions. So a couple of years ago, when a general manager position opened at the Shenandoah County Fair Grounds, Eshelman applied and got the job.

“The main thing the fair’s board wanted was to grow the use of the fairgrounds, because they already had putting on a fair pretty under control,” Eshelman said.

Eshelman hit the ground running when he started the job on April Fool’s Day 2012 with planning the fair. He said he started the “things our fair could control” like the price of sponsorship and the amount of labor, which during the fair is 125 employees and 100 volunteers.

“I tried to make the sponsorship price more affordable for the economic times and tried to give sponsors more for their money,” Eshelman said. “I tried to pay attention to the bottom line.”

Eshelman added, “Everybody thinks the fair is rolling in money, but it’s not. It costs about $600,000 to put on the fair. The fair is owned by shareholders, but every dime we make goes toward our debt or back into the facility.”

Under his tenure, sponsorship income has risen 200 percent while operational expenses have fallen 30 percent. Eshelman said he has a background in sales and management, which he learned at Peebles department story, and selling copier machines plus running his own auction house in Front Royal.

“As a general manager’s job, if you got basic principles of management, you can do it,” Eshelman said. “One of the biggest things is to be nice to people and think about how you would feel if you were in their place.”

He added, “For a good auctioneer, 10 percent of it is talking fast, the other 90 percent of it is treating your customer right. I try to do the same for my clients and sponsors at the fairgrounds.”

One of Eshelman’s favorite things about managing the fairgrounds is creating new events, such as the Valley Diesel Day in May, the Wine and Trotter Festival in June and the upcoming Rockin the Valley Festival on April 18. Eshelman said the heavy metal music festival is the newest and riskiest event to date.

“This is the biggest show of confidence in me the board has given me to date,” Eshelman said. “I hope this event can work out, because I’m a little leery of starting other events until then.”

Featuring 13 acts, including two headliners — Puddle of Mud and 10 Years, Eshelman said putting together the festival was a little hard starting out.

Since 2011, Eshelman has served in executive capacities for the Virginia Association of Fairs, two years as vice president and two years as president, where he assumed responsibilities for planning the organization’s conference at half the price.

Representing 56 fairs and festivals primarily on the Interstate 81 corridor, the association selects a “Fair Person of the Year” by having past recipients vote on candidates vetted by a selecting committee.

Eshelman received this year’s honor Jan. 11 in Hot Springs for his work in planning the conference. He said he was “humbled” by the award.

“It was an honor to get it, I can think of a dozen people who deserve it more than me, so I was caught off guard,” Eshelman said. “I thought one day I might get it, but I thought it might be another 10 or 15 years down the road.”

His favorite thing about the fair is putting together a good event for the community, he said.

“There is no one aspect of the event I love, because I love all of it. It is an illness,” Eshelman said, with a laugh. “I just like putting on something for the community to enjoy.”

Contact staff writer Henry Culvyhouse at 540-465-5137 ext. 184, or hculvyhouse@nvdaily.com