The joint-state association meeting - the cost-savings concept of Georgia and South Carolina holding a co-convention-moved across state lines for the first time. The Georgia Association of Agricultural Fairs and the South Carolina Fair Association decided to combine forces for their annual meeting, and for the first time the convention was held in South Carolina and not Georgia.
The Georgia bias is due to the association being twice the size of their South Carolina sister organization. About 31 fairs are members of the Georgia organization while South Carolina's group has 13 fairs. About 300 fair professionals attended the 2017 convention, which by all accounts reenergized fair organizers in both states.
"There was a feeling of optimism and excitement throughout the conven
tion," said Nancy L. Smith, Immediate Past President of the South Carolina Fair Association and Assistant Manager, Director, Marketing, Sponsorship & Exhibits, South Carolina State Fair. "This was felt in our sessions, entertainment, and tradeshow and in what we as fair folks do best - in our networking. The overall programming and agenda for this convention changed quite a bit. Our tradeshow opened a day earlier and the convention kicked off with not only an auction to benefit scholarships but a dance."
The theme of the 2017 co-convention was "Make the Best Better - Together." One synergy between the two bordering states was that the location was conducive to entertainment booking. Ground acts, strolling acts and regional entertainers usually play gigs in both during states and being able to create routing contracts was a major plus at this convention. One piece of evidence of this was that the trade show floor - the majority of which are booths by entertainers - and the entertainment showcase, saw a significant increase from 2016.
"We went up to more than 60 entertainment booths, from 40 when we were in Georgia last year," said Smith. "The routing works out for entertainment act between both states, that was one reason there was more showcasing. We also had more room in the hotel, and I think there were fewer association meetings in other states, so that freed up more entertainers and associate members and trade show exhibitors."
The trend away from booking expensive big name headliners was another factor - fairs are looking to fill in those entertainment gaps for fairgoers with additional - and more cost-effective - types of entertainments. "There was everything from more bands to jugglers and other ground and strolling acts," said Smith. "We also held more showcases, such during lunchtime, and the beauty pageant, and other times. In our fair we do grandstand acts, but we are booking more local entertainment, the paid ticket acts and those days are gone."
Local and county fairs are looking to use the ground acts more advantageously in 2017. "For several reasons, the ground acts, especially the strolling and roving acts, lend themselves to the fairgrounds, and fairs. You want them to draw traffic, you don't have to set up a major stage to get people to come to a corner of the fairgrounds. Whether it is a walking tree or a robot, there's a flexibility with these acts, then can draw a crowd, go into buildings, and bring people to parts of the fair they may not have gone, which can bring more business to new areas of the fairgrounds."
At the convention this ability to move crowds to heretofore unpopulated fairground areas was demonstrated with a juggler at the ribbon cutting of the exhibition floor - usually just an under-attended photo-op - but with a new Tunnel of Lights exhibit plus some grounds acts - "before we knew it, there was more than 100 people there," said Smith.
The expanded showcase and tradeshow "worked out great," said Bud Owen, Director, Area 1 for the Georgia Association of Agricultural Fairs and manager of the Georgia Regional Fair in Calhoun, who said that when the co-convention moves back to Georgia next year the trade show floor and entertainment showcase will likely be even bigger. "Most of the fairs are booking through this show than at a national convention," he said. "We reap the benefits of better routing and better pricing."
Like South Carolina, Georgia fairs are booting more entertainment for fairs, especially local musical and grounds acts. "The local bands have strong followings, which they bring to the fair," said Owen. "They do their own social media marketing too. Grounds acts bring people back to the fair, because it surprises them. It's a benefit to have a solid mixture of grounds acts and music acts, but we are definitely increasing the grounds acts."
He added that his own fair has increased its roving and grounds acts, booking upwards of $25,000 at the convention alone, an increase of more than $10,000 over 2016, a trend other fairs seemed to follow.
Speakers at the fair focused on increasing revenue, a vital issue for associations whose fairs historically get little to no financial support from their state governments and little to no lobbying presence in their state capitals. Most speakers were fair veterans experienced in revenue enhancement, which included Roxie Mayberry, formerly with the Alaska State Fair and currently CEO of Focus on Sponsorship, Jodi Buresh, Board Member of the Norman County Fair (Minnesota) and currently with Sapphire, a website marketing and ticketing company and Becky Brashear, Chair, Board of Directors, International Association of Fairs & Exhibitions (IAFE), who also screened her video "Striking It Rich." According to Smith, the purpose of the view was to inform members "how fairs can make a difference by letting the IAFE know how much they give in scholarships. The culmination of these figures will afford fairs an opportunity to show what a difference they make."
"We're teaching our fairs to go after the smaller businesses and other groups for sponsorships," said Owen. "It is a teaching topic, getting fairs to get local businesses to understand the benefits of sponsorships. You have to figure out prices for local sponsors, but it creates loyalty and relationships within the community."
"For some of the smaller fairs, sponsorships have been stagnant," said Smith. "We did concentrate on sponsorship quite a bit at the convention. Smaller fairs have been timid about getting sponsorships, but we've been looking at who is in your community, bankers, lawyers, a new bank. You can build relationships, and there is really no company too small for a sponsorship."
Both Smith and Owen said the economy in both states had improved but was still struggling, adding pressure on smaller fairs to improve their bottom lines. The 2017 outlook may be upbeat, the fact is many fairs in both states are coming off what by most accounts was a down or at best, flat year. "Overall, 2016 was a good year if the fairs escaped Hurricane Michael, which arrived in October," said Smith. "For those fairs reporting that were not affected, 2016 was indeed a good year. This was attributed to weather and new promotions introduced at some of the fairs."
"Most of the fairs had fairly good years," said Owen. "We are optimistic that we will have a good economy in 2017, and I think fairs across Georgia are marketing more effectively."
The 2016 attendance for some Georgia fairs was negatively impacted by ride accidents at two fairs. Even though most fairs issued press releases about their safety inspections in the wake of these two accidents, the publicity still hurt fair attendance state-wide.
To alleviate the potential ramifications of these mishaps - no injuries were reported due to the malfunctioning equipment - lingering into 2017, the convention featured a workshop with Georgia Ride Inspectors. "Our fairs have developed a great relationship with the state ride inspectors and we want to ensure that that safety guidelines are being met and exceeded by our fairs and carnival companies," said Owen. "There are no regulations due to the accidents last year, but speaking with inspectors brought a sense of relief among our fairs, that we are ensuring safe rides."
He added that there's a new program being implemented where state fire inspectors are being trained to also conduct fair ride inspections. While not replacing state inspectors," Owen said "they will be an additional set of eyes and provide additional inspections. They will assist the inspectors and the fair. The concern is that the carnival mobile rides are as safe as standing rides at amusement parks."
Officers for the Georgia Association of Agricultural Fairs staring new terms in 2017 include: President: Michael Lariscy, Coastal Empire Fair; Immediate Past-President: Hilda Thomason, CFE, Georgia Mountain Fair; First Vice-President: Tod Miller, North GA State Fair; Secretary/Treasurer: Johnny Webb, CFE, Retired from the Georgia National Fair.
Gerald Andrews, former Manager of the Washington County Agriculture and Youth Fair, received the 2017 "James H. Drew Fairman of the Year." The Georgia association's 2017 Charles Inman Scholarship, sponsored by Billy and Stacey Tucker, of Dixieland Rides went to 17-year old Joshua Brown of Cornelia, who was nominated by the Chattahoochee Mountain Fair. MacKenzie Marable, representing the North East Georgia Regional Fair, was winner of the annual "Miss Georgia Fair's Pageant."
New directors for the Georgia Association of Agricultural Fairs included: Area 2 - Brenda Kinsey, Chattahoochee Mountain Fair; Area 3 - James Freeman, Gwinnett County Fair; Area 4 - Harry Todd, Kiwanis Spalding County Fair; Area 5 - Bobby Herrington, Jr., Columbia County Fair; Area 6 - Walter Pease, Kiwanis Ogeechee Fair; Area 7 - Charlie Freeman, Exchange Club Fair; Area 8 - Bill Jones, Georgia Association of Agricultural Fairs; Area 9 - Chris Hafer, Coastal Empire Fair; and Associate Director - Jimmy Drew, James H. Drew Expositions.
New officers for the South Carolina Fair Association included: New President: Paul Winters, Union County Fair; Vice-President: J.P. Baher, Piedmont Interstate Fair, and a new Board of Directors was inducted: Tom Bergen - Coastal Carolina Fair; Lin Hair- Orangeburg County Fair; Dudley Adams- Union County Fair; Pat Lee- Eastern Carolina Agricultural Fair; Mitch Lesi- The Great Anderson County Fair; Wayne Harmon- Piedmont Interstate Fair; Peter St. Onge- Sumter County Fair; Cody Simon- Western Carolina State Fair.
According to smith, the South Carolina Fair Association "offered several new award categories in Advertising, Agriculture and Competitive Exhibits this year." Some of the awards given at the convention included: Friend of the Fair Award; Aiken County Career and Technology Center; Associate Member of the Year; Sam's Path Petting Zoo (Jodi and Jeff Gray); Fair Person of the Year Award: Warren Lucas of the Western Carolina State Fair.