Is 2015 the year of the woman? If Georgia and South Carolina have their way, the answer is yes!
Probably the most newsworthy first for Georgia Association of Agricultural Fairs and the South Carolina Association of Fairs, who held their fourth consecutive, joint-convention, January 22-24, is both organizations are now headed by women.
Hilda Thomason - manager of the Georgia Mountain Fair in Hiawassee - stepped into the Peach State's presidential chair and Nancy L. Smith, CFE, Assistant Manager, Director, Marketing, Sponsorship & Exhibits, South Carolina State Fair grabbed hold of the Palmetto State's reins.
It is the first time for the Georgia organization to have a woman hold the seat and only the second time for the South Carolina.
"The woman are in charge now," joked Thomason, who also noted that she has been in the fair business 35 years. "Nancy and I are honored to have the job."
Smith is also one of the rare - although not the first - times an executive from the state fair heads an association made up of county and local fairs. For Smith though, fairs are an interrelated network, and the stronger the smaller fairs, the stronger the state fair. "The fair industry's roots are at the county fairs," said Nancy Smith. "That's who we are. There are a lot of hard working people at the local level."
Smith pointed out in South Carolina, some of the county fairs, such as the Coastal Carolina Fair in Ladson, have made strides in expanding social media efforts and sponsorships. "They reached a lot of people, it was amazing what they did," adding that both smaller fairs and the state fair "are learning from them. The smaller fairs are using social media to boost attendance."
Georgia has 30 fairs; South Carolina 12 fairs. By sharing a convention, these two adjacent states can save on costs of running the event, which includes better attendance by vendors and other associate members, who often do business in both states. This year, the convention attracted 469 attendees, the highest in the four-year history and featured an expanded trade show to 46 booths and two entertainment showcases.Convention organizers noted that the move to a new space for the convention -The Crowne Plaza, Atlanta Perimeter at Ravinia- provided more space and upgraded accommodations, improving the overall outcome of the event.
"There was a lot of energy at the convention and trade show, we had excellent attendance," said Smith. "Fairs are a unique business, in that we are not in competition with each other. At the convention, the two organizations have their own business meetings, but by bringing the two organizations together, we get exposed to different ideas on how to get more people through the gates. It is really seamless how we work together."
Jen Puente, Sponsorship Manager of the Wisconsin State Fair presented a program entitled, "Embracing Sponsorships, Lets Grab Some Extra Dough" Martha Roth, a motivational speaker and former Missouri Fair Association Director, gave her presentation - "Just Squint" - which explored ways of looking at things differently to overcome challenges.
Other educational topics included "Fair and Carnival Promotions", "Appearances of your Fair", "Social Media - top 20 ideas in on-line Marketing", and "Parking and Security."
The presentation by Puente was a highlight, according to Thomason. "Fairs are interested in embracing new sponsorships, which improve the bottom line," she said. "It was very well received."
Costs - ranging from higher insurance, new E.coli prevention measures related to petting zoos, and the continuing soar of entertainment - were much on the minds and constant topics of discussion by attendees to the joint convention. "Fairs are worried about rising costs," said Thomason. "It just costs more to put on a fair, these days."
The higher cost of entertainment has also been increasing. "Fairs are very worried," she said. At the fair she manages - the Georgia Mountain Fair - talent costs are becoming a factor.
The fair attracts nationally known acts, ranging fro Ricky Skaggs to the Osmond Brothers, "but the costs keep rising and it looks like this year may be harder than last year."
She said that fairs are considering increasing other types of entertainment, such as demolition derbies - "but you defiantly draw more with concerts and other talent."
Another challenge for local fairs is finding volunteers to work the fair, which helps contain costs and strengthens the connection to the community. "Fair used to find a lot of volunteers through the Lions Club or Kiwanis Club, but those members are aging," said Thomason "Fairs are looking at ways to go beyond civic organizations to get younger people in the community to become fair volunteers. "
Financial issues may have been top-of-mind for most attendees, Thomason pointed that the mood at this convention was upbeat and enthusiastic - 2014 was a good year for fairs in both states and with lower fuel costs kicking off 2015 - "Everyone was much more positive this year," said Thomason. "The economy is better than it has been, and the lower gas prices means some cost savings for fair and more money in people's pockets, which we hope they'll spend at the fair."
In addition, both state governments have been very supportive of the agricultural industry, and in turn, the role county fairs can play. "Fairs have a unique opportunity to make a positive impact on the agricultural industry," said Smith. "It is harder and harder for people to hold on to their agricultural roots or be exposed to the industry. Fairs bring people together for all those aspects of agriculture and tradition."
New officers for the Georgia Association inaugurated at the convention included: Michael Lariscy of the Coastal Empire Fair, Savannah was named 1st Vice President and Tod Miller, manager of the North Georgia State Fair, was elected 2nd Vice President.
The new officers for the South Carolina Association included: President-Elect Paul Winters of the Union County Fair. Nancy Harmon of the Piedmont Interstate Fair was named the "South Carolina Fairman of the Year" and Ted Lane of the Columbia County was named the "James H. Drew Fairman of the Year" for Georgia. Both organizations voted that in 2017, the joint convention will be held in South Carolina, for the first time since this happy partnership of organizations began.