The 2015 South Carolina State Fair can be seen as an event that prevailed against the odds. The fair overcame disasters both natural and man-made, coming out with only significant but acceptable dips in attendance and revenue.
"It was a challenge this year," admitted Gary Goodman, CFE, General Manager. "But we are here for the people, who made us their annual tradition."
The natural disaster - a major flood 10 days before the fair - had a more immediate impact, than the mad-made incident -a shooting death on the second Friday of the fair. The flood - declared historic flooding - was devastating to the region and clean up was still ongoing when opening day occurred and there was even passing consideration to call off the fair, but in the end, the need for a return to normalcy pre
vailed. "We faced new challenges preparing for the fair in wake of the tragic flooding," said Goodman. "However, we felt it was our duty to the community to open and provide the rides, entertainment, and foods so many look forward to all year long."
Wake of The Flood
In fact, weather was mainly good for the fair. "The lord blessed us with 10 straight days of good weather," said Goodman.
But with much of South Carolina still trying to restore electricity and other infrastructure damaged by the deluge, the impact on attendance was inevitable. The fair welcomed 429,947 visitors, including record setting numbers on the first Sunday and second Thursday, but the 2015 fair was down by more than 43,000 compared to the previous year. "When everything was accounted for, we were down," said Goodman. "The flooding hurt our attendance. But we were bound and determined to have a fair, and considering that just a few days before parts of the city was still underwater, we are happy about the job we did."
The fairground itself survived the flood relatively unscathed in terms of flooding, but the water usage was a problem. "You have to boil water, it was not fit for consumption or even cleaning. We had to load up on distilled water. The carnival company (NAME/North American Midway Entertainment) could not hook up to water on opening day. We had to make it work."
As a gesture of solidarity the fair designated a day of the fair as #SCStrong Day to recognize first responders, community organizations, and various volunteers for stepping up to assist those in need during the floods. The fair also offered a $1 promotion to both boost attendance and give fairgoers both incentive and respite. The fair donated approximately $200,000 to flood relief efforts with the net proceeds from this year's parking fees. (In addition, Newsboys and Cole Swindell, who performed in the grandstand during this year's fair, donated approximately $10,000 to Harvest Hope Food Bank, which was instrumental in providing food for flood victims.)
"Our revenue and sales were down, probably around 5 percent, definitely less than 10 percent, which is good considering the extent of the flood," he said.
Some members of the community, especially online, criticized the fair for even holding the fair. "We caught a lot of grief from some people, about how they shouldn't have a fair, and how can we have a fair after such devastation, but haters are going to hate," he said. "We knew people needed a break from all the doom and gloom of suffering through the fair. "
The support from the community exceeded the negatively. "We had some local companies, buying groups of tickets," he said. "One bought 200 and another 500, just their employees could have some sort of return to normalcy. Everyone was in a blue funk after the flood and the state fair is a tradition and people knew that.
The man-made incident that affected that the fair was the shooting of a 15-year-old at the South Carolina State Fair on the final Saturday, the day before closing day. The shooting occurred about 8:20 p.m. Saturday inside the fairgrounds and the victim was hit in the lower body and rushed to a nearby hospital. A 2004 shooting incident - also involving teenagers (a 14-year-old victim later died from his wounds) - led the installation of metal detectors entrance gates and other security measures, such as searching bags and security cameras in use across throughout the fairgrounds. "Everyone that comes in goes through metal detectors and is wanded," Goodman said. " All I can say it's just one of those things where somehow they got a gun in here and we don't know how yet." "We collect buckets of knives, brass knuckles and cans of mace, but no system is perfect. If anyone thinks they are someplace where shootings like this don't happen, they are living in a dream world. It's a societal problem and can happen anywhere, and if anyone invents a foolproof system, let me know."
The fair is revaluating the system with local law enforcement. "We're taking a look at our procedures," he said. "All the police can do is try and stay one step ahead."
The gates closed early Saturday night, and no one was allowed to enter the fair after the shooting occurred but no one inside the fair was asked to leave. The following day the fair opened on time, with no change in security procedures. "The incident really did not impact the fair, " he said. "If it happened earlier in the run, there might have been more of a problem."
One positive for the fair was in the headline music acts, which can be seen also beating the odds. Goodman said the fair avoided some of the entertainment doldrums plaguing other fairs. The Pepsi Grandstand Concert series featured five paid acts - Thomas Brett, Shawn Mendes, Gladys Knight, Cole Swindell, and Newsboys - and according to Goodman, ticket sales were up 50 percent. "We were very fortunate," he said. "Cole Swindell and Thomas Brett are up and coming acts that we booked early and were hot. When we started booking, putting in new contracts on larger acts, due to routing and other issues they were unable to confirm or were too expensive, so we said lets look at some of the younger acts that our community will appreciate."
While the South Carolina State Fair had a good talent buying experience for 2015, Goodman remains realistic about next year. "When you are competing against state-supported huge venues, where they do not have to turn a profit, it's very difficult," he admitted. "Fairs are complaining that the acts are getting cost prohibitive. We booked through Jason Promotions, and we did pretty well this year, but we are working more closely booking entertainment, it's not getting easier."
The NAME midway, which featured 72 rides, was down by 4 percent and aside from the water situation, "the rides were very popular, and we had a new roller coaster, The Blitzer," said Goodman. According to the fair's website, "more than 950 feet of track through mind-bending twists, hairpin turns and steep drops as you dip and dive your way through this exhilarating ride. Navigate wild hills and valleys in specially crafted Italian made cars that bring a European flair to this classic American roller coaster."
The flood related drinkable water issues did not impact food sales. "We do not allow any fountain drinks, so it didn't affect beverages and most everything was cooked or hot water used for cleaning."
He said that in general, the food & beverage sales fared "better than the midway," noting that the typical cuisine, such as corn dogs, elephant ears and specialty burgers "are always the best sellers," he said.
New foods for this year where the Southern Belle Burger By Carousel Foods - a burger with bacon, pimento cheese salad, and fried green tomato, the self-explanatory Bacon Cinnamon Roll by Grandma Browns Cinnamon Rolls, and the more exotic Sriracha Fire & Ice Kreme by Ice Kreme Mill Concessions , creamy soft serve vanilla ice cream topped with spicy Sriracha sauce, nacho chips and whipped cream.
He noted that Carousel Foods operated four of the top 10 grossing food stands. "They brought in brand new equipment, and had new counters and a great presentation," he said. "That really makes a difference when a vendor commits to the fair like that."
The fairgrounds also underwent significant modification. One building was torn down, and the area landscaped, giving the grounds more green space and an area to showcase a "robotic" dinosaur exhibit by the National Entertainment Group, which tied into the Jurassic Park 4 film that came out in the summer. The grounds upgrade also included wider walkways, more ticket booths and other pedestrian amenities. The 2015 fair debuted a new, 36,000 square foot building, the Goodman Building, which enabled all the agricultural exhibits to be housed in one spaced.
Goodman, who has been with the fair 31 years, admitted that it is a "little embarrassing," to have a building named after him. "But my grandchildren were really impressed, and after all is said done and everything we went through to make sure this fair went on, that made it all worthwhile. I wouldn't have it any other way."