Security issues, attendance drops and Southeast rainfalls that decimated revenue at many local fairs made the fifth annual joint-convention between the Georgia Association of Agricultural Fairs and the South Carolina Association of Fairs more somber than usual.
It was also the last convention for the two-year term presidents of their respective states: Hilda Thomason - manager of the Georgia Mountain Fair in Hiawassee - and Nancy L. Smith, CFE, Assistant Manager, Director, Marketing, Sponsorship & Exhibits, South Carolina State Fair.
Georgia has 30 fairs; South Carolina 13 fairs. By sharing a convention, these two adjacent states can save on costs of running the event, and better attendance by vendors and other associate members, who often do business in both states.
We are very pleased with the partnership we have with South Carolina," said Thomason. "We have our own individual business and board meetings, but we share some of the speakers and that has worked out well."
Rained Out Fairs
Rain had a negative impact on many South Carolina fairs last year, resulting in a decline of nearly 70 attendees for this co-convention. This year, 397 fair professionals turned out for the convention, down from 469 attendees in 2015.
"2015 was a challenging year for many of the South Carolina Fairs," said Smith. "Weather was the main factor. Some fairs were hit harder than others."
Smith pointed some of the worst causalities, such as the Sumter County Fair being a near complete rainout and the Coastal Carolina Fair had a huge attendance hit, but "all in all the fair was a good one."
The South Carolina State Fair was the rare rain-free fair in either of the Carolinas in 2015, but the attendance still suffered because of massive flooding due to rain in days preceding the event. But still, turnout was healthy. "After the historic flooding, people were ready for a distraction and our fair was just the right medicine they needed.," she said. "This shows the power of fairs in our communities and state."
In spite of the weather, the fair industry is famously optimistic and the South Carolina fair community insistent that the negativity of rain-damaged season will not be carried over into 2017. Instead of dwelling on the past, they accentuated the positive of the present.
"Overall the attitudes were optimistic," said Smith. "In South Carolina, a new fair opened in Simpsonville and The Great Anderson County Fair celebrated their 5th birthday," he said "Anytime we have a new fair open, that is positive, or a fair that can celebrate an anniversary."
One very fair industry-centric issue affecting both states was a growing scarcity of carnival companies, a topic much on the minds of convention attendees. "Some of the carnival companies are going out of business and some of the bigger companies are no longer routing through the state," said Thomason. "There is a lot more competition among the carnival companies that are still here."
The smaller fairs are having a problem getting on the radar of carnival companies," said Smith. "People are nervous they won't be able to have a midway."
A soft economy seems to be plaguing both South Carolina and Georgia, exacerbating an issue faced by most fairs - the soaring coast of headline internment. Soaring entertainment costs may be a national issue for fairs, but for the organizers in these states, the situation seems acutely dire. The rising cost of entertainment is "is a real issue," said Thomason. "Some fairs just have the carnival and food and ground acts, they can't afford to have a big entertainer. They can draw the crowds, but if costs too much in overhead, it's just not worth it. There is a lot more competition from festivals, and a lot of acts have priced themselves out the fair market, and a lot of fairs are looking at alternatives. At my fair, we have a Pioneer Village, with Arts & Crafts, and a lot of fairs are adding exhibits instead of grandstand entertainment."
"The cost is too prohibitive for national acts in the grandstands of the smaller fairs," said Smith. "We are having to more local and regional entertainers, and cut back on the acts, some fairs are just having fewer acts."
With fairs looking for more cost-effective alternatives, this year co-convention saw an increase in regional entertainment and grounds act. "More showcasing was done this year, which offered more entertainment for the attendees and opportunity for all to get a taste of what was available," said Smith.
One of the biggest challenges for Georgia fairs is the graying of both the industry and the attendance, which dovetails with the rising cost of entertainment. "Drawing the younger crowd is a challenge," said Thomason. "If you don't have the name talent to bring in younger audiences, your attendance slips. Fairs are looking at ground acts that can bring in more young people, extreme sports and local bands with a following."
She added, "at the local fair level most of the positions are volunteer and the younger generation doesn't seem as interested in volunteering for the county fairs, or they are more interested in coaching kid's basketball. Trying to attract more young people into the industry was something everyone is worried about and it was discussed at the fair."
Towards that end was a well attended seminar on using new technology to reach a younger demographic. "There was a very good workshop on social media," said Smith. "That was a highlight, but overall it was listening to people talk. We're hoping that the social media will help attract more young people, to both attend the fair and to help run local fairs."
Thomason added the customer service workshop also was well received and very needed. "It had a refreshing feel, because people get set in their ways with customer service, so people were able to look at what they are doing at their fair in a new way," she said. "Everyone, volunteers and staff members, are really in the public eye, so better customer training is always needed."
Fair security was a major topic at the convention, not surprising as gun violence increases nationwide and more locally, the South Carolina State Fair in 2015 was the setting of a fatal shooting incident. "After 9-11, security for such a large gathering has become a top priority," said Thomason. "This year, with the shooting in South Carolina and all those other problems, fairs are paying more out for security and putting in stronger systems."
"Safety and security is a main priority in today's times," said Smith. "Fairs need to do our due diligence and stay up to date. Utilizing metal detectors and security cameras, and utilizing resources, such as officers who are at schools, and the safety and security you now see in schools, were things talked about at the workshop. We're responding to the world as it is, and it is more than just the threat of terrorism. There is always a possibility of what happening at the state fair at any fair, but you always have to strive for the highest level of patron safety."
Other issues discussed according to Smith, were "E.coli , swine flu, avian influenza as well as the current issues with the H2-B visa worker rules.."
Unlike other states who have solo conventions, lobbying was not a major topic of discussion or apparently an activity the local fairs in the Peach or Palmetto States have the financial capacity to address.
Smith pointed out that any funds for South Carolina fairs dried up after the economy "tanked… we were used to getting those funds, and the downside is that you can't replace those funds."
State funding is problematic for Georgia, but Thomason pointed out that some fairs "continue to get local support, but it isn't increasing."
Looking forward to 2016, Smith pointed out that the "People needed the distraction of fairs, and they show the power and pull of the fair industry."
Next year the dual-state convention will be held in South Carolina. " Diane Wilson from Visit Greenville SC was on hand to speak about the first ever joint SC/GA Convention that will be hosted in Greenville in 2017," said Smith. "This caused much excitement and folks are looking forward to this new opportunity."