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Cody Cashman: You Have To Keep Changing The Fair Model

Cashman Family Affair
Cody Cashman (Red River Valley Fair) and kids visiting with Andy Cashman (Maryland State Fair Manager) during the Red River Valley Fair

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Cody Cashman CEO of the Red River Valley Fair Association in West Fargo, North Dakota was honored with the Rising Star Award at the 2022 International Association of Fairs and Expositions (IAFE). Created by the IAFE Young Professionals Initiative (YPI) to recognize leadership and industry contributions of fair professionals under the age of 40, the 2022 winner has been one of the most persuasive counter arguments against the graying of the fair industry.

Creative, enthusiastic and ambitious, Cashman was named CEO at age 28, at the time, he was youngest manager of a mid-sized fair in North America. That was in May of 2020, and his trial by fire was immediately in session. His first official act was announcing the fair had been cancelled due to COVID.  The second act was surviving the global pandemic, which included creating revenue producing events to retain staff and make up lost revenue.

To create new revenue, he successfully remade the Red River Valley Fair into a summer destination event. By 2022, he added a weekend to the fair – it's now a 10-day fair – as well as  supersized its grandstand entertainment.  Headliners included 3 Doors Down, Tim McGraw and Jason Derulo.  

Cody Cashman comes from a fair management family. His father is Andy Cashman, General Manager of the Maryland State Fair. He spent his childhood at fairs and decided at a young age to follow in his father's footsteps. But his path was his own. Cashman showed pigs, sheep and cattle in FFA and 4-H shows, then after graduating from the University of Maryland, Institute of Applied Agriculture, worked at the Wisconsin State Fair and took a summer internship with Deggeller Attractions. Prior to his North Dakota gig,  Cashman was Director of Business Development  at York State Fair.

Cashman's millennial energy and perspective has expanded the economic and social role the Red River Valley Fair plays in the region. His professional philosophy and experience not only points towards the future, but reminds us that the future is already here.  

Carnival Warehouse: Congratulations on being named the 2022 Rising Star Award recipient by the IAFE and its Young Professional Initiative (YPI) Committee.  Since the award is given to those ages 40 and younger and the oldest Gen Xer is 43, which side of the millennial divide do you identify with most, Y or Z?

Cody Cashman: I'm 30 years old, and I've been told I'm one of the youngest GMs. I've been around fairs since I was a little boy, and everybody has always been older than me, But, I'm starting to see younger people, which is very interesting, because I was always the youngest guy, but I'm a kind of an old soul. Gen Y and Gen Z has a stigma. The stigma is that our generation is lazy. It's not laziness, but there is a lack of care among some about what they're doing  Nobody cares like they used to, they seem to be looking for a quick buck and not looking for a career.  I'm not your typical millennial. When I talk to older folks, people assume I am older than I am just by the way I talk to people.  I feel I've made my own way around the generational gap.

When I worked at the York State Fair, I was the youngest on staff by 40 years. But they took a chance on someone who was in their 20s.

CW: What can the older generation of fair professionals learn from the new generation? What should we not fear? What should we welcome?

CC: You've got to welcome change.  I am a change agent for the most part. I've looked up to the older generation my entire career and many of them are retiring, which is scary because they're not as many people to call for advice. But many of the older folks, they got comfortable and stopped changing. You have to keep changing the fair model. You need to adapt. With entertainment, for example, you can keep booking the country and rock acts, but to appeal to new audiences you need the Hip-Hop and R&B.  If you don't do it, you'll see declines across the board, from tickets to beer sales. You need to adapt to the world as it is. Cashless is going to happen. Cash is king hasn't been the case for years. Fairs have to go cashless and be completely Wi-Fi accessible.

CW: What lessons can your generation learn from the older generation?

CC: Without the past, you have nothing. I've been fortunate to have seven or eight role models. I've learned to not be shy at all about asking those questions. They know more, their experience is the most important thing. You can learn more from being in their office for a week than a semester of college. They truly love to do what they do.  

CW: Why are fairs popular? Why do they not seem as popular with gen Y/Z? How can fairs change that?

CC: I think they are becoming more popular. In the 80s and 90s fairs were booming.  Back in those days fairs set records nationwide. Here in the Midwest, fairs are still popular, but we're not in competition with big theme parks or metropolises, so that's an advantage. In other parts of the country, fairs are less relevant, because of location. Fairs are a tradition, and they are really good at attracting families, with children, ages 2- to - 12. But you also have to cater to those 12-to -20, because if you leave out the older teens, you leave out the future. You want those folks to bring their kids.  I don't agree that fairs aren't popular with younger generations, but you have to reach out to them. Fairs should change their marketing. It's not enough just to get Tik-Tok, but you  also need to get influencers because they are going be a huge part of what's popular. Look at Pinterest and look at the top 10  arts & crafts and include them in your fair.

CW: What advice would you give a young person entering the fair industry?

CC: Be involved in everything at the fair. You can work  at every level and if you have  the opportunity, work with the rentals and year-round business. Do everything and anything; layout the midway with the carnival companies. Be like a sponge, soak it all up. I grew up at fairs, I interned at fairs when I as in college. I would go to work in the barns, working every aspect of the fair. That is the only way to truly understand how so many moving parts make a fair work. You can't just look at the big picture, because the big picture is blended with everything that makes up the fair. You need to get all the experience you can and you won't get that without a lot of push or by staying in your lane.  

CW: You're a second generation fair person, and a 4-Her since childhood. What do you feel has been the most significant change in the fair industry during your lifetime?

CC: The biggest change has been fairs realizing they're not just a fair anymore. Generally speaking every fair has to be more than a fair, they have to hold year round events, and that means host its own events. Renting out the facilities can only bring in revenue, but fairs also have to create  events besides the annual events. We have two major events:  the fair and Big Iron, a farm show. But we [Red River Valley Fair] have added a Renaissance Fair, and a Corn Maze & Pumpkin Patch and Holiday Lights. We've even doubled and tripled attendance at these events. To keep up a true, sustainable fair, you have to try out your own events to make up revenue, that's what we learned to do during COVID. Nobody can just wait for subsidies and government assistance.

CW: One of your first decisions was to extend the fair to 10 days. What were the key points that convinced the fair board of the ROI of the move? What would be your advice to other fair managers considering adding days?

CC: I give my board a lot of credit for trusting a 27-year-old, and letting me expand the fair during  a pandemic. My advice is to look hard  at three weekends,  and talk to everybody, and to look at the carnival company especially. Will they be making enough money? Carnivals are the most business savvy people in the industry, if they aren't making money, you have to look at why and look at the facts. Make real decisions based on data.

CW: Local reporting for the 2022 fair indicated you increased your entertainment budget  by$1.6 million and you've also added ticketed acts. Many fairs have phased out the big-names and separate tickets, citing rising production costs and inconsistent drawing power among some fair stalwarts. The Red River Valley Fair is going in the opposite direction. In today's costly outdoor entertainment market, why this makeover of your grandstand entertainment?  What made it appealing, how were you able to make it viable and what is your immediate goal in terms of higher-priced grandstand entertainment?

CC: It will be closer to $5 million this year. Production costs continue to rise, and five years ago, the fair started to get away from the concerts. However,  the truth is you can do it and do it right. Statistically, if you spend less money on entertainment, then you tend to not generate the higher revenue, and if you want the high-level acts and to give the people what they want, that means ticketed concerts. We were lucky last year, we made a lot of money on the concerts, so they weren't as huge a risk. But it is hard to get those really big acts.

CW: One interesting item on your resume was an internship with a carnival company (Deggeller Attractions). What tasks did you do on the midway and how has it influenced your perspective as a fair manager? What do you know about midways that many fair managers may not yet understand?

CC: I know how to set up rides. I know what those people go through in communities, because they work hard but there is a carnival stigma, which is terrible. This  past (IAFE) convention there was a lot of discussion between fairs and carnival companies. It's important that the industry understand their struggles. We all live and die by the weather, and we need to give the carnival companies more accommodations.  Fairs need to do a better job communicating with their midway companies and work to get rid of the old stigma of carnival work.

CW: What are you most excited about for the 2023 Red River Valley Fair?

CC: There's going to be way more free entertainment. We're moving our free stage to make it more accessible. We are upping the entertainment ante with better paid and free concerts.  

CW:  My earliest fair memory is_______ ?

CC: I remember being with my dad at the Carroll County Fair and I remember being on the Ferris Wheel with him and I remember it raining.

CW: Favorite Fair Food?

CC: Fried Oreos!

CW: Favorite Ride?

CC: Always going be the Zipper.
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