Nancy Smith may have more than three decades of involvement with the South Carolina State Fair – including being on staff since 2000 and Assistant Manager since 2008 – but she readily admits that no matter how many years of experience, being General Manager is a different experience.
“You always have a little different view from the top,” said Smith. “The buck stops here.”
Smith assumed her position in January and in addition to the many decisions she had to make and plans she need to implement, she not only had to fill the shoes her predecessor, Gary Goodman, General Manager of the fair for 35 years, she had to deal with the resignation of a long-term board president. But by far, the biggest buck was an extreme weather event – Hurricane Michael.
The fair did escape Hurricane Florence, but not was not so lucky when it came to Hurricane Michael, which had technically been downgraded to a tropical storm by the time it hit the Carolinas. Not the ideal way to start her first fair at the helm perhaps, but it was a challenge she was ready for. “It was trial by fire, or a trial by Hurricane,” she said. “What I pray for is a safe fair.”
With opening day filled with dire forecasts of heavy downpours and turbulent winds, Smith was faced with the critical decision, to close the fair for an entire day, apparently an historic first for a fair that turns 150 next year. “We have great relationships with our media partners who kept us abreast of the storm. Patron safety and security is our biggest concern and I was talking to many people before we decided to close the fair.”
One the decision was made, we never wavered. We have a great board, we felt confident it was the right thing to do and it was appreciated by everyone, staff, the vendors, and our ride company.”
Smith with a staff of about 20 remained on the premises – as did some vendors and members of North American Midway Entertainment (NAME), the fair's midway provider. But the brunt of the storm hit elsewhere and the fair suffered little actual damage that was limited to down fencing, broken water trees (PCP piping) and some damage from leaky roofs of a handful of exhibition buildings. The asphalt portions of the grounds which make up most of the property on which the fair itself is located did not suffer from over saturation from the deluge except for the RV lot which Smith described as “very soggy.” Otherwise, “we were very fortunate.”
She added, “For the first time in our 149-year history, the SC State Fair closed for an entire day due to the impending Hurricane Michael. Opening day was a very rainy one as well, with less than half the attendance of last year's opening day. We also had a slight shower the final Saturday, but the weather did cool to fall and fair-like conditions after the hurricane passed.”
The rapid shift towards seasonably conducive fair weather unleashed the community love for this annual celebration of everything South Carolina. “In spite of one less day due to Hurricane Michael, our attendance, gate admissions, ride and food gross were up from last year.”
The 2018 attendance was 443,712, up 4 percent from 2017 – with 11 days rather than 12 – and the fair's first Saturday had 75,259 patrons, the highest single-day attendance ever since the fair first added a 12th day in 2006. “It felt as if our one less day left our patrons with a real hunger to attend our tradition, and they did attend! I think this speaks “economic recovery”, along with good news for fairs overall and our industry.”
Another lucky break also averted a music crisis. The cancelled fair day did feature a Scotty McCreery concert, one of two ticketed shows for the fair. McCreery did have one other open slot – the following Thursday which was a dark grandstand day for the fair – so fans were able to accommodate.
Although tickets sold well for the McCreery show, Fantasia was the only sell out. Other shows that were free with admission included: Tokyo Joe/Rocketman -Elton John Tribute; Bret Michaels; La Poderosa Banda San Juan; Trace Adkins; Matthew West & Jeremy Camp and The Temptations/The Four Tops. Smith noted that not only did Fantasia sellout, but sold “early in the season,” and that La Poderosa was one of the biggest draws, a return of the Latin Music night for the fair. But the continued financial viability of headline music entertainment at the fair remains an open question.
“Our Latino concert was spot on and drew decent crowds and Fantasia was a sellout, but it's a roll of the dice and very difficult to predict turnout,” said Smith. “It's definitely a seller's market.”
Competition from other venues in the region has also intensified, driving up prices and depleting potential audiences for fair shows. This scenario is far from exclusive to the South Carolina fair, but Smith noticed that the competition now threatens more segments than before. The fair's Contemporary Christian night – Matthew West & Jeremy Camp – was hurt by a competing Contemporary Christian event in a nearby venue. When this category becomes undermined by too many stages and artists in one relatively small market it indicates that fair talent buying has become more challenging overall.
“We always strive to introduce new grounds acts, roving acts and free shows that add value to the fair,” she said. “Things have changed in the expenses of the shows, and the marketing and advertising of the fair. We are looking at different options for next year's lineup, and we will be looking for new entertainment options for next year at the IAFE Convention & Trade Show and other trade events this year.”
“Most Affordable Fair”
The South Carolina State Fair was named the country's “Most Affordable Fair” by HomeToGo, an online vacation website. Smith was unsure of this designation would impact this year's fair “next year is our 150th year and we plan to use this “tidbit” to help market in 2019. It was, however, sweet news to our ears!”
The fair worked with an advertising budget of $300,000, about the same as last year. “We utilize all mediums; radio, TV, print, digital, social,” she said. “We had a significant increase in digital advertising this year. Organic social media also increased.”
The “organic” social media initiative was spearheaded by the 2018 tagline: “HOMEGROWN FUN”! In addition, the fair drew from “other social media,” said Smith. “[We] acquired “ambassadors and influencers” and hired interns to help with social media.”
The ambassadors and influencers Smith refers are too are 16 local bloggers and local social media celebrities with sizeable Twitter, Facebook and Instagram followers who were given passes and vouchers and encouraged to write about the fair and events at the fair. This program brought new voices, perspectives and different audiences to the fair's online social media presence.
Another marketing concept new for 2018 was FRED – a “Roving” ticket booth. FRED is an acronym for Follow the Fun, Ride the Rides, Eat the Food, Dazzle the Mind. “FRED was designed to sell admission, ride and concert tickets but, more importantly, FRED became the “face of the fair”, traveling to 18 different locations in the city,” said Smith. “FRED built relationships along the way and offered many opportunities for increased social media relevance and involvement.”
The NAME midway featured 65 rides and premiered a new ride for the fair, Frisbee, a new pendulum ride booked in by Walter Gould. “Frisbee was the new “big” ride and was well received,” she said. “Our popular Crazy Mouse was back. We also previewed three new “kiddie land” rides, Wet Boats, Red Baron and Jumpin Jumbo.”
According to Smith, the top grossing rides were: Sky Ride, Giant Wheel and Matterhorn.
The South Carolina State Fair featured 94 food vendors. Although traditional fair cuisine items were the most popular, other hot food items for the fair were “Red Beans and Rice Sundae,” she said. “We also previewed Maple Cotton Candy which was very interesting, along with a Frito-Chili Pie Burger and an Apple Dumpling.”
As the South Carolina State Fair begins its planning its sesquicentennial celebration, the 2018 edition of the fair accomplished if not the impossible, the highly unlikely: surviving an extreme weather event that resulted in the closure for a full day yet still topped the previous year's attendance. “We exceeded expectations,” Smith admits. “Nothing is more important than our patrons' safety. This was also reflected in the reaction from the public to the fair closing an entire day due to the hurricane. Our community and state appreciated and understood this decision. The fair also experienced an increase in our competitive exhibits, with representation from each county showcased at the fair. We had a solid lineup of grounds entertainment acts and free stages with a good mix of local entertainment as well.”The 2018 fair did not just convince this first time fair manager of the viability of the fair to the community of South Carolina, but the importance of the fair industry to American Popular Culture. “Our increased attendance and revenues this year reinforces my belief of the relevancy and importance of fairs and our industry,” she said. “Fairs are crucial to our communities and our states, now more than ever. We are unique, in that we have an opportunity to bring fun, entertainment, education – and especially agricultural education – to many people in a short window of time. There is no better industry of which to be a part.”