Gary L Goodman, General Manager of the South Carolina State Fair since 1984, has announced his retirement, which went into effect after the conclusion of the 2017 edition of the fair.
The fair dates back to 1839 - and it is said that on his march from Atlanta to the Sea, General Sherman and his troops actually burned down a few buildings on the grounds. Nowadays, the fair attracts more than 400,000 annually and this year, attracted 427,000, including a record-breaking second Saturday attendance of more than 61,000. Goodman is being replaced by Nancy Smith, assistant manager since 2008, who has been with the fair since 1983. "I'm leaving the fair in good, capable hands," said Goodman.
A South Carolina Native, Goodman graduated from the University of South Carolina in 1970 and got
his first taste of event management as Athletic Ticket Manager and Home Event Manager for the athletic department. As head of the South Carolina Fair, he's been very active in the IAFE (International Association of Fairs & Expositions,) including past chairmen of the IAFE board. Goodman is also past president of the South Carolina State Fair Association, who elected him Fairman of the Year in 1993.
In a free-ranging and candid conversation, Carnival Warehouse interviewed Goodman about his past and present and some of the most pressing issues confronting the fair industry. Goodman is credited in turning around this South Carolina tradition - he remembers seeing "girlie" tents as a college kid at the fair - and what seems to mark his tenure at the helm of this fair is his persistence to make every fair better than the year before.
Carnival Warehouse: What do you like best about the fair industry?
Gary L Goodman: The one thing that I've always been enamored with of the fair industry is that it is one of the few industries, where there's not a feeling of competition, we help each other, give each other ideas, which is really a unique thing in business. The fairs willingness to assist each other all across the country, that's what I will miss about the industry, that camaraderie.
CW: What was your favorite thing about the fair industry?
GG: Strictly speaking, the favorite thing about the fair industry is all the people I've gotten to know. I've met and become friends with fair mangers from all 50 states, and I'm blessed to have opportunity for many to become life time friends, and it's not just the fair managers, but carnival company owners and food concessionaires. Being in the fair industry you are exposed to people from all across the country who all love the fair business.
CW: What's been the biggest change you've seen in the industry?
GG: One of the biggest changes over those three decades I've been here has been the public perception of safety. We are all very concerned about our own personal safety at events and public gatherings in this age of all kinds of terrorism and shooting incidents. This affects all your admission policies and security, plus you have to convince the public that when they enter the gates to the fair that they are entering a safe and secure area. At the South Carolina State Fair, we have changed our policies, for instance we do not allow anyone under the age of 18 unaccompanied by an adult admission to the fair after 6:00pm. We have metal detectors and we have increased our security and police presence. You know a presence that is very visible and can be seen and we have doubled and even tripled that presence in recent years.
CW: What's your earliest fair memory?
GG: When I was a kid in Charleston, we went to the Exchange Club Fair that was for four or five days long. I remember going to that fair with my family. I also went to the South Carolina Fair when I was still in college and they still had girlie tents back then, but they were long gone by the time I came to work here.
CW: What is the one accomplishment at the South Carolina Fair that you are most proud of?
GG: The big thing we have done here - and I don't say we casually, because it is our board members, staff, and the 300 folks who are employed during the fair, who are the heart and soul in making this a fun place to be -is trying to understand the challenges of high prices. I am very proud that we've been able to hold the line with price increases. That goes a long way in making the fair a family friendly environment, which goes from the type of concessions, particularly the food, to the type of exhibits we feature. We are not attached to a state government, so we are able to choose and select exactly what we want. We've changed carnival companies a few times over the course of the years and when you change carnival companies that changes the whole perspective of the fair.
CW: Is there a specific milestone you can point to that turned around the fair?
GG: The biggest change that started us on our current path was our Horse Arena that was built in 1986,. That made a tremendous difference. That year was the peak of the horse industry in South Carolina, and we became a mecca for the horse industry. We're running 40 horse shows a year, which help the community and has a positive economic impact on the fair, the city and the surrounding region. It really put us on the map as a community member and it help us make inroads as a positive influence on the lifestyle and economy of the region. We also were able to start our scholarship program, and we give out about $30,000 in scholarships per year, and have made over $3.5 million in contributions. Those are the kind of things that have the freedom to do when you run the fairgrounds on your own. It is a certain sense of pride that we have that brought us to where we are today.
CW: 2017 was your last fair, what are you most proud of about your swan song?
GG: I was glad not to make the 2017 fair about me. We had a good showing, perfect weather, and some of our largest crowds. We had some bad weather previous years and we are still recovering from that. You still have to advertise in new and smart ways, and we have proved to the community that we are something you do not want to miss. We get the old people and the kids coming here, because we put on something you do not want to miss. We have the resiliency so that year in and year out, good weather and bad, what we have to offer gets people out here.
CW: What will you miss the least about running a fair?
GG: Worrying about is the fairground clean, are we ready to go? It's the anticipation of having everything go right, and all the problems that can happen, not just at the fair, but all the events. You are constantly on edge for the entire event, so I am looking forward to just enjoying a fair.
CW: The South Carolina State Fair has had its share of violent incidents, such as a shooting in 2015. In what ways have you responded to this need for increased security in recent years?
GG: We have had to take increased security measures. We have double fencing, to prevent people from passing items through the fence. We have more cameras now, you have to monitor, we don't allow any firearms, even with a concealed permit, and we don't allow them on our grounds. We can do that because we are on private property and a 501c3 and we are not funded by any state agency. You want to be proactive instead of reactive. We collect two or three buckets of knives and strange weapons, but here again, we, like all fairs can see the culture outside our gates changing. There's a rise in gang activity, and random acts of violence. Things seem to keep getting worse and worse, and fairs have to do something about the sense of safety on our fairgrounds or we aren't going to be around. There's just been a deterioration of common decency and regard for each other.
CW: In your more than three decades, how have you seen fair booking entertainment change and how has your fair responded to those changes
GG: There is a balance you have to strike with music. We're a small community, and we don't have a $10 million budget to spend. In our market, we have to create an event where we are now having three or four, even five paid concerts. We are reaching through difference genres, such as every part of country music, new and old, Christian music, R&B, and looking at the new and all the different ones all the time. There's been an influx of Hispanics, that is a growing population and we are finding Hispanic artists for these folks.
When we started, we could get the Judds for $20,000, and we focused on country music, but you have to look at all genres because of the audience, and because the country music stars are pricing themselves out of the fair market. You used to look at those acts on their way up when you could still afford them or on their way down, where their price is lower but they still have a following. This is getting harder to balance. But bringing in a range of entertainment can give you more options.
My fair keeps bringing the type of entertainment that can please specific age groups and specific ethnic groups, that can get people to come out to the fair, which are good draws. You can't book five country acts in a row, but every year it changes, as to what types of acts that are available, and when and where you have to advertise and market those acts. The challenge is still getting those acts on a limited budget. At some point, the acts are a loss leader, and if you put too much money in them you cannot invest in the facilities, and keep a good place for people to come to, with places to sit down, or clean bathrooms. It's important to do things from that perspective, that you bring people here and for them to enjoy it, they have higher expectations of creature comforts.
But there's not one thing that brings everybody to the fair. Some people come for the food, some for the rides, and some come for the big name entertainment, but the big name entertainment will continue to be a challenge.
CW: What about running a fair has not changed since you started in 1984?
GG: You cannot go sit on the laurels from the previous year. Every year is a new year, and when I look back, every year was one of those years with a specific challenge. If you think you can put things on cruise control as a fair manager, then you are wrong. You have to actively be involved in making the fair better than the year before, every fair. If you don't, you are setting yourself up for failure. The that each year this fair was a new change kept me motivated
CW: What things about the job do you do now that you could never have conceived of 33 years ago?
GG: The advancement in technology across the board, rides technology is amazing, it used to take days to set up a ride, and you had to use winches and cranes, but now you practically push a button and the rides sets up itself. The food processing technology is great too, we can prep a wider range of food than ever before, and the processing is cleaner and the food is better. We can also really keep better track of the money with computerization. We can see exactly how much money we are making and were. We have real data on which to base decisions now and that has made a huge difference.
CW: What is the biggest threat to the fair industry?
GG: The biggest, most immediate threat facing the fair industry is the situation the carnival companies are now having with labor. It used to be carnivals come in and hire 150 local people, but those days are gone. I heard of one company who interviewed 100 Americans for their jobs and only three were able to pass the drug test. Carnival companies will not be able to do what they do without H-2B workers. You cannot train people onsite; you have to have them trained so they can go from fair to fair. Without H-2B workers, carnival companies will vanish, and we if we don't have rides at the fairs, the fairs are going to go away too.