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Doing it her way

Laura Cushman took a vacation to help her father with event planning for the Carolina Cup

Posted: March 29, 2018 5:10 p.m.
Updated: March 30, 2018 1:00 a.m.
Photo by P.E. Spivey/

HOSPITALITY TENTS ON CUP day draw large and diverse crowds. Here, actor Tom Berenger joined the gathering inside a hospitality tent at the Springdale Race Course several years ago.

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Siblings following in the footsteps of their parents and choosing to enter into the same line of work as a parent is a tale nearly as old as civilization itself.

Here’s a new twist.

When John Cushman returned for a second go ‘round as executive director of the Carolina Cup Races --- albeit, this time, on an interim basis --- he immediately went about giving the 88-year-old event a head-to-toe makeover. Cushman reconfigured the infield, lowered prices in reserved parking areas and brought new sponsors on board while holding onto the old ones. On his watch, the berm along the home stretch at Springdale Race Course will be filled to capacity with hospitality tents for the first time in many years at Saturday’s 84th renewal of the Camden spring classic.

A successful Camden businessman and retired four-time National Steeplechase Association champion rider, Cushman knows the ins and outs of the equine industry and the inner workings of the Carolina Cup, in particular. He left the ticket operation in the capable hands of assistant executive director Maggie Davis. While those two wear many hats and cover plenty of ground, there was still something missing from the team when it came to making corporate sponsors and their guests feel at home while trying to provide them with a smooth and memorable race day experience in Camden.

Enter Laura Cushman, the second and youngest daughter of John and his wife, Sandy Cushman, into the picture.

In what amounts to a pinch-hitter role, Laura Cushman has become her father’s ace in the hole. Her vast knowledge and experience in event planning is something which she is sharing with her dad and, in effect, the Carolina Cup patrons.A Thomas Sumter Academy graduate who went on to earn a degree in business administration from the College of Charleston in 2009, the recently-engaged Laura Cushman is spending

her final days in Camden, before moving to Switzerland next week, by working in the Carolina Cup office. She is now involved with an event which she grew up attending even before she was old enough to know what all the fuss was about.

“I have missed a few but, not too many,” she said with a smile when asked her stretch of Carolina Cup races attended. “I went to every Cup until I was about 22, when I moved away. I’ve made a few treks back home to see the races but this will be the first one for me in about five or six years.

“I can remember picking out our dresses and hats and, as a little four-year-old, trying to sneak out of the (grandstand) box and into the winners’ circle … great memories.”

There will be no undercover ploy for Laura Cushman to be where the action is and the people are on Saturday at the Springdale Race Course. Then, again, she may be too busy to check in on the racing, save for the day’s finale, which will be addressed later in this story.

After graduating from Charleston, Cushman made a bee line for London, working for Barclays, a British multinational bank and financial services company. She worked in the corporation’s event and sponsorship division. While there, she oversaw Barclays’ hospitality area for such events as the Scottish Open golf tournament and, of course, Barclays English Premier League soccer matches.

Having been accustomed to being part of an event the size of the Carolina Cup, being involved with events such as those which Barclays played a major role was a natural fit.

“I loved doing that because, growing up, there was always such an attachment to a huge sporting event which is something that dad did. I always thought that I wanted to do events,” she said.

Cushman invited her parents to attend the Scottish Open golf tournament. Being the avid golfer that he is, it was too good an offer for John Cushman to refuse. A funny thing happened when he arrived in Scotland, however. As much as he looked forward to seeing some of the world’s best golfers in action from a prime viewing spot, John Cushman also got a first-hand look at his daughter’s job and how Barclays treated its employees and guests.

Soon after that, Laura said, her father was already putting the wheels in motion to see what his daughter could bring to the Carolina Cup.

“He loved it,” Laura said of her father’s experience in Scotland. “I think that was one of the reasons that dad wanted me to come back and help him when he got this opportunity. He saw the types of events that we were putting on at Barclays and with HSBC (Holdings.)

“He is giving (the Carolina Cup) a real facelift and trying to bring in those elements of hospitality that we had at these golf tournaments, rugby events and everything here to the Cup. He sees the real value in having all those extras and those really nice touches.”

As Barclays shifted to conducting less sports-oriented hospitality endeavors and Laura Cushman was asked to work more with conferences and seminars, a bit of the thrill of her job was lost. Not long after. She left Great Britain and headed for a new job in Singapore.

With a new, 55,000 seat state-of-the-art stadium with a retractable roof just having been completed, Singapore became a haven for sports and HSBC negotiated for the bank to have a corporate box inside the facility.

“We did the HSBC World Rugby Sevens,” she said of one of the main events she worked. “It was something similar in size (to the Carolina Cup.) We would have 35,000 people come out to a sporting event and I would manage all the hospitality and the sponsors.”

What knowledge she lacked when it came to rugby, Cushman more than made up for when it came to planning events around the tournament. She laughed when saying that, as an event planner and hospitality professional, the focus is more on the client’s needs rather than knowing the ins and out of the sporting event which she works.

“I don’t know anything about rugby. I don’t know a whole lot about horse racing, either, to be honest,” she said with a laugh while seated on a couch inside her father’s office inside the National Steeplechase Museum. “I just think there is just such a big experience and atmosphere side to these events which is what I’m really interested in.

“I know that dad said that when he was riding races, he thought everyone was there to watch (the horses and jockeys,)” she said. “It took him not riding anymore and to come to the event and watch it to realize that actually, they weren’t here to watch them but to experience the whole thing.

“I get that side of it. I just love that huge party and great atmosphere here.”

While not a sports junkie by any stretch, Laura Cushman has attended more than her share of big events, especially those of the equine variety. She has attended the races at Royal Ascot and Newmarket in Great Britain and soaked up the atmosphere at each stop. She has tried to take the best of those experiences and parlay them into her part-time gig at the Carolina Cup.

“I was probably less into the sports and more into the whole atmosphere,” she said. “I love the way you feel when you come into a big event and you’re surrounded by all the people … it’s just great fun. I really love that connection.

“I always try and check out what’s going on. There are always sporting events that we are taking pieces and ideas from and, even thinking about next year and what we can do. What kind of elements do the people want to see, other than the horses. It’s been really fun.”

It was with a little nudge from her father that Laura Cushman decided to stick with her chosen career rather than give it up altogether, which, at around this time last year, was her plan.

“This past summer, when I took a break,” she said, “I thought that maybe I would get out of this (line of work) and try to find something else. As soon as I took a break, though, Dad said, ‘You should come back and help us with the races; my mind just immediately started running with it.’

“I was a little tired and, actually, a little burned out. This, I think, is my career and it’s suited for me.”

Coming back to Camden and working for her father and with the Carolina Cup staff has been a new and exciting experience for Laura Cushman who said she was welcomed by those in the race office with open arms. The fact that she is on the ground floor of helping the Carolina Cup begin a new chapter is just another reason why she has enjoyed coming to work each day.

“It was pretty easy,” she said of the transition to being home and helping with the biggest yearly event in Kershaw County. “It’s really fun to come back and contribute to something that is in my hometown after being away for so long. There’s something personal about it to me and my family. It’s what we grew up doing.

“I love that I can come back and add some things that I’ve learned from being away and trying to help. We love this event and, so many people do; we want to make sure that it flourishes and that it carries on for generations. We want to make sure that we have kids who will be going to it.”

Among the changes which Carolina Cup patrons will and have already seen are the new Cup website with electronic maps, online ticketing, changing the layout of the infield, a new and improved Vendor Village and scanning the tickets at the gate. “These are the things which are bringing us up to speed, quite frankly,” Laura Cushman said of the technological changes. “People are seeing this and it is going to make it a lot easier and enjoyable. “We have a lot of tricks up our sleeve. People are just going to have to come out and see them for themselves.”

Working for her father for the first time since she was 18 and working at the Cushman-owned The Tack Room in Camden, Laura Cushman laughed when asked if she is being able to call her own shots in her new role. “He’s actually, surprisingly, letting me come in with a few ideas. It’s great,” she said. “I’ve had great opportunities to see a lot of events in a lot of places so it’s really cool to be able to cherry-pick and add to it to where I think it will really work.”

Laura Cushman plans on being in and around the hospitality tents to check on things throughout the day on Saturday. By watching the operation, she will make her own notes as to how to improve on certain areas to make next year’s races even more enjoyable.

While working Saturday, Laura Cushman hopes to be able catch the final race of the day, a training flat race. Entered in the field of runners is Get Out of Town, a 7-year-old Unbridled Song gelding trained by the Ricky Hendriks. Both Laura Cushman and her father bought part of one-half interest in the horse earlier this month. It is her first foray into horse ownership.

Other than trying to sneak out and “into” the grandstand and not out of it like she was prone to do as a child, Laura Cushman said all systems are go for Saturday for a race whose future has never looked brighter.

“I think people love this event. I hope they love all these things that we’re adding to it,” she said of the Carolina Cup. “A lot of thought, time and planning has gone in to it to make sure that everyone enjoys themselves.

“I just hope that people come out and have a great day. It’s going to be something that, sometimes, when you go to an event, you don’t really notice the small things that went into it but when you leave you say, ‘That was great.’

“That’s what I hope everybody leaves here saying Saturday, ‘That was great.’”

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