The new year begins with a new leader of the International
Association of Fairs & Expositions (IAFE), the largest fair organization in
the world. Marla Calico, who joined the IAFE in 2006 as director of education,
and has served as chief operating officer since 2014, was named
President & CEO of the IAFE, which takes effect January 1st.
been involved with the fair industry since 1977, joining the Ozark Empire Fair
(OEF) soon after graduating with a Bachelor's degree in
Agri-Business from Missouri State University. She rose through the Ozark Empire
Fair ranks, and was appointed general manager in 1994, a position she held
through 2004. In 2003, gaining her first experience in the global Fair Sector -
her preferred terminology for the fair industry - serving as the
IAFE chairman, and in 2012, Calico was inducted into the IAFE Hall of Fame.
replaces Jim Tucker, who eased into semi-retirement at the end of 2015,
although he will continue to represent the organization in his law
and lobbying practice. Even though Calico had been promoted to the second spot
more than a year ago, the IAFE conducted an extensive search for Tucker's
successor, forming a search committee made up of fair executives and
employing the services of Witt/Kieffer, one of the leading executive search
companies in the U.S. They sought leaders from around the world to be
considered for the position and presented them to the Search Committee. By the
end of the process, Calico's experience and contributions to the fair industry
were validated when the committee, after considering a number of other
candidates presented by Witt/Kieffer, decide to promote from within.
was exceedingly critical that an exhaustive search be undertaken for the new
IAFE president and CEO," said Chair of the Search Committee Kent Hojem of the
Washington State Fair. "This organization and the fair industry in general will
continue to face increasingly complex and diverse issues. The need to identify
and engage the best individual to lead this organization into the future was
always our primary focus. Marla represents those qualities we deem paramount to
insure a successful future for our organization."
may not have been born at a fair, but her family's annual tradition was
attending the OEF and she claims her first fair was while she was still in her
mother's womb, although her earliest fair memory was as child, watching the
Jersey cattle show - her father showed cattle. "I can't remember a time I
didn't go to the OEF," she told Carnival Warehouse.
fairs nationally and internationally has been integral to her IAFE
career. In 2015, she attended 23 fairs, including events in Mexico and Korea,
which she often combines with attending other industry events as well as
being named to the top-spot at the IAFE, Calico noted that among her top
priorities are increased fundraising for the IAFE Education Foundation to
support expanded educational programming and a series of "listening" sessions
in various settings to get critical input from members on issues most important
takes the reins of the IAFE at a time when many fairs are
challenged by a variety of issues - and her inaugural year takes
place during one of the most heated presidential races in U.S.
Warehouse conducted an email interview with Calico at the end of
2015, and she comes across as a seasoned professional unafraid
to confront many of the controversies facing the fair industry in the year
ahead. Candid, straight-forward and determined seems to underscore her
management approach, although she tends to downplay the historical nature
of promotion. Calico is both the first woman, and the first IAFE Hall
of Famer, to be named President & CEO of the IAFE.
Warehouse: As the first woman president, what do you think this says about the
progress of the IAFE and the current state of diversity in the fair industry?
Calico: I attended my first IAFE Convention in 1983. I was not only
one of the very youngest persons there, but also one of only a handful
of women. All one has to do to see the current state of diversity in
the fair sector today was to have been at the 2015 Convention to see that more
than half the attendees were women, and many of them are very young - in their
20s. The current Executive Committee of the IAFE Board of Directors (6
people) is 50 percent female. Of the remaining Board of Directors (13 people),
five are women and one of those is under 40 years of age.
Is diversity (or lack of diversity) an issue the fair can or should address?
absolute equality for all genders, all races, all religious beliefs is still
not a 100 percent reality in any aspect of life in the United States,
as a whole, the fair sector probably does a better job than other sectors in
providing a place of equality in its annual events, its staffing and volunteer
positions, its representation of the community. That said, there are still
some fair boards where the majority of members are older men, but I've
certainly seen that changing. Ideas on how to engage a younger, more
diverse representation on a fair board is a topic I've been asked to address at
several state association meetings in the past 5 years.
What do you think is the most important issue facing the fair industry today?
[fair] sector is so vast and so diverse, it is hard to come up with a single
issue facing the majority. Significant to the majority, however, would be the
agricultural changes, issues and perceptions. When less that 2 percent of
the population is engaged in the practice of providing food and fiber, a
disconnect can, and has, resulted. But that has also provided an
opportunity for fairs to be the go-to resource for agricultural education in
Why is fundraising for the IAFE Education Foundation in 2016 a top priority for
raising significant funds through the IAFE Education Foundation, we will have
the resources to bring a higher degree of education to our existing events, and
eventually be able to provide education and training delivered at the state and
provincial associations of fairs meetings which they desire and have asked
for. Imagine how the entire fair sector could benefit from high-quality
education delivered at that level on any number of topics - from board
governance, to community/governmental relations, to creating innovative
agriculture education programs. We currently support a program through our
regular Association funds to send peer leaders to these meetings and it has
been greatly appreciated. We'd like to ramp it up, though. Helping small
fairs, especially, to thrive, to insure their sustainability will be the
"life insurance" for the entire fair sector.
What has been the most important change in the industry during your time with
impact of social media and digital communication impacts fairs of all sizes, in
every location of the world. It has provided new opportunities for engagement
with the community, provided low-cost/no cost means of promotion, but it also
presents significant challenges, especially for many smaller fairs whose
volunteer leadership may be older and less tech-savvy.
What challenge do you face as president that was inconceivable when you
first joined the IAFE?
with Twitter. I'm not shy about expressing my distaste for this over-hyped
platform. Ok, so that's a gripe! Seriously, it is the level of
communication necessitated by every digital aspect of our lives today.
On any given day people are trying to reach our staff members by office
phone, email, text message, and even Facebook Messenger. That translates to an
"always-on" environment, responding to members seven days a week, and at all
hours of the day or night. I respect that our members must do exactly the same
in their lives, and if they have a problem, then we must be able to respond in
a timely manner. The "challenge" then translates to efficient
communication appropriate to the medium. When I was CEO of the Ozark
Empire Fair I dealt with phone calls in the office and mail - we had only had
email a couple of years and I had only transitioned to a cell phone - from a
mounted car phone! - in 2002!
to say that little phone didn't have text capabilities or access to the
internet! But, I must say there is also a "blessing" to this increased and
constant communication - you get to know your members much better. We develop
very personal relationships and friendships with our members - that means a lot
to all of us and I believe it is essential.
What is something that is no longer relevant?
I first started working for the Association in 2006 I wrote a lot of the
content for our e-newsletters and developed the methodology for analyzing the
results (open rate, click rate, etc.).The top clicks in 2007-2008, maybe
into 2009 were on a section we ran called "What They're Saying" in which we
would link to a few blogs to hear the voice of the fair guests.
Our news alert services hardly show any blogs mentioning fairs anymore.
People are sharing their experiences at fairs via Facebook and other social
media platforms - more pictures, shorter stories - rather than blogs.
What do you miss the most about the way the fair industry used to be?
believe the fair sector is better than ever and there is nothing about the
sector as a whole that I'm pining for.
entertainment has nearly doubled in price in recent years, how will the IAFE
help fairs find affordable entertainment or help transition to alternatives to
First and always, listen to our members to discover more about what types of
entertainment they think might be viable at their events.
be their eyes and ears by researching entertainment in other types of
activities/events and bringing new ideas to the table in the form of exhibitors
in the trade show or new advertisers in our various platforms of communication
are the alternatives to headline entertainment than seem the most effective?
How can fairs draw similar sized crowds without headliners?
Every fair is different and unique and must program accordingly. What might
work in one, may not work in another. All you have to do to see
alternative in action is look at the scope of what is being offered - Knights
of Valor as a grandstand show, more "dirt" shows be it bull riding, rodeo,
motocross, monster trucks, or motorcycle flat track racing.
Many fairs have seen success dedicating an entire grandstand show to the
culminating finals of some talent competition. The key is that each fair must
carefully identify potential new guests and discover how to market to them,
constantly keep eyes open for other options; some fairs even went dark on some
nights rather than take the risk on a headliner. A couple of large fairs in
California concentrated on creating smaller, club-like venues with many
different styles of entertainment going on at any given time.
The "IAFE" doesn't have the answer - our staff are not experts in that
field. What we do is bring our members together to brainstorm ideas, we help
members share innovative ideas with one another, and we keep our eye on trends
and try to bring alternative ideas to the table via the trade show and/or our
Not only are H-2B visas are under intense scrutiny this year, but the
anti-immigrant and related rhetoric marking the presidential campaign seems to
have the potential of muddying the H-2B visa issue. Are you concerned that
an anti-immigrant attitude will undermine any progress H-2B program?
seems to be a logical reaction and one that any rationale human being would
is the IAFE H-2B lobbying strategy for 2015, and this their a milestone or
crucial vote expected on this issue (and when)?
look to the lead of OABA as well as NICA in the matter of H-2B lobbying and
provide support to their work when possible, especially by keeping our members
informed of how they can play a role in communicating with their own legislators. OABA
has engaged the services of an excellent lobbyist who keeps us updated and lets
us know when the voices of our members could be critical to the process.
are the other national issues the IAFE will be lobbying for in Washington?
any legislation which might impact member fairs is key. There is nothing on the
near horizon that would require immediate lobbying efforts.
Will the IAFE take any measures on the state level where state governments are
cutting budgets and contributions for state, county and local fairs?
asked by a state association to provide information or to testify we certainly
respond whenever possible but that really falls at the state level to address
those matters and take the lead in any lobbying efforts.
What do you think the impact will be of these cutbacks on the state level for
fairs will be in 2015?
2012 we did a survey of state and provincial executives in US and Canada - a
total of 51 associations for both countries - to ask about funding. We had 31
responses to the survey, and of those only 18 states or provinces received any
type of funding for their county fairs, the majority in the form of prize money
assistance, and at that time about 70 percent of those felt their funding would
remain the same in FY 2013 Since that time I think only two states
have had funding cutbacks, Illinois (last year) and I heard that Florida might
face it in coming year, but haven't confirmed that.
From conversations with their state association executive there is
certainly concern in Illinois since the fairs have become dependent upon that
level of support. I've read news reports that some fairs believe they
cannot survive without that funding. What we witnessed in California
- after fair funding was eliminated in 2011 - though, is that fairs
were innovative in the way they addressed the situation, they worked very hard
to tell their story and the impact of their facilities on their communities and
when the financial situation turned around in the state, they saw some funding
restored (FY 2015-16). And, all fairs survived.
There have been a handful of violent incidents related to fairs this year. What
has been the industry's response to these issues and do you feel it has been
upon the reports I've seen, there was not an uptick in violent incidents and
those which occurred seemed to happen in isolation, part of something perhaps
happening in the community itself. It is critical that each fair
adequately assess the risks posed in their own, unique community when gathering
together large crowds such as at the annual fair or in any other non-fair
rental event. That means strong communication with law enforcement. That means
development of emergency planning and constant evaluation of the same since
risks change from year to year, event to event. "Adequate" response is going to
differ due to the unique situation. Just like there are no two fairs exactly
alike there will not be a uniform "response" to what happens at a fair across
the country, in a different setting.
is important, however, is that the IAFE continue to provide a platform for the
distribution of news of any incidents, a forum for discussion and sharing
ideas on preparation/response (witness our "Town Hall" meeting put together
less than one week in advance of the 2015 IAFE Convention), providing members
updates and links to resources from the Department of Homeland Security,
and insuring that our on-line information resource (the Library) has
current and appropriate materials that will benefit the membership.
Why are fairs still relevant to American culture?
agricultural fair represents its community and through its annual celebration
brings the community together in a way not replicated by other events. Their
relevance is achieved by responding to the changes in their community with
changes in their programs, whether it be agricultural, competitive exhibits,
commercial exhibits, food & beverage or entertainment. They are relevant
because they provide an opportunity for their community to discover more about
the food they eat and meet the farmers that grow it.
How can fair boards and mangers ensure that fairs remain popular and relevant?
with any business, by listening to the customers you have coming, but also the
ones not attending your event. By being responsive to community concerns.
By insuring that the programs offered don't become stale. By providing a unique
forum for unique entertainment.
What fair industry trend are you must excited about in 2016?
won't really get a chance to hear about what fairs are going to be doing in
their events in 2016 until I get out on the state association meeting "trail".
I'll be visiting six different state association meetings in January and then
will visit all the IAFE Zone meetings held in March, April and May. These are
the places where we'll be listening to identify trends as well as concerns of
How would you assess the state of the fair industry in 2015?
news reports we monitored indicated that over 2/3 of the fairs saw increased
attendance. As always, weather is the factor which influences attendance. That
is a factor totally beyond the control of any fair board or management. Some
fairs might not have seen increased attendance but saw increased spending,
which is indicative of getting the "right" guest in the gate - the one who has
the spending power for amusement rides, food and beverage. The optimism for
2016 expressed by our members at the recently concluded IAFE Convention was
palpable, so I'd say that is a good indicator of the sector being very sound
and looking forward to a good year. I've seen several reports on our news feed
that fairs are building new buildings and getting grants for programs - that is
a very positive statement for the health of the sector.
In 2015, you visited 23 fairs. Will your site-visits be curtailed in your
leadership role or will you be seeing more fairs?
is entirely too early to predict how many I or any of our staff will be
visiting. I know based upon other events that I will be visiting at least
three member fairs between February and April, but don't anticipate too many
others in the first 6 months simply due to travel to state association and zone
meetings, as well as the meetings we will be producing (Institute Summit in
February, Tools of the Trade Seminar in March and Management Conference in
April). As I develop my schedule for running races (I do half-marathons) for
2016 I will certainly be looking at opportunities to combine a race and visits
to fairs whenever possible (yes, that is truly what this 'fair chick' often
does on vacation - goes to fairs, runs races).Then, toward the end of spring our
senior staff will look at opportunities to visit new fairs, and/or members
we've not visited in the past. We all log on to www.findthatfair.com and
start planning the most efficient use of our resources..
What makes you most optimistic about fairs?
are always buoyed by reports of innovative programming, especially when it
involves agricultural education for children and helping consumers understand
the source of the food they eat and we saw examples of that at fairs large and
small. My heart soared when I visited the Holmes County Fair in
Ohio and saw the beginnings of their new fairgrounds and saw how their
community is supporting that with donations large and small. Obviously,
the impact of the avian influenza outbreak was devastating to the poultry and
egg industry and the ramifications for poultry exhibitors and special exhibits
at fair was a sad consequence. But, in the usual "we can do it" spirit,
the fairs found very creative ways to continue to recognize youth participants
and to tell the story to the public to allay fears of eating poultry and eggs,
and to share the human and financial toll this horrible disease had upon their