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Carnival Warehouse Interview: Marla Calico


By Timothy Herrick

Photo courtesy of Wes Hamilton (

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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. 

Calico been involved with the fair industry siPhoto By Wes Hamilton ( 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.

Calico 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. 

"It 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." 

Calico 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. 

Attending 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 running half-marathons. 

Upon 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 to them. 

Calico 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. 

Carnival 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.


Carnival 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?

Marla 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. 

CW: Is diversity (or lack of diversity) an issue the fair can or should address?

MC: Although 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.

CW: What do you think is the most important issue facing the fair industry today?

MC: The [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 their community. 

CW Why is fundraising for the IAFE Education Foundation in 2016 a top priority for you? 

MC: By 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.

CW: What has been the most important change in the industry during your time with the IAFE? 

MC: The 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.

CW: What challenge do you face as president that was inconceivable when you first joined the IAFE?


MC: Dealing 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! 

Needless 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.

CW: What is something that is no longer relevant?

MC: When 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.

CW: What do you miss the most about the way the fair industry used to be?

MC: I believe the fair sector is better than ever and there is nothing about the sector as a whole that I'm pining for.

CW: Headline entertainment has nearly doubled in price in recent years, how will the IAFE help fairs find affordable entertainment or help transition to alternatives to headline superstars?

MC: First and always, listen to our members to discover more about what types of entertainment they think might be viable at their events. 

Second, 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 with members.

CW: What are the alternatives to headline entertainment than seem the most effective? How can fairs draw similar sized crowds without headliners?

MC: 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 advertising platforms.


CW: 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? 

MC: That seems to be a logical reaction and one that any rationale human being would have. 

CW: What is the IAFE H-2B lobbying strategy for 2015, and this their a milestone or crucial vote expected on this issue (and when)?

MC: We 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.

CW: What are the other national issues the IAFE will be lobbying for in Washington?

MC: Monitoring any legislation which might impact member fairs is key. There is nothing on the near horizon that would require immediate lobbying efforts.

CW: Will the IAFE take any measures on the state level where state governments are cutting budgets and contributions for state, county and local fairs? 

MC: If 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. 

CW: What do you think the impact will be of these cutbacks on the state level for fairs will be in 2015?

MC: In 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. 

CW: 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 adequate?

MC: Based 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. 

What 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. 

CW: Why are fairs still relevant to American culture?

MC: An 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. 

CW: How can fair boards and mangers ensure that fairs remain popular and relevant?

MC: As 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. 

CW: What fair industry trend are you must excited about in 2016?


MC: I 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 our members.

CW: How would you assess the state of the fair industry in 2015?

MC: The 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.

CW: In 2015, you visited 23 fairs. Will your site-visits be curtailed in your leadership role or will you be seeing more fairs? 

MC: It 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 and start planning the most efficient use of our resources.. 

CW: What makes you most optimistic about fairs? 

MC: We 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 communities.

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