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Adam Heffron Takes Ohio State Fair's Helm as Fair Implements Ambitious Renovation Project
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Adam Heffron, a fair industry veteran whose event and facility management spans decades and includes the Wisconsin State Fair and the Minnesota State Fair, will be taking the helm for one of the most iconic fairs in the U.S. Beginning March 1st, Heffron will be the new Executive Director/General Manager of the Ohio Expo Center & State Fair. The annual celebration of everything Buckeye State was the 15th highest attended fair in 2023, breaking its previous attendance and revenue records.

Heffron replaces Virgil Strickler, the long-time GM who announced his retirement prior to helming his record-breaking swan song. He will also oversee the implementation of the Expo 2050 Master Plan, an ambitious overhaul and renovation of the 360-acre Ohio Expo Center property, which is home to the Ohio State Fair and hosts many other events throughout the year.
 
“Today as we accept the governor's recommendation and welcome Adam back to Ohio, we also want to take a moment to once again thank Virgil Strickler for the incredible legacy he has created,” said Angela Krile, Commission Chairman, Ohio Expositions. “We are excited that Adam is bringing this leadership, tenacity and extensive event and fair industry experience to build on our strong foundation and take the Ohio Expo Center & State Fair into the next phase of success with the Expo 2050 Master Plan.”

Since 2022, Heffron served as the Executive Director of Alliant Energy Center, a multi-building entertainment venue located in Madison, Wis. Prior to his time in Wisconsin, Heffron has spent most of his career in the event and fair industry, serving at the Milwaukee World Festival, the Washington State Fair, the Wisconsin State Fair, Meet Minneapolis – Convention and Visitors Association, and the Minnesota State Fair. Additionally, he worked at the Ohio Expo Center & State Fair in the Rental Department from 1994-1998.

 But his fair roots go back before his adulthood.  Heffron was raised on the grounds of the Minnesota State Fair in St. Paul where his father, Mike Heffron, worked for 43 years and served as the general manager for 20 of those years. Heffron attended Georgia State University where he earned a bachelor's degree in hospitality management with an emphasis in exposition and fair management.

 “Adam has been around the event and fair business most of his life,” said  Strickler. “I have watched him succeed in his career since we met in 1994 and I am confident that I will be leaving this facility and my staff in capable hands when I retire.”

 But, before he embarks on what will likely be the pinnacle of his long career,  Heffron spent some time with Carnival Warehouse before his official Ohio start.  

Carnival Warehouse: According to your resume, you grew up at the Minnesota State Fair, where your father worked.   How young were you at your first fair and when did you actually start working at the fair?

Adam Heffron: When I was 6 months old our family moved onto the state fairgrounds, so I would have been 8 months old at my first fair. At the ripe old age of seven, I walked downhill two blocks from our house to work alongside the grounds crew each day of the summer in preparation for the fair in August. My fair duties included being a ticket taker and     greeter on the fair's trackless railroad. I was paid a handsome salary of one dollar per week.

 

CW:  Is it fair to say fairs are in your blood?

AH: Yes, sweat and tears too.

 

CW: What is your earliest fair memory?

AH: I was 4 years old, and my grandmother took me to the matinee Lawrence Welk show at the Grandstand, “And a one, and a two ...” 

 

CW: Your management experience includes fair, event and venue management. What makes fair management unique and how does it compare with your related but different past jobs?

AH: The most profound difference from hosting events as a venue, or even producing music or various other events I have been a part of producing, is the complexity involved with fair management; by that I mean, we rely heavily on our valued third-party groups or individuals involved in the production of an agricultural fair. Whether it is food and beverage concessionaires, commercial and livestock exhibitors, competitive entries from the public, special displays, rides, attractions or entertainment; all of these elements land on the grounds, and it is our job as fair management to coordinate the logistics, presentation, and promotion of each and every thing presented at the fair.  

 

CW: The Ohio fairgrounds have embarked on Expo 2050. How will this plan transform the fairgrounds and what do you hope it will accomplish for the Ohio State Fair?

AH: The Expo 2050 Master Plan is already underway at the Ohio Expo Center & State Fair and is currently in the demolition process of a few buildings. This plan will have a huge impact on the Ohio State Fair, as well as the year-round events at the Ohio Expo Center. There will be many noticeable changes in the form of new buildings and an entry gate, however the plan also focuses on the underground infrastructure of the facility. Being operational since 1886 means that it is not only important to improve the buildings but to keep the infrastructure up to date as well.

 

CW: How will the construction impact the 2024 fair? How many fairs will be impacted by construction and when do you hope to debut a completed “first stage” of Expo 2050.

AH: It is anticipated that phase one of the master plan will be completed by the 2026 Ohio State Fair. In the meantime, the grounds will be impacted during the 2024 and 2025 Ohio State Fairs. However, the Ohio Expo Center & State Fair staff has worked, and continues to work, diligently to ensure that all aspects of the Fair are still represented. The grounds will have construction fencing that has not been present in the past, but we are confident that both the 2024 and 2025 fairs will be a success and can't wait to show our fairgoers what's in store for 2026.

 

CW: You've held management positions at a number of fairs and have been in and around the industry your entire life.  What are the most significant changes in the fair industry and for fair managers that you've seen across the decades of your career?

AH: The safety, security, welfare, and comfort of our guests has risen to a new level of importance. Most of the fairs I have been associated with have had to focus more and more attention on utilizing the grounds and facilities on a more year-round basis in order to increase revenue and support the overall bottom line of the organization.

 

CW: What are you doing now that was not even conceived of when you started and what were you doing then that is no longer part of fair management?

AH: I think with business practices in general today, we communicate more frequently and with a greater variety of people, which has reduced and, in most cases, eliminated the need for typed business letters. Formal business letters were naturally phased out early in my career with the advent of email. Also, marketing and advertising, with an emphasis on digital and e-marketing, has shifted our focus away from traditional methods of advertising and marketing. Lastly, a few decades back, fairs competed on a much smaller field of events in our marketplace that I can recall, and now we are competing more and more for people's discretionary entertainment income.

 

CW: What are the top three components that turn a good fair into a great fair?

AH: Staff, volunteers, and boards; quality of our production; and involvement and ownership of the communities we serve.

 

CW: As a fair professional, what impresses you the most about The Ohio State Fair? What do they do right?

AH: Over the past 170 years, the fair's staff and state leaders have created and maintained a fair that is richly steeped in the traditions of a great agricultural exposition with partner support from the overall agricultural community. Additionally, Governor Mike DeWine's vision for Expo 2050 to grow and enhance the facilities and grounds while improving the guest experience is an opportunity for us at the fair that will not come around again in our lifetimes.

 

CW: You're a son of the Midwest and with Ohio you'll have now worked at three of the most iconic Midwest fairs in the U.S. What's so special about these heartland events that they seem to epitomize large-scale agricultural fairs and are often covered not just by the local press but the national & international news media as well?

AH: Midwesterners welcome the opportunity to get together to celebrate, learn, be entertained, show off their animals and crafts, enjoy good food and drink, and are proud of their heritage.

 

CW: The Ohio State Fair has a strong relationship with Ohio's agricultural industry, ag schools, 4H & FFA programs and the network of county fairs those programs rely upon. How important has this relationship been to the success of the fair? What are the challenges for a fair manager to ensure the constructive collaboration between the farms and their fair can continue in modern America?

AH: Agriculture is one of Ohio's largest industries and partnering with those organizations helps keep our agriculture roots strong at the Ohio State Fair. We have one of the largest junior livestock shows in the country and that would not be possible without the strong partnerships the Ohio State Fair has with 4-H, FFA, the county and independent fairs in Ohio, the Ohio Fair Managers Association, the agricultural commodities in Ohio, and so many others. It takes far more than a village to put on a fair and the Ohio State Fair is no exception. We are grateful for the wonderful partnerships we have with the many people and organizations who work diligently to keep agriculture and agriculture education so prevalent in Ohio.

 

CW: The Ohio State Fair is such a well-oiled machine and I'm sure most of the 2024 fair has been planned and set in motion regardless of who is manager. But not everything. The fair is barely more than six months from now. What are the decisions to make and issues to confront that cannot be planned for so early in advance?

AH: The staff at the Ohio Expo Center & State Fair has worked diligently to plan for the 2024 Ohio State Fair. There is still plenty of planning that will happen in the next six months to make the fair a great success and I'm excited to hit the ground running in March to assist with mitigating space constraints and finding the perfect balance between offering a top-notch event while continuing to move the facility forward through this phase of the master plan.

 

CW: Is talent buying, booking grandstand headliners and entertainment easier or more challenging now than pre-pandemic? Are you committed to booking big names for their drawing power or because of costs and other changes in the music industry, touring and consumer tastes, are you considering other attractions to bring in more fairgoers?

AH: The Ohio State Fair is proud to book big name entertainment and offer compelling concerts eleven of the 12 nights of the Ohio State Fair. Additionally, the fair has been fortunate to work with Triangle Talent both pre- and post-pandemic to book our big-name entertainment, and while the cost of booking popular acts has certainly increased over the years, we do our best to book a lineup that offers something for everyone including family-friendly shows, comedy, country, R&B, hip-hop, and more. The Ohio State Fair is for all Ohioans and with a diverse lineup of acts, we hope to appeal to as many fairgoers as possible.

 

CW: You were instrumental in creating Spin City at the Wisconsin State Fair, one of the largest independent midways in the Midwest.  What are the key attributes of a contemporary midway, how have expectations for the Midway changed, and what impresses you the most about the Ohio State Fair midway?

AH: Wisconsin's SpinCity, Minnesota's Mighty Midway and other independent midways are a success because of strong partnerships and collaboration with many individuals and organizations committed to the production of a mobile amusement operation. This formula is certainly no different than any core carnival operation like Talley Amusements. In my opinion, the evolution of a contemporary midway today is based on innovative leadership with the likes of amusement leaders who I have had the privilege of being associated with throughout my career; My father, Mike Heffron, Jim Sinclair, Mike Sandefur, Tom Atkins, Evan McGugan, Joe Bixler, Chris Walden, and SO many ride, game, concession, and carnival owners. The key attributes, beyond the people, include a commitment to hard work, an emphasis on the safety and welfare of the midway guest, aesthetics, value, quality, and relationships that are mutually beneficial with the best interests of the fairgoer in mind. Since I have not stepped foot on the midway in Columbus in twenty-five years, it is hard to tell you what impresses me other than I have had a particularly good working relationship with Mary and Tom Talley when I was the assistant Mighty Midway manager at the Minnesota State Fair. Mary and Tom are well respected, have a high-quality show, and have been successfully entertaining the fairgoers at the Ohio State Fair since 2019. I am excited about the Ohio State Fair's partnership with Talley Amusements.

 

CW: How can fairs better reflect their communities? What is the best way for fairs to conduct community outreach, so more segments of the community are included in the event?

AH: Expanding our reach, by way of adapting and programming to the interest and needs of today's urban and rural communities is what fairs have done since the beginning of agricultural fairs some 250 years ago. We are less of an agrarian society than we once were, and the same is true of the changing demographics of our audience. However, our current and prospective audiences always want to know where their food comes from, who produces it, and it is natural for them to want to showcase their animals, crafts, baking skills, be entertained, educated, and amused. Fairs do this exceptionally well, and I bet we will be around for another 250 years.

 

CW: Why do you love fairs and why do you feel they are still relevant to today's world?

AH: For generations it is a place to gather with family and friends to share experiences and traditions, walk the barns, eat unique foods, learn about how your food is produced, sing along to a favorite artist, see a marching band, be awed by a huge butter sculpture, ride a ride or win a stuffed animal.  Where else are you going find all of that in your community?

 

CW: My favorite fair food is___

AH: Anything and everything that is fried, on a stick or in a bun.

 

CW: I know it is fair when I ride the

AH: Tilt-a-Whirl.
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