The Nebraska State Fair may be somewhat bigger and longer than the previous fairs Lori Cox has led – most recently as General Manager of the Big Sky Country State Fair in Bozeman, MT – but as the new Executive Director in Nebraska, she finds the larger scale not daunting. “Busy is Busy,” she told Carnival Warehouse.
As the late summer fair (August 24 – September 3) approaches, Cox is indeed very busy at the helm of a resurgent fair – in 2017, the fair had 378,108 attendees, one of the highest turnouts in its history. “The Nebraska State Fair has a long, rich history of providing an entertaining and educational venue that showcases the people, talent and products of Nebraska,” said Cox. “I believe there’s an opportunity to build upon this heritage, while accelerating the steady growth that the Fair has seen, particularly in recent years. I look forward to working with the staff, Fair partners, the community of Grand Island and the people of Nebraska.”
In addition to the Big Sky Country State Fair, Cox has also worked with the Western Idaho Fair and the Montana State Fair. She may have been in the fair industry since 2003, but her first fair was at three, the Judith Basin County Fair in Stanford. Coming from a farm family – “we ran a wheat and barley operation” – fair attendance was a given every summer and growing up, she was in FFA and 4-H, raising steer and colts. It wasn’t always easy. She remembers one summer at the Central Montana Fair when the temperatures hit “112 in the shade. It was awful hot. I can remember showing in that heat, kids were passing out, I got very sunburned.”
Her experience in leading multiple fairs has made her realize, that “No two fairs are the same – each has its own heartbeat.”
The major contrast with her new fair compared to her previous experience is the level of volunteerism and agricultural participation, or as she described it “the exceptional ag presence and strong volunteer network. The Northwest has less people, at least in Idaho, Wyoming and Montana, so finding the number of volunteers to produce an event is really tough. Here in Nebraska there is already stout support from a number of ag groups.”
“Lori Cox is the ideal person to lead the Nebraska State Fair into the future,” said Chris Kircher, Chairman, Nebraska State Fair Board. “The Board is thrilled to have attracted such an experienced and proven leader who can build upon the momentum we’ve established, while taking the Fair to new levels of success.”
Carnivalwarehouse Interviews/Lori Cox
CW: Why do you think fairs are still relevant to American popular culture?
LC: A fair’s responsibility to its people has not changed in 200 years – it should always be a reflection of the community it represents. As long as we reflect those values, we will remain relevant. We lose our way when we try to be something we aren’t. For example, we can learn from Disney, but the reality is we do not have Mickey Mouse. But Disney does not have real animal experiences or agricultural education. We need to stand proud of our opportunity to showcase the American fabric of production agriculture and do it in a way that the public understands. When you share that experience, those families will remember that long over any other kind of vacation or getaway.
CW: What is the biggest challenge facing fairs today?
LC: I would agree with the carnival side on this one. I believe government regulations are our toughest challenge. While carnival companies are facing pressing issues with H2B, safety and other tough regulations, fairs have ever increasing pressures from state and local governments. A great example is an aging infrastructure such as replacing sewer lines. We used to be able to do this in-house, but for many of us, local permits to regulatory standards are forcing price points so high that some projects are not feasible. It is keeping many fairs from being able to expand or worse yet, invest in any capital improvements. The second concern that troubles me is the state of affairs for our county fairs. We have many, many of them struggling to operate. Some cannot get a carnival to route due to the carnival’s tough travel challenges. They cannot find local dollars for improvements to facilities that, in many cases, were built in the early 1900s. I worry that if county fairs disappear, the erosion will lead to our bigger fairs. We must do something to help them rethink their operations and stand them back up.
CW: Many economic reports indicate that the economy is on an upswing. Is that being felt for Midwest fairs? Is it being felt by the agricultural industry that fairs are so dependent upon?
LC: Well as we all know, fairs tend to do the best in a down economy. Nowhere was this more evident than Big Sky Country State Fair—a fair in a wealthy county – where discounts or bundles on carnival rides did not impress fairgoers. Our marketing strategies became markedly different. All the data shows that when the economy is down and families have a stay-cation, they come to us. The economy is variable in a heavy agstate like Nebraska. I am worried that the farming economy is not good. Agricultural markets have been down for the past three-plus years. The dairy industry is in real trouble, with consolidations rampant. However, with the upcoming farm bill usually comes a sense of optimism by farmers, despite world grain markets with full inventories. Beef and hog prices are a bit better this year, so we are watching closely as many family ranchers and farmers have been in a world of hurt. My father always said that if you track farm economies back 100 years, you will find that when ag is in a recession, the rest of the country follows three to five years later.
CW: What segment of the fair – midway, entertainment, F&B, exhibits, marketing, etc. – are you most impressed by? What area do think has the most room for improvement?
LC: At Nebraska State Fair, I am most impressed with the livestock competitive department. It is superbly managed and our facilities are second-to-none in the country. We have two areas that need sincere review…our concerts and our marketing. This spring we hired Swanson Russell as our marketing agency of record and we are already impressed with their work. This fair has struggled a bit to respond to the massive demand for “top concerts” while trying to beat off the saturation levels of surrounding event centers, festivals and county fairs. Next year we will roll out an entirely new business model for our concerts, and we are all pretty excited about our vision.
CW: What area of fair management do you feel is your strength?
LC: Depends on the kind of day I’m having, LOL! I am a strategist, so I always see the 30,000 foot view looking ahead 20 years or more. I believe this has given me an ability to see things from a different angle and find a solution that perhaps no one knew was there. That isn’t always the case, but I’ve been lucky enough most of the time. The other quality I might bring is corporate governance. I’ve spent a good amount of my career on that side of the fence and applying that acumen to the Fair business has proven successful thus far.
CW: What are you expectations for this year’s fair? Do you have enough lead time to have any influence or is this year more of an observational year?
LC: Great question, and yes, very much this is an observation year. We had some household affairs to bring in order first, from HR to finance to strategic planning. It’s been a little busy here, I must admit, despite trying to learn and observe! A new CEO must set the culture for the organization. This critical function is the outline for governance. I lead by open culture with the idea that I’ll give my staff plenty of rope; they can choose to climb up to the top or they can hang with it. But I’m also a good coach, I think. I believe in a sports/team background – it really helps with management and I’ve played a lot of team sports in my life; it shapes my approach.
CW: What cannot be done in advance and what are the pitfalls to avoid especially as the newbie with those issues?
LC: I believe that you must dial in your planning up to 99 percent of accuracy or you are setting yourself up for challenges that you’ll wish you never had. That being said, crisis management is the single area you can plan for all year long, but never predict. I just hope we never have to use it.