Marlene Pierson-Jolliffe joined the State Fair of Virginia five years ago as executive director and vice president of operations for The Meadow Event Park, though this year marks her 30th state fair.
What started as a high school summer job in her native Lewisburg, W.V., led her to become CEO with the State Fair of West Virginia. For all of her efforts, Pierson-Jolliffe was inducted into the International Association of Fairs and Expositions’ Hall of Fame last December.
Now living in Hanover County with her husband, Frank, Pierson-Jolliffe offered some insight by email earlier this month about the fairs of her youth, and what it takes to keep the State Fair of Virginia, which is operated by the Virginia Farm Bureau, going for years to come.
QUESTION: Did you visit fairs when you were a child?
ANSWER: We had a lot of love growing up but very little money. So we pinched pennies and planned for one summer trip to the one and only State Fair of West Virginia. Greenbrier County has a population of 34,000 so to be the home of the state fair was a big deal. I remember the days before the grounds were paved that, occasionally, we lost a shoe in the mud! It was in the grandstand at the State Fair of West Virginia that I saw Conway Twitty and my first teenage concert — Dr. Hook! Our high school band parked cars for the fair and still does, so in junior high I set my sights on parking cars!
QUESTION: Did you always hope to one day lead a state fair?
ANSWER: I had one choice for college and that was Concord University. I saw a program called “Travel Industry Management” and was drawn to it.
During the summer of my senior year [in high school], I worked at a Western Sizzlin’ Steakhouse. One night, the then fair manager and his wife were in the restaurant and I waited on them. We had a great chat, and I felt like I had just waited on the president! He asked me how it felt to be the [high school band] drum major, and I remember telling him it was hard, but I loved every second of it. The very next day I got a phone call from him asking if I would like to work in the state fair office — the fair was about three weeks away. I immediately said yes and went to work writing competitive exhibit entry tags! A week after I started, he asked me to move to the front office, and the rest is history. I worked there every summer and, in fact, paid my way through college with my fair job (as well as weekend “gigs” playing trumpet in the Concord Commanders swing/dance band.) After my Concord graduation, I went to Clemson and earned a master’s degree — I worked at the fair while job hunting. The fair was poised to grow, and they offered me a full-time job as assistant manager. My first day in that role was Aug. 1, 1989.
I landed the role of CEO in 2004. I stayed in that role until moving to Virginia.
QUESTION: What led you to Virginia’s state fair, and what were your first impressions?
ANSWER: Virginia Farm Bureau President Wayne Pryor called me while our state fair was actually going on. I remember hanging up the phone and saying, “What if?” I knew The Meadow Event Park was beautiful, and I was intrigued ... to work for a large corporation that was dedicated to agriculture. What I didn’t realize was that I had reached a period of burnout in my career ... and admittedly was feeling for the first time that there might be a twist in the road.
[Upon arriving in Virginia], I was amazed at the size of Virginia Farm Bureau and the opportunity for the fair to have a marketing arm in every county in Virginia. I came from an operation that had limited parking, limited population base and scraped every dime and penny off the sidewalk! I wasn’t used to having deep resources and expensive facilities. I kept my focus on the things that I knew were the key to our future growth: [to] build buy-in from our customers, build business and marketing partnerships and, most importantly, build trust in our brand.
My first fair was 2015, and we shut down three days early because of a hurricane! Our team dug deep and survived it.
QUESTION: How have fairs evolved, and what challenges do you face?
ANSWER: The No. 1 change is technology — how we use it to produce our events and sell tickets, how we use it to educate the public, and how our consumers use it to “praise” or “complain” about our operation! We’ve steadily increased our events — 500,000 people visited [The] Meadow Event Park in 2018 — [but] the challenge is maintaining a solid financial return outside of the State Fair.
We have a mission that is grounded in our youth leadership opportunities, real-world agriculture and teaching the general public about the story of food and how it gets to our table. We are committed to celebrating the best of Virginia, and, during the State Fair, we are “where it all comes together.” Our greatest challenge is to build a cushion for the years when Mother Nature isn’t kind and to spend our money wisely on infrastructure that will deliver the best return for the future.
QUESTION: What’s your favorite State Fair attraction?
ANSWER: Harvest Landing — we mix amusement rides for young kids, with gardening and animals. (Plus, no other fair I’ve visited has a mansion on their property — and no one else is the birthplace of [Triple Crown-winning racehorse] Secretariat.)
QUESTION: What’s your favorite fair food?
ANSWER: Peanut butter ice cream with honey roasted peanuts.
QUESTION: What’s your longest time spent at the fair?
ANSWER: The week prior to opening is 6 a.m. until you are done, and that may be 9 p.m. and sometimes 11 p.m. We’ve slept on the floor of our offices and occasionally on a golf cart! The biggest challenge is making sure that day five and day 10 are executed just as well as day one.