Behind the scenes: Indiana State Fair

It’s 10 a.m. and cloudy when I park my car in the lot directly across the street from the Indiana State Fair gates. Only $5, and easy to navigate, I present my complimentary ticket and pick up my phone to call Dave Shaw, Chief Operating Officer of the Indiana State Fair. A few minutes later, he swings by to pick me up in his golf cart and take me around the fairgrounds, explaining all the way. In the end Dave would spend two entire hours talking to me about everything from risk management to parking to event planning, while I asked countless questions and snapped away on my Nikon.

Indiana State Fair

Soy-powered tractors lead the way

Dave comes to the Indiana State Fair Commission from the entertainment industry – so less cows, and more stage acts. He is marketing savvy and extremely personable, stopping to chat with the State Police on the grounds, fist-bumping the parking attendant and calling out to fellow staff members by name. The ISFC does approximately 350 events per year, nearly one event per day. The full time staff is just under 100 employees, while the group increases dramatically with volunteers during an event as large as the State Fair.

We cruise under the stadium seating of the infield to catch up with an older gentleman, who is maneuvering his golf cart toward the ticket booths. Dave tells me that this particular employee is enjoying his 55th year of service as a State Fair employee. As startling as that may seem, it’s not uncommon. Throughout the morning we meet several other individuals who have given their lives to the State Fair, to the tune of 10 or 20 or 30 years. Some employees have been born here, others are just here because they love it. It’s easy to see why Dave is under the spell of the fair, and quickly pulling me under.

Indiana State Fair Midway

Indiana State Fair Midway

Dave points out his favorite pretzel stand, stops to pick up a wayward street cone and hops out of the still-running golf cart to grab a piece of trash and stow it in the back, explaining all the while. The underlying theme of an event like the fair comes back consistently to the state itself: Indiana farmers, artisans and members of the community are both recognized and valued when it comes to planning events and inviting participants. Many of the items sold on site are from Indiana or made with Indiana products.

The state even takes a big role in something most large events take for granted: alcohol. I hear the story of how back in the day a fairground strewn with glass bottles encouraged the state to write a law that forbade any alcohol to be served during fair time. Believe it or not, that law is still in effect today. Later in the afternoon I see petitions in the Indiana Wine and Beer section, where local brewers and vine owners call for the same attention their fellow farmers and growers have had for years: recognition for their work in the state. It must be noted that even without alcohol, a whopping 70,000 people still walked through the gates on the first Sunday of the fair.

Tradition

Tradition

There are several things that stand out to me about the Indiana State Fair:

* well organized, intuitive layout. There’s a lot to be said for 250 acres of fairgrounds, even easier to get turned around. But once you have a map in hand, or you hop onto one of the soy-powered tractors, it’s easy to find your way around the fair, from cattle barn to Midway to the infield.

* crowd control. On the main thoroughfare between animal barns and infield, there is a very simple median. In some places, it’s concrete with a small patch of grass and a few benches back to back and in other spots there are exhibitors like Ford or the local radio station. This isn’t random filler – this is intelligent design. Crowds filter on either side (with multiple food trucks on both sides) and allow for easy maneuvering of people, goods and vehicles (golf carts, tractors, and the like).

* clean, clean, clean. The 1000+ volunteers at the Indiana State Fair are organized, well identified, and numerous. I would wager a guess at least 1/4 of those volunteers are cleaning the fairgrounds in some capacity. These folks are spearing trash, emptying bins, cleaning the streets, and generally insuring that you will have a clean (and safe) experience. Nothing about a state fair is clean, but this place is. This includes the bathrooms, which are almost exclusively permanent restrooms, and not those towering rows of blue porta-potties.

* seats galore. With all that wandering and eating in the August sun, a body really needs a place to sit and cool down. There are plenty of places to rest your weary feet at the fairgrounds: benches outdoors, tables and chairs under portable tents. But the real gem is the indoor seating – most notable in the Agricultural Hall. I can’t guarantee all those people sat down to learn about honeybees, but they sure were enjoying the long wooden benches in the air conditioning.

Pioneer Village

Pioneer Village

* a throwback to history. For the most part, these fairs have been active for about 150 years. The Indiana fair takes it’s educational (and historical) aspects seriously. One of the best places to witness this is in Pioneer Village, a well constructed indoor / outdoor area that showcases traditional arts and labor. Pioneer Village is one of Dave’s favorite spots on the grounds, and he was happy to park the cart and walk me around the area, pointing out key employees and scenes: A woman baking donuts over an outdoor fire, farmers cutting wood with a steam-powered engine, a local sitting down for a shave and a hair cut at the barber, and traditional dress all around.

* connection to youth. Nowhere is this more apparent than the brand new Glass Barn, made possible in large part by Indiana Soybean Farmers. The intention of this building is to connect young kids to agriculture, in a whole host of ways. There is a competitive game called “uFarm,” a grocery store based model called “uEat” and my personal favorite: weGrow, an interactive look at the lives of local Indiana farmers. How? via videos of their farms, and actual live Skype calls several times a day. Dave noted some of the staff had to drive to the farms, install wi-fi and show farmers how to work an iPad – all in the name of agriculture.

Indiana State Fair

Glass Barn, weGROW exhibit

Some other items worth mentioning:
- The Indiana State Fair now has a Text Message Assist program that is monitored 24/7, and serves the purpose of answering fair-related questions quickly. I didn’t try it out for myself, because who needs it when you’re driving around with the COO?
- The Colisseum where livestock and their owners typically compete, is currently under construction. The good news is it’s not locked down – it’s sectioned off with large descriptive posters, images and videos so fairgoers can see what the new building will look like. Anyone can walk in to tour the facility to get a glimpse of the brand new steel, and read about the construction process.
- One of my most burning questions was about the fair theme itself, as I so enjoyed the Year of the Dairy Cow last year and now was wondering how The Year of Popcorn came to be. In sticking with Indiana crops and local commodities, Dave noted that each year a commodity is decided upon and promoted as part of the fair’s marketing scheme. This year, Pop Weaver is recognized as the main sponsor, and the kernels of this agreement are everywhere.

Year of Popcorn

The Year of Popcorn

- The Giant Popcorn Ball constructed with love and caramel to celebrate the Year of Popcorn was put together by a whole host of people, including Dave and his staff. Picture the ISFC accountants taking the morning off to glove up and tamp down pounds of popcorn. Team building! The ball weighs 6510 lbs and is over 24 feet in circumference.

Ending my morning with Dave in the Marketing office, I laugh at a stack of giant foam vegetables, a discarded blue ribbon half my height and an entire table full of trophies in the hallways. Here are hard working staff, and the debris of the fair. This is one of the longest running fairs in terms of actual days (16) and some of the staff stay in various apartments throughout the grounds. I wonder if that means funnel cake for breakfast?

Taking the tour of the fairgrounds with Dave and meeting many of his fellow staff, and seeing the priorities for such a huge event was a really eye-opening experience. I’m grateful to Dave for his time and his generous explanations to my many questions. Who knew this city girl could be so stoked about a state fair? Y’all come back now …

Full photo slideshow in the next post :)

Indiana State Fair

Blue ribbon winner, Cake Decorating

Customer Service by the Tweet

I’m sure there were a few companies that viewed the Twitter enterprise with trepidation when the bluebird first came into our lives. “We just figured out how to interact with our clients on Facebook and now you want us to do it all over again in 140 characters?”

When I first started using Twitter, I was following my favorite sports teams, travel mags and local businesses. I got my news, my tips and my specials all in one place. Back in August 2010, I blogged about Tweet & Travel – paying homage to some of my favorites as I prepared to leave for Spain.

Since then, I’ve been using Twitter on a daily basis. I use it for work (@EIUStudyAbroad) as well as for myself (@kmarieholland). It’s become way more than I originally anticipated, and I’ve gone on record saying that I prefer Twitter over Facebook (gasp!). Why?

- It’s more interactive. You can use hashtags (#studyabroad) to link to lists of content and tag users (@eiu) to show them something, or let them know you’re talking about them.
- It’s concise. If you can’t say it in 140 characters, you’re out. #sosorry
- It’s organized. I use lists to follow my students in each term, or leaders in the field, or interests by topic.
- It’s public. Unless you lock down your account, it is open to the wide world. This allows a company to pick up more followers, and reach a wider audience. I would argue this also forces users to rethink how they tailor their messages if they’re going beyond their usual target audience.

What’s the big deal with an interactive social media platform? It’s good customer service, it’s visible and it’s accessible. Here are some recent examples of excellent Twitter users that have interacted with me on various topics:

hotelscom

The big chains may have tons of people working on their social media platforms, but I don’t care. The more reason to buzz them with kudos, questions and comments. Everyone loves data – and this is a measurable form of feedback.

tafwyl

Now this is fun. A local Welsh festival that had their social media tags prominently displayed on their website and all of their print material when I was visiting Wales in June. Those tags are there for a reason, they want to hear from you!

derbyhotelsI always try to take the time to thank hotels, restaurants and other businesses for a good time. I don’t think that Twitter is the right place for serious negative commentary. Take to the airwaves and the Twitterverse with the positive, the pensive and the occasional provocative statement.

espnradio

ESPN is a huge company, and you’re thinking they’ll never have time to ring you back. Wrong! If you are an ESPN fan you’ll also notice that they will feature fan tweets on a daily basis, when broadcasting the Sports Center Top 10 among others. Your shot at 5 seconds of fame :)

wistatefair

I particularly love when local businesses or events are super chatty online. I’m more inclined to look at links they send me, and even more likely to tag them later on when I’m at their event or location.

usair

Here’s my limit on Twitter bitchery. It was 7 a.m. and I was NOT happy. Note: The issue with US Air was ultimately resolved by phone .. but this first msg came within 15 minutes of my tweet. One snag – if you are not following a user, they cannot direct message you. So my second msg some time later from US Air was a “please follow us so we can DM a response.” By then, I’d already gotten someone on the phone.

And without question one of the greatest Twitter convos of all time:

americanairI knew the situation was out of everyone’s control – me, the pilot, the airline. But how great is it that they 1) answered me immediately, and 2) had a sense of humor about it. Kudos to you, @AmericanAir – well played.

A festival of colors

After four long months of planning, details, logistics, phone calls, emails, drawings and 66 lbs. of colored powder from Colorado .. we finally had our day in the sun. And literally – the sun was shining. In Central Illinois. In April. Believe me, I’m as shocked as you are.

Our Holi Festival of Colors was originally intended for April 19. On the way in to the office that day, it hailed. It had rained almost all week and the quad was a disaster. At 10:30 a.m. we called it off, and postponed to April 26 – the last day of classes.

With all approvals signed, sealed and delivered – I woke up early last Friday like it was Christmas morning. Eyes wide open, I scrambled for my phone and squinted at the Weather app. Already it was 40 degrees at 6 a.m. It had been 40 degrees close to noon the week before, so I considered this a good sign.

My staff rolled in at 9 a.m. and we headed out to the quad to prepare. We chalked, we walked, we talked. We hooked up a sound system, a photo booth, filled four giant troughs of water, and hauled powder out to the field. I took phone calls, fielded media inquiries and gave interviews with the sun on my face and my heart in my throat.

By 11:30 a.m., 30 minutes to go time, we had music going and the staff were getting giddy. Our first round of volunteers arrived, we started putting color on each other and Paige dunked her entire head in a trough like a champ.

By 11:45 a.m., bystanders were asking if they could start. Well, why the hell not.

By 12 Noon, groups of friends had sprinted onto the quad and were squealing, laughing and dodging cupfuls of cold water. We cranked up Nate’s sweet playlist on the sound system and started harassing passers by and handing out free study abroad t-shirts.

By 12:30 p.m. it was packed. We saw faculty, staff, students, children. We had bystanders, we had paparazzi, we had participants. EAGER participants. Holy crap these kids are having the time of their lives! My white shirt remains untouched, and my face is clear until Marilyn and one of her students approach to dust my face with color on their fingertips, as though they are painting.

By 12:45 p.m. we readied for an announcement and a toss. Asking our participants to get a handful of dye and hold, the president of the Association of International Students spoke about the Holi tradition celebrated by Hindus in India and Nepal. When he handed off the mic, I gave a few more instructions, and we faced the MLK Jr. Union and the tripods with cameras on the roof.

Three ..

.. Two ..

ONE …

An explosion of powder and color.

Red, yelling. Blue, laughing. Green, dancing.
Yellow and Orange, waving. Purple, blowing in the breeze.

I can remember the long meetings with the staff in the cold months of February and March. How many participants would we have? Were we doing a good job with marketing? How many pounds of this damn powder could we possibly need? Would people get bored quickly? Would they be entertained? Would they understand what this festival meant to us .. what it meant to the world?

That huge surge of relief comes somewhere after 1 p.m. People are smiling, the sun is shining. My shirt is no longer white, and my palms are dark green. I’ve been chased by some of my students, had color slapped on my face, and had water dumped on my head at least twice. And it’s beautiful.

All that hard work has resulted in a hugely successful, colorful, magnificent festival. Did they all get the message that it was about celebrating spring, friendship and new beginnings? Maybe. But after a long academic year and some incidents on campus that made us questions ourselves and each other, there they are – running through the quad, sliding in the mud after each other, and tossing color into the air. I don’t know if they’ll be able to articulate exactly what Holi is about .. but they sure do have the right idea.

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for a look at the fantastic portraits taken by photographer and EIU CATS professional Jay Grabiec, visit the Flickr set at eiu.edu/holi.

for a peek at local news coverage by JG-TC Charleston-Mattoon: click here.

SoCal Foodie Delight

My first trip to California. Yes, really. I’m 29 and the furthest West I’ve been is Arizona. Well, no longer.

Flying to the West Coast in February had even more allure than I thought – namely because it was 30 degrees when I left my home in Illinois and it was almost 80 degrees when I landed in Orange County. What better way to fight the Midwestern winter than with sunshine?

What’s the best way to see a new city? To eat.

Sure, Hollywood Boulevard is important, but my stomach is always growling. Luckily, when you roll with a fellow foodie, your priorities are always the same. Here are some of the stops we made over the course of my brief weekend in SoCal. (all addresses are in LA unless otherwise noted)

* In & Out Burger – My first ever! Thanks to local assistance, I knew to ask for both burger + fries “animal style.” Next time will ask for Neopolitan shake.

* Mashti Malone’s ice cream – 1525 N. La Brea – So many wild flavors here .. I chose Rose Saffron

* Olocuilta – 3958 W. 6th – Homemade Salvadorean pupusas here, oddly enough – in Koreatown. The abuela in the back seriously know what she’s doing.

* Cafe Tropical – 2900 W. Sunset Blvd – guava and cheese empanada. Yeah, you heard me.

* @ an undisclosed location – street tacos! $1 a piece and right on the money.

* Lynda Sandwich – 15380 Beach Blvd, Westminster -  banh mi’s for the beach.

* Egg Heaven – 4358 E. 4th Street, Long Beach – outrageous breakfast. Do not miss the super browns loaded breakfast potatoes. I died.

* One of the many Farmer’s Markets for superior produce & snacks – my first brush with an ojo blanco (less acidic grapefruit) and the best oranges I’ve had since Spain.

Other fun stuff
Skylight Books – 1818 N. Vermont Avenue
Griffith Park Observatory -2800 E Observatory Road
(check out their free public star parties!)
Watts Tower – 1761-5 E 107th Street
Dodgers Stadium – 1000 Elysian Park Avenue

Tasty wines
Babble wine (wins best label), Khroma (wins fancy label and cheap local red), Carpe Diem (stole my soul & that of NYTimes winos a few years ago).

Thank goodness for Los Angeles, and Natalie :)

The monument you can’t miss

You’ve got to see…,” they say.

Don’t miss the… (Insert Monument Here.)

True or not, there are some monuments that have their own claim to fame. It’s what locals point to, and seasoned tourists nod sagely about. As if every city as an unwritten list of things to see before you depart, and it is everyone’s job to point you in the right direction. Paris? Eiffel Tower. New York? Empire State Building. Do they define a city? Not necessarily. I’d just as soon point to Gray’s Papaya or The Strand when advising someone on NYC.

What’s worse is when you finally do see the thing that everyone has been pestering you about and think: well. You could’ve been huddled up in a café somewhere instead of standing outside in the cold waiting for this damn clock to chime. Truth be told, this was my reaction when I’d seen the Mona Lisa live and in person. Who knew that after racing through the Louvre (with the Da Vinci Code playing in my mind) that I would feel disappointed at the finish line?

Personally, I’m more inclined to a) see monuments that have a story or are generally lesser known, b) trust travelers I know to steer me in the right direction, c) do my research so I know what’s a tourist trap and what’s not.

For example, Holly and I loved the Clock Museum (aka The Palace of Time) in Jerez, Spain. It was WAY off the beaten path, super weird and charming. Thank you to whomever wrote that in the Fodor’s guide. I didn’t see what all the fuss was about with the IAmAmsterdam sign in the city of the same name (I was focused on nearby Van Gogh). People flock to the peeing statue (Mannekin Pis) in Brussels, Belgium. The astronomical clock in Prague, Czech Republic draws a crowd at every chime. Worth it? Maybe.

On my recent trip to California, I was able to visit an awesome monument that I’d never heard of before. Watts Towers, tucked into a small neighborhood in Los Angeles, are a work of art. Visiting my artist friend and LA native Natalie also guaranteed an insider look at the local art scene. She knew the story of the Italian immigrant who had come to California and spent over three decades using found objects to build this unique fortress of art.

History says that the artist eventually abandoned his project, and the neighborhood that was giving him grief. It was almost torn down until it was put to the test – literally – by an engineer, at the request of the Committee for Simon Rodia’s Towers in Watts (composed of community members, artists and activists trying to save the site). Once the structure was determined safe, the city declared it was allowed to stand where it still stands today. A small community arts center, free of admission, tells the artist’s story and the monument itself stretches high into the California sky.

A little story goes a long way, doesn’t it?

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