Rick Pickering with his wife, Dawn, at this year's WFA Convention & Trade Show. (VT Photo)
REPORTING FROM RENO, NEV. — From Blue Ribbon Mommies to team building to Puppy Party Palooza, Rick Pickering shared ideas and successes from years in the business during a sitdown with Venues Today. In 2013, he succeeded Norb Bartosik as general manager of the California State Fair and Exposition in Sacramento. We visited with Pickering at the Western Fairs Association Convention & Trade Show, held here Jan. 20-23 at Grand Sierra Resort, where he will be honored with this year’s Hall of Fame award. During the conversation, Pickering touched on some ideas for Cal Expo, as well as what made him a great leader at Alameda County Fair in Pleasanton, Calif.
How did you hear about the opening at Cal Expo?
I was heavily recruited by a number of people. I would have been very happy to remain in Pleasanton with the Alameda County Fair, but I believe that there’s an opportunity to help many, many more fairs by being at the California State Fair.
What are your goals at the California State Fair?
I think the sky’s the limit. For California State Fair we need to turn around the growth. We’ve lost more than 40 percent of our patrons in the last five-seven years and laid off close to 70 percent of our employees. It’s a very tight economy and a government town, but we can certainly turn that around by recapturing our local market and then expanding beyond that.
I’ve heard people call you the ‘turn-around king.’ Is that a lot of pressure?
People give you nicknames, and I guess that’s a better nickname than some bad things that are out there. But it will all come down to the team and the community. Certainly California Governor Jerry Brown strongly supports the state fair. His dad had the vision to buy the property and build the California State Fair when he was governor.
What ideas have you discussed for Cal Expo?
As part of this year’s WFA, marketing expert Kelly McDonald spoke on how to market to mommies, as well as social media marketing. My wife, who is a high school teacher, said that we should start a Blue Ribbon mommies program, where moms can go online and download a Blue Ribbon coloring book that has information on the history of Blue Ribbons and of the California State Fair. Kids will color the Blue Ribbon, cut it out, bring it to the fair and pin it to a wall. On that Blue Ribbon, the kid will write why his mommy is a Blue Ribbon Mommy. And when the child does that, we could give him a Blue Ribbon that he could pin on his mommy, and also a Blue Ribbon bookmark.
What have you been looking at in terms of new technology?
We thought, based on what McDonald said about Pinterest and Facebook, Twitter, and so many of the other new technologies, it would be interesting to take an exhibit area at the California State Fair and turn it into a social media learning opportunity. We could invite people to come learn how to set up a Facebook page, learn how to get involved in Twitter and, certainly, while they’re at the fair, we’d want them to post that they’re at the fair and like our pages.
Why is it important to recognize the latest technology at fairs?
Fairs exist to showcase the future as much as people want to come and see the past. Overlaying the past and the future together is what makes us different from most other things.
But it’s not just about new technology. Can you tell me a bit about the importance of agriculture in California?
California is the largest dairy state. We do produce 90 percent of the wine for America and 98 percent of the almonds consumed in America. Almost all the artichokes and avocados come out of California. Then there’s this whole wonderful California cheese market, and we’ll be looking at partnering California wines with California cheeses. New industries in California are growing by leaps and bounds, such as olive oils, walnut oils, almond oils, and all sorts of things that chefs know about that we want the rest of the world to know about as well.
What other aspects of California do you want to showcase?
People think of California for surfing and movies as well. There is a lot of cutting-edge technology involved in movies. Something that’s revolutionized them is digital technology. California is the birthplace of a lot of high-end technology in the movie industry and we want to showcase that as well.
What’s the theme this year?
It’s the 160th anniversary of the California State Fair and we’re going with ‘Food, Family, Fun.’ People can go from the corndog to farm-to-fork to organic when it comes to food. People often don’t realize that recipes are all about science, technology, engineering and math. People think they’re just having fun cooking food, but there’s so much more to it than that. Family is however you want to define it. It can be traditional, it can be a group of friends, the people at work, an ethnic group or cultural group. Family is wide open to definition and fairs are all about family. And the sky’s the limit for fun at the California State Fair. We’re going to do the basics well, keep it simple and expand the market.
What do you see as your legacy at the Alameda County Fair?
I think to be named the fastest growing fair in North America is a great accomplishment. In the last four years we’ve grown by 44 percent, which is spectacular in a bad economy. Turning a fair around that was on the verge of bankruptcy when I started. We had an $8 million budget that moved into $22 million in revenue this year, which is more than 150-percent increase.
How were you able to achieve that?
It all comes down to the team. I get an awful lot of credit as the CEO, but as I’ll say in my Hall of Fame acceptance speech, it’s all about the people who are surrounding you. People who are passionate about what they do and people who want to work together. Together we’re much stronger than apart. Part of my legacy at the Alameda County Fair is team building. Not only team building internally, but the Alameda County Fair has become seen as a leader in the state, if not the nation. People are regularly contacting us wanting to plagiarize our programs.
Is that something you’ll try to continue in your new position?
To me, that’s what the California State Fair will move toward in the near future — becoming sort of a mothership of fairs in the western U.S. Not that we’re better than anyone else, but we want to be cutting edge.
What steps did you take to strengthen the team at Alameda County Fair?
Well, a good friend of mine, Pat Lencioni, whose most recent book was “The Advantage,” but his first book was “The Five Dysfunctions of a Team,” owns a company called The Table Group that I do a bit of work with. I’d highly recommend people take a look at “The Five Dysfunctions of a Team,” because it tells you how to do it right.
Pat’s style is that he tells a story, and then at the end of the story he pulls together all the business things that took place in the story. Another of his books is “Death by Meetings,” which is a great title. He talks about how to make meetings more effective. We all go into meetings with different expectations. You can have better meetings, but you have to have expectations about what your meetings are going to accomplish.
And you implemented those ideas at Alameda County Fair?
Our team in Pleasanton, Calif., went through a full-blown team-building program with Pat’s group and we started having a 10-minute meeting every morning with the management team. Every morning. So everybody was reporting on what their day looks like and what they’re involved in, and people on the management team became much more in tune with what everybody’s doing, so then when we had our weekly meeting, we could focus more on strategy. Our weekly meeting became much more big-issue. Then the quarterly meetings are much broader. But the point is that every meeting should have a purpose, and everybody coming to the meeting should know what the purpose is. You’ll get a lot more creativity and focus.
What’s your motto?
One of my major philosophies is that helping others succeed is the best way to live your life. So as an organization, if we look for other companies that we can help to succeed, or look to people in the community that we can help. We just continue to get better.
Do you have any examples of that?
There’s a group that packages meals called Kids Against Hunger. They ship all around the world to poverty-ridden places and there’s one right in our community in Pleasanton. We had them package 100,000 meals at the fair. Volunteers came and we helped pay for the meals and made that an emergency food supply for the region and put it in a cargo container on the fairgrounds. It has a five-seven year shelf life. It was great for Kids Against Hunger to get the press and was the right thing for us to do as a fair.
What were some other benefits from that event?
The press loved it. Plus, Kids Against Hunger brought us 1,000 volunteers who paid to come to the fair. The media got to see how their product is packaged, bagged and palletized. We did not only 100,000 meals, we did 130,000 meals.
What happened to the extra 30,000?
Well the deal was for 100,000 to stay on the fairgrounds, so we thought we’d give Kids Against Hunger the extra 30,000 to see what they could do with it. They shipped it to an orphanage in Haiti. So here the Alameda County Fair was doing our part for world peace.
Could this work at other venues?
Every fair can partner with an organization like Kids Against Hunger. We also did that on our canned food drive day, and on a Christian concert day, because that’s an element of the community that would really come out for that sort of cause. It’s all about partnerships, and anyone can do those.
There was another interesting partnership involving animals. Can you tell me a bit about that?
That’s Puppy Party Palooza. Many times your goal is to look around and figure out where people are going and help them get there. Fewer people in our marketplace are going to be able to raise cows and pigs because there’s just not enough land, and city ordinances are changing, but most American families have a dog, cat, fish, hamster, rabbit — something that they take care of outside of themselves. Something they learn to care for, feed, groom and nurture. We looked around at something we had done, which was Frisbee Dogs, and thought about how we could add an education component to it. We thought about bringing in more breeds of dogs and having experts explain the differences. Then we thought about adding in adoption to go along with that education component. My staff made that even better by finding a survey that will assess your lifestyle and match you with a breed of dog. We also brought in grooming products and food sponsors. It evolved into something more wildly successful than we ever thought it would be. The first year in 2010, 121 dogs were adopted. In 2012, 143 dogs were adopted.
Will Alameda County Fair continue that program?
I think so. The goal is to take what you’re doing and to keep refining it.
Contact: (916) 263-3000