The new general manager of the Canadian National Exhibition insists that to continue its success, this large, well-established fair cannot rest on its laurels.
"I am very much looking forward to bringing the CNE to the next level," said Virginia Ludy, in an excusive interview with Carnivalwarehous.come days after her promotion was announced.
The new skipper of Canada's largest fair - a one of the top 10 fairs in North America - and the first woman to hold the General Manager post in its 136 year history - possesses a proactive attitude towards change and an unbridled enthusiasm for the business in which she has spent her entire adult life. "I love the fair business, I love this event," she said. "The fairs that remain relevant are those willing to change."
"On behalf of the Board of Directors, I am very pleased to announce the appointment of Virginia Ludy as the new General Manager of the CNE," said Brian Ashton, President of the Canadian National Exhibition Association (CNEA). "Virginia Ludy knows 'The Ex', loves 'The Ex' and is best prepared to move this organization forward in these ever changing times."
David Bednar, who served 17 years as General Manager of the CNE, unexpectedly announced that he was leaving the fair a few weeks following the conclusion of the 2014 event. The CNE is an 18-day August Fair that usually ends on the Canadian Labour Day.
"Following the announcement last fall that the CNE's current General Manager David Bednar would be retiring in the spring of 2015, the CNEA Board engaged in extensive discussions taking into account a complexity of considerations as to how best to fill David's shoes," Ashton said.
This search eventually led to looking at the organization's own in-house talent. "We were keenly aware of the need to mobilize our post-independence gains and stabilize our business environment, while at the same time greeting the future with enthusiasm and innovative thinking," he added,
Ludy's eagerness to think outside the box and find new ways to entice Toronto consumers to the CNE fits Ashton's job description. "We have to change to be relevant to our community," said Ludy. "Those fairs who use the same layouts every year, the same displays and exhibits and events, will not be the ones who survive, because today's consumer is too demanding."
Ludy's tenure with the fair spans more than three decades, having joined the CNE soon after graduating Ryerson University with a degree in Geography. She has, served as Assistant General Manager and Director of Operations for more than decade. Ludy is currently President of the Canadian Association of Fairs and Exhibitions (CAFE), the fair-industry's national association, a Director of the International Association of Fairs and Expositions (IAFE), and serves as Chairman of the Amusement Devices Advisory Council for Ontario's Technical Standards and Safety Authority (TSSA). Industry designations earned by Ludy include: Certified Fair Executive (CFE) from the International Association of Fairs & Expositions (IAFE), has completed and graduated from the Fair Institute Program, and has also successfully completed the Certified Exposition Manager (CEM) program with the Canadian Association of Exposition Managers (CAEM).
During his tenure at the helm of the CNE, Bednar is credited for putting the fair on sound financial footing and in 2013, implemented the CNE's Strategic Plan, which transformed the event from a city agency to an independent non-profit fair, enabling revenue surpluses to be channeled back into fair operations.
In 2014, the CNE conducted extensive market research, targeting new consumer groups and leading to a advertising and promotional makeover. These changes reinvigorated the fair, which has steadily increased in revenue, which Bednar estimated to be approximately 5 percent in 2014.
As second in command, Ludy was part of the executive team that with Bednar, developed the Strategic Plan and subsequent marketing strategies. She played an instrumental in the rebirth of the CNE. "We implemented strategic planning, with goals and objectives,' she said. "Before then, the fair for years had been losing money, but we were able to turn it around and return those revenues back to the fair. We also improved the site and the look of the fair, and tied everything together, from the colors of the logo to the flower bed, creating a complete package and enhancing the look and content of the fair."
Even though the fair is more than six months away, Ludy is busy developing new content and other plans for the CNE, although she was reluctant to discuss what precisely is for the 2015 edition. "We are having meetings and are in the planning stages, I don't want to reveal all our secrets," she said.
However, what Ludy was more willing discuss was the development process of new programs. Ludy breaks down content into three categories: Stay, Add or Change. "There are things we have to maintain, that we need to protect, and there are some new programs we want to bring on board and we want to take some of our programs and repackage, so they look contemporary and appeal to fairgoers," she said.
In addition, the new realities of the Toronto metro-market must be taken into account. "Toronto is an extremely competitive market, with not just venues but street festivals, parades, all sorts of things," she said "The market is very different than it was 20 years ago. We are not the only game in town so we face issues some smaller fairs do not."
The increased competition has made entertainment booking more challenging, but Ludy maintains an optimistic outlook. "As we move forward, we continue to evolve, and look at the challenges as opportunities, the challenge is recognizing those things that are unique to fair," she said.
While there are many content components unique to the fair, Ludy emphasizes that for this outdoor event experience to remain relevant in a rapidly changing 21st century marketplace, fair organizers must remain open minded on how to keep that uniqueness fresh. "Fairs are face to face, the experience is interacting with other people, that's the experience we provide" she said. "The difference for fairs today is how we present that experience. We can't be afraid to repackage content to make it more relevant to today's customers and changing markets."
Part of creating a plan to repackage fair content is to observe what customers seem to respond to most, then expanding on those aspects of the program. She cited an example of a surfing exhibit of three or four years ago, "we saw shows like this and realized, that instead of having people just watch the demonstration, have them participate in the activity."
She added, "I cast my eyes at Disney, who have had a daily parade for years, then someone decided to put lights on the floats and have a parade at night too, because so many people were at the park during that time. They took something that was traditional and popular, then repackaged to make it appealing to new customers too."
The one component of the fair that has consistently worked, attaining a sold place at the CNE, is the carnival midway operated by NAME (North American Mid Midway Entertainment) which in 2014 featured 65 rides. "We have a great partner with NAME, the caliber of their staff, their rides, their customer service, is unsurpassed in the industry," she said. "When we were making improvements to the fair, NAME jumped on board. From a planning perspective, they are very involved with what we have planned for 2015."
Begun in 1879, the CNE - also known as The Ex - takes place on the vast, 197 acre Exhibition Place, a complex that features several facilities, including exhibition buildings, convention halls, a soccer stadium and the CNE band shell, where the paid admission concerts are held. The CNE is one of the highest attended fairs in North America, but also one of the largest, utilizing almost the entire campus and all the facilities of the immense Exhibition Place.
This vast space and long tradition certainly makes the CNE stand out among North American fairs, but Ludy points out it would be impossible to sustain growth by instituting change without an effective relationship between board and fair staff. The CNE is "fortunate to have an extremely supportive board, one that is willing to look at new ideas, to encourage change and to grow the event," she said "That is a real challenge in the industry, because a lot of fairs have boards that tie the hands of the fair staff. Our fair is different because we have a supportive board."