From Drumming on the Grandstand to Running the Fair, Alan Phillips Brings Experience and Expertise to the California Mid-Winter Fair & Fiesta

Alan Phillips, new Chief Executive Officer for the Imperial Valley Expo, is pictured outside his office as he prepares for the 109th California Mid-Winter Fair & Fiesta, this year themed, “The Sweet Life.”

As a drummer for the country band the Mud Puppies in his younger years, Alan Philips had his share of performing during the California Mid-Winter Fair, often on the Rabobank stage but even once on the Grandstand as an opening act for country singer Earl Thomas Conley.

That night on the Grandstand took place more than 20 years ago, and what that younger version of himself couldn’t have known while sitting behind those drums in front of hundreds of fans was that one day he’d be running the fair.

Today, Phillips, 50, a Holtville native, husband (Kimberly is his wife of 17 years) and father of two, is the newest chief executive officer of the Imperial Valley Expo, home of the California Mid-Winter Fair & Fiesta—a fair celebrating its 109th year.

Opening day is March 3, and the theme is, “The Sweet Life.”

On the job for three months, Phillips has his hands full getting ready for the fair’s ten-day run, but he took some time out of his busy schedule to discuss the journey that brought him to this position—a journey he said has given him the experience and expertise to continue the fair’s tradition in the Valley and to build on that tradition.

“I feel like I have the skills to take this fair to new places, new levels,” said Phillips.

That Phillips has taken the reins of the fair may very well be thanks to his children—son, Joshua, now a sophomore at Imperial High School and his daughter, Emily, a sixth grader at Frank Wright Middle School in Imperial.

They are the ones who got him involved in the fair when Joshua was 11 and, like his friends, wanted to raise an animal for the fair. A swine to be specific. Emily, 7 then, also wanted to get involved, so she raised a rabbit. Phillips, who jokingly describes himself as a city boy, never raised livestock himself or showed animals at the fair, but he wanted to support his children’s interests. Not only did he agree to have them raise and show animals at the fair, he got involved as a volunteer.

“That’s when the appreciation for the fair started,” he said. “I gained appreciation for the industry. I wanted to help with 4-H and FFA and lend my experience and expertise to those organizations. My volunteerism took over. I was willing to help out in whatever way I could.”

From supporting his children and getting involved as a volunteer, Phillips expanded his role, lending his skills in 2012 to a newly formed organization, the California Mid-Winter Fair Heritage Foundation, which supports the fair through fundraising activities. His help initially came in the form of developing a website for the foundation.

To understand how he helped with the website, however, we must go back a bit in Phillips’ story.

After graduating high school in 1984, he attended Imperial Valley College and then San Diego State University, Imperial Valley campus where he earned a bachelor’s degree in liberal studies.

During this time, he taught himself to play the drums, which led him to join different bands, including the Mud Puppies, a group that performed not only at the Imperial County fair, but other venues in the county, in Arizona and San Diego.

His ability to teach himself skills, like drumming, would play an important part in his life not only in music but professionally as well.

Phillips’ career, up until accepting the position with the fair, has been in education, working as an instructional aide, then a librarian at Finley Elementary School in Holtville, eventually as a teacher on Special Assignment and finally technology coordinator for the Holtville Unified School District. Just like he taught himself to play the drums, he taught himself the skills needed to utilize technology in education as schools began to integrate networks and computers.

“I just had a knack for technology and because of that became the de-facto technology expert,” Phillips said.

Along with his work at the school district, he taught technology-based classes for the Imperial County Office of Education (ICOE).

In 1997, Phillips was named technology coordinator for ICOE, beginning what would be a nearly 20 year career with the county during which he guided teachers on incorporating education technology into the classroom. He worked a great deal on distance learning and became a statewide leader in the use of video conferencing for K-12 education.

It was his self-taught knowledge in the area of information technology that he used to help the California Mid-Winter Fair Heritage Foundation develop its website, and because of his help he was asked to join the foundation as a board member.

“That’s where I gained an even greater appreciation for the fair and the whole industry,” said Phillips, who remained on the foundation until 2016 when the Fair Board hired him as chief executive officer of the Imperial Valley Expo where the fair is held.

It was a tough decision to leave his position with ICOE, but he felt he had something to offer the fair.

“I believe I have leadership qualities and community outreach abilities that the fair needed,” he said, adding this first fair will be something of a learning curve for him and will give him a foundation upon which to build.

He credits the staff at the IV Expo—there are two full-time staff members besides him and a team of part-time staff brought on to help with the fair—who have been instrumental in helping make sure this year’s fair is a success.

“They have been great in terms of teaching me and educating me on everything it takes to put on a fair,” he said.

Organizing a fair the size of the California Mid-Winter Fair & Fiesta is no easy task. It takes months of planning always with an eye for providing the Imperial Valley a high quality event over the course of the fair’s run while balancing the fiscal responsibility of managing the IV Expo. It’s a task that became tougher for fairs across California when the state cut their funding in 2010.

Phillips said one area he wants to build on is the entertainment, better utilizing the fair’s facility to ensure performances are well attended.

“Having been an entertainer, I think entertainment for this fair is very important,” he said, adding this year he will utilize the Rabobank stage more as a venue for bands to perform nightly. The larger Grandstand will be used for the weekend shows.

“My theory is you can take some of these acts and put them on the Rabobank stage, and it will be packed,” Phillips said, adding the Rabobank stage “is hub central” for the fair.

The Grandstand would be saved for acts and events that reach a cross-cultural and multi-generational audience.

With that in mind, Metalachi, a band that mixes Mariachi and heavy metal music, will return to the Grandstand this year. Then, Foghat, a famous English rock band known for such hits as “Slowride” and “Fool For the City,” will perform in the Grandstand. Phillips said Foghat is a band that hits that multi-generational target, including the younger generation who will know the band from the video game, Guitar Hero.

The Sunday Dia De Familla event will also be held in the Grandstand.

For the rest of the week, the Grandstand will be used for the different racing events and a free-style motocross performance. And, of course, the Grandstand will feature High School Madness, which has become one of the largest events at the fair.

In year’s past, the event, which brings together high schools across the Valley for a night of fun competition, has seen overflow crowds. Changes are being made this year with safety in mind. For the first time wristbands will be sold at the high schools prior to the fair so that everyone who attends the event will be assured seating. For those who are unable to purchase a wristband—tapping into Phillips’ technology background—there will be a live feed of High School Madness on a screen at the Rabobank stage.

“All the kids will still be able to see the activities,” he said.

Phillips acknowledges the changes coming this year are experiments and after the fair he, his staff and the Fair Board will analyze the steps implemented to determine what further changes to make for coming years.

Looking long-term, Phillips’ goals include adding a second major stage closer to the entrance with “big acts” so that there is a more continuous flow of visitors back and forth throughout the fairgrounds, which is important to the concessionaires.

The fairgrounds, he said, are in dire need of renovation which will be a focus into the future. That includes improving technology at the IV Expo. However, he said even as he looks to modernize the fair, one cannot forget the history upon which the fair tradition is built.

“History is very important to the fair,” he said. “There is a lot of history here at these grounds. I want people to be proud of the way we modernize the fair, but we can’t lose sight of our history. We are where we are today because of our history.”

With a month until opening day, the stress is on. This is the period where time passes fast and days grow long. It is the time for ensuring all critical details are addressed as there is a great deal at stake for what is the largest community-wide event in the Valley.

“This is an important ten days to the Valley,” he said. “It’s where the Imperial Valley comes together and becomes a community.”

One of the ways the community comes together is to support the youth who show animals as part of the small and large animal auctions. Phillips said a large portion of his time is spent working on the livestock portion of the fair to ensure that auctions are a success.

“It is a critical part of our fair,” he said. “A big place where our community comes together to support our kids, and ultimately that’s what all of this is all about—the kids—and I hope people will remember that.”

As a final question during this interview, Phillips was asked what he would like people to know about him as they read this article.

He answered, “I would just like them to think he is a good guy and his heart is in the right place and he is doing what he believes is in the best interest of the fair and the community.”