Record attendance, in an era of austerity, near unprecedented state government support of the fair, an extensive marketing campaign, and a proactive carnival company in the 4th year of a 10-year contract culminated in a tremendous 2018 Great New York State Fair. But fairgoers did not need a story by an online magazine covering the fair industry to get an overview of the annual celebration of everything Empire State.
They had a brand new Sky Ride.
The Sky Ride - financed and operated by the fair's midway provider, Wade Shows -debuted at the 2017 fair. Although not part of the original RFP that won Wade Shows a 10-year contract for one of a handful of mega-state-fairs in the country, the new aerial ride - a successful concept
for many state fairs nationwide - had a tremendous premier, quickly on its way to becoming an iconic image for the fair, as sky rides are for other fairs that have installed similar attractions. Wade Shows financed, constructed and operated the Sky Ride, which spanned approximately 1,500 feet, travelling the length of the expanded Midway and featured 120 double-passenger cars, providing riders a spectacular view of the fairgrounds.
"The Sky Ride had a ton of traffic, and really had a lot of great comments on our customer satisfaction surveys," said Troy Waffner, Acting Fair Director.
According to Frank Zaitshik, President, Wade Shows, the RFP submitted by his company did "hint at other permanent fixtures that might enhance the fair, and in our minds, that meant the possibility of a Sky Ride."
As the state government began investing serious funds into fairground renovation and upgrades - especially a pledged $70 million infusion earlier this year - Sky Ride talk increased. "We heard from the governor's office, the state department of agriculture, and the fairground board and they were all excited about a Sky Ride," said Zaitshik, who solicited a partner, Sky Fair, to design and manufacture the ride. Wade Shows operated the Sky Ride at the fair, to a tremendous response.
"It's like no other ride," said Zaitshik. "You can have 1,000 people an hour."
The investment in the ride exceeds $1 million, said Zaitshik. The new ride augmented an expanded midway, although the Wade complement of rides was 71, about the same as last year. The best received rides were the new White Water Flume, and the RC-48 Roller coaster. Wade Shows showcased four roller coasters as well as its signature Giant Wheel. "Our guests expect different combinations of family, thrill and super spectacular rides," said Zaitshik. "With our ride inventory of over 125 attractions, they see something new and fresh and different."
Wade Shows featured four Guest Relations Centers-three more than last year- which were moved to more central locations. Two were also located right next New York State Fair Customer Relations Booth, which created "a cohesiveness and customer friendly environment, where customers could come and ask a fair or a carnival questions and get an answer. "We believe we already have 5-star customer service, but one of the goals of Wade Shows is to always improve customer service" he said.
Wade added more seating and shaded areas "increasing the photo opportunities," Zaitshik added, as well two separate Free Play Zones, where parents of infants, toddlers and other children too young to meet height requirements could participate. "This cost the customer absolutely nothing, but kept families in the midway, where parents could watch the younger ones while older ones went on rides."
"Wade shows have elevated us to another level," said Waffner. "He invests in rides and employee training, and new canvas. You can tell that Frank really thinks about the rides, he has his own Feng Shui about the midway."
Waffner added that midway revenue was likely a record, exceeding $3 million.
"The New York State Fair is bigger than life," declared Zaitshik. "There are so many things to see and do at the N.Y. State Fair, it is not only a top 50 Fair in terms of attendance, but of prestige and customer satisfaction."
Zaitshik pointed out that last year's customer exit surveys indicated that the Wade midway received a 97 percent approval waiting. "It was the highest approval rating ever recorded for the midway since the state fair started surveying customers."
An estimated 1.16 Million attended the fair, and had five record days, including a closing day of 124,819 not only set the record for the most people to come to the Fair on a single day, it also drove the Fair to an all-time annual attendance record of 1,161,912 people who came to the Fair over its 13-day run.
"The Fair is a great New York tradition that is enjoying a renaissance thanks to our investments in the grounds and the strength of its programming," said Governor Andrew M. Cuomo. "These investments are paying off in growing numbers of people, which in turn will continue to help Central New York's economy continue to rise."
The 2017 attendance is 44,282 larger than the 1,117,630 total from 2016. Much of the attendance and success of the fair was attributed to the financial and promotional support the state government provided, as well as an expanded run time, adding a 13th day to the event with a Wednesday opening instead of the traditional Thursday. "The success of the Fair this year is proof that the Governor's transformation plan is working," said Richard A. Ball, State Agriculture Commissioner. "The improvements have created a more enjoyable experience for visitors and we broke several records as a result."
The fair's advertising budget was about $900,000, a restoration of about $50,000 that was cut from the budget preceding the 2016 fair. Advertising is almost completely electronic - digital, television and radio. "We cut almost all the print, except for specialty publications for different cultural and religious groups and the LGBT" said Waffner.
The fair's marketing received a boost from the State Tourism Department - creators of the I Love New York campaign, one of the most successful tourism marketing campaigns in history - who spent additional millions in creating and proliferating the fair. "They had a tremendous reach, and they produced their own commercials and they went to places throughout the state and northeast."
The new marketing theme "Find Your Great," was meant to showcase the best of New York agriculture as well as the fair's headline entertainment and new midway. The idea was to make the messaging more personal, instilling a sense of ownership in fairgoers.
While the fair doesn't change taglines or marketing themes every year, Waffner noted that the messaging was modified for 2017. "We changed the marketing to have an emotional tie-in with fairgoers, having them answering the question, why go to the fair," he said.
The Fair's Chevy Court concert venue attracted more than a quarter million people, including shows by hip hop trio Migos,Kool & The Gang, Earth. Wind & Fire, The Beach Boys. Lynyrd Skynyrd and LeAnn Rimes. In addition, the Fair presented more than 550 free musical performances this year, a record number of free performances.
Costs have kept rising for booking headline entertainment, although Waffner stated that the costs actually were not that much higher on a year to year basis. He also saidthe booking window has shifted, although it is still often a waiting game "We were heavy on the classic rock acts this year," he said. "The rule of thumb is that country books early and rock books later."
This was the first year of a five year contract with Live Nation, said Waffner. "It's a sign of the market changing, and they are handling all the promotion, contracting and production costs. It was making sense financially, so we are trying out this new contract."
The Fair also set records for sales of two signature food items - baked potatoes and milk - the Great Baked Potato Booth sold 59,946 white and sweet potatoes with all the fixings, eclipsing a two-year-old record. And the Milk Bar, operated for the first time directly by the Fair, sold more than 420,000 cups of white and chocolate milk by midday on Labor Day, a record amount for the year.
Waffner pointed out this was the second Fair since the implementation of Governor Cuomo's $50 million plan to revitalize the nation's oldest state fairgrounds. The fairgrounds received a new Main Gate, an RV park that supports both the Fair and its year-round facilities rental business, and large, open spaces that allow for expanded Fair programming and larger events on the grounds year-round. The second installment, a $70 million phase of renovations, to begin later this year, involves building a 133,000-square foot expo center that can host many types of major events. It will be the largest event space between Boston and Cleveland. The Fair's parking lot will receive significant upgrades as well.
"The State Fair is one of the top tourist destinations in the Central New York region, and thanks to Governor Cuomo's vision, we have even more to be proud of," said Joanie Mahoney, County Executive, Onondaga County. "The State's investment is having a tremendous impact on the success of the Fair and will continue to attract visitors to the fairgrounds year-round, helping to strengthen or local economy."
Waffner said the number of attendees for non-fair events doubled last year. While many fairs struggle with decaying infrastructure, and either being short changed or outright neglected by state government, it seems New York sees the fair for what fairs can be-a nucleus of economic growth for the a region of the state. The home of the Great New York State Fair is a 375-acre exhibit and entertainment complex that operates all year, and having improvements in the facilities, the attractions and the marketing every year has spurred both attendance growth and positive impact.
"It has been exciting to see the transformation of the fairgrounds and the overwhelmingly positive response from visitors" said Waffner. We work hard to improve the Fair year after year. This year, we enjoyed new programming, exhibits and record crowds. Now, with the first phase of the Governor's revitalization plan complete, we are looking ahead to phase II and making the 2018 Great New York State Fair our best yet."