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From Dairy Farm to Fair Manager, Erie County Fair's New CEO

11/1/2017

By Timothy Herrick

Photo courtesy of Erie Co Fair

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Jessica Underberg, the newly named Chief Executive Officer & Fair Manager of the Erie County Fair, first came to the fair in 1985 while participating in various exhibits in the Fair's Youth Development Building. In 1988 she showed 4-H Beef Cattle at the Fair for the first time and continued to show 4-H beef cattle, hogs and dairy cattle through 1995. Her goal focused 4-H experiences gave her an opportunity to develop initial leadership and public speaking skills. In 1992 Underberg won the Fair's Master Beef Showman title, an accomplishment that still evokes tremendous personal pride. 
 
In 1996, Underberg  began working part-time in the Fair's Administrative Office. Following graduation from Canisius College in 1998, where she earned a Bachelor of Science Degree in Social Sciences, she joined thPhoto By Erie Co Faire Erie County Fair full-time. After a brief opportunity working at the Yale School of Management in New Haven, Connecticut, she rejoined the Fair as the Executive Assistant to CEO & Fair Manager Dennis Lang. In 2000 she was named the Fair's Agriculture and Competitive Exhibits Manager, and in 2010, was named Assistant Fair Manager.
 
Underberg replaces Dennis Lang, who is retiring. Lang has been involved with the fair since 1959 and in 2017 steered the fair to an attendance of 1,193,279, an estimated 21 percent increase from 2016. He is credited for guiding this upstate New York event into major fair status. He had high praise for his successor.  "The organization will be in extremely good hands," said Lang. "Jessica has been, in one way or another, a key part of all aspects of the operations of the Fairgrounds since she joined us over 20 years ago. There is no one as passionate as Jessica about the Fair and our agricultural mission. I am confident in her abilities to lead during this time of dramatic change taking place in our industry."    
 
Underberg will be responsible for all aspects of the 12-month operations of the 270-acre Erie County Fairgrounds. She will lead activities related to the annual Erie County Fair, all non-fair events and oversee 50 full-time, 15 part-time and over 750 seasonal employees.  Even with her experience and education, heading this major fair will be to put mildly, a challenge. Carnival Warehouse interviewed this new fair manager to find out why she loves the fairs and what challenges she anticipate as she takes the helm of the Erie County Fair.
 
Carnival Warehouse: What is your earliest memory of a fair?


Jessica Underberg: I remember coming with my grandmother and eating at the 4-H snack bar.  I also remember eating at the Upstate stand. They had the BEST milk shakes.  I probably remember that the most because, that was the co-op that we shipped our milk to, so my parents made sure if we ate something other than what was in our cooler, it was there.  Also, it was close enough to the barns that we were able to go there by ourselves! 1985 was the first year I exhibited at the Fair.  My first sewing project was an apron that I made with my grandmother.  I also entered the baking contests, woodworking, electrical, and public presentations.  I was scared to death the first time I did my public presentation in front of a panel of judges, but today I am so glad I did it!  
 
CW:   Why did you become interested in raising livestock?


JU: I grew up on a dairy farm, so raising livestock was commonplace to me.  My first steer, Kenny, was purchased from an auction house.  He was a Hereford steer that was wider around than he was tall.  I fell in love with the show ring.  I loved the "walk of anticipation" to the show ring, wondering if the judge will like what you brought, wondering if your skills are sharp enough to win that purple banner.  I liked that the animal and I were a team.  I liked challenging myself to do better than I did the year before.  Now as my kids show hogs, I find that I still like those very same aspects.


CW When did you decide to make the fair industry your career?


JU: I started working part time at the Erie County Fair through college.  I was hired by the manager, Lloyd Lamb, immediately after college graduation.  I have said time and time again that the Fair is my Disney.  We didn't vacation when I was a kid, but we did get to spend a week at the Fair and that was better than any vacation we could have taken.  When I walk into any fair and smell the shavings and the final bloom, or see the lights of the ferris wheel or any other aspect, it evokes a very strong emotion in me.  I knew that when I got hired after college that this was my place and my dream job.  


CW: What do you feel has changed the most for the Erie County Fair since you first became involved with the Fair on a professional level?


JU: The biggest change in this fair over the course of the 20 years is the grounds improvements and the financial stability.  The fairgrounds has transformed from a dusty down trodden 12 day use to a beautiful park like setting that is used all year long.


CW: What fairground improvements do you foresee for your first year at the helm?


JU: More importantly than fairgrounds improvements is the work internally to continue to develop the Fairgrounds management team.  We have a very young energetic staff.  I am proud to say that 66% of our staff is either enrolled or graduated from the IAFE's Institute of Fair Management or has their CFE.  They are quickly becoming leaders in the Fair industry that will benefit the Erie County Fair and the industry for decades to come.


CW: You have been involved with the IAFE to a great extent, what issue do you think is the most pressing for fairs nationwide?


JU: Regulations (federal, state and local) are going to continue to be a challenge for Fairs nationwide.  Deteriorating economic sources are always a challenge.  Continuing to walk that fine line between tradition and "what's new?" will always be a challenge.  Funny thing is if this question was asked 20 years ago, I imagine the answers might be similar.
 
CW: Entertainment costs are rising and booking fair entertainment has long been a seller's market.  Denny Lang has often been cited as saying that each year it gets more challenging to find affordable headline entertainment that can still attract large crowds.  Will the Erie County Fair remain as committed to headline entertainment or are you considering cutting back or switching to another form of attendee draw such as motor sports?


JU: Headline entertainment is getting harder and harder to book.  The amount of competition in our market is huge.  There were 53 country music concerts within 50 miles of the fairgrounds in June, July and August.  That is a lot of competition.  Our ticket sales were soft for headline entertainment this year, yet we had one of the best attended fairs that we have ever had. It makes you question though if the grandstand shows make or break the Fair?  I would love to have big names and sold out crowds every night, but I am not sure that is a reality any more.


CW:  The Erie County Fair has had a very good run in recent years under Denny Lang for sure, but you were a big part of his team.  Why do you think the Erie County Fair has been successful, and also, so popular?


JU: We work hard to strike the right balance between tradition and innovation.  Our goal is to switch out 20-to-30 percent of the Fair each year.  Another reason for success is that we are truly a celebration of "all that's good about our region."  Our marketing has shifted public perception for an "end of summer" event to a celebration of the "Best 12 Days of Summer".  We have worked hard to keep gate cost down while increasing value in both gate promotions and experience.  We work very hard to keep our Fair top of mind all year long, not just in the weeks and months leading up to the Fair.


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