The New York State Fair seemed to live up to its 2014 marketing tagline: "New Attractions, Old Favorites, Timeless Fun." Attendance increased by more than 100,000, midway, food and concert revenue were up by more than double digit percentages. This year's New York State Fair story was one that fulfilled its marketing dictum by successfully combining the fresh with the traditional.
The 12-day event celebrating everything New York has been part of Empire State summers since 1841, but in 2014 the fair shook off its recent doldrums and gained much needed renewal.
And the fair accomplished this goal without a Fair Manager.
Well, at least an official one.
Since 2010, Troy Waffner has been Assistant Fair Manger, until April of 2014, when the interim position of Acting Fair Manager was created so he could take the helm of a fair plagued by management controversies, declining revenue and stifled growth.
Waffner is not one to dodge a challenge. He was excited to prove his worth in what was initially described as a temporary position. In addition, the Assistant Manager position he left when named Acting Manger was not filled; Waffner essentially worked as the Fair Manager of a major state fair without the aid of an Assistant Manager for a major state fair, which is practically unheard of in the fair industry.
Instead of taking a more timid, steady-as-you go course, Waffner made several bold moves that carried a calculated risk but in the end, paid huge dividends. Waffner added a Dollar Day promotion for Labor Day; offering admission and rides for just $1, he added 1 and ½ hours of free rides on opening day to introduce the fair's new carnival, Wade Shows. He introduced unlimited ride wristbands to the midway each day of the fair and he expanded the fair's advance sale system, reaching new records. The fair had a banner year, breaking and then re-breaking the single attendance day record for the event. Based largely on his extraordinary success with the 2014 fair, Waffner is now among candidates being considered for the permanent position, an appointment he would welcome, admitting that he would like to drop the "Acting" and be named Fair Manager. Who the 2015 New York State Fair manager will be is expected to be decided by November of this year.
Whatever the outcome of this job search, Waffner already made his mark by significantly improving the New York State Fair, doing so with his willingness to commemorate the past, but not to let traditions hinder growth.
The biggest problem for fair organizers he said, is the "fear of change. If nothing else, the New York State Fair now embraces new ideas, new promotions and everything that goes along with that."
The New York State Fair organizers, like many management teams and stake holders of well-established institutions, can get trapped by the attitude that everything should be done only the way they always were done. The "If it ain't broke why fix it?" mentality often prevents improvement; the fact is, for the New York State Fair, some of the parts – if not the whole – when not broken, were desperately in need of a tune-up. "I'm a guy who if I've done something one way for a long time, I look for ways to do it better," said Waffner.
Dream Come True
Waffner came to the New York State Fair from the legislature, where he worked in the State Assembly writing and drafting legislation, especially for the Committee on Agriculture. In addition to working for Sen. David Valesky, D-Oneida, for 12 years Waffner worked for Assemblyman Bill Magee, D-Nelson, who chaired the Agriculture Committee, The New York State Fair is under the purview of the Department of Agriculture and Markets (AGM). During his tenure with the legislature, Waffner helped write hundreds of Agriculture-related bills, immersing himself in the issues and policies that both directly and indirectly, relate to the New York State Fair. When he heard that the Assistant Fair Manager job became available, he pursued the position.
"I had heard that the department had an opening at the fair and applied for it," said Waffner. "I grew up 30 miles from the fair. I have gone to the fair every summer of my life. I grew up at the fair. I loved the change from the legislature to being part of the management team of the fair."
The 2014 event was Waffner's fifth fair as part of management. As second-in-command at the fairgrounds, he worked under directors Dan O'Hara and Tom Ryan. The latter lasted only eight months. In April of this year. Governor Andrew Cuomo appointed Assistant Manager Waffner to be interim head of the fair and fairgrounds and its $17 million annual budget. "It was absolutely a dream come true," Waffner said.
Waffner took the helm of a fair besieged by allegations of malfeasance, declining fair attendance and as a result, increased media scrutiny. In fact, the fair manger position itself was far from controversy free when Waffner was named to the newly created interim post.
In 2011, the former New York State Fair Director Peter Cappuccilli Jr. plead guilty to official misconduct and was fined $50,000 through a plea deal that dismissed more serious corruption charges and avoided jail time. His replacement, O'Hara, left in January of 2013 and was replaced by Ryan, who resigned that October – a month after the New York State Fair had attendance of 851,157, its second-lowest level in 10 years.
Waffner's appointment as "Acting Director" was initially framed as a stop-gap measure, allowing the search to continue while ensuring that the 2014 fair would go on in capable hands. Matt Driscoll, former mayor of nearby Syracuse, selected by Governor Cuomo to head the search, after interviewing several candidates, most of whom are well known fair managers, was quoted in the local press: "We want to take a wider look. At this point, what's the hurry? We've got someone in place."
Critical Inspector General Reports – and the turmoil that erupted following the departures of two fair mangers in less than a year – led to an overhaul of the internal systems of the fair. Waffner welcomed the more stringent protocols, which included new layers of oversight.
"The past is the past and as a Fair we have moved forward," said Waffner "The Department of Agriculture and Markets has implemented a number of procedures to ensure the integrity of our operations including contracting. Among the many safeguards are the hiring of an Internal Control Officer who ensures that the Fair is fully compliant with state contracting laws. The Fair is also undergoing an audit by an independent accounting firm. The State Fair Advisory Board is also extremely active in monitoring the multitude of responsibilities at the Fair."
According to Waffner, the recommendations have been followed, and the specifics in the Inspector General's report have been addressed. "You want a transparent contracting process. The biggest part is working with our counsel office, finance people and the Office of State Comptroller (OCS), who ultimately approves or disproves any agreement."
Weeks after being named in his interim role, Waffner and the fair faced intense scrutiny as the New York State Fair conducted a competitive RFP for a midway provider, which was eventually awarded to Wade Shows, ending a 72 year relationship between the fair and James E. Strates Shows. The decision was contested by Strates and eventually was settled by the OCS. At the 2014 fair, the Wade shows Midway showed a 30 percent increase in revenue; concert and food revenue likewise increased.
But if the per-caps showed across the board upswings, Waffner is as pleased with the increasing strength of the Agricultural component of the fair. "At the end of the day, we talk about entertainment and food and the expositions at the fair," said Waffner. "But Agriculture is one of the top three industries in the state of New York, and the vast majority of farms in this state are family owned. The fair is an opportunity for farmers to talk to fellow farmers, but also to the farmers to talk the general public and promote agriculture."
With the growing popularity of the local-vore movement, hand-crafted artisanal food items and the "Farm To Table" awareness proliferated by the Food Network and other "Foodie" media sources, regional farming has become something it never was before: hip & trendy. "People want to buy local, there are green markets and farmers market throughout the state," said Waffner. "There's been fantastic growth."
An expanded New York Dairy Birth Center had its debut at this year's fair. The New York Diary Industry has been on the rise, fueled by the spreading popularity of Greek Yogurt among other products, and has long been a significant presence at the fair.
Now milk has a new companion among the New York agriculturally based products at the fair: beer. Like most states, New York has also had a brewers, but with the boom in local and hand-crafted home brews, the fair has also tapped into this growing market.
"There has been fantastic growth in hop farms," said Waffner. The legislature recently passed the "Farm Brewery Act" which allowed brewers to open restaurants and become tourist attractions, much like wineries. To qualify, 20 percent of a brewer's product must be from locally grown ingredients. "The passage of this bill has grown the agricultural industry and helped local economies. It is great for the fair because it pulls people in towards agriculture and promotes local breweries."
A reported 14 N.Y. breweries were licensed through the new legislation and supported the fair as vendors. At the 2014 fair, Waffner oversaw the new "Taste NY Wine, Beer and Spirits Bar" and the New York State Brew Pub and Distillery, which premiered at the 2013 New York State Fair, but was expanded this year.
High on the priority list for Waffner is better marketing of the non-fair business on the 375-acre New York State Fair fairgrounds. More than 100 shows and events, including trade shows and consumer conventions. In 2013, Governor Cuomo increased capital funding for the fairgrounds, which included renovations to major buildings, such as the Science and Industry Building.
"Part of my vision as interim manager is to put together a five year and a 10 year plan for the fairgrounds," said Waffner. "There is a lot of untapped potential. We still need work on some buildings, but we also have acres of property sitting idle. We have parking for 25,000. The fairgrounds can be more competitive in hosting more events."
A fair manager must be cognizant of the fact that any fair has limited resources and is accountable to its stake holders, who are invested in upholding the traditions and mission of the fair. By the same token, a manager who adheres too closely to these restrictions and concerns ignores new ideas. "It's a balance you have to strike," said Waffner. "There's also a lot of reality checks. There is a lot of staff that have been around for decades. I like to bounce ideas off of them, but you have to avoid the attitude of being entrenched in the past just because that is the way it was always done."
Waffner is adamant about that attendees also have some voice in the decision making process. Each day of the fair, Waffner makes it a point to spend time talking to the people coming through the gates. "I talk to the fairgoers, to see what they want, what they think works and does not work. I bounce ideas off the people who come to the fair. I listen to what they say."
The fair conducted in-depth exit surveys during this year's fair, followed up by market research, randomly surveying households about the fair – what they like and did not like about the fair and if they did not attend, why they didn't and where did they spend their entertainment dollars instead. The data will be available for study by November, and Waffner anticipates it to be useful "for making decisions how now we spend our money and what content to have for next year's fair. I want to see the answers to questions, like why do some people go to an amusement park instead of the fair?"
The results could also influence the actual marketing of the fair. "Maybe we can do a better way of explaining ourselves to the public. Some things are working that you don't want to mess with, but there are other areas where we can be doing better. What differentiates us from theme parks or a Six Flags Amusement Park is that we are selling Americana."
Waffner not only strikes a balance between the traditional and the innovative, but between marketing concepts and practical implementation of those ideas. "More specifically, there are a lot of markets in New York state that have untapped potential.," he said. "We can convince them to check us out and they will come back every year. We are looking at where we spend our marketing dollars to better reach more of the state."
With a wildly successful year under his belt, Waffner awaits the decision on his fate as interim manager. Having rebuilt community support for the event, implemented transparent management strategies, reversed an attendance decline and breathed new life into an iconic American institution, Waffner has achieved goals under his interim leadership even the most seasoned fair executive would be proud of.