Inconsistent weather and the calendar's late Labor Day that upset usual school start dates eroded attendance for the Great New York State Fair, which experienced an attendance drop of 5 percent - about 50,000 fewer fairgoers. But in spite of this attendance dip, this year's fair attracted new fairgoers, celebrated diversity, and became a staging ground for next year, with the opening of a new amphitheater just across from the fair and the beginning of a $60 million renovating of the fairgrounds, due to be completed by next year.
Keeping in mind that 2014 saw attendance up by more than 113,000 compared to the year before - and midway revenue up 30 percent - sustaining that upswing is a challenge, especially when confronted with some rainy weather, a few sweltering heat days and a late Labor Day that meant many
schools were in session, negatively impacting attendance.
"Operationally everything went well," said Troy Waffner, Acting Director, "But it rained the first day and schools were in session where that hadn't happened before. We had a much later crowd for many of the days, where people came later to the fair, people coming between 7 and 8 o'clock, we had more of a dinner crowd."
"It's been a great Fair this year and we're proud of everything we've been able to offer fairgoers and visitors," said Richard A. Ball, Commissioner of Agriculture. "We keep adding new exhibits and attractions where fairgoers can learn and have fun, and we've kept some of the time honored traditions, with a continued focus on agriculture."
Tolerance and celebrating diversity was key to this year's fair, which included celebrations of various cultures, including Hispanics and Native Americans. The welcome mat was rolled out for recent immigrants with a New American Day, the centerpiece of which was the more than 100 new immigrants were sworn in as American citizens in a special ceremony. "It was perfect publicity for the fair," said Waffner. "We gave free tickets to them to come to the fair, and it was another way to outreach to new populations of fairgoers, so they can make coming to the fair an annual tradition."
A rainbow colored welcome mat was also rolled out for New York's LGBT community with the first official Pride Day. The Supreme Court decision legalizing gay marriage injected a new energy in the day's fair festivities, and Waffner explained that "this has always been traditionally a Gay Pride day at the fair, but it was unofficial, the LGBT community turned out on this day, but this year we made it official, had a number of pride events and a ceremony were we hoisted the rainbow flag. Melissa Etheridge had a free concert, it was really a great day at the fair."
The New York State Fair seeking out new population segments to adopt the annual tradition of fair going was perhaps most apparent in the food offered. The fair featured 250 food vendors and while the more stereotypical fair concoctions were present, "we are looking for more diversity in our offerings."
The reasoning behind this seems two-fold. Many New Yorkers are devout foodies, being both curious about new cuisine and health conscious, and not as interested in food on a stick so popular at other fairs. The other reason is that the diversity of food both reflects the diversity of the population and is strategy to increasingly attract a wider array of fair attendees.
As a result, the fair has been seeking, finding and contracting new food vendors, including for the first time a Kosher and a Vegan vendor. The fair also expanded its Hispanic food offerings and created a Pan-African Village, which as the name suggests offered foods from various African nations, catering to the growing number of African immigrants. "The vegan vendor did very well," said Waffner. "The Latino market continues to grow and the pan-African food has been a good niche for us, and you would be surprised how popular it is with other fairgoers. Traditional fair foods are here, but they not the huge sellers like at other fairs. Although Sausage Sandwiches do great, we have a plethora of sausage sandwiches."
He added, "we have more ethnic food because we spend a lot of money reaching out to these communities and we feel some of them are underrepresented, so we have out food vendors bring in new audiences to the fair."
The New York State Fair also featured the first-ever "Taste NY" Food Truck Competition, which had 13 food trucks serving limited menus using foods primarily grown and produced in New York State. "I didn't hear many complaints from the other food vendors," said Waffner,. "We have food trucks at the fair before, what was new was the competition."
While food diversity and food truck competitions augmented the food offerings at the everything Empire State end of summer celebration, the food item gaining the media attention this year was The Defibrillator - an Angus Burger with cheddar cheese, Deep-fried pickles, cheese curds and bacon, in between two Grilled cheese sandwiches- presented by Jim Hasbrouck's Fried Specialties -whose motto is "You bring it. We fry it!"
One of the highest attended days of the fair-101,695 on day 11-when the fair featured a free concert by Steve Miller, which attracted 36,900 to the Chevy Court. Other free shows include Everclear; Rick Springfield; Orleans; Etheridge; The Oak Ridge Boys; and Nick Jonas.
Unfortunately, the paid-ticket grandstand was not as successful as the free stage. There were only four paid acts, according to Waffner, including Eric Church and Patti Labelle - whose ticket prices had to be lowered to $3. In the regional media for the fair, as early as April stories appeared about some insurmountable challenges for this year's fair bookings. "We had a very difficult time booking our grandstand acts," said Waffner. "Booking the grandstand is an entirely different type of booking, not the least of which was the higher production costs. It was the end of August and if the bands weren't routed they are not going to do a one day fly-in. The grandstand was nearly impossible to book."
Unlike many state governments, New York State has been investing in its fairgrounds, reportedly spending $60 million to overhaul the fairgrounds, including expanding the midway, removing the racetrack and Grandstand, and adding stage enhancements to the Chevy Court. But this year saw the premier of the Lakeview Amphitheater, a $50 million dollar project that opened with Miranda Lambert and will be a main venue for concerts. Shuttle buses between the fair and concert were provided, with free admission to the fair included in the cost of the ticket. "Our attention will be on building the amphitheater to be a stage for national touring acts, who will be attracted by its state of the art design and production capabilities," said Waffner.
The most successful grandstand event was its role as the mainstage for the Six Nations Day Celebration, which brought Native American Iroquois culture - upstate New York (and Canada) was home for "Haudenosaunee" tribes whose ancient regional homeland includes the fairground. It was the second year for this fair-wide celebration - the fairgrounds feature an "Indian Village" which features vendors and exhibits for Native American culture. The Six Nations Day several events, including the raising of the Haudenosaunee flag -- the first time the flag has flown at the fairgrounds in 175 years -a Thanksgiving dinner served at lunchtime in the Indian Village, dance a performance by Six Nation dancers and a concert by The Ripcords, a Syracuse band featuring Six Nations members. Members of the Oneida and Onondaga nations, respectively were represented. "We are committed to being the State Fair of all of New York and this is one of several enhancements we're making to highlight the diversity of culture in our state," said Waffner. "Haudenosaunee culture is vibrant and alive and they are really part of our community and this was a great vent this year, we gave it a much higher profile."
While the state has been generous with funds to upgrade fair facilities, it slashed other fair funds. The 2015 marketing budget for the fair was about $750,000, a cut of about $50,000, and while the main culprit impacting attendance was the weather, Waffner conceded that "when you cut your resources, it does have an effect, especially when things like rain, heat and the school year were factors."
He added, "we focused much more on digital marketing. We did a lot more promotions through various social media, which is more labor intensive but more cost-effective."
New for this year was an infomercial, that in addition to online played "across the state, from Rochester to Albany," said Waffner, describing it marketing impact as "positive."
The fair also tested its earliest sales promotion - a Cyber Monday - the Monday after Black Friday (yes, the big sales day after Thanksgiving) - making a summer fair ticket part of the Christmas sales season. Tickets were sold for an appealing $3.00 price point and Waffner said more than 10,000 tickets were sold. The fair also offered a somewhat less successful Cinco De May sale of $5 per tickets on May 5th.
These early bird discounts push sales, bring in revenue earlier to the fair and "gets the word out about the fair earlier, so people start thinking about the fair earlier, these are using online sales to more of our advantage."
It was the sophomore run for Wade Shows - whose 2014 midway was the highest revenue ever for the fair. "It went great, and it was the second highest revenue producing midway in the history of the fair, so you can't really complain about that," said Frank Zaitshik, Wade Shows President.
"The midway was down some, aligned with our attendance," affirmed Waffner, "but we had the second highest grossing midway in our history."
The Wade Show midway featured 69 rides - six more than 2014. "They made some changes to the fairgrounds so we were able to expand our rides. Always our roller coaster and Giant Wheels are the biggest attractions, this year we had the Space Roller and Super Himalaya, Comet II, Mega Drop and Observation Tower. I think we had 13 rides that weren't there last year, including many of our family ride arsenal."
Zaitshik noted that the fair's Dollar Day "was our biggest day, we had a great crowd. In is a midweek promotion done almost entirely by social media, we did 10 rides for 10 dollars and had huge advance sales. I believe as word spreads, this promotion will be far more successful. The fair is a viable partner for promotions."
According to Waffner, "Dollar Day is the perfect way to cap off the 2015 Fair. By offering our fairgoers admission and rides all for a $1, we hope to not only encourage new visitors but also bring fairgoers back again. There's so much to do and see at the fair, Dollar Day is a fantastic way for families and groups to take in a great concert, visit new attractions and experience the dozens of rides on the midway, inexpensively."
In addition, the Wade Shows online and social media direct promotions to fairgoers has been growing, creating another marketing stream for their fair clients. "We are always promoting our brand to customers in the general vicinity of the fairs we play," said Zaitshik. We want folks to be familiar with our brand and we are growing our following, which is the case in New York. We want them to know about the Wade Shows difference."
Now that the 2015 New York State Fair is in the books, Zaitshik is looking forward to next year, and a renovated fairground. "I am real excited about the restoration and new constructions, because from what I know, it will add a great potential for building revenue. I appreciate the fact we are part of the discussion and that my area of expertise is in carnival layout and that they take that into consideration in developing their plans."