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Erie County Fair: Secret's in the stories
Strates Shows reports record breaking year

10/23/2015

By Linda Van Slyke

Photo courtesy of Jay Wilcox

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According to Jessica Underberg, Assistant Fair Manager of Western New York's Erie County Fair, the secret to successful fair promotion is in the stories.
 
She then began to explain, "We're about 20 minutes south of Buffalo, right along the shores of Lake Erie in Hamburg, New York..."
 
Reflecting Community Pride
 
Wikipedia suggests that citizens of the Hamburg area are very proud of their history, heritage and community.  Back in 2003, when People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals (PETA) asked then-Town Supervisor Patrick Hoak "to have the name of Hamburg changed to Veggieburg," there was "fierce public and government opposition."
 
Sporting a Carnegie library, an Iroquois archaeological site, anaPhoto By Jay Wilcoxtional historic Main Street district, an Eighteen Mile Creek and a National Scenic Byway, Hamburg has many attractions for residents and tourists alike.  Its annual "crown jewel" is certainly the Erie County Fair.
 
Repeat attendance at this fair has been all about making memories.  After listening to the heartwarming recollections of such fairgoers, Underberg and her team wisely integrated these stories into a marketing approach.  There were tales of first dates, and even of engagements.  This year's overall theme therefore became "It's Our Fair." 
 
Marketing also included an emphasis upon social media.  Underberg stated, "We can reach 30,000 to 50,000 within seconds of a Twitter post.  Local radio and TV stations have also done  a great job in promoting the fair."
 
Located within a strategic part of the state and country, Hamburg is intersected by numerous highways, including the New York State Thruway (Interstate 90).  Underberg stated that people can therefore easily come "from all over."
 
Attendance Soars
 
It's no wonder that the fair's website reports the following:  "The Erie County Fair became the country's largest county fair for the first time in 1970, with an attendance of 600,960.  It is currently the nation's third largest county fair."
 
Underberg cited this year's attendance at 1,172,635.  The website adds that this "fell just shy of the record setting attendance of 1,220,101 that was achieved in 2014."  Recent attendance for the fair has a 6 year average of over 950,000.
 
The regular 2015 gate admission was $10 for adults, $7 for seniors over 60, and free for children 12 and under.  Parking for personal cars and personal mini-vans was $2 on August 12th, $4 on August 13th, and $5 for all other days of the fair.  15-passenger vans cost $10 to park, and buses $20.
 
Special promotions included the Canned Food Drive on August 12th, during which time donations of canned food were "redeemed for free admission to the fair that day."  

On four other days, an Early Bird Special $5 admission fee was in effect before 11 a.m.  On August 14th, firefighters and auxiliary members received free fair admission.
 
Underberg summarized, "We draw crowds from other states, and our reach is pretty wide.  People particularly love the animals and the food.  We're also the only fairgrounds in New York State that has a year-round harness track, although racing does not occur during fair
times."
 
Cheers and Challenges
 
There were no major weather events to contend with during this year's fair.  This was certainly the breather that was needed after last winter's record-breaking snowstorms.  Because of all the snow removal that occurred, the blacktop suffered somewhat.  Other repairs have also been needed.
 
Underberg stated, "We've also done a lot, and I mean a lot, of capital projects over the last five years.  We hosted the International Association of Fairs & Exposition Management Conference back in May, and showed before-and-after pictures of our fairgrounds.  For example, all of our livestock and horse barns are new within the last four years."
 
Underberg added, "We built a new display this year called Little Hands on the Farm.  It's an interactive kid-sized farm which gives children the opportunity to participate in a variety of 'chores' and activities.  Kids can then 'sell' their products and 'purchase' themselves a snack as compensation for all their efforts."  
 
About the biggest challenges faced this year were show cancellations.  Underberg explained, "For the first time in the 20 years since I've been here, we've had two shows cancel:  Little Big Town about two weeks prior to their show, and Meghan Trainor only 48 hours before her show."

The website explained that both "performances were cancelled due to ongoing artist medical concerns."
 
Underberg pointed out that fair contracts don't offer a whole lot of protection regarding such cancellations.  The Erie County Fair management nevertheless offered "each ticket holder one free gate admission per concert ticket purchased to any remaining day of the Fair," in addition to refunding "all the money for both cancelled shows."
 
Underberg emphasized that the Erie County Fair is "not funded from the government."  She said, "A good portion of our funding comes from the harness-racing casino, from other off-season events, as well as from fair revenue."
 
She added, "This was our 91st year with Strates Shows, and they said that this was a record-breaking year for them.  Although we've long done a ride wristband, this year we tried a higher-priced one on the weekends ($40 rather than $30)."

Underberg stated, "The ground acts went really well.  The Juggle Boy [Hilby] was hilarious, and people loved him.  John Cassidy the Balloonologist was terrific, too.  We also had Xpogo, Street Beat, the Dueling Pirates High Dive Show, and more."
 
Community stories and talents were exemplified by a combination of new and traditional events.

The home-brew and home-wine competitions reflected many local recipes.  Creative photos depicted the fair itself, as well as surrounding locales.  There were cattle, goats, sheep and many other animals from nearby farms.  
 
Although just 20 minutes away from a modern metropolis, the Erie County Fair does a great job of also celebrating rural traditions.  A skillful balance of old and new is what makes for the repeated success of this renowned county fair.

When people know their stories count, you can count on their ongoing presence at the fair.





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