Amazing what a new outlook and well-needed government support - not mention optimum Summer weather - can do.
Many fairs have had an attendance increase for 2016 compared to last Summer, but rarely does a fair see a jump of nearly a quarter more folks, but that is what happened in the Empire State this year. The New York State Fair increased its attendance a whopping 23 percent, probably the highest year-to-year increase of any fair in North American this year.
The Great New York State Fair - the adjective is actually part of the official title - attracted 1,117,630 million, making this the highest attended state fair in its 175 year history. The final attendance was 10 percent higher than the previous attendance record set
in 2001, indicating this fair has indeed experienced a tremendous resurgence in popularity and community support.
"The Great New York State Fair truly lived up to its name this year with record crowds, record sales, and a new sense of excitement fueled by our $50 million investment to modernize the fair's facilities and better be able to showcase the very best that New York has to offer," said Governor Andrew M. Cuomo. Governor Cuomo said. "Results far exceeded expectations by every conceivable measure. I congratulate everyone who worked on this year's fair on a job well done and cannot wait to see this banner year topped in 2017."
Renovations & Records
Troy Waffner, Acting Fair Manager, mentioned several components contributing to this attendance leap, including new marketing, an expanded Kiddieland and midway, and new community outreach to other population segments of New York State. But the fairground renovations probably led the list.
"People had heard about the renovations, so I think they were curious, it was big local news," he said. "It drove a lot of the excitement about the fair, there was local and regional buzz. The fact we had the best 12 days of weather all summer didn't hurt."
The extensive fair renovations - perhaps the most extensive upgrade to any U.S. fairground this year - included constructing a new Main Gate that was reminiscent of the Fair's original arched stone gate from 1900, the establishment of a new Empire RV Park, and the removal of a race track and grandstands, resulting in 66 more acres of land and an expanded Midway."We widened the walkways, added more rides and more creature comforts, like benches and shaded areas. It made for a better fair and fairgoer experience," said Waffner,.
Also enhancing that experience but not as visible, were an upgraded underground water, sewer and electrical infrastructure. "We put new systems in place and corrected a lot of problems," said Waffner.
The renovation removed the grandstand area, although paid admission concerts had not been part of the fair for two years.
Across the highway from the fair, roughly a little more than a mile from the fairgrounds, is the newly built Lakeview Amphitheater and this was the first year of a full collaboration between that venue and the Great New York State Fair. For headline acts such as Keith Urban and Gregg Allman, they were now co-located at the amphitheater - concert tickets included free admission to the fair - with a shuttle bus system transporting attendees between the slightly longer than walking distance spaces.
The fair still had a major free stage - Chevy Court - and according to the fair - attendance at Chevy Court concerts were the second highest in the fair's history, with an estimated 265,450 people attending the 23 shows from nationally renowned performers such as Kesha, Brian Wilson, Culture Club and Flo Rida. The special Labor Day performance by Chicago, the final show on the band's current tour, attracted the largest crowd, estimated at 31,200.
Losing the fairground grandstand, partnering with the nearby amphitheater and bolstering the Chevy Court concerts, has only been a positive, especially with the current shaky state of booking headline entertainment at fairs.
"The handwriting had long been on the wall that the days of the grandstand were coming to an end," said Waffner,. "We were losing $1 million a year on the paid entertainment. At some point you have to rationalize what you're doing, and our customer surveys showed that 8 percent of the attendance on any given day of a concert came because of the concert, and half of those people said they would have come to the fair anyway.
The amount of concerts were costing us, and the big name acts kept getting more costly, and the growing competition from casinos and festivals, to pay that much money for only 4 percent of the attendance, the cost of operations became not worth it."
The savings can be recycled into marketing and other areas of the fair, and the tradition of the free, sponsored stage continued to get better. "The grandstands were losing money and became an albatross for the fair," said Waffner, "But a level of entertainment keeps a buzz about the fair, and does bring in some people who might otherwise not come to the fair. The types of act we get, may not sell out big arenas, are recognizable names and they do great concerts. They are festival-style, so the cost of operations are not as high."
Find Your Great
The fair's advertising budget was about $850,000 said Waffner. Last year, the budget was cut $50,000 - mainly to help pay for the needed renovations and capital improvements, according to Waffner.
Not only were cuts restored, but the budget was further enhanced by a collaboration with I Love New York, the state's tourism department, which invented the famed heart-as-verb logo, as well as partnerships with Destination USA and Summer Pass. In addition, the fair contracted with a new advertising agency and the entire marketing approach underwent a make-over. "We went more for an emotional appeal with our advertising," he said.
The tagline was "Find Your Great," a social media friendly phrase, applying the engaging notion to such things as Find Your Great Wow, and Find Your Great Yum. "We are expanding more of our social media," he said. "It was our first year with SnapChat, and we ran promotions specific to Facebook," he said, noting that in the month prior to opening day the fair picked up about 23,000 new Facebook followers, pushing the amount of followers into the 808,000 range.
According to Waffner, "Paw Patrol" -- was "the single most, successful, promotion of their fair," he said. A promotion based on the Nickelodeon Television program,. "Parents and their children waited on line to have their picture taken, and there were more than a thousand on line. It drove the numbers towards one of best days of the fair."
In addition, the fair increasingly relies on market surveys, finding that "we were reaching outside our central New York markets. We were getting more people from the Western and Eastern regions of New York than ever before at this fair," he added.
The fair featured 200 food vendors and two new food items stood out for Waffner, one was the self explanatory Deep Fried Thanksgiving Dinner - served on a stick of course - and the New York Bloody Mary - nearly 10,000 were reported sold - with the hook being everything in the concoction was New York made, and it wasn't just the Vodka, Tomato Juice and Celery stalk either.
The drink was served with a skewer of other New York food items - including Shrimp, New York Cheese and Chicken wing - reminding fairgoers of the wide range of food now being harvested, raised or otherwise produced in a state mostly known for Billy Joel Songs and the New York Yankees.
Fair cuisine at New York may include all the typical corn dog and funnel cakes offered at other fairs, but diversity has become key. "The Vegan Stand came back this year and they really knocked it out of the park," he said.
A new stand was a Kosher stand - something the fair began soliciting for last year, finally reaching a contract with a local assisted living facility and aided by a supervising onsite local rabbi. "It was true kosher food, not just kosher style, but they also served things like deep fried knishes, which seemed to please everyone," he said. "They wanted to make food that was fair food. They did a great job."
Bringing in ethnic food is a component of an overall targeting of different population segments. For example, it was the second year in the row for Pride Day, which recognized the LGBT community, which included a whole day of programming led by Candice Cane, a famous New York transgendered actress and performing artists.
In addition, the fair has a Pan-African village, which celebrates both African Americans as well as African immigrants. More than 100 legal residents became citizens of the United States, sworn in on New Americans Day at the fair, an event that made national news.
"We are constantly marketing to diverse populations, to bring more groups to the fair," said Waffner,. "When you looked a the population at the fair, it was much more diverse."
Not only has this outreach increased the attendance, pushing it into the record levels of 2016. "The New York State Fair now looks more like New York State," said Waffner.
Wade Shows Midway
The Wade Show midway, now in its third year, featured 75 rides, about a dozen more than last year. According to Waffner, the midway revenue kept pace with the attendance, recording both the biggest year-to-year revenue increase for the fair and the single highest midway revenue in the history - crossing the $3 million mark for the first time, said Frank Zaitshik, Wade Shows, CEO.
For Zaitshik, the robust 2016 numbers come after what was has been a three year, often difficult span - Wade Shows won a 10 year contract after a contested RFP process in 2014, resulting in planning delays that undermined the 2014 New York State Fair and last year, the Fair and midway suffered a dip in attendance and revenue. "There was a slight reduction in ride revenue in the second year, because while we got a bonanza of media attention the first year, we didn't get the same attention last year, so there was a down-tick," he said.
This summer, he noted that a local newspaper in their top 10 things to do at the New York Fair " listed the Wade Shows midway twice," he said.
The recognition vindicated the commitment by both the fair and its carnival company, and also the new renovations to the fair. "In year three, the new layout and the amount of money the state government committed to fair renovation, grabbed people's attention," he said. "There was a lot of pressure to live up to expectations, and all I have to say, not only did we meet those expectations, but if you liked 2016, wait until you see 2017."
In addition to a more pedestrian friendly midway design, Wade Shows added its own unique touches with more fairgoer amenities like baby changing stations, cellphone charging stations, and free sunscreen dispensers. "Whenever you improve the presentation of the carnival footprint, you see increased spending. We gave a more park-like feel to the midway layout."
The second Kiddieland was also a major draw - essentially the midway had three contiguous areas - one for the adult - spectacular and thrill - rides and two for children and families. "It was a terrific ride mix," Zaitshik said. "It had a Disney Land appearance."
He noted that the Giant Wheel was the most popular, and new fairgoer favorites were the Super Cyclone and a Dumbo Elephant Ride.
An estimate 1.3 million rides were taken at the fair. An expanded midway and Kiddeiland was a difficult decision to make, but Zaitshik said that while some fairs resist change, those who "embrace change, welcome improvement and find success."
And at the 2016 New York State Fair, those changes, "not only rang the cash register in terms of revenue," said Zaitshik, "but raised the bar for customer satisfaction and the many positive comments about the changes to the midway."