Few fairs enjoyed as bright a spotlight as the Great New York State Fair this summer. As has been typical, Governor Andrew M. Cuomo showed up on opening day to kick off the annual celebration of everything New York. At the time, the governor was locked in a heated primary battle – where he eventually turned out to be victorious – and New York being the media capital of the world, the press followed his every move turning an annual photo-op to one of the top stories of that day’s news-cycle.
Gov. Cuomo officiated the opening of the brand-new Exposition Center at the New York State Fairgrounds with a ribbon-cutting ceremony. In an era of budgetary belt-tightening, where most state governments have either reduced or eliminated most if not all support for their fairs, the New York State Fair has been the beneficiary of tremendous amount of public investment in capital improvements in both the fair and its fairgrounds . The 136,000-square-foot Expo Center is said to be the largest indoor events space north of New York City between Boston and Cleveland.
It is also the capstone of a two-phase project made possible by more than $120 million in governmental support for the fairgrounds, the first such investment in state facilities in more than 80 years. The project’s other improvements included a new Main Gate, a larger midway with heavy-duty pavement, a 313-unit RV park that receives use year-round, open spaces for programming, new or improved exhibit areas for the New York State Police and the Indian Village, and a $27 million renovation of the 65-acre Orange Lot, the fair's largest parking lot.
No Longer Acting
Fairs don’t succeed on facilities alone. The 2018 Fair and its new Exposition Center was not the only fair news item to share in Cuomo’s photo-spotlight. Cuomo officially announced that Troy Waffner lost a key word in his title, going from Acting Director to Director of the New York State Fair.
“We have made unprecedented investments in this great institution and Troy has played a major role in the Fair's record-breaking successes over the last few years, as well as the Fairground's transformation into a year-round economic engine for Central New York,” Governor Cuomo said. “I am pleased to appoint him as the Fair's permanent leader and together, we will continue to build an organization that makes a major contribution to the region's economy and beyond.”
“I am honored to continue my service to this great organization and its talented people and thank Governor Cuomo for his faith in me and our team,” said Waffner in an official statement. “We will work diligently to meet the Governor's vision of a Fair and Fairgrounds that promotes the best of New York agriculture, provides great entertainment for the people of New York, and becomes a major provider of economic benefits for the people of Central and Upstate New York.”
In an interview with Carnival Warehouse, Waffner deflected some of the public praise. “I think I receive an undo amount of credit. Being named Director I think was more a recognition of the hard work of our team. The Governor told me that he will give us the tools to build a fair, and with the Exposition Center, it makes the fairgrounds more of a year-round destination.”
Small Increase, Big Records
The tools seem to be working. With the completion of the Exposition Center, the construction scene and other obstacles were gone and the fairgrounds had a more open design, creating a more conducive fair environment. Bolstered by a $900,000 advertising budget supplemented by additional $1 million from I Love New York, the state’s Department of Tourism, giving the fair a marketing presence in downstate areas such as New York City. Attendance reached 1,279,010, a record setting number. In addition, eight of the 13 days set daily attendance records. While the increase compared to 2017, also a record year, was only 2 percent according to Waffner, mother nature was less cooperative this summer and the fact the turnout remained the same indicates a loyal and growing following for the annual event.
“The weather was a factor, we had some extremely hot weather, a couple of days it rained, a storm passed through and on Labor Day it rained,” said Waffner. “2017 was glorious weather, so to be even just a little bit over a record setting year with the weather we had is great.”
5TH Year Wade
“It was an incredible fair, sometimes everything comes together,” said Frank Zaitshik of Wade Shows. “This is our 5th year in a ten year contract, and it was by far our most successful year, which reflects well on the fair, on the promotions they enacted and the vision of the people at the department of agriculture and tourism had. We are just one cog in a very big wheel of the transformation set in motion under Troy Waffner.”
In addition to operating the fair’s Sky Ride, which had its debut last summer, the Wade Shows midway featured about 70 rides – the same footprint as previous years but because of the new layout design of the fair – and the absence of an Exposition Center construction site – the fairgoer flow was improved. “We were able to adjust our midway with more space, and we added changes and tweaks and worked with Troy. We were able to add lights because the Exposition Center was completed. We had great flow from other areas of the fairgrounds, and more entrances went right into the midway.”
Zaitshik noted that changes to the fair’s promotions had an effective impact on the midway. “They did a very aggressive advance sale, had a Mega-Pass for unlimited rides every day.” He added that after studying data from previous fairs, indicators showed that the closing day of the fair, Labor Day, was always soft. “We did $1 rides on closing day. We analyzed the ride revenue and saw that the closing of this fair was proportionally soft compared to other days. We had a success with the dollar day on the closing, suggesting [fairgoers] like the idea.”
Attendance records at the New York fair was also boosted by a star-studded concert lineup at the fair’s main concert venue – the Chevy Court. Acts ranged from Up-and-coming New Jersey rapper Mir Fontane to such stalwarts as ZZ Top, Blondie , The Tedeschi Trucks Band, Ludacris, Counting Crows and Smokey Robinson. (Dicky Betts was a last minute cancellation due to illness). When asked if the talent buying market was any more difficult or expensive compared to 2017, Waffner said it was always difficult, a scenario to which he’s justifiably resigned. “Buying talent should always be a seller’s market,” he explained. “The artists aren’t making money on records any more, there’s not much money to be made off of streaming or iTunes, they have to make money touring. We are committed to bringing a diversity of headliners to the fair.”
Niche & Diversity
Besides the large components that are sure to bring in large crowds year in and year out, Waffner pointed out that attracting niche crowds also built attendance. This year, the fair had about two dozen pop up events, ranging from storytelling to adopt a pet day. These mini-events within the event, “draws in people, their own following. But these one day events, like the Food Truck Competition, also give us another thing to talk to the media about. We also had a New American Day, where 100 legal immigrants were sworn in as citizens. Given the political climate, that got a lot attention.”
The fair has also reached out to specific populations. In fact, the only print advertising by the fair targeted specialty publications, such as those serving Hispanic and LGBT communities. The fair also hosts an Annual Pride Day and has added a Latino Village and a Pan-African Village – the fair has long had an Iroquois Indian Village. With these villages, the fair embraces these cultures into the larger fairgoer community by catering to their tastes in music, food and culture while also bringing that culture to the larger fairgoer population.
Getting a promotion the same year as having one of “our best fairs ever,” certainly makes 2018 a special summer for this no longer ‘acting’ director. But it’s the increasing diversity of the fairgoers that he may be most proud of. “Not everybody at the fair can look like you. It’s very poignant to see that the community here is a reflection of the community of New York.”