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Another Record Breaker for New York State Fair: Government Investment & Catering to Diverse Populations Pays Off
Wade Shows midway breaks revenue records
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Infrastructure reinvestment, state-wide marketing and an expansive vision of what a state fair can and should be seem the key factors adding up to what has become of the fastest growing of the large fairs in the U.S.; the Great New York State Fair.

In 2015, the fair averaged a daily attendance of 75,679. This year, the daily average was 102,251. Few fairs have seen this caliber of growth, a 46 percent increase over a four year period, a span that also saw four years of consecutive increases. In 2019, the Great New York State Fair – as it is officially called – reached 1,329,275, up 50,265 from 2018, an increase of 3.9 percent. The 2019 edition also recorded five record days, setting a single day all-time record at 147,749.

Of course, ideal late summer weather helped; rain fell three days, but not to levels of a significant impact. But ideal weather is only part of the story. The success is a culmination of refocusing a vision of the fair. “Seven, eight years ago, we were happy to draw 900,000,” said Troy Waffner, Fair Director. “The challenge is for a fair, how to do you grow? You can't be afraid of change, but change can be your biggest friend, and your biggest foe.”

The Right Change
Finding that right change for the annual celebration of everything Empire State turned out to be not a single silver bullet, but a combination of components. One of the most key changes was Waffner and his staff changing how they look at the fair. “We've focused hard on the visitor experience, making sure to add more seating every year and to keep the grounds clean. We've surveyed our customers to find out what they want at the fair, what they liked and didn't like, and we listened.”

The most visible was government support, including a “ton of money on infrastructure,” said Waffner.

Beginning in 2015, the state invested $120 million in infrastructure, the first such infusion of capital spending in about 80 years. Improvements included a 136,000-square-foot Exposition Center, a new Main Gate, a full-service RV park, an enlarged midway with heavy-duty pavement, renovations to major exhibits areas including the famed Indian Village, and a $27 million renovation of a 65-acre parking lot, the fair's largest.

“We couldn't have had a better supporter than our Governor, but the challenge is how you grow,” said Waffner. “We looked at our programming from top to bottom. We diversified our acts, brought in more national acts, diversified and expanded our food & beverage. We did outreach to groups all across the state. We offered a Pride Day for LGBT group; we reached out to Latino, Asian, and other ethnic groups. This is New York, we're diverse. We want to draw in everybody. We looked at all our fairgoers to find who we are attracting and who we need to attract.”

The approach was comprehensive, recognizing that improved facilities must be supported by improvements in programming, promotions and outreach. “We reached out to various groups and found things that we can use to convince them to overcome the distant and come to the fair. We made them more comfortable, when we removed the old grandstand. We widened the aisles.”

New York is not just one of the most diverse states in terms of population in the U.S., but in terms of geography. The state has beaches and mountains, cities ranging from the global capital of finance and culture that is New York City to industrial towns like Albany, Buffalo and Rochester to suburbs and small rural towns and a thriving agriculture industry, rejuvenated by the local-vore and artisanal food movements.

Waffner added, “now the diversity is ingrained in the fair. We've reached out to communities, we have an African American Pavilion, we have Kosher and Halal vendors. Vietnamese food we added and it's very popular. We keep building on our vegan offerings.”

Statewide Marketing
The New York State Fair's markets statewide – a $1 million budget supplemented by an additional $1 million from the  I Love New York campaign, through the state's department of tourism, giving the fair a marketing presence throughout the state. Playing with the adjective “Great” – the fair is officially known as the Great New York State Fair, although it is commonly shortened sans Great.

The fair increased its radio advertising, but mainly pumped up the social media and online marketing with “more videos and instagraphics. We spent a little less on in-home television, but more on the out-of-home vehicles. On social media, we added more videos, especially during the fair, and did more contesting and did more targeted advertising. We have completely eliminated daily print. The only prints we do are for niche markets, LBGT, Latinos, Asians and the Agriculture trade magazines.”

The emphasis was portraying what people “could see at the fair,” he added with images of farm animals, rides, etc., as well as showing diverse families coming to the fair. “We produced pieces last year that we used this year, like a young girl or a same sex couple. We tie it back to the consumer experience of going to the fair.”

Record Midway
Alongside the improved facilities, revamped marketing, and diversified programming that opened this new chapter for the New York State Fair four years ago was the awarding of the midway contract to Wade Shows. “I love how [Frank Zaitshik] set up the midway this year,” said Waffner. “He is always aware of the flow of people and the experience. You can see him there in the morning checking on everything, making sure everything is tucked in just right. The Midway is a highlight of the Fair for many people. Our excellent partners at Wade Shows always put on a great show with exciting rides, games and food.”

The Wade Shows midway featured 64 rides, including six new rides, the most prominent of which was the fair debut of the Frisbee. Other new rides included the Downdraft, Charlie Chopper, Dalmatians, NASCAR and Bumper Boats ride. The company also brought back the fan-favorite Rock Star after a two-year absence, the thrill ride Axis—which is an brand new updated version of The Sizzler, and the newly refurbished Silver Streak. “We work year-round to bring the best in Midway entertainment to the Great New York State Fair,” said Zaitshik. “This year is no exception as we introduced the one-of-a-kind Frisbee ride that fairgoers talked about!”

The fair presented 26 national touring acts, all free of charge. The musical entertainment spanned age groups and market segments, including: Farruko, Bad Company, Dropkick Murphys, Ice Cube, Peter Noone of Herman's Hermits, 38 Special, Jackyl and Rick Springfield. The fair spent more than $2.3 million on entertainment (as well as $500,000 on ground acts) this year. Talent buying remains a costly challenge, but is an integral part of the fair experience. “It's always a sellers market,” said Waffner. “You never cut back on entertainment. Buying talent for fairs remains a challenge. Classic rock is getting slightly more difficult to fill as the musicians and bands retire or scale back their annual tours.”

It may have been a record year, and as it is with all outdoor events, excellent weather was a significant factor. But the success of the 2019 New York State was a culmination of factors that has given this fair an upwards trajectory for the past few years. It's a trend and a commitment that shows no signs of abating.

"Four years after we began a series of major improvements to the nation's oldest state fair, we're seeing terrific results,” declared Governor Andrew M. Cuomo when he personally announced the record breaking attendance. “Each year for the past four years, more and more people are making the trip to the revitalized State Fair because it's a completely different experience.”

"We are thankful for the Governor's vision and support, which helped transform the Great New York State Fair, making a great event even better each year,” said Richard A. Ball, New York State Agriculture Commissioner. “We're proud of the effort we put into making one of the oldest State Fairs one of the best as well, as it highlights New York State's agricultural traditions and provides top-notch, family-friendly fun and entertainment in an environment that is welcoming to all."

For Waffner – who was officially named Fair Director last year, the success of the 2019 edition of the fair confirmed the changes that he has implemented. "Record-breaking attendance shows that the hard work that we have put into making the State Fair better each year is paying off for New York State residents and visitors alike, who are enjoying the countless educational and entertainment opportunities it provides."
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