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Erie County: New Fair Manager Encourages Change
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It’s always good to start your first fair with an attendance increase. The 20018 Erie County Fair – perennially billed as “Best 12 Days of Summer” – drew 1,198,789. This is a .46 percent increase from 2017 and is the second highest attended fair in the Erie County Fair’s history. The 2014 fair at 1,220,101 remains the record.

While this increase may seem statically small, it must be noted that the 2017 Erie County Fair saw a 21 percent increase over the 2016 event. The Erie County Fair has been on a winning streak and what is even more noteworthy is that even under new management, this streak was sustained in 2018.

After the conclusion of the 2017 fair, Jessica Underberg was named as Chief Executive Officer & Fair Manager effective October 1, 2017. Underberg, who rose through agricultural programming ranks of the fair and has served as Assistant Fair Manager since 2010, succeeded Dennis “Denny” Lang, who retired after 18 years of service to the organization.

New Perspective
Underberg, now responsible for all aspects of the 12-month operations of the 270-acre Erie County Fairgrounds especially the annual Erie County Fair. Her experience may have been the best preparation for the new position and nearly a full-year in the captain’s seat may have given her an optimum starting point, but being in charge proved to be a particular unique experience. “From the very beginning, the role of CEO, no matter how many years you’ve been with an organization, look a little different from this point of view,” she said. “As CEO, it is a very different view one has than that as a staff member. You realize how fast moving, and how constantly moving a fair is from the planning to the actual fair. Things are constantly coming at you. The buck stops here. You are taking care of the process, taking care of people and making sure they have what they need to have.”

So how did her first fair go? “We did not have the best weather, it poured opening day. Rain was forecasted nearly every day, but the weather turned out better than forecasted. It was a fun and awesome Western New York fair.”
More media coverage, better marketing and a star-studded entertainment lineup pushed the Erie County Fair to a sustained high attendance level. For Underberg, probably the most significant change was encouraging the staff to rethink the possible. “We challenged the staff to do things differently,” she said. “Just because you have done something one way is not a reason to do it the same way this year.”

She added, “sometimes you just get too comfortable with how things are going and resist change. In the planning stages leading up to this fair our team looked at everything to see what can be changed to make the fair better.”
Her dictum emphasized “there was no sacred cow,” and the team apparently rose to the occasion. The website was replaced, social media marketing refreshed and the layout of the fair redesigned.

N.Y. Winemaking
One telling detail about the impetus for change she implemented as CEO was working with the Agriculture team to change exhibits in the Discovery Center, a central building on the fairgrounds. The team replaced a long standing exhibit highlighting corn production with a McCormick Combine on Display with a Grape Harvester and a range of vintology products. “We changed the corn exhibit to winemaking, it is more representative of the today’s ag industry in New York State.”

Updating agriculture exhibits was not the only change visible to fairgoers. Underberg changed the layout of the fair, unafraid to shake up expectations. “Just because you don’t see something in the same place doesn’t mean we don’t have it. We moved the racing pigs to a different location and that was a shock, but nobody loved the old spot and we moved them to a grassy spot with more trees and better seating and more access to the show. We expanded our Urban Farming Trail, with more bleachers and better seating.”

The uptick in attendance was aided in part by increased coverage. “The media support this year was tremendous. Leading up to the ’12 Best Days of Summer’ the media was more engaged with the fair, and the coverage during the fair was better. We had local news stations broadcasting every day of the fair.”

Marketing for the fair began in March and this year involved consistent press release notifications, flash sales and other promotions. “We had people thinking of the fair in March. We did press releases about food vendors, new locations, that we brought back the nightly fireworks.”

Direct Booking
The grandstand line-up consisted of a mix of free shows such as the Buffalo Philharmonic Orchestra and ticketed concerts – ZZ Top, The Oak Ridge Boys, Midland and Chris Young, supplemented by a Tractor Pull and Demo Derby (Ultimate Night of Destruction). 2018 bookings showed improvements over last year, mainly due to a more hands-on approach by the new CEO. “I became more directly involved with the entertainment buying,” she said. “Buffalo is a big market with one of the highest numbers of concert venues. But we booked more things and I had more direct communication. We also created a VIP experience and that made a difference.”

The Erie County midway is provided by James E. Strates Shows, featuring 55 rides. New for the  fair was the shows freshly refurbished Huss Pirate ride, newly outfitted with a new electric drive system and new LED lighting system, and a Fireball, which had a stem to stern makeover including new gondolas, a paint job and new LED lights. According to Underberg, Strates’ midway revenue was up by 10 percent compared to 2017. It was also her first Train Day as CEO/Fair Manager – Strates is one of the few carnival companies who still transport at least part of their ride inventory via railroad. The “Fair Train” arrived with great local fanfare – and free train fair buttons at the historic Erie Railroad Depot in Hamburg marking the 94th season of Strates Shows with the Erie County Fair, considered the longest lasting contract between any midway provider and ride company in the fair industry.

In keeping with the wave of newness and change, new additions at the fair included “Cyrk Live!” – a 21st century circus under the big top tent, I-HUB a new interactive exhibit focused around STEM academics that include the World’s First Ketchup Dispensing Robot, and the completion of the World’s Largest Wooden Bowl, a collaboration between Erie County Fair and Woodworkers Clubhouse.

Underberg’s willingness to change was noted by her predecessor. “The organization will be in extremely good hands,” said Dennis Lang when he retired last year. “Jessica has been, in one way or another, a key part of all aspects of the operations of the Fairgrounds since she joined us over 20 years ago. There is no one as passionate as Jessica about the Fair and our agricultural mission. I am confident in her abilities to lead during this time of dramatic change taking place in our industry.”

Change can be a tricky issue to balance for a fair. Nostalgia and traditions are an integral reason for fairgoers to return year in and year out to a fair. But if a fair only relies on what worked in the past and ignores changing times, demographics and current pop culture trends, the event grows stale and audiences diminish. For her freshman year at the helm of the fair, the secret seemed to be change. “Our board keeps us on our toes and forces us to try to new things. Our staff works as a team and is willing to change. We swing for the fences and there are always new fences to swing at.”
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