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New Midway Records Set in Erie County as Strates & Fair Begin 100 Countdown
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An attendance dip and periods of turbulent summer weather that proved to be more the Northeastern rule than the exception this year challenged the Erie County Fair. But when all was said and done, this New York state tradition not only surpassed the 1.1 million mark once again but signaled the start of a year-long midway provider promotion that will culminate in a history-making 2024 fair.

As its perennial tagline claims, the Best 12 Days of Summer saw record days and strong attendance even though Mother Nature proved inconsistent and volatile. “Constant up and down, beautiful one day and rainy the next,” said Jessica Underberg, CEO & Fair Manager, Erie County Fair. “We only had 2 consecutive nice days.”

Even with the turmoil of temperamental meteorological patterns, attendance hit 1,125,347 (only slightly lower than 2022: 1,148,079). “Opening day was huge,” said Underberg. “The second Sunday was bigger yet, and the last weekend was very strong.  Strates Shows also experienced two record days during the 2023 Fair.”


New Metrics

Underberg is circumspect when evaluating the specifics of the readings comparing metrics from one fair to the next. Gauging an event's success is more than just an admissions data. “I end each fair even more excited than the last and this year was no different!” she said. “This year's fair was operationally smooth, safe and well attended.  We rode the “rollercoaster of weather” with one day being beautiful and the next being rainy—and even a day in the low 60s.  On the flip side, the first Sunday of the fair was the busiest day that we have had in approximately 15 years requiring us to park cars on the racetrack.”

She added, “Attendance doesn't tell the entire story for us.  Community impact is where we choose to focus our attention.” Some of those 2023 Erie County metrics include: 140,834-lbs of canned food donations; $372,713 livestock auction; $137,685 prize money paid in competitive exhibits; $84,000 donations for local charities; & a record $50,000 awarded in student scholarships.  

Revenue was also on par with last year, indicating that slightly fewer folks were spending the same or slightly more. How much of that increase was due to higher prices as opposed to higher consumer confidence is far from obvious at this point. Inflation, while not inhibiting economic activity, it was a factor. Food, admission and other prices saw upticks comparable to the inflation seen at the grocery store and the gas pump.  

“Spending was on par, which is difficult to compare when prices are up too,” she said. “ I know some vendors had fantastic years and hit their sales from the previous years before the last weekend.  Others were soft.  Costs have gone up.  Everywhere.  Including the fair.  Fairgoers were sensitive to any increase in pricing (gate, food, rides, shopping).  They are seeing the impact of inflation at an event that they perceive should be inexpensive.  The reality is that it is costly to produce a premier event in our community.  Rising costs are being felt everywhere.  Guests loved the new seating areas, the new entertainment and creative food options.”

One reason people are spending more money is that they are spending more time at the fair. “Survey results tell us that 40 percent of our guests stayed 5-6 hours this year (which is up from 3-4 hours last year)—it truly is a day FULL of fun,” she said.

Strates Shows

The James E. Strates Shows midway featured 148 rides, games and concessions. Top grossing rides included Giant Wheel, Wave Swinger, Music Express, Pirate & Venetian Double Carousel. “Ride gross was up slightly over 2022,” said Underberg.

“From a James E. Strates Shows standpoint, 2023 was on par with our record-breaking year in 2022,” said Marty Biniasz, Director of Marketing & Community Relations, Strates Shows. “ We experienced two of the largest grossing days in Strates Shows' 99 years at the Erie County Fair, and the single largest grossing Opening Day in Strates Shows' 99 years at the Erie County Fair, and the single largest grossing Opening Friday in Strates Shows' 99 years at the Erie County Fair “

The key number is 99. This year, 2023, is the centennial year of this carnival company, still owned and operated by its founder's descendants, now a multigenerational carnival dynasty. Strates Shows has thrown a fairgoer appreciation party to honor completing its first century at nearly every 2022 fair but the Erie County fair's cake & free rides spree also marked the year-long promotion for the 2024 when Erie County & Strates Shows make fair industry history – 100 years of providing the midway at the fair, the longest contractual relationship in the history of the business.

“Strates Shows offered 100 minutes of FREE RIDES on Friday, August 18th, to kick off the 100-year anniversary partnership between the Erie County Fair and Strates Shows,” said Underberg. “We are planning a yearlong celebration which will culminate at the 2024 Erie County Fair.  That day happened to be the coldest, rainiest and windiest day of the summer, but the promotion brought the guests to the fair.”

Biniasz explained, “2023 marks the 99th year of a historic relationship between the Erie County Agricultural Society and its exclusive midway provider, the James E. Strates Shows. This partnership is a historical milestone in the modern amusement industry and is considered the longest continuous run of any carnival midway in the United States. Although we are celebrating our centennial year of operation in 2023, our BIG anniversary in Western New York State will be our 100-year partnership with the Erie County Fair in 2024. Unlike other fairs where we have announced our “Centennial of Smiles” 100 minutes of free ride promotion weeks in advance of opening, at the Erie County Fair made the announcement during a press conference that took place the day before the promotion. In addition to announcing the promotion, the Erie County Fair unveiled its 2024 commemorate poster that pays tribute to the Strates Shows.”

Weather may not have been in the kick-off event's favor, but the seed of anticipation was effectively planted. “The day of the promotion turned out to be unseasonably cold and one of the rainiest and windiest days of the entire summer,” he said. “Yet, thousands of fairgoers arrived early ready to ride. High winds resulted in a 20-minute shutdown of the midway, but the promotion's time was extended to ensure everyone was able to ride. Without a doubt, the promotion saved the day for the fair and the midway's daily gross as an extra- large crowd was already on the grounds when the weather passed, and clear, sunny skies returned to Hamburg.”

An historical retrospective was also presented, not on the midway, but at a special program featured on the onsite museum.  “Third generation family members Jimmy, John and Susan (Magid) Strates were invited to speak inside the Fair's Heritage & History Museum for a 90-minute Q&A session with fairgoers,” said  Biniasz. “The family shared details and humorous stories about growing up on the show as well as what it takes to run a family-owned carnival in 2023. A PowerPoint presentation was shared that featured over 100 never seen before historical images from the Strates Family archives dating back to the mid-20s.”


Best 12 Days of Summer

The fair's marketing approach this year mirrored ad-buy patterns by other fairs. “Our media mix includes a bit of everything—digital, print, TV, radio and billboards,” she said. “This year, we increased our spend on paid social advertising and slightly decreased our spend on TV.”

Social media promotions were not limited to sponsored ads. The fair reached out to the internet influencers in the region in an unprecedented fashion. “This year we formally engaged local influencers to attend and post about the Fair,” she explained. “We kept our parameters to a minimum so that they could share the most authentic experiences with their followers.  We began posting to TikTok this year and not only did it help us reach a new audience, but it became a new way for colleagues to have fun together in the office.  We incorporated the theme of our TV ad (something for everyone) into a series of short social media videos to extend our message on other channels. We're finding that video increases our reach on social media. We're focusing more & more on video.”

A total of 118 food vendors were available, and spending was high. “Overall food revenue was up slightly.  Could be due to an increase in sales, could be due to an increase in pricing.”

Perhaps some increase could be the healthy newcomer creating fair cuisine. “A new vendor, The Silly Yak, a local 100% Gluten Free concession stand was definitely a hit this year.  We heard from many guests that this stand allowed them to come and eat at the fair as a family again this year.  Tried and true items still remain popular, like fried dough.  I believe people want to eat the items at the fair that they cannot eat all year long.”

Other 2023 new taste treats  included Peachy Baking Co.'s Peanut Butter Amish Doughnut, Crafted Cob's corn, and Dirty Bird's Chicken & Waffles.

During the lockdown, the Erie County Fair was forced to drastically cut staff and as the economy opened up and events were permitted, under-staffing was the status-quot. The labor shakeup may have been a challenge, but it seems that the workforce component of the fair has stabilized, a considerable factor in achieving successful fairs, present and future. “We added seven new staff members to our administrative team this year.  Some of our tenured staff members were also serving in new roles in 2023.  With seven staff members being new out of a total of 15 administrative staff, I was concerned that we would have some missteps because of inexperience.  The reality is that the TEAM ROCKED IT!  We didn't miss a beat, and we were better for the addition of new team members and more hands on deck.  Operationally it was one of the smoothest in my 28 years.”
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