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New York State Fair Adds Five Days, Becomes Longest Fair in the Northeast

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Nearly every Governor visits the state fair every year, almost always on opening day. Governor Andrew Cuomo of New York was no exception, but following the annual photo op to kick off the Great New York State Fair, the event set five record days, including an all-time daily record of 147,749 and a record total attendance of 1,329,275,  prompting a nearly unheard of return visit by a governor on the final day of the 13-day run.

In his closing day remarks, after noting the attendance records, the five-year growth trajectory of the fair and the $120 million in  investment by New York taxpayers, Governor Cuomo declared “"We are not going to stop until we are number one. That I can promise you."

Governmental Commitment

Less than six months later, the governor took a crucial step towards making good on that promise. In the annual state budget, the Governor allocated $4.9 million to the 2020 New York State Fair, to extend it by five days, making it an 18-day event. Although the fair will still fall short of the longest fairs in the country, such as Texas State Fair and the Arizona State Fair, typically 24-day events, the move places the New York State Fair among some of the longest fairs in the country and perhaps more significantly, makes it longer than any fair in the northeast.

New York may be most famous for Manhattan,  Arts, Culture, and being the home of the global financial industry, but the state has long had a vibrant fair industry, with more than 50 local fairs, including some of the highest-attended county fairs in the U.S., such as the Erie County Fair and the Dutchess County Fair. Supporting this massive fair industry is a robust and growing agriculture industry, with more than 35,000 farms statewide, and according to the most recent statistics (2017) from the New York agriculture department, generates more than $4.8 billion in revenue, contributing an estimated $2.4 billion to the State's gross domestic product.

All these factors – upgraded fairgrounds, increased attendance, thriving network of county fairs and a booming agriculture industry – have added up to making the idea of an 18-day Northeastern fair during the month of August a logical next step for the annual celebration of everything New York.

“Our attendance has been growing with the growing investments by the state,” said Troy Waffner, Fair Director. “We're up 46 percent in attendance from before the state put $120 million into the fairgrounds. Making the fair longer is the natural growth of the fair.”
In fact, talk of adding days has always accompanied the revitalization of the fairgrounds, a multiphase project that started in 2015. According to Waffner, the scuttlebutt turned into policy proposals in November, when discussions between fair and government officials focused on logistics and figures. The $4.5 million is considered “seed” money to cover initial costs of increased programming, marketing and staffing necessitated by the additional days.

Fair Competition

Perhaps the first logistical decision to be made was whether to add the extra days on the back end or the front end of the fair. The New York State Fair has always concluded on Labor Day, and the forecasts for potential audience is far greater in August than September. “Labor Day Weekend in Central new York is the unofficial end of summer, and we all go back to our real lives in autumn, so there are less people interested in going to the fair,” he said. “Also, there are students in school in September and a lot of college kids are already back at school, while earlier in August, they haven't left yet, that's a whole new audience we can reach.”

While the length of the fair only requires a budget allocation, the Labor Day Weekend end of the fair is in the state statute. To add a week into September proved much more legislatively complicated than August. September also had other complications as well. “The transit company we partner with have their own contracts with the school district that starts in September. “There are also some other labor contracts we couldn't get for September, and we couldn't get our midway company.”

It's not that the extra August days are without complications either. The new dates now overlap with six county fairs, according to Waffner, including the second largest New York fair, the Erie County Fair.  In local news coverage, Jessica Underberg, Chief Executive Officer & Fair Manager, Erie County Fair claimed to have not been told about the extension until the state budget was announced, and now is scrambling with vendors, exhibitors and other organizations as they workout logistics of playing two fairs for a prime August weekend, a peak-time for any Northeastern event.

Waffner points out that overlapping dates will unlikely compete with fairgoers – “the Erie County Fair is a two and a half hour drive, so it's not the same market,” he said, vendor and other contracts will be another matter. “We are on annual contracts with most of our vendors,” said Waffner. “Erie County is our biggest conflict we are running into with our vendors, but we are working it out on a case-by-case basis.”

Longer Wade

The most headache-free aspect of the change is scheduling fairground rentals and other events. Because the New York State Fair is such a massive undertaking – and accounts for an estimated two thirds of the annual revenue of the 375-acre Empire Expo Center it ceases hosting any fairground events by mid-July.

Frank Zaitshik of Wade Shows, foresees no major adjustments for an earlier New York State Fair midway, which grew to 64 rides in 2019. “We're still working out some of the details, but setting up the midway five days earlier is an easy challenge,” he said. “Every carnival company has to be somewhere on that weekend, and there's not a better place to be than central New York.

Wade Shows has been the fair's midway provider for the past five years, coinciding with the attendance growth and state reinvestment. Zaitshik admits that during this period adding five days to the fair was always a persistent rumor, but after the record breaking 2019 edition of the event, he was fielding “exploratory calls” about the extension. When the discussions went from hypothetical to contractual, he immediately said yes.

“I have every confidence that the New York State Fair can sustain an 18-day fair, for a variety of reasons,” said Zaitshik. “They have the strong base of loyal support, they have strong support from the governor and the legislature, and a strong team led by Troy Waffner. Adding days creates some challenges, but it my opinion challenges create opportunity.”

Wade Shows is certainly no stranger to long fairs – the company provides the midway to the 23-day San Antonio Livestock & Rodeo – and Zaitshik points out that two aspects are necessary to sustain fairgoer interested for this length of time. “My observation is that long fairs can't ignore those additional days in terms of marketing and entertainment. They will need to have a good marketing plan in place to sustain those additional days and they have to have the entertainment. But the New York State Fair already has a good product, so I feel no doubt that they can add five more days.”

Creating a marketing plan and booking entertainment are among the immediate challenges New York State Fair organizers are now busy working out. The New York State Fair has a $1 million marketing budget, which is supplemented by an additional $1 million from the I Love New York, the state's tourism agency. According to Waffner, state tourism funds general marketing statewide while the fair's marketing budget has a more localized reach.

“We will be increasing the marketing budget,” he said. “What we need to is enculturate people that the fair is longer and starting earlier. I think we will be reaching many people who haven't been to the fair, because they were on vacation.”

Filling five more days with programming – especially the headline entertainment featured at the Chevy Court and Experience stages – is the other challenge Waffner is facing. Offers have already been to a handful of prospective artists, with many more expressing interest in performing. But finalizing a contract is only piece of the extended fair puzzle. “We are looking for a programmatic arc to each extra day, that's the tricky part,” said Waffner.
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