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New York State Fair: Record-Setting Sets Tone For Successful Fair
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New York  may have been home to many historic milestones, but for the event industry, the state is most renowned for holding two of the largest outdoor concerts in the history of the hemisphere; Summer Jam at Watkins Glenn in 1973 & The Woodstock Music & Arts Festival in 1969. The era of massive shows in the Northeast may have ended and the contemporary equivalents, such as Coachella & Bonnaroo, shifted large outdoor music gathering to other regions of the U.S., but the 2023 Great New York State Fair set a different outdoor concert attendance record in the Empire State, an achievement sure to resound not just for this 175-year-old institution, but throughout the fair industry.

On Opening Day of the 2023 New York State Fair, 53,000 lined the lawn and surrounded the pond area at the recently renovated Suburban Park for country music legend Lainey Wilson. Local media reported that this was a record attendance for any grandstand concert of in the history of the fair, breaking the previous high of 43,000 set by Nelly at the 2022 New York State Fair.

Live Shows

A sellers-market may still be more rule than exception for the fair industry, but post-lockdown, the entertainment market is now comparatively stable. Costs are not rising with the same rapidity as 2021 & 2022, nor were tours being cancelled or postponed this year. Unlike some state fairs that have cut-back on grandstand acts, finding big names do not translate into big crowds, through expanded marketing and facility improvement, the New York State Fair went the opposite direction and recommitted itself to being one of the major Northeastern  summer venues for national touring acts.

The 2023 fair showcased major Hip Hop, Country & Rock acts resulting in consistently high attendance. In addition to Lainey Wilson setting a record, the other significant draws for the New York State Fair included: Ludacris (39,400), REO Speedwagon (34,000), and Yung Gravy & bbno$ (30,000).  

“Concerts are trending back to our pre-COVID numbers,” said Sean Hennessey, Fair Director, New York State Fair.  “Our attendance at concerts is on the rise, and concerts are essential to the fair. We were very lucky this year working with Triangle Talent and were able to secure acts that have real staying power but are also cutting edge.”

Other stars to grace the main-stages were Bret Michaels' Parti Gras; Julio Iglesias Jr.; Chubby Checker; Quiet Riot; George Thorogood & the Destroyers;  Tyler Hubbard of Florida Georgia Line and Herman's Hermits starring Peter Noone.

In fact, the 2023 fair showcased more than 46 nationally known performers at Suburban Park, formerly known as Chevy Park, which earned the distinction of being recognized as the largest concert venue in Central New York for the Wilson show.

Diverse Families

“The fair had 46 nationally touring acts come through our grandstand,” he said. “But we also had regional stages with bands from around the state, and they are really key performers who have their own following. We have local food and local entertainment, we really make a connection with the community.”

Did talent buying costs increase this year like they did for last  season?  For Hennessey, the winning booking strategy was timing, and timing i.e., when to buy and when to schedule. “We were able to secure acts early, so prices were maybe up a little bit but not as much last year,” he said.

And, scheduling a record-setting Lainey Wilson show on opening day of the fair?  “It set a tone for the fair that we are an entertainment destination. Audiences are coming back and it stayed that way for the fair.”

The 2023 fair was Hennessey's second at the helm of one of the largest outdoor events in the state. He was appointed mere months before the 2022 fair's opening day after Troy Waffner,  the Fair Director credited with revitalizing the fair, was appointed to a newly created job of Statewide Coordinator for all of New York's county fairs. A fair the size and scope of this behemoth had long been organized and well-planned and was ready to sail regardless of who was at the helm.

Now that he went through the trial by fire, learned the ropes and had an entire year to settle into the position, Hennessey has both stayed the course and expanded upon its goals. “My intention was going to make it an even more family friendly fair environment. We refocused on some of  the entertainment, but also Peppa Pig Live! & Disney Junior that are geared toward young audiences, but stellar names.”

One priority for the manager was to continue to emphasize inclusivity in all aspects of the fair, particularly programming. This year, Hennessey added an Asian Village to the other “villages” – immersive exhibits celebrating the heritage & culture – which included Indian Village, Pan African Village, and Latino Village. The villages featured dozens of live performances, augmenting the music acts gracing the stages of the permanent food stands including Sud's Courtside Grill, The West End, and Shamrock.  The Fair hosted 474 unique events over 13 days.

“Our Asian community is very vital, and we are very supportive,” said Hennessey. “We have a large Korean and Chinese population, but they didn't have a footprint at the fair. We worked with local businesses and leaders, and we had food vendors, cultural acts, fashion shows, opera & dance recitals and a martial arts demonstration. The programming was very deep.”

Greatness Awaits

Reaching out through grassroots organizing and programming development to new demographics and market segments creates a fair in both content and attendance more representative of New York today. But, this also creates a marketing challenge –how can an overall promotional and marketing campaign evoke a universal concept appealing to an every-diversifying population.

Family and nostalgia – concepts intrinsic to the very essence of a fair – the fair found to be the buttons to push the “Greatness Awaits” – 2023 marketing blitz. According to Hennessey, the campaign used Greatness Awaits as the tagline, then combined it with iconic images of the fair. He recalled one ad where there was a “little girl sitting on her father's shoulder looking up at a Ferris Wheel and it says, The First Time She Felt 10-Feet Tall. The child is very cute. Nostalgia is a big factor, we all feel like kids when we're at the fair.”

Another major shift in the marketing was creating a “Robust Editorial Calendar,” which included not just content on all social media platforms, with a heavy emphasis on video but updates throughout on the day. “Every day we report on the fair, highlighting the food and entertainment, not just the marquee entertainment but what is happening in the villages. We had new content at least every hour for all the 13 days.”

The Wade Shows' midway featured two new rides and a refurbished favorite, which also proved to be a big draw for families, according to the fair's official press release which stated that “According to Wade Shows, ridership was at an all-time high from a revenue perspective. Advance sales doubled over what was sold in 2022 and online sales tripled. Wade Shows also reports awarding more than 50,000 prizes throughout The Fair's 13-day run.”

“Wade Shows is a top notch midway provider.” said Hennessey. “Frank Zaitshik pays extreme attention to detail in every aspect, he's really a showmen from a bygone age, which is par-for-the-course for the quality of the product he produces.”

The fair  attracted 932,699, a robust attendance and higher than 2022  Attendance of 878,110. “Weather was on our side,” said Hennessey. “Weather does affect turnout. Some days were hotter than others. We had only two days of rain.”

The New York State Fair has been one most exciting success stories in the fair industry. Most of the growth can be attributed to a supportive state government which beginning in 2015, invested $120 million in infrastructure improvement. This year, New York Governor Kathy Hochul announced an $11 million grant for safety and the pedestrian experience enhancements to the fairgrounds, ensuring that this fair's success will continue.

 "For 175 years, The Fair has showcased the very best of New York agriculture, while providing an inclusive, family-family forum for fairgoers,” said Richard A. Ball, NYS Commissioner, Department of Agriculture and Markets “The strength of this New York tradition is felt by all who passed through the gates during the 2023 Fair. In anecdotes, we can measure this through the number of smiles seen on faces, the number of selfies taken with animals and the exciting new Dinosaur exhibit, the number of meals eaten at The Fair, and the number of thrills experienced on The Midway.”

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