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Overcoming Heatwave Days: Attendance & Spending Increase at York Fair
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Rain usually dampens any outdoor party but this summer's excessive heat seems to be the attendance challenge for fairs this July.  The World Meteorological Organization has declared that July 2023 was officially the hottest month on record, with the first three weeks of the month the hottest three-week period in known history. For the York State Fair, one of the largest annual events in Pennsylvania, extreme temperatures held back an even stronger post-lockdown resurgence for this Keystone State tradition.

Overall attendance reached 399,963, a 12 percent increase over last year's turnout – which in addition to some sweltering days, had additional challenges such as a last-minute cancellation of headline acts. But the 2023 edition of the York State Fair not only had better metrics than 2022, but reaffirmed the pre-COVID decision to move the fair from September to July, “The Fair went very smoothly with no major issues,” said Bryan Blair, CEO, York State Fair. “It was a very successful ten day run for our third straight fair held in the month of July. The first five days we had perfect weather.  Highs in the mid 80's and low humidity.  We endured a mini-heat wave on the last Thursday, Friday and Saturday but still would see solid crowds as the sun went down.   The last day of the fair we ended with perfect weather and a very solid crowd.”

He added that attendance was “running ahead 27 percent until the mini heat wave caught us on the last Thursday, Friday and Saturday.”

Gauging July

Timing is everything even when the circumstances – like extreme weather events – are beyond the control of even a fair manager. But, the assessment that the 2023 fair was successful, and if not for the heatwave, would've been even better, is not just a way to gauge this year's fair, but also the effectiveness of turning a late-summer-event into a mid-summer destination could also be more accurately evaluated. The July reset required a new midway provider as well as new food, beverage and merchandise vendors, entertainment from strolling to headliners, and a host of other partners. In addition, new marketing, promotion and outreach was planned in order to educate the community about the new dates and reinvigorate demand with a fresh and excited reimagined York State Fair.

Then came the COVID global pandemic and lockdown, then subsequent recovery from the crisis phases. The focus had to be navigating through uncertainties and making sure small problems are solved before they become bigger ones. It was unfair to judge and consider how effective was this calendar change, until now when there's more stability in the economy in general and the fair industry specifically, than any year since 2019. While there was significant increase over 2022 (352,077), it was still lower than the first post-lockdown fair in 2021 (532,037), held in July and comparable to the September attendance, which in 2019 was 529,574.

“As of right now there are no discussions internally in regards to changing the dates back to September,” said Blair. “This area of the country is very deeply rooted in traditions & history and is typically very slow to adapt to change.   Out of 456,000 residents there are certainly some who haven't accepted the new dates.  But we continue to see people come to the fair, our entries are up across all departments and the per-cap spending appears to be up so all of those signs indicate that having our fair in July is meeting expectations.”

Numbers, even attendance figures, do not paint the entire picture. “We are noticing fair guests staying later in the evenings and that includes families,” he said. “That was part of the reason the change was made.   The date change has certainly given us a broader selection of national touring acts to choose from for our Grandstand stage, and as a result, we are seeing our concert attendance boosted as we bring in bigger acts. We have also found that summer has given 4-H and FFA exhibitor opportunities that they did not have in the fall as far as showing their livestock, and they all seem to love the July dates."

Centennial Midway

That love was not limited to community programming. This year a key-stop on their carnival's 100th anniversary tour had a “record last day here on Sunday, July 30th,” said Blair. “Midway spending was up 14 percent for the 10 day run, which is right in line with our total attendance. It was our third year with Strates Shows and they do a great job for us.  We've developed a solid working relationship with Jimmy, John and Jay over the last three years.  They are great to work with on every level.”

The Strates Shows midway featured 45 rides, according to Blair.  “The Double Carousel and Giant Dutch Wheel are always popular here,” he added. “All together we had eight multi-trailer rides including a Reverchon Himalaya, Musik Express, Flying Bobs, Pirate, KMG Claw,  Wave Swinger, Double Carousel and Giant Dutch Wheel. Strates brought in a Go Gator kiddie coaster that was different this year. Strates provided a powerful ride lineup and we value our relationship with them.
“During the York State Fair, we celebrated our 100th birthday with our “100 minutes of free midway rides” promotion,” said Marty Biniasz, Director of Marketing & Promotions, Strates Shows. “ This was a simple, but powerful way of saying “thank you” to the City of York, the Susquehanna Valley and the entire South Central Pennsylvania region. “Strates Day” also included 100 minutes of free gate admission. A free midway combined with a free gate resulted in a successful “door buster” promotion that kick started a strong day.”

Creating optimum marketing conditions for this year's midway began last year at the IAFE Annual Convention when Biniasz  co-hosted with Blair “Opening Big... and Finishing Strong,” a workshop focusing on gate and carnival promotions. “Following the discussion, Bryan and his Marketing Director Montgomery Stambaugh implemented many of the best practices shared,” said Biniasz. “One example was the use of “Dollar Day” on Opening Day. The promotion infused great energy into the fair on “day one” and created a positive buzz in the community that carried through the first weekend."

Biniasz added, “Having completed our third year back at the York State Fair, we continue to build momentum. Opening Day through the fair's midpoint was on an upwards trend. Despite a bump in temperatures and some passing storms, we are extremely satisfied with the outcomes.  Bryan Blair has put together a dedicated, top-notch fair team who continually looks for ways to better the product. A dedicated effort is made annually to source the best Grandstand lineup possible, which is not an easy task, which directly effects ride, games and food revenue. Beyond the midway, I have seen continued growth in agriculture exhibits, ad education initiatives and displays inside the fair's “Horticultural Hall” and “Old Main Building."

America's First Fair

The 2023 marketing budget took a $50,000 hit due to the loss of State Marketing funding, reducing it to approximately $250,000, which was allocated  to 30 percent digital and  70 percent traditional media. “We doubled the digital spend this year and I would anticipate it will continue to increase as we move forward,” said Blair. “It's really the most affordable way to reach large numbers of people dollar for dollar. This year we hit socials a lot more and we started up Instagram again with posts weekly and several stories before and during Fair.  We also advertised on Instagram and TikTok this year along with Facebook for socials and with all of the digital campaigns/YouTube/Spotify. We increased our radius where we targeted to reach a wider audience.”

Even as the value and appeal of multiple social media platforms widens the audience for the York Fair, the marketing emphasis echoes the tried-and-true. The fair's perennial tagline remains “America's First Fair, as the York State Fair was founded in 1765,” said Blair.  “It is really hard to top that tagline and it's a badge we proudly wear.   We've discussed various themes over the last few years but when you're truly America's First Fair it's hard to not say so!”

Knowing what messages appeal to your audience is also about understanding the core appeal of a July fair to your community. “Where else in most of our towns can you go to find a full day (and night) that you can cram with the sights, smells, tastes and sounds of the fair?” asked Blair. “Even in a world full of rising costs, attending the fair can still be more affordable than many other entertainment choice such as going to the movies.   Out of our 10-day run, we had eight days that had some form of discounted admission or Promo Days.   A couple of those days even featured ‘free' admission and we also had Dollar Day on Opening Day and Two Dollar Tuesday.  Fairs truly are one of the last remaining slices of “Americana' left today.   Most all of us fairs have stayed true to our roots in agriculture and at our core, part of our purpose is to bring folks from the city and the country together to celebrate and enjoy being part of our communities.”
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