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Statewide Marketing Programs for County Fairs Introduced at NYSAAF Convention
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The most news worthy headline of the 2024 annual convention of the New York State Association of Agriculture Fairs (NSAAF) was that the state's Department of Agriculture & Markets is showing local and county fairs much needed support. Having invested more than $120 million in an ongoing infrastructure & capital improvements in the Great New York State Fair – the largest fair in the Empire State – New York announced one of the most innovative statewide marketing programs that both empowers individual fairs and strengthens the entire system.

Kelly Young, Director of Agricultural Development, took the occasion of the annual convention to bring attendees up to speed on the “initiatives that the Department of Agriculture and Markets is working on of interest to fairs,” said Jola Szubielski, Director of Public Information.

Passport Program

The convention took place less than two weeks after the State of the State address by New York Governor Kathy Hochul which included the County Fair Passport Program, an campaign created to encourage Summer Fair fandom. “The passport program was first announced in the Governor's 2024 State of the State address and its goal is to encourage visitor participation to New York's county and local fairs,” said Szubielski. “The Department of Agriculture & Markets will design, print, and distribute an agricultural fair passport booklet that will encourage attendance at the State's county and youth fairs by allowing fairgoers to collect stamps at each fair they visit. This initiative builds on the State's efforts, under the direction of the Governor, to further grow our county fairs, which serve as a foundation for agricultural education for young people.”  

Following the convention, the Agricultural Commissioner, Richard A. Ball, explained “Over the last year, we have had great discussions over a series of roundtables about how to increase the marketing and promotion of county fairs. The Governor has taken that a step further with the exciting new County Fair Passport Program, that will help draw more visitors. Our county fairs also provide an opportunity to improve youth and agricultural programming at our fairs, including at the Great New York State Fair.”

The Passport Program was warmly received by the conventioneers, who saw it as not just some much-needed support for the state's fairs, but a practical approach to building on the foundation already established by NYSAAF members. “It's an opportunity to create new fair junkies,” said Mark St Jacques Executive Secretary, NYSAAF. “I think it's a good idea, I'm a fair junkie too. People like going to fairs, it's fun. There's always been a great network of fairs, we have at least 4-to-5 meetings per year, where we share our ideas. The Passport program promotes all fairs.”

But creating more cohesion amid the state's fair industry was not the only positive marketing news Director Young presented at the NYSAAF convention. In addition to introducing a range of new, youth agricultural initiatives and programs, Young discussed a statewide marketing program allocating $10,000 per county fair to beef up their social media presence. “The Department of Agriculture and Markets will provide a grant opportunity of up to $10,000 per fair to be used for marketing, promotion, or education activities,” said Szubielski. “This will be released for use this fair season. This funding to individual fairs is in addition to a $1 million state-wide marketing campaign administered by the Department to promote all the fairs across the state with the intention of increasing fair attendance this summer.”

She added, “The State understands the importance of all the fairs and their critical role in educating our youth and all New Yorkers about the agricultural industry.  It is our hope that by increasing promotion and marketing of our fairs, we will expose even more people to the traditions of their local fairs and help enhance awareness of New York agriculture.

Although that details of this two-fold marketing plan is still being finalized as of press time, she said that the deliberate goals are: “to improve youth and agricultural programming initiatives at all fairs statewide, including the State Fair. The state has infused $25 million in capital funding to help update infrastructure at fairgrounds since 2016 , but this new marketing support from the administration is critical in providing direction and fostering a more collaborative approach to growing all of our county fairs statewide.”

News of the initiatives directed at the fair industry as a whole and the state refocusing on the needs of the individual events within the network energized the attitude at the convention. “The fair industry is strong in New York,” said St Jacques, who noted that the 2023 record-breaking state fair was a rising tide lifting all boats. “Fairs are not just thrown together. It takes a team of dedicated professionals and volunteers. Most fairs had good attendance last year, so the attitude was very optimistic at the convention. You can't control the weather, but 85 percent of what you do you can control, so we've gotten very creative. We've come back very strong from COVID.”

New Entertainment/Carnival Shortage

All of the 53 fairs were represented at this year's convention, which had better attendance due to its more centralized location in Syracuse. Total attendance exceeded 500, including tradeshow exhibitors and other fair partners. “We had more entertainers in our entertainment showcases,” he said. “We have a lot of new entertainment popping up. County fairs are booking more entertainment, especially strolling acts and a lot of music.”

There was also an influx of carnival company exhibitors, a trend in response to a lack of midway providers in the state. There had gotten to be fewer carnivals [in New York],” he said. “We probably have half the carnivals that we had before the lockdown. It's probably one of the biggest changes in the fairs, there's less out there for county fairs. Some fairs were going to go without a carnival or they've had to change the dates.”

With fewer midway providers, the issue has been piecing together a route. County fairs are shorter in length and smaller in scope than the state's premier fairs, and the fair network was being tested. “It's creating that route among the fairs that has become more challenging. The same is true for these new carnival companies as it is for the new entertainers. That is just part of the business now working together on a route. One of the biggest things has been the labor shortage, which has hurt the carnival companies.”

The most noticeable trend among trade show exhibits? “Online ticketing systems. More fairs are seeing higher online presales. At the fair, it's more kiosks and scanners, no more ticket booths. That's a trend that all the carnival companies are pushing, it's not just for the bigger fairs anymore.”

Fairs may have had a successful season in 2023, but fairs have also been paying more attention to the rest of the year. “Fairs are looking to increase off-season revenue. More fairs are using space for winter storage rentals as well as booking more off-season events. Fairs in New York are looking at their fairgrounds more as a year-round business.”

Perhaps the most exciting change at this year's NYSAAF convention was the youth movement. The Empire State fair industry is offering a counter-argument against the graying of the industry at the grass roots levels. “There were a higher number of young people at this convention. Being young in the fair industry used to be just being under 60. But we are getting more under 40, and it's great to see, because at fairs, we are seeing younger families in higher numbers.”

He added that the for the first time, the president and first and second vice president are women and under 40. “It's been a gradual movement over the last 10 years, the fair industry is attracting younger people, and more females, It's a trend happening on the national level too.”

It's also a trend reinforced by a supportive state government who sees fairs not just connected to each other, but essential components of the agriculture industry. “New York's county fairs provide an incredible opportunity to reach thousands of New Yorkers, who are increasingly interested in knowing about agriculture, and introduce them to our farmers, producers, and the young people who show their animals,” said Szubielski. “ They can serve as a foundation of agricultural education for those young people as well, helping them to get excited about agriculture, and ultimately get involved in agriculture as a career. We see the county fairs as an important part of the agricultural education, and ultimately, the agricultural workforce pipeline.”

The new officers inducted at the 2024 NYSAAF convention were: President: Julia Reynolds (Washington County Fair); 1st Vice Pres. Lauren Delaney (Saratoga County Fair); 2nd Vice Pres: Lisa Jackson (Otsego County Fair); 3rd Vice Pres:  Rachel Lisk (Lewis County Fair) and Past President: John Craft (Columbia County Fair).
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