The Great New York State Fair had a total attendance of 965,147, topping 2013's numbers by 113,990 visitors. Fair management is still completing all the calculations, but so far it is apparent that revenue was up across the board: Per capita spending was up by an estimated six percent; Midway revenue by a whopping 30 percent, and Concert ticket sales leaped 44 percent.
When the New York State Fair concluded on Labor Day, the unanimous verdict was this major northeast fair has been rejuvenated by new attractions, new ideas and a new midway provider.
The strength of the turnaround for the fair seems to have gained momentum as the 12-day event progressed. On Saturday, August 30, a sellout concert by Jason Aldean and Florida Georgia Line was accompanied by the largest attendance ever recorded in its 168-year history with 120,617 fairgoers coming through the gates, breaking a record that had stood for 25 years.
But two days later, the closing day of the fair, the New York State Fair implemented its first ever "Dollar Day" - Monday, September 1 bringing another 122,870 through the gates to set a new record for the final day of the fair. Dollar Days - or a similar deep discount - have become a powerful marketing tool foe some fairs, and the New York State Fair jumped on this bandwagon. The uniqueness of this fair's Dollar Day was that is on both the closing day - and a holiday, Labor Day.
It seems counter-intuitive to add a discount day on what would be instant customer enticements -the last day of a fair and a day when schools are closed and people are off of work. The reality, however was that Labor Day always under-performed.
"With the dollar admission, we turned an okay day into a great day," said Troy Waffner, Acting Fair Manager. "On Labor Day, families start getting ready for back to school, that can thin the crowd early. But the combination of the dollar specials, and that there are people who wait until the last day to come to the fair, they went out of their way to come to the fair. It turned an okay day into a great day. That brought people back to the fair, a kind of summer's end, and if you get people onto the fairground, they will spend."
Changing Things Up
Waffner has been Assistant Director of the New York State Fair and was named Acting Director after his predecessor abruptly left after just eight months on the job. Waffner grew up in a farm family and has been attending the New York State Fair since he was a child; the 2014 edition was his fifth as part of the management team, and his first at the helm. His philosophy is to think outside the box when it comes to the fair; new promotion and marketing ideas are at the top of that outside the box list, but he admitted, "it's a balancing act. The biggest challenge has been making sure all the traditional things, the Americana appeal, remain while also changing things up"
One change was more proactive booking of the fair's concert series. The State Fair Grandstand sales were up 44 percent, including sellouts by Jason Aldean, Carrie Underwood and Kid Rock. "We gave people more reason to come to the fair with our concerts," said Waffner. "A lot of the attendance is driven by our grandstand this year. After last year, we came out with guns blazing, working with booking agents. We were able to get into the band's routing earlier than we had been, and that is the key. We locked up Jason Aldean early. We also worked on the scheduling with other fairs in the east, like the Allentown Fair."
The most significant change this year was the midway by Wades Shows. James E. Strates Shows had been the midway provider for the New York State Fair for an astounding 72 years, but after a heated and protracted RFP process, the midway contract was awarded to Wade. "The biggest change at the fair was the Midway," said Waffner. "People were nervous."
New Midway/New Ideas
But the need for fresh attitudes that could boost fair revenue was well served by bringing in a new midway provider; Wade Shows. "With Frank (Frank Zaitshik, President/CEO, Wade Shows Inc.) there was no sense of entrenchment, we had new ideas and an acceptance of new ideas," said Waffner.
He added, "The midway was as clean as it ever was, Wade had all their personnel in uniform, and people really appreciate the more professional look. Part of the contract with Wade was to double the green-scaping at the midway. Wade even added a misting tent. Everything Wade Shows brought to the Midway was overwhelmingly positive."
"One of our signatures is the midway presentation and cleanliness, " said Zaitshik, Wade Shows CEO. "We utilized a combination of our rest areas and children areas, which had terrific shade trees, the public loved it."
According to Waffner, while the final 2014 fair numbers are still being calculated, "we expect an increase in midway revenue of approximately 30 percent."
The new midway, which featured two Kiddielands, included 63 rides - "it was all the rides we could fit," said Zaitshik. Wade Shows rides were supplemented by Powers Great American Midway and Dreamland Amusements , whom Zaitshik called "great coalition partners." The midway included a new Delusion by Dreamland, and a Powers Great American Midways refurbished Speed. The midway also featured the RC-48 roller coaster, the largest roller coaster to ever appear at the fair, the Crazy Mouse roller coaster, the Enterprise, Drag Strip Mega Slide and Rainbow. A new Helicopter ride also had its NY State Fair premier in kiddieland. "We had a good mix, some super-spectacular rides and many high capacity rides. We had enough capacity for the larger crowds."
Not only was Wade Shows replacing a midway provider in place for more than half a century, but the company was leaping into the spotlight of one of the most high-profile fairs in the world. "Everything in New York is larger than life, and we knew we would get much more media attention," said Zaitshik. "Going in, we felt a great deal of pressure. Before the fair opened, we got a ton of attention because we replaced the previous midway. We knew when the fair opened we would get more attention. We knew there would be a lot of comparisons."
The more intensive scrutiny included a publicized visit by the inspectors from Department of Agriculture and Markets (AGM) - the fair is controlled by this department - and the N.Y. Department of Labor to assure the public the new midway provider was up to code. "We didn't want any snafus," said Zaitshik, who was quick to add, "we had zero incidents. It turned out to be one of the easiest fairs to deal with in terms of management, it was a real pleasure."
Zaitshik was also genuinely impressed by the upper New York state crowds. "We had lots and lots of compliments," he said. " The public responded to the variety of rides and to the condition of rides."
Fairgoers also welcomed the ticketing innovations introduced to the New York State Fair by Wade Shows. "The public embraced the advanced sales of $20 arm bands," said Zaitshik. In addition to advanced wrist band sales - good for any day of the fair, even weekends - Wade Shows introduced advanced sale $70 MegaPasses which gave fairgoers unlimited rides on any day throughout the run of the fair. "It was very successful," said Zaitshik. We gave the public what they wanted with the armbands and MegaPasses. The fair had an all time record advanced sales program and our preliminary reports show an all time record ride gross."
He added, "the fair had wristbands before, but not on every day. We had them every day, which gave the public more options and more value. It took off."
"It was Frank's idea for offer a $20 advanced ride wristband," said Waffner. "Our advance sales tripled."
The fair-wide dollar promotion day also meant capacity crowds for the closing day of the midway. "The dollar day set an all time attendance record and an all time ride revenue," said Zaitshik. "There were so many people we had to pull tickets two hours before closing, which was nine o'clock. An hour and fifteen minutes prior to closing, we were walking around telling people that that the lines were too long, they wouldn't be able to ride, but we elected to honor any unused credits on Fun Cards next year."
I Taste NY
To fulfill a contractual obligation, Wade Shows added a Taste of New York booth, serving New York known food items - such as Buffalo Chicken Wings, New York Cheese Cake, General Tsao Chicken, "which was invented in New York City," said Zaitshik. "Adam West, who books with us, set up our Taste of New York food court." Zaitshik added that the West also booked game concessions on the midway
The New York State features approximately 300 food vendors . "talking to our food vendors, they were having near records, and said they counted more cash than ever before," said Waffner.
The most popular new food item at the fair was the Twinx - a Twixt candy bar, stuck in a Twinkie, wrapped in bacon, then deep fried and served with a caramel and chocolate sauce - made by Fried Specialties. The item was actually was the top of the list of an Associated Press wire story on the summer's top fair foods - "A Deep-Fried, Bacon-Wrapped Fair Season is Here," that appeared August 24. ""Before we even open, they're lining up outside my booth," said Jim Hasbrouck, of Fried Specialties, who was quoted in the AP story.
The Twinx caused a sensation, but according to Waffner, the most popular foods are the less eccentric perennial standbys, such as sausage sandwiches by Basilio's State Fair Sausage.
Expand & Relocate
The New York Wine Slushie is another standby, served at the Taste NY Wine, Beer, and Spirits Village. This open-air, massive-tent pavilion was expanded this year to accommodate the distilled spirits and hand-crafted beers as well as an increase from 11 to 20 vintners. New York produced alcoholic beverages are on an upwards growth cycle. The fair also added the New York State Brew Pub and Distillery, which premiered at the 2013 New York State Fair, but was expanded this year and a Taste NY wine and cheese pairing, held twice a day at the Horticulture Building, often to standing room only crowds.
In addition to being expanded to include other beverages - it was formerly just the Taste NY Wine Village - the Taste NY Wine, Beer, and Spirits Village was moved to the Colonnades, a more heavily trafficked area of the return. "By popular demand we brought it back to a superior location," said Waffner.
The Colonnades is adjacent to the Chevy Court, a live music facility, offering free with admission shows, including a well received reunion of the Classic Rock group, the Doobie Brothers. "People could have their Wine Slushie and go to the show," said Waffner. "It was always busy this year, a lot of hustle and energy."
Expanding the offerings to include other N.Y. made alcoholic beverages - which Waffner said was an initiative started by Governor Andrew M. Cuomo - and moving it to a better location became a win-win. "It promoted New York-made products, which is why it was expanded. But it also became a great coalescing point for fairgoers," said Waffner.
Another new facility for the New York State Fair was the expanded Dairy Birthing Center, which became one of the more popular agricultural exhibits. "It was hugely popular," said Waffner. "Hundreds of people at a time sat for a couple of hours to watch a calf being born."
Waffner is committed to keeping New York's Agriculture Industry the star attraction at the fair, a fact recognized by the increased support the New York State Fair has been receiving from state government.
"The Great New York State Fair brings together the best that New York's agricultural industry has to offer - ultimately raising the profile of so many farmers, vendors and small business owners from across Upstate," said Cuomo. "With new leadership, a revitalized infrastructure, home-grown products at every corner, and a renewed emphasis on its natural strengths, this was truly the best Fair yet."
Richard A. Ball, State Agriculture Commissioner, acknowledged that the agricultural emphasis at the fair was a major factor in its 2014 comeback. "We crafted a venue with agriculture front and center, and as a result people, turned out in droves," said Ball. "I couldn't be prouder of the work our team did to bring the Fair back to a venue that all New Yorkers can be proud of. I thank Troy Waffner for his tireless work in making this Fair an undeniable success."
NYSF "hearts" NY
The 2014 New York State Fair received promotional assistance from the I LOVE NEW YORK advertising campaign. This iconic and renowned promotional campaign - the logo is considered the first time the word love was replaced by a drawing of a heart - was launched in 1977 and is one of the longest sustained themes of any destination marketing campaign.
According to Waffner, for the 2013 fair, "the Governor got us together," and marketing the New York State Fair was infused with a fresh perspectives. "They brought a new energy to our marketing," said Waffner. "We worked closer with bus operators and Amtrak. We advertised in the city (New York City) as well as the Hudson Valley and Western New York, which we hadn't really done in years."
The Great New York State Fair was prominently featured in I LOVE NEW YORK's summer tourism campaign, which included extensive direct marketing, advertising, and media promotions. "The Great New York State Fair is one of our state's most popular attractions, and by marketing it through the I LOVE NEW YORK campaign we are promoting it to the largest audience yet," said Governor Cuomo.
New promotions and marketing - plus cooperative weather - adds up to successful fair. But nothing builds confidence among fair personnel like large crowds having fun and spending money. "The Fair is something that gets in your blood when you work here," said Waffner. "The numbers being up reinvigorates the fair staff and vendors. You can feel it."