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Despite a Tornado, Erie County Fair Rebounds

9/11/2017

By Timothy Herrick

Photo courtesy of Erie Co Fair

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In one of the biggest year to year jumps in attendance for any county fair, the 178th Erie County Fair in Hamburg, New York increased attendance 21 percent. While the year to year to jump is remarkable, which made it the 2nd largest fair in its history, what seems equally remarkable is that a day before the fair, a rare but destructive tornado wreaked havoc on the fairgrounds.

According to local news reports, an extreme thunderstorm caused two tornados to form with the one in Hamburg being rated an "EF2", with wind speeds of 105 MPH.
 
Tornado Publicity
According to Spectrum News: "The Erie County Fairgrounds and adjacent Buffalo Raceway in Hamburg sustained serious damage. New York Gov. Andrew Cuomo traveled west to tour damage at the fairgroundPhoto By Erie Co Fairs, set to host the popular Erie County Fair in less than one month..."Mother Nature likes to test us...," said Cuomo, D-New York. "The tornadoes were a high-level test, I think we graduated to the next level of testing by Mother Nature, but Buffalo and Erie County are ready for it and can handle it."
"We were certainly challenged with the fair," said Denny Lang, CFE, CEO/Fair Manager, and Erie County Agricultural Society. 

The damage to the fairgrounds was extensive, and the work crews worked feverishly to clean up the mess. The reaction was as soon as possible. The tornado ran its path through the grounds around 12:30 pm, and by 2:00 pm, staff was planning strategy around a white board and cleaning crews were organized. The response may have been effective and comprehensive, but as Marty Biniasz, Marketing Manager, Erie County Agricultural Society, points out, cleanup is actually something fairs do best. "In mere hours after the Tornado hit, we had contractors on the property cleaning up. We're accustomed to cleaning up, 75 percent of what we do is clean up, we have to clean up every day of the fair for the next day and after the final day of the fair, we have to cleanup to have an event the following day." 

By opening day, while some landscape damage and a "bent up" main gate were still visible, the fair was ready. According to John Strates of James E. Strates Shows, the tornado "did not affect us at all, the fair had a big job and by the time we arrived, everything was ready," he said. "We had some equipment come by truck, then train, and then more equipment by truck, but by the time we got there the fairgrounds were all squared away. That particular fair has a tremendous crew working for them, from top management down to the groundskeeper."

One upside of the Erie County tornado of 2017 and its landing on the actual Erie County Fairgrounds was the news attention it generated. "We had tremendous news coverage," said Lang. "We had constant television reporters, asking if we were going to be open. They interviewed a lot of people, and we were working seven days a week, 10 - 12 hours a day, to open on time."  

According to Biniasz, post-tornado, in the weeks leading up to the fair, there were more "than 200 media messages about the fair. This earned media exposed the fair and our rebuilding of the fairgrounds. The media coverage was up and down the East Coast and as far away as Seattle and Los Angeles. We had great national coverage, and amazing regional coverage."

Severe weather event footage may be a news story with wide interest, but what impressed Biniasz the most was the community outpouring. "There is so much love for this institution in the community." 

Best 12 Days of Summer
With the post-Tornado cleanup and the anticipatory hook being the question of if this fair will make opening day saturating the news, the fair's marketing remained concentrated on its perennial message of fair fun, entertainment and attractions. The fair's tagline has been the "Best 12 Days of Summer," a theme coupled with the same logo and color that past five years. "We stayed consistent with the amount we spend and our theme and advertising," said Biniasz. In recent years, electronic billboards have played a bigger role in their advertising and this year, a large factor was website "takeovers," where the websites of radio stations and other media partners would feature only Erie County Fair ads on their homepage. "We do a lot of countdowns in advertising, which builds anticipation."

Social media, while also part of the countdown strategy, "gave viewers real time experience with the fair. Due to the quantity of earned media, our social media program was a nice counter balance. We engage people on social media with entertainment content and are very aggressive, with eight to 10 different posts a day on social media."

The final attendance for 2017 was 1,193,279, an estimated 21 percent increase from 2016 and is the second highest attended Fair in the Erie County Fair's history (All-time record achieved in 2014 - 1,220,101). The rebound followed a pattern typical for fairs - a strong year followed a weak year. Last year, a combination of an August heatwave and rain on five days, squelched the turnout. This year, "the weather was fantastic," said Lang. "We had to postpone a tractor pull that was about it."

Spending was also strong, and according to Lang concession sales were up 8.7 percent, parking revenue up 2.3 percent, and carnival revenue up 17 percent.  Lang pointed out that some of this spending may be due to a healthy economy. Hamburg is technically a suburb of Buffalo, and "Buffalo is rebounding, there's a lot of building and other economic activity." 

Strates Midway 
One of the oldest and most revered carnival families, Strates Shows has been providing the Erie County fair carnival since 1924, one of the longest contracts in fair history (an extension to the affiliations will take the partnerships through its centennial at 2024. "The fair is awesome, I'm really happy that we have the longest contractual relationship between carnival and fair. The fair itself is stellar" said Strates.

He added, "last year we had some weather issues, but this year we had one of highest grossing years at this fair."

The Strates midway featured 67 rides, a typical footprint for the carnival company at this event. New rides for the fair included a new Elephant Ride, Sizzler and a Fun House.  One significant change to the midway layout was an expansion of the Kiddieland. Strates said that the fairground moved a wall, and that "gave us more room, so we were able to put in more tables and rest areas, we increased the space."

An important symbol of this multi-decade relationship is the annual arrival of the Strates "Fair Train," which pulls into Hamburg every year, signaling the start of the build-up to the fair. "It's our most visited unloading of the train, and it's a tradition that has gone on there since we started with the fair. It's great advertising for the fair, and is covered by the newspaper and media. I grew up at this fair, and it's great that this tradition is still working." 

Lang called this year's train arrival one of the best attended, with a crowd of about 1,500. "It always gets people cranked up, everyone will watch the rides and see the fair grow into a little town."

Actually, the Strates Train day will be one of the many things Lang will miss. Although an official announcement is still forthcoming, Lang told Carnival Warehouse that 2017 will be his last fair and he plans to retire by the end of this year. Lang has been manager for two decades, but his affiliation with the fair actually dates back to 1959 when he first showed horses at the Erie County Fair. "I am proud of the fact that the size of the fair has grown, and between five and seven of our buildings have been revitalized, but the fair still has the same values we've always had, we are still the same county fair we've always been."

He added, "a fair's success cannot only be measured in people, but in vendors, exhibits, and most importantly, in memories."

For his swan song year, Lang noted that there were challenges -- the tornado, rebounding from a weak 2016, and even a small fire that broke out at a food stand - "It was important we had a good fair, even though there were a lot of challenges. For my last fair it was very rewarding. "

Strates praised the tenure of Lang at the helm of the fair, underscoring his feeling that he has been a transformative force for this Empire State summer institution. "What he has done has been unbelievable. From a carnival company's point of view, 20 years ago, we didn't have good water pressure, there wasn't power in the back end and there was no pavement. He changed all that so we could have a better midway. Every issue we have had, he listened and solved it. He's been a pleasure to work with, and we couldn't ask for a better man at the top."







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