Kohr’s leaves York Fair because ‘it’s going downhill.’ Can attendance be revived?
A large orangeade from Kohr’s, pictured here in 2015. Kohr’s Famous Orangeade will not be at the 2017 York Fair, citing dwindling attendance, among other issues, Gregory Kohr, president of Kohr’s, said. (Photo: Chris Dunn, York Daily Record)
(York) — Gregory Kohr remembers working at his family’s stand at the York Fair as an 18 year old, serving ice cream, custard and, of course, Kohr’s famous orangeade.
He remembers days when the crowds were so packed, he “couldn’t walk around during the day.”
But Kohr’s Famous Orangeade, a staple of the York Fair for decades, will not be at the 2017 fair, which runs from Sept. 8 through Sept. 17.
It wasn’t an easy decision, said Kohr, now the president of Kohr’s Frozen Custard. But he said it’s taking too much work to run the stand when the fair’s attendance is dwindling.
“It’s been going downhill,” Kohr said. “It was not enjoyable for me. Business-wise, we’re not doing what we used to.”
Michael Froehlich, general manager for the York Fair, looks at the fair’s attendance differently. While overall attendance figures vary year-to-year, other factors like number of participants in events, and gross income from rides and food vendors, has increased.
“We do a pretty darn good job promoting the interests of the county,” Froehlich said.
Some other vendors in this year’s fair expressed concerns similar to Kohr’s. Froehlich, despite defending the fair, acknowledged it needs to continue to make changes to stay relevant every year.
Watch a time lapse of the York Fair at sunset. Chris Dunn, York Daily Record
Fair numbers are down
In 2016, more than 555,000 people visited during the 10 days of the York Fair, the fourth lowest attendance number over the last 12 years.
The fair’s highest total attendance in the past 12 years was in 2012, when 642,363 people attended. But since then, attendance hasn’t come close to that, and last year it was 555,252.
“They need to do something to draw people in,” said Pat Rose, a committee chairperson for the York Professional Firefighters Local 627 who has worked at the fair for 29 years.
The fair, which has averaged 559,156 the last four years, hasn’t had a year with over 600,000 since 2012. Weekdays, always a tough draw at the fair, continued to see attendance drop. Tuesday and Wednesday of the 2016 fair saw only 20,434 and 21,657 respectively, compared to 86,772 and 46,521 respectively in 2005.
Rose acknowledges the lower numbers, but says attendance is even worse than that.
“The fair can put out whatever numbers they want, but we see,” Rose said. “Longtime vendors know what it’s been like over the years. There are days where we’re standing with our hands in our pockets when we used to be busy.”
Froehlich, asked about Rose’s words, said only that the fair is doing well.
Anthony Moley, owner of 59-year fair vendor Moley’s Pizza, said he decides “on a year-to-year basis” whether to run a stand at the fair.
“This year, I’m in and I’m hoping for the best,” he said.
While some vendors say they’ve noticed a change in fair attendance, Froehlich said he doesn’t “fall into the trap” of dissecting attendance numbers.
The fair judges success on participants in the fair — people entering contests at Horticulture Hall and Old Main, and livestock entries — as well as attendance at concerts and gross income for food and rides. Those numbers have remained consistent or increased over the years, he said.
The numbers don’t always tell the whole story, though. For example, the number of exhibitors dropped from 2,619 in 2015 to 2,349 in 2016, a hangover effect of the avian flu that barred poultry from being entered in the 2015, fair records state.
Gross food and beverage concessions rose from $1.4 million in 2009 to $1.5 million in 2016, with two years — 2013 and 2015 — eclipsing $1.7 million in total sales, according to fair records.
The biggest factor in a fair’s success, Froehlich said, remains the weather.
“Give me 10 perfect (weather) days and we’ll show you big numbers,” Froehlich said.
Even with good weather, vendors say they need big numbers to be successful. Vendors must pay rent, utilities and 17 percent of their profits to the fair. Some vendors who were interviewed said they’re still making money, but not nearly the money they made at previous fairs.
Should the fair open for lunch?
The toughest hours at the fair, Kohr said, are the afternoons, especially between the opening of the fair – 11 a.m. or noon depending on the day – and 3 p.m. when the rides start.
Vendors said weekday afternoon hours are always tougher for business, and would be better if rides were open during lunch.
“We’ve been lucky enough to find sombody, but we pay somebody to sit in there during the day,” Moley said. “It’s an issue. There’s a bit of traffic, but it’s really not worth being open… it’s a waste of time.”
That isn’t a new problem, and the fair has tried to solve it before. In 2006, the fair opened three hours later during the week, but changed back to noon the following year after the public criticized the move because they wanted lunch hours.
Changing the start time of the fair and its rides was a resolution that “wouldn’t please everybody,” Froehlich said.
The rides open at 3 p.m., Froehlich said, because children are in school and opening them earlier would be “a waste.”
“Why would you want to open up a ride at noon if there’s no young people to ride them?” Froehlich said. “This is my 39th year in the business and if you can please the vast majority of the fair, great. We don’t live in a perfect world.”
Weeknight acts strong enough?
The fair has suffered during the week, vendors said, because entertainment lined up for the grandstand those days has not packed the punch it used to.
“Sure, there’s free entertainment, but that doesn’t draw like the grandstand does with a decent act on the stage,” Rose said.
Rose said that in the past, headline bands like Lynyrd Skynyrd would play during the week, bringing more people into the fairgrounds, but on weeknights in recent fairs, the grandstand has given way to less alluring attractions, like harness racing.
This year’s fair has a five-day gap between headline acts Jeff Foxworthy on Saturday and Lynyrd Skynyrd on Thursday. The fair has filled the gap with attractions including harness racing on two nights and a high school band competition on the first Sunday.
“People ask, ‘Why can’t you get Taylor Swift or Justin Beiber?’ Well, that’s easier said than done,” Froehlich said.
Froehlich said costs for big name musicians have gone up, and signing talents to perform at the fair around their touring schedules isn’t easy. Add in the appeal of nearby large-scale venues in Hershey and Baltimore, and fair officials are left putting together a large puzzle, Froehlich said.
Ed Gotwalt, founder of Mr. Ed’s Concessions underneath the grandstand, believes the fair has done well with providing acts for the grandstand, given the circumstances.
“In today’s world, there aren’t as many people touring and (those who are) are charging incredible rates,” said Gotwalt, a vendor at the fair for 42 years.
To combat the lack of big names on weeknights, the fair has followed trends at other fairs by providing more motorsport events, like a monster truck rally on Sept. 16 and a demolition derby on Sept. 17.
“We’re still going to maintain a high level of entertainment,” Froehlich said. “I think when you look at the entertainment we’re bringing in, it’s a good value for fairgoers.”
Fair works to stay relevant
The biggest issue for a 252-year-old fair, Froehlich said, is trying to stay relevant, even if it is a county tradition.
Froehlich said the fair has had to plan events and activities that appeal to York’s rural and urban demographics.
“You have the best of both worlds (in York County),” Froelich said. “We do a good job of showcasing the agriculture, but we’ve allowed the arts and crafts and the food competitions too.”
This year, Froehlich said the fair will introduce a new agricultural educational program where visitors can learn more about livestock and planting crops, and can talk to experts on farming.
He noted the success of the fair’s birthing station — an idea taken from other fairs — that debuted in 2012. To bring in more people, the fair also moved the Fair Queen pageant from August to the first Saturday of the fair, allowing fairgoers to see the actual competition.
When it comes to vendor complaints, Froehlich admits that he can’t please everybody, but the fair has listened to vendors and made changes. He cited the 2013 fair, when organizers changed a mandate that vendors could only buy soda products from a particular company. He remains open to talking with vendors about any issues.
“I think we have a great group of vendors, you have the locals and the ones who travel the fair routes,” Froehlich said. “The vast majority of our people come back every year and they must be doing well if they come back.”
While admission prices to the fair haven’t changed, organizers have instituted several promotional days offering free and discounted tickets. Some days, like Tuesday’s Utz Day and Wednesday’s senior citizen day, specifically target the noon to 3 p.m. area vendors have been concerned about.
While Kohr will be one of the vendors sitting out this year’s fair, he isn’t opposed to coming back if changes are made.
“I hope this is a wake-up call,” Kohr said. “It’s a large risk for all the vendors going out there when you have to pay for everything, get set up, pay insurance, and tear down, but if they would make changes, I would definitely come back.”
This story is part of a partnership between WITF and the York Daily Record.