Last year, Mother Nature dumped 5.5 inches on the 17-day South Florida Fair during. This year the rain essentially held off, except for the final day, which means that beating last year may have been easy. But to make this year truly succeed was not just easy, but the Big Easy.
The South Florida State Fair's marketing strategy is as unique as it is traditional. Every year, the fair celebrates a different city or region with a marketing theme, tying together fresh ads and other marketing material with new exhibits, entertainment and food. This year's place to highlight was New Orleans and it turns out that the Crescent City was just the place for the fair to turnaround from last year's soggy disappointment.
"This particular theme worked particularly well, and we had a very
good run," said Rick Vymlatil, CFE, President/CEO South Florida Fair & Palm Beach County Exposition.
Floats, Food & Dr. John
Fairs are meant to be festive and what city is more festive than a town renowned for great food and music and host of one of the biggest annual parties on the planet - Mardis Gras. The South Florida State Fair used this city's reputation as an effective excuse to turn it up a notch. For example, instead of one parade - the fair held parades three times a day which featured authentic floats from Mardi Gras World, a New Orleans based company who makes the same floats used in New Orleans during the actual Mardi Gras. "People were throwing beads, there was the food, we really gave the people the flavor of New Orleans," said Vymlatil.
He added that the fair was "one of the most successful" in the event's 105 years of history.
The Mardi Gras theme was further reinforced with genuine New Orleans entertainment - including legends Dr. John & the Night Trippers and the Preservation Hall Jazz Band - as well as selection of New Orleans dishes that included crawfish, jambalaya, New Orleans Gumbo, shrimp & grits and po-boy sandwiches. "Everybody loves New Orleans and everyone commented about the energy level at this year's fair," said Vymlatil. "All the components came together and everything contributed to having our theme put people in a good frame of mind."
$2 Fat Tuesdays
New Orleans and Mardi Gras also lent itself to ultra-discount days - two consecutive Tuesdays were declared... wait for it... Fat Tuesdays, where admission and rides were $2 - and "all the food vendors offered something for $2," said Vymlatil. This promotion heated up the weekday action, with an average Tuesday being around 3,200 but with the Fat Tuesday discounted day was 8,200. "It was a big exclamation point," said Vymlatil. "We know other fairs are doing discounted Tuesday, that's where we got that idea and of course with worked. It really helped a slow day."
Attendance reached 448,025 not a record for the fair, but a robust turnout and spending was higher. Vymlatil said the midway had five record days.
According to Frank Zaitshik, owner of Wade Shows, midway revenue exceeded $4.8 million. The South Florida Fair is one of the first fairs for both the industry and this carnival company. Last year started with a rainout of this major event and the 2016 H-2B visa crisis causing labor shortages in the first quarter of the year. What a difference a year makes! "I'm so fortunate, to be part of such a great fair, we had a great start this year," he said. "It appeared we were on track to set a record, and we had some record days, but the bad weather on the final day of the fair held us back. But I think we are in for a very good season."
The Wade Shows midway featured 74 rides, "we made the most of this limited footprint and we had many high capacity rides and we were able to increase the ride per capita spending," said Zaitshik.
He stated that the Giant Wheel, Roller Coaster and Himalaya were top grossing and perennial favorites at this fair. The fair also saw the debut of the new Street Fighter 360, and the new "re-manufacture" of the Spider Ride, "which was very well received, and we are very happy with the appearance and performance of this ride," said Zaitshik.
In addition. Wade Shows sponsored the fair's annual gala - named Bourbon Street Bash in keeping with the Crescent City theme. Held the second Friday of the fair, the silent auction at the event raised more than $16,000 that goes toward local high school student scholarships. The South Florida Fair's scholarship program was established in 1982, and this year awarded more than $35,000 in scholarships. "It was a great event and very worthwhile," said Zaitshik. "We were asked to sponsor and we did. Wade Shows is not just a carnival company that comes to town every year and just leaves, we are a company who is invested in the community."
"The colorful rides light up the night skies whenever the fair's in town, making it obvious to anyone passing by that it's 'fair time,' but there are a lot of events that happen within the fair that benefit the community," said Vicki Chouris, Chief Operating Officer, South Florida Fair. "We love knowing that we're bringing joy to fairgoers and beyond."
Vymlatil said the fair raised the cost of an all-day wrist band to $40 - up from $35 - the first increase since 2004 - and while that caused some pre-fair apprehension, and was not a decision made lightly, "judging by the ride gross and midway attendance, the increase in the wristbands didn't really have a negative impact," he said.
The fair featured 127 food vendors and unaudited figures indicate sales of $6.5 million, which was up dramatically from the rained out 2016 and even higher than the 2015 figures. The influx of Cajun and New Orleans favorites certainly "jazzed up" the palates of South Florida Fair fairgoers, but Vymlatil noted that "generally our food vendors do a good job of meeting the challenge of doing a new twist on a product and that creates excitement," he said.
Notable new cuisine this year was a "quarter pound of bacon on a stick, covered with either chocolate or maple syrup," he said.
The robust spending by fairgoers indicates an uptick in the regional economy. "In our case, the recession didn't happen here until 2009, and that was reflected in spending," he said. "But we have seen spending increase during the non-fair events we hold here. We had a Halloween event last year that was very strong. People are willing to spend money if the see the value of the event is worthwhile. I think that means the economy has improved."
Another sign of better economic times occurred in the livestock segment of the fair. "We had a record year in our market auction, exceeding half a million dollars at $522,000," said Matthew Daly, Agricultural Operations Manager, South Florida Fair . "Our previous record was near $460,000 back in 2015."
Vymlatil added that in addition to an improved economy, the tumultuous political year and generally negative headlines have also primed consumers to seek the distraction of traditional fair fun. "People want to escape the negative stuff they are hearing about all the time," said Vymlatil. "They want to have a good time at the fair."
Marketing Mardi Gras
Tellingly, the fair utilized one of the most recognizable New Orleans songs - Let The Good Times Roll - in its marketing which also included a themed Mardi Gras Mask. The adverting budget was about $600,000, about the same as year. There were two important shifts.
One was in terms of mediums - it's not that the fair allocated less money to print and more money to online venues - "but all the newspapers now featured our ads on their websites, so we actually increased our digital presence through our traditional partners," said Vymlatil.
The other shift was an expansion into two neighboring counties - North Palm Beach and Broward County. Increasing the reach of the fair started in 2014, and placements in billboards and other mediums in these bordering counties has grown every year. "This was a big one, we have been expanding into these areas with great success," he said. "It has definitely been a jump in attendance."
The one change for next year might be eliminating some high-cost entertainment stars. Seven out of the 17 nights at the fair featured national known acts. Dr. John, who rarely plays any fairs, may have been a clever augmentation underscoring the New Orleans festivities, other acts included a mix of Classic Rock, County and a night of Contemporary Christian. Some of the other performances include 38 Special, Chase Bryant and Neal McCoy, and while the entertainment was successful, the draw of big name music at fairs continues to be a challenge.
"A portion of our audience still enjoys seeing the national entertainment, but the market is very expensive and we will be allocating our funds differently," said Vymlatil.
In fact, the fair has been steadily reducing the number of nights for big name entertainment - and this year showcased more regional musicians, including a very popular - and economical - Battle of the Tribute Bands night. Like many fairs, the South Florida Fair faces stiff competition from casinos and other venues, but this event has a unique competitor - luxury liner cruise ships, who dock at the port and have become a popular stage for country music acts, further increasing the pressure on entertainment booking at the fair. "They are competition for us with country music," he said. "There are several festivals in the area too. We can't compete with the big names over the long term, because the price of the acts and the production keeps going up."
Better entertainment apprehension not withstanding, New Orleans proved the perfect panacea for a fair needing to comeback after a drenched year. Also, as one of the first fairs of the season, the South Florida Fair revived optimism about both the industry and the upcoming year. "We definitely had a good run, said Vymlatil. "I think it is a good sign for a good year for the industry. We all have start thinking positively about our fairs, because people still love coming to the fair."