The 93rd Southwest Florida & Lee County Fair redesigned its fairground layout this year, improving the pedestrian flow and maximizing the drawing potential of amusement rides. In a field near the outer edges of the grounds, where previously a livestock barn and petting zoo were situated. While integral parts of the fair, this proved to be a closed loop design, not as smoothly accessible to the other areas of the fair and leaving an significant stretch real estate under-utilized.
The new 2017 layout extended the fair into the unused portions of a field by expanding the Kiddeland of the Reithoffer Shows midway, positioning children and family rides between the Eudora Farm Petting Zoo and Timberwork Lumberjack Show. The result was all three attractions benefited by creating synergies with combina
tions of family and children oriented attractions. The rides were not segregated from the rest of the midway and this contiguous layout enhanced the flow of fairgoers, essentially opening up the once closed loop.
"The area didn't have the same foot traffic," said Fran Crone. "We created other access points, and with the kiddie rides we added things that were a solid draw for families, which were the petting zoo and the lumberjack jack shows.
The increased foot traffic also helped bring more attention to the livestock barns - which underwent a $100,000 renovation prior to opening day. Extending the midway was also a positive, because it helped bring more of a comfort zone to parents with their children. "To have a few kiddie rides in this area was a better draw to the other attractions," she said. "The midway is self sustaining. There are a lot of people who come to the fair just for the amusement rides, but to grow you your grounds, you want to expose them to other parts of the fair. Instead of riding the rides and leaving, more things of interest were more accessible to them."
The design planning resulted from observing crowd flow at both the midway and the new augmentation. "The midway is self sustaining, the Kiddieland is self sustaining, it draws the crowd. Basically, our visualization was that families come to the Kiddeland and they also come to the petting zoo, but not in the same numbers.
While there's no accurate measurement on the effectiveness of the draw, "the attendants told me they never saw that volume of crowds in that area," said Crone.
Another benefit was to cater to the natural divide between rider types. Teens and adults prefer the spectacular rides, while parents and young children want to avoid the thrill rides. "Teenagers aren't as interested in the petting zoo, so we were able to keep the families and young children in area with things of interest to them, and it was better all around," said Crone.
The children's rides, petting zoo, and lumberjack show created a unique "energy that fed off each other," said Rick Reithoffer of Reithoffer Shows, who provides the midway for the Southwest Florida & Lee County Fair. He praised the design, which essentially expanded the footprint of the midway. "We had a better presence, and people probably stayed longer at the fair," he said. "It was a big plus for us. The midway was contiguous and people come right through the main gate, and decided where they want to go on the midway."
The Reithoffer midway featured 53 rides, five more than last year. New rides at the fair included a refurbished, newly "LED'd" Tango, KMG Speed Ride and an a brand new Lollipop Spring.
Reihtoffer said that the Southwest Florida & Lee County Fair gave the company the opportunity to debut "several of our winter projects," where equipment is essentially "reinvented, we strip them down, bring in new bearings and machinery, new diamond plate, then outfit them with LED."
In 2017, fairgoers will see a Reithoffer midway where "99 percent" of the rides are now fitted with the latest lighting system. "The beauty of the show is unbelievable," said Reithoffer. "It's like something you've never seen before and midways without LED light packages look anemic. The guests love the look, we love to see their reaction. Everyone makes comments."
The energy cost savings seems just as spectacular. As an example, according to Reithoffer, running the Giant Wheel required 350 amps of electricity for its old lighting system, but with the LED that's down to 18 amps. "It's a dramatic difference in savings."
From another perspective, transporting the system is much easier. "The other savings is the fact that when you travel 1,000 miles and get to the next show, bulbs were broken and had to be replaced before the opening. With LEDs, there's no damage when transporting the equipment, you save electricity and you save in man power."
The most popular Reithoffer rides at the 2017 Southwest Florida & Lee County Fair were the Super Himalaya, Galaxy Coaster, Indy 500 Coaster, Wild Mouse Coaster, and the Stinger.
Attendance at the Southwest Florida & Lee County Fair far was robust, although marginally lower than last year. Attendance exceeded 100,000, based on preliminary numbers, said Crone, but she estimated that attendance was down "about 3 percent".
She described the weather as optimum. "Our weather was perfect fair weather. The days were warm and the night were cool, and there were no wet grounds this year."
In spite of the slight dip, the second weekend was "huge. We set a new record on our second Friday."
The crowd was so big that one of the grounds act entertainers asked Crone if they were running a special gate admission promotion for the second weekend. "I told him no, and he said he never saw so large a crowd."
But why with excellent weather did the second weekend so drastically outweigh the first and overall numbers showed a drop, albeit minor. "The first weekend we had a lot of local festivals," said Crone. "It was also a fluke, there was a big concert in town too, so we had a lot of challenges."
The advertising budget for the fair was $65,000, a modest amount that enabled some minimal print in local publications the Cape Coral Breeze and Florida Weekly, although the bulk was spend in television, radio and billboards. The fair uses the same theme every year, Making Memories Since 1924.
The fair did embrace social media marketing more forcefully this year by creating a new position of Marketing Specialist, whose job description essentially consisted of social media management 24/7. "We had a larger presence on Facebook this fair," said Crone. "We had one person who was dedicated to social media. He went on Facebook Live, took pictures, posted on all of them. We also used Twitter and Instagram this year more than we ever did before."
The new children's area of the fair dovetailed well with the new social media push. "That is really priceless marketing, we had so many pictures shared . That is priceless, the new area generated more selfies and posts and that just spread."
The Southwest Florida & Lee County Fair increased their roaming entertainment, including Ron Diamond, and the Moogicians. "We rotate our roaming acts every couple of years, to keep fresh," she said. "We pay for quality shows, so that budget increased a little. But they bring their own social media avenues, which helps us. Plus they are great for pictures and selfies, so it perpetuates, and you get a really good bang for your buck."
The fair also takes grass roots and community marketing to a new level with its annual school marketing competition program, which had 67 local schools participating. The schools were given a theme for 217: Treasure the Past, Imagine the Future - and then constructed an exhibition to be presented at the fair, which supplied the actual 10' x 10' booths, draping, and tables which housed the student-made projects. The exhibitors are judged, and the fair awarded more than $4,000 in prize money to the schools.
Spending at the fair seemed up - for example, Reithoffer said that his midway was a near record, off by about 1 percent in sales - but considering that attendance was down 3 percent, the indication is that spending remained robust. While the contracting used by the fair does not track food sales of individual vendors, Crone pointed out that "not one vendor was complaining, and many told me they were having one of their best fairs," she said.
There were 31 independent food vendors at the fair, with new delicacies including Hot Wisconsin Cheese, Mini-Doughnuts and a very popular Slider Sandwich concession, featuring Beef, Chicken and Crab Cake sliders. The mainstays at the fair are provided by Paradise Concessions, with staple cuisine items such as corn dogs and funnel cakes. "My personal favorite is berry and cream funnel cakes with chocolate drizzle," said Crone.
Quality control among the food concessions is a top priority for the fair, which they maintain through a secret shopper program, and vouchers that are given out to fair personnel as well as sponsors. Post-fair, vendors are reimbursed for these vouchers, but the tickets are also an indication of what are the most popular items, with popular being equivalent to quality. "We like to maintain the quality and the price, and this one measure because it shows what people are going back for," said Crone.
For Crone, who comes from a government administration background, the 2017 Southwest Florida & Lee County Fair with its new fair ground design seemed "a perfect blend of everything that makes a fair successful."
This was her fourth fair as manager, and she said what still fascinates her about the event is that "how truly multifaceted it is," she said. "There are so many pieces to fit together and to get to work right, but when it is planned out well and the pieces fit together perfectly, then it's a great feeling. There are so many pieces to a fair that unless you are involved with the fair, you don't really see what is beneath the surface."