Attendance dipped for the Florida Strawberry Festival about 20,000, still maintaining a healthy 540,628. Spending however, did not experience a similar plummet, in fact it showed an uptick of about 2 percent overall and even more noteworthy, record ride revenue.
The weather was ideal, the marketing effective, and tied into a star-filled entertainment lineup; so why the attendance lagged slightly below expectations seems unanswered.
On the other hand, whether precisely identified or just one of those event flukes apparent only to those who compare annual figures, the attendance dip doesn't tell the full story.
What stands out for this annual celebration of everyth
ing strawberry is that the economy and strawberry industry is in a better condition than previous years. "The strawberry industry is a huge industry and it had a very good harvest," said Paul Davis, President, Florida Strawberry Festival. "We will see the benefit more next year for the harvest, but the farmers are in a very upbeat mood."
The Florida Strawberry Festival features 150 food vendors, and of course the food tends towards variations of the titular berry. The new item was a self explanatory Strawberry Short Cake Hamburger. More than 220,000 strawberry shortcakes were sold, and according to Davis, a popular vendor was a build your own short cake stand. About 1,000 flats (11.5 pounds) of freshly picked berries were sold each day, often selling out. "We had a good harvest this year ," said Davis. "Strawberries are a popular commodity in this area, we were getting deliveries of flats every four hours."
Optimum weather conditions encouraging people to linger at the fair and spend more money is an effective strategy for success at any outdoor event. But an improved economy is also apparent. "I think the jobs market is better, a lot more people found jobs than last year," he said. "With a new president, the election is over and there was a lot of negative campaigning. People are excited again, they are more optimistic, and they are looking for positives. Some consumer confidence has returned."
He added, "we had a dip but people stayed longer. It wasn't quite as crowded, and since the weather was good, people stayed longer and that meant they spent more. The crowd had its ebbs and flows, and while we never had one particular day that was a record in attendance, spending was higher. When you have more than 500,000 at the festival, that is a successful Festival. We had a good run."
"People are feeling more confident this year, I think they were spending more money," said Charles Panacek of Belle City Amusements. "Seems like per capita spending was up, we had perfect weather for the entire run and we had the biggest ride gross we ever had."
Panacek said that the total ride revenue was up 3-4 percent over 2016, the previous record. There was a different attitude on the midway. "I think families were keeping a chokehold on their spending last year, waiting for the election to be over.
The Belle City Amusements midway featured 90 rides, which included a new Alien Abduction ride, a refurbished Mario Land ride and two new Dalton rides for children. Top rides for the event included the Giant Wheel - "which always seems to be number one," said Panacek. "The Rock & Roll Himalaya does very well, and both coasters, and the Magnum ride always does very well."
With 90 rides, the Florida Strawberry Festival tends to be one of the biggest footprints of this carnival company's fair season. "The ride grosses at this fair justifies the high number of rides we bring," said Panacek. "We can attract more rides at this fair, and they do a great job of managing the festival, there is a lot of entertainment and big name acts. Some of the acts they coordinate with us because they draw in a younger crowd. We do afternoon promotions that brings people to the midway, and after the concert as well."
One promotional change is that the fair started was have an armband day on both Saturdays of the fair. "We tried it last year and it worked very well," said Davis. "We did a few promotions that gave discounts, like Feed Florida, where with nonperishable food items admission was only $5, so that even people on tighter budgets could come to the fair."
"We've been tinkering with armband promotions at this fair," said Panacek. "We were getting complaints that people weren't able to get an armband, but on Saturdays we offered it again, but it was not a substantial discount. I don't consider it a promotion, but more of an option, but a lot of people like it."
For Panacek, the Florida Strawberry Festival has shown a steady growth and commitment. "There's no alcohol at this fair, and it is always promoted as a family event, that's a huge part of their appeal. We enjoy working with them, they are always doing promotions and entertainment that really draws people in."
We're Playing Your Song
"The problem in Central Florida is that there is so much entertainment year-round, so it is really tough," said Davis. The challenge is not just the plethora of venues and entertainment options makes for stiff competition, but radius clauses for musical acts usually cover a 150 mile radius, which includes major sunshine state cities such as Tampa, Orlando and St. Petersburg. In other words, tough means not only selling tickets in a saturated market where there's no paucity of entertainment choices but finding those acts that can sell tickets while also conforming with the routing at the same time avoiding radius clauses in contracts - is, well, tough... and increasingly expensive.
According to Davis, the Florida Strawberry Festival increased its entertainment budget by 15 percent for 2017, spending nearly $3 million on the acts alone - improved production meant a an additional $750,000 for stage production costs.
"We made a little more investment and we brought in a higher quality acts and we sold a little more tickets," he said.
Country has been a mainstay and was well represented in 2017. The legendary Willie Nelson was the festival's only sell out - "and Willie attracted a diverse crowd in terms of ages," he said. "We have always been a stop for country music acts, both the old school country and the new school country. But the music industry has changed, and we were well known for country but now country is more popular, and they are crossing over. There's a lot more competition. We have added other types of acts, like Patti LaBelle, who really put on a phenomenal show and was a really big seller."
Other notable acts included: the Christian Rock ensemble NEEDTOBREATHE, Strawberry Festival mainstays - The Oak Ridge Boys, as well as Jennifer Nettles, Little Big Town, 3 Doors Down, Maddie & Tae, Larry Gatlin and the Gatlin Brothers, Rascal Flatts "RHYTHM & ROOTS" Tour, the Blues Brothers (with Dan Akroid and Jim Belushi) and an Oldie's lineup for Senior Day that featured the Drifters, Platters & Coasters.
"It's a different music world," said Davis. "The bands are making more money just touring, and those costs are huge, like the insurance costs and travel and production. But it worked out this year a little better, with the routing. We can be the missing piece, a half-way stop if someone is playing Miami. We were able to fit into a lot of schedules, there are a lot of different variables."
Many state and large fairs are reducing and even eliminating the amount of live entertainment, but in spite of the challenges in booking - rising costs, earlier booking - the fair was able to get a very solid line up and remains committed to entertainment.
Davis said, that about 30 percent of fairgoers come for the rides, and about 25 percent come for the food and other vendors, but more than a third of the Florida Strawberry Festival fairgoers attend to see the shows. "It's huge for us," he said. "Some fairs the rides are all the focus, but here a large part of our guests come to the festivals for entertainment."
Challenges aside, the 2017 line up and the success of entertainment reaffirmed his confidence in headline entertainment at the annual celebration of everything strawberry.
"You start booking with a wish list, and we got most of that list this year. We had a good line up and lot of variety in that line up."
The Florida Strawberry Festival marketing targeted the music loving attendee while underscoring the stellar lineup - We're Playing Your Song. The theme was incorporated with the festival "brand," - a strawberry of course, but this year decked out with a guitar and wearing a baseball cap.
"Entertainment is such a big part of our event, and it's not just the two major shows each day, we have free entertainment and stages," he said. "We had local acts too who have their own following."
The marketing budget is about $500,000, with the biggest shift was "we did more direct Facebook marketing, and we drove people to our website. We had 2.8 million page views."
The vast majority of those views were on mobile devices -69 percent, while 22 percent were on a computer, either desktop or laptop and 9 percent were tablets. of those views were from mobile. The online marketing is pushing viewers to the website, "and we are going after people where they are, which is through social media and on their smart phones."