Last year, the Central Florida Fair had a record year, increasing attendance by 20 percent.
This year, the gains were erased, with attendance dropping 25 percent. Successful repeats are hard to come by, but this sort of decline is even more rare, especially considering that the weather was ideal, the newly constructed Orlando Amphitheater was part of the fair for the first time, and a new midway layout enhanced the Kiddieland, poised to attract more parents and children who call the Orlando market home.
"The fair was tough this year," said Shawn Krauel, President/CEO, Central Florida Fair and Expositions Park. Attendance hovered around 189,000, a healthy turnout but still a decline. "Attendance was steady but no peak."
What was the cause. Krauel points to a few variables, including pushing too much of the marketing too fast to the digital realm. But there was one inescapable factor beyond the fair's control that likely had the most devastating impact. A violent incident outside the fair grabbed headlines, creating guilt by association and dampening any enthusiasm for the annual event. On the first Saturday of the fair, two teenaged males were shot, as the headlines said, "Near the Central Florida Fairgrounds."
The tragedy occurred on Gospel Night at the fair, and the boys were hospitalized. The shooting did not occur on the fairgrounds, but it was also reported that the two had been at the fair prior to the incident that - "Orlando police said that, "several large fights broke out" inside the fair and that a teenager was arrested for allegedly pushing an officer."
It was also reported that "a total of 27 Orlando police officers and Orange County deputies that had been hired for the event and more than 30 private security officers for Saturday night. Officials said that about 15,000 guests were at the fair that night."
The rise in teen-related violence is far from unique to Florida, but the incident underscores the seriousness of security issues fair face. Not only must fairs worry about security on the fairgrounds, but now what happens outside the fairgrounds must be addressed. The fairground has a chaperone restriction - all fairgoers under the age of 18 must be accompanied by an adult and no more than two children per adult. There's a wanding system at the gate, and a large contingent of uniformed police and "t-shirted" security personnel.
The fair made public statements and tried to exert damage control, "but the headline was teenagers shot while leaving the fair, so there was an association between the incident and the fair," said Krauel.
While Youth violence is an issue in numerous urban communities across the country, the Central Florida Fair is unique because it is located within an urban area. "There's a problem with youth violence in the community, like many communities" said Krauel. "We're in an urban area, so we are within walking distance and everybody comes to the fair."
Krauel is hesitant about blaming the incident being the main factor depressing attendance numbers. "I can't attribute all the decline to that," he said. "It seemed every day we were getting close to beating last year, we were seeing steady numbers, but we were not peaking at the same level. Compared to the previous year, which was a banner year, we just never had the same oomph."
The marketing for the fair increased it's use of digital and social media campaigns, shifting funds from old media - print, billboards and radio. This enabled improved tracking and targeting of fairgoers, having web ads "follow" potential visitors across platforms. The fair is still analyzing the data, "we may have jumped ahead of our consumers, our market may not have been ready for it. We will be revaluating what we were doing, because we were getting impressions but it didn't turn into ticket sales."
About 40 percent of the 2017 marketing budget was devoted to online platforms. "We moved to a much bigger digital campaign as we like the information it provides us about our customers and who is viewing rather than guessing from radio, billboards, etc.," said Krauel. "We will have to take a look at the hard data as it came in compared to last year. It's very possible moving so far into Digital marketing took away from some customers of the fair that are still viewing Radio/Billboards/Print more than digital. We will just need to look at again and learn from it."
He added, "I think Orlando is a tough market. I think the economy in Florida as whole is going well, but Orlando might not be doing as well. Also Orlando just has a lot of options for the entertainment dollar, there's all kinds of indications that there are more opportunities and increased competition for the fair."
Trying to reach the heights of a record year is always a challenge. The Central Florida Fair had many positive components in 2017, the most vital being the use of the new Orlando Amphitheater, which opened last April.
For the fair, ticketed events at the new venue - included Bring Me The Horizon, Saving Abel, Tony! Toni! Tone! and Orlando Caribbean Festival, the latter drawing approximately 7,000, the most successful of the entertainment featured in the new venue. The fair worked with outside promoters to fill the seats, with other nights made up by regional and local bands.
"The problem with fair entertainment is that the headliners are charging ridiculous , skyrocketing prices," he said. "It is getting very expensive, too expensive to produce by yourself" he said. "I would much rather share the costs with a promoter who can bring in 6,000 to 8,000 people to the fair who otherwise would not have come to the fair."
The new amphitheater also made possible a new midway layout, which gave the Kiddieland a more optimum location. "The layout that was the best I think we have had since I have been here (4 Years)," he said.
"We moved Kiddieland closer to Lake Lawne. The layout allowed us a few more vendors, and allowed more traffic into the exhibition buildings and creative arts areas. The overall presence felt busier."
The older layout - which had to accommodate fencing around the construction site while the Orlando Amphitheaterwas being built - "was not an harmonious fit," said Frank Zaitshik, Wade Shows President.
Wade Shows worked "in conjunction with the fair, truth to be told, we had considered a few things, moving kiddieland was the best and I think the public liked the change," said Zaitshik. "We did something that was not unorthodox, we moved the Kiddieland to the front of the midway so families with small children didn't have to come through the adult section of the midway. A real plus was the scenic lake setting. It worked out every well. Truthfully, this new layout is more customer friendly in that it is easier to navigate and very convenient."
The Wade Shows midway featured 50 rides, about the same amount of rides in the previous midway layout. New rides for the fair included a Street Fighter 360, a remanufactured Wisdom Go Gator, and after a hiatus, the return of a Tea Cups ride, "which has been completely refurbished and recondition, outfitted with a new LED lighting fixture. Zaitshik cited that the project was done by Wade Shows Maintenance Director, Gene Chaffee, working with Richard and John Armstrong.
The attendance decline negatively impacted the midway revenue, which declined 29 percent from last year's record year of $1.23 million. Wade Shows has been playing the fair for 20 years, and Zaitshik takes a long view. "We experienced similar reductions in revenue as the fair this year," he said. "It's still a great fair, and we were still substantially up from when first started here, because the fair has grown. I have every confidence that the reasons for this year's attendance dip will be addressed."