The 78th annual Florida Strawberry Festival continued its star-studded tradition with the likes of Blake Shelton, Alan Jackson, and Martina McBride among the acts gracing the Wish Farm Soundstage this year.
While admission prices for these concerts mostly ranged from $15 to $30, they peaked at $55 for Blake Shelton's closing night spectacle, which included special guest opener Michaela Paige, one of Shelton's proteges from the latest season of The Voice.
The festival boasted over 30 musical acts - including seven Grammy Award winners - and several were included free with the paid gate admission. Gate admission prices were $10 for adults and $5 for children (ages 6 to 12). Advance gate admission prices were $8 and $5, respectively. All children under 5 years of age were admitted free of charge.
While its lineup of entertainment, rides, and concessions seems to expand and improve every year, the Florida Strawberry Festival's popularity remains firmly rooted in its accessibility. "We have not upped our gate prices for 10 years," said Paul Davis, the festival's general manager. "In fact, we've even put more specials out, to give people an opportunity to come."
Each of the festival's 11 days - from February 28 to March 10, 2013 - was a "special" day designed to promote attendance. These included Farm Workers Appreciation Day, the twice-occurring Senior Citizens' Day, and American Heroes Day, which offered free admission to all members of the military (including military veterans), law enforcement, emergency medical services, and fire departments. Additionally, five days were designated Ride-A-Thon Days, offering festivalgoers access to an unlimited amount of rides from 12 noon to 11 p.m. for only $20.
Entertainment planned for special days corresponded accordingly with the days' target demographic. Free Kids' Day, for example, included free performances by fifteen-year-old pop country musician Caroline Kole and by Next Radical Generation, an ensemble of young singers and dancers. "It's great for the vendors, great for the rides, and it's great for a lot of kids," said Davis. "People tend to spend more time at the event and they spend more money because they're there longer."
Such promotions certainly helped to boost the attendance of what turned out to be a banner year for the festival. According to TBO.com, the final attendance number of this year's festival was 526,100, up from 525,300 in 2012. The final day brought out close to 100,000 people, a single-day record.
Also contributing to the record attendance numbers were the various promotional and advertising initiatives before and during the festival.
Backed by an advertising budget that - according to Davis - amounted to "probably around $700,000," festival promoters supplemented traditional advertising efforts with manifold social media campaigns, including Facebook, LinkedIn, Twitter, YouTube, and a photo archive hosted by Zenfolio. The festival also created its own mobile app, which includes a festival calendar, a map and parking marker, ticket prices, and a "Fan Wall" where festivalgoers can share messages about their experiences.
"You have to keep up with the trends," said Davis. "I started Facebook my first year - probably three and a half to four years ago - and I said, boy, I hope to get three to five thousand people. By the end of the year, we had fifteen thousand. It really exceeded all my expectations."
The Florida Strawberry Festival's Facebook page remains active year round and, to date, has well over 57,000 likes. It contains exclusive content, including video coverage and photos from past festivals. A recent video post shows clips of pop country star Scott McCreery, one of this year's headliners, performing and enjoying his time at the festival.
"Now, with that," Davis warns, "there comes the good and the bad. When you open your doors, and have 55,000 people on there, if a person's having a bad day, they don't mind letting everyone know. I think it really helps sharpen your customer service. I kind of like that about it. It makes you stay on your toes a little bit more."
The midway at the festival was a source of great excitement. Provided by Belle City Amusements for the fourth consecutive year, the midway generated an increase of about 4.5 percent in revenue from 2012, which, according to Davis, is a trend that has continued every year at this festival since Belle City took over. Altogether, the festival featured over 90 rides between the main midway and the Kiddie Korral, a separate kiddie ride area.
Not to be outdone, the food suppliers at this year's festival were plentiful and varied. One new standout was The Hungry Gator, a Florida specialty, which offered gator bites and gator sausage dogs. The most popular new food, however, was the Amish doughnuts. "I'm a retired police officer," joked Davis, "and we know doughnuts. They were such a big hit. They had a waiting line every single day."
With an annual budget of about 7 million, the 2013 Florida Strawberry Festival succeeded in its mission to bring together a colorful variety of elements to create "Our Masterpiece of Fun" - this year's official theme. In addition to the new rides and foods, festivalgoers were treated to a vast array of new entertainment, including JUMP! The Ultimate Dog Show, the SouthWest Dairy Farmers Milking Show, Steve Hall and the Shotgun Red Show, karaoke contests hosted by Talent Quest Florida, and several eating contests. Even the headline entertainment expanded from an exclusively country lineup to include several rock acts, including Bret Michaels, Foreigner, and Casting Crowns.
"Our committee really takes the time to see what's out there. We listen to our customers," said Davis. "People tell us on Facebook who they want to see, what they want to see, and we try to bring something new every year."
When asked about any plans for next year's festival, Davis responded, "Whatever it is, it'll be something we've never had before. You have to remember why you're there. It sounds trite, but we're still a slice of Americana, a part of the community ... You're not just a business, you're a celebration. If you do it that way, everything else takes care of itself."
CLICK HERE TO VIEW PHOTOS FROM THE 2013 FL STRAWBERRY FESTIVAL