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Southwest Florida & Lee County Fair: Getting it right

5/20/2013

By Linda Van Slyke

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Even when the weather refuses to fully cooperate, the folks at the Southwest Florida & Lee County Fair still know how to get it right.

Kelly Palmer, the 2013 fair's chief "advertising and financial guy," said that until the weather turned bad, they were "way up in attendance" this year.  Although the unseasonably cold weather resulted in overall attendance being "down roughly about 5,000" from last year, total revenue actually increased by "about 10%."

When asked about the "secret" of this success, Palmer mentioned that they had raised the admission prices "for the first time in six to eight years."  Regular admission to the fair rose to  $8.00 for those 12 and over, and $5.00 for those 6 to 11.  This relatively small increase really helped to "make up the difference" from the weather-related losses.  When asked whether the higher admission price discouraged attendance, Palmer pointed to the  "record crowds until the weather turned nasty" to refute the point.

Advertising methods also helped to heighten revenue.  Palmer said that his 2013 promotional budget was $70,000.  He added, "Normally I use billboards heavily - I do about 20 billboards - I'll go about 15-20% in billboards.  But TV is the biggest line item; 20 or 25%.  Then I sprinkle some radio in." 

This year Palmer also tried direct mailing for the first time.  He did this for two of the nights by mailing coupons for $2 off admission and $2 off of an armband.  The response was very good; in fact, Palmer stated that it was "one of the things that saved us during that cold spell."

According to the fair,s website, other promotions included Sneak Peak Thursday (Admission & Rides $12.00), Opening Ceremony (4-6 PM at gate Free Admission & Free Rides), Harry Chapin FoodBank Night (Free admission only with 3 Cans of Food), and Twelve Buck Tuesday (Ride Wristband $12, Regular Admission Fee).

Palmer reported that 9700 pounds of food were collected for the Harry Chapin Food Bank.  He continued, "We wrote them a check for $5,168.  It's the largest food bank in this area - some of the churches go there to get food.  It's a program that we've been helping for about four, five years now.  They help us too in getting the word out about the fair." 

With 2.460 Likes (as of press time), the fair's Facebook page was also going strong.  It not only included photos, but also a "One Man Band" video.  Schedules and admission prices were right there for people to easily access.  Plus, there was a "Mystery Shopper" section for those who enjoy previews of gustatory attractions.

About this latter section, Palmer said:  "Every year we have Mystery Shoppers.  We give them some money and have them go to each concession stand.  Then what they do is come back and give the fair board a report.  If there's a problem with any of the stands, we go to them to discuss it.  We also give reports out to the concessionaires.  A lot of times they didn't know [if something were wrong], so they're very receptive to that."

A Facebook sampling of some upbeat Shopper reports sounds like this:  "Pickle Barrel Sirloin Tips:  Steak was tender and moist; staff was friendly; unit was clean; and the ice tea was great... Pizza Emporium:  Pizza slice was very tasty and warm; staff was friendly; offered a nice variety of toppings..."  

Reithoffer Shows has provided the midway for years.  Palmer enthusiastically stated, "They  run a very clean operation, and everyone's in uniform."  Palmer himself learned to prioritize cleanliness while working at Disney years ago.  He said, "We have cleaning crews that we hire, and they walk around with a broom cleaning up even the cigarette butts.  That's really important, especially if you've got small kids running around."

Palmer said that Reithoffer had well over 40 rides at the fair.  He added, "They recently brought in a new one - a big one that swings you around.  There's usually a waiting line for that one."  The midway revenue was also up this year, and "(show owner) Rick Reithoffer was very happy at the end."

Using somewhat-local bands has been another boon for the Southwest Florida & Lee County Fair.  Palmer said, "As the prices continued to increase for 'name' people to come in, we just couldn't justify it."  This decision was not only cost-effective, but also paid homage to the  wealth of regional talent.

Marc Dobson, aka "The One Man Band," lives on Florida's Space Coast.  According to his website, his hope is to become "the most popular One Man Band in the world someday."  If Southwest Florida's response is any indication, he's well on his way.  Facebook comments about his 2013 performance there ranged from "that's pretty cool" to "He's great!"  Even his mother, Fran Dobson, weighed in with this one:  "You are a gifted musician lol mom."

There was plenty of other wonderful entertainment:  Rock-It the Robot, Scott's Magic Show, and the Sweeney Brothers - to name a few.  Plus, there were animals galore:  a seal show for the second year in a row, an "alligator guy" who made a point of educating the audience about what he did and purposely didn't do, and a very popular petting zoo. 

Palmer added, "We're real big into 4H and FFA.  About 265 kids showed animals this year. We had a horse show just about every day.  On the last weekend, we auctioned off about 220  to 230 steer and hogs."

The emphasis on community activities by the 501(c)3 corporation that runs the fair extends far beyond the event itself.  Five kids, all of whom have been active in 4H and/or FFA, were each awarded a $1,000 scholarship.  A group of other children were sponsored to attend a faith-based summer camp for kids with learning difficulties.  The Shriners Burn Care Center in Tampa also received a donation.  Palmer explained, "We give about 50-60 thousand dollars out to the community."

After weathering all storms, they've definitely gotten it right.

CLICK HERE TO VIEW PHOTOS FROM THE 2013 Southwest FL & Lee County Fair

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