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Pensacola Interstate Fair: Attendance Gains Continue

12/18/2013

By Timothy Herrick

Photo courtesy of Brian L. Butler

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More than 426,000 attended the 11-day Pensacola Interstate Fair, which ran October 12- 27. This final figure was a record tally number for the fair, continuing a recent trend of slightly increasing attendance the last few years, according to Don E. Frenkel, General Manager. The Pensacola Interstate Fair, which was founded in 1935, is a nonprofit organization with a budget of approximately $2 million, receives no state-funding and is an "inter-state" fair, drawing attendees, competition contestants and exhibitors from Florida, Georgia, Mississippi, Alabama and Louisiana.

Frenkel, fair industry veteran and son of the fair founder, John E. Frenkel Sr., acknowledges that much of the increase can be attribute to an economy that while still "down, there are some signs of recovery."

Getting Lucky

Photo By Brian L. Butler

Prior to opening day though, current events dampened some of the optimism of the fair organizers. The Pensacola Interstate Fair coincided with the government shutdown and Frenkel admits that the well-publicized squabble in our nation's capital caused anxiety over the potential local impact. "We worried, because of the military and naval bases and other federal offices in the area, that there would be furloughed workers and other government stoppages affecting employees. If people are uncertain about their income, they are not going to go to the fair. Luckily, people did turn out."

The fair got an indirect boost from Tropical Storm Karen, which hit the Gulf Coast the week prior to the fair. What started as a hurricane and prompted massive precautions, Karen caused little damage, but "there was some FEMA people and out-of-towners in the area for the relief effort and they came to the fair, said Frenkel.

The success of this year's fair - its 79th -was mainly due to the fact, "We had no problems," he said. "The weather was perfect. We are very fortunate, in our area October gets cool, and it turned out to be a dry month. We had no complaints from concessionaires. Everything in the carnival fell into place."

Appealing Education

The most popular new attraction was Eudora Farms "Animals From Around The World," an Interactive, Educational Animal Exhibit that expands the petting zoo concept by showcasing exotic animals, which not only was a crowd favorite, but fit right in alongside the domestic livestock exhibitions and competitions. "It was a tremendous and very educational attraction," said Frenkel. Eudora Farms replaced the Great American Frontier show, which had a three-year run and both are examples of what Frenkel sees as part of the educational mission of the Pensacola Interstate Fair. "It was a beautiful exhibit, very interactive. The presentation was very educational, which is important to us."

The exotic animal exhibition was also incorporated into the annual Ag-Venture program, that  brings more than 1,000 grammar-school aged children in on a special field trip. The centerpiece of this program is the Ag-Venture Barn, a special interactive exhibit celebrating the regional agricultural industry. "We open all our agriculture and animal-related exhibits early in the day just for the kids. We have all sorts of hands-on activities, they make butter, milk cows, plant potatoes, pick fruit off trees. We tied this into their curriculum and make available teaching materials to educators."

Frenkel adds that the standard, ongoing slogan of the Pensacola Interstate Fair, is "Progress Through Education," and has given more than 30,000 scholarships to students so they can begin or complete our education. "We want kids to participate in the fair, but we want to give them educational experiences too. Our scholarships can be used for any course of study, not only agriculture. Education is what we have become known for too."

Concert Challenges

Concerts are held in the 5,000-seat Pepsi Open Air Stage, and outdoor amphitheater. Concert admission is included in the ticket price. "The design really doesn't allow us to charge a separate admission, but we also want to keep the fair affordable," said Frenkel.

Sara Evans, Travis Tritt, and Grand Funk Rail Road, were among the more successful headliners. "Switchfoot, which is a Christian Rock Band, was also very popular."

Capital International Booking & Productions is the main talent buyer and promoter that Frenkel partners with for booking entertainment at the fair. Although he expressed satisfaction with the 2013 line-up of talent, Frenkel admits that finding affordable acts that will fit within the ticket-price-included-in-the-admission-fee policy yet still attract an audience is an ongoing challenge. "It gets harder every year," he said. "With shows like American Idol or the voice, they make instant stars out of these acts, they suddenly become unaffordable, or everybody says they're the next Sugarland, and they do not draw the crowds we need. It is always a challenge to get the right acts at the right time in their career. It really depends on who is on tour after the Summer concert season ends."

On the bright-side however, Frenkel points out that the fair has "a strong rapport with local radio stations, and they run a lot of promotions for our concerts."

Marketing & Promotion

The tried-and-true promotions worked best for this late-season, Florida event. Discounted admission programs include a co-op promotion with the Manna Food Bank, featuring a $2.00 admission with a non-perishable food donation - "we donated more than 6,000 pounds of food," added Frenkel; and pay one price ($25) "Midnight Madness" promotion, which featured unlimited rides until the 2:00 am closing, with similar unlimited ride benefits featured on "Hand Stamp Day," with pricing at $22.

A successful discounted ticket program was conducted entirely through Facebook. "We used social media to promote specific days and rides, especially the new rides, the kids love that."

The marketing budget, approximately $200,000 has remained the same in recent years, but the media mix reflects current cultural trends. "Print is way down, but we are increasing billboard use, that medium still has a big bang for the buck. We do a lot of TV and radio still, and we get a lot of coverage. We were able to place a lot of personal-interest stories, of people going to or working at the fair, that seemed to increase this year."

Frenkel added, "we also get a lot of visitors to the website. We promoted online extensively."

Reithoffer Midway

Reithoffer Shows has been the midway provider for the Pensacola Interstate Fair since 1982.  According to Frenkel, a four-year contract extension was this signed this summer, so Reithoffer will be in charge of midway operations through 2020. "They do a fantastic, their employees are very professional and they are rated very highly by the Florida Federation of Fairs. We are a family oriented fair and they are a family oriented company so it has been a good fit."

The Reithoffer midway at Pensacola boasted 65 rides, adding to it for 2013 was Jeremy Floyd's "Space Roller", bringing a new excitement to the midway. "It was quite popular, a very spectacular ride that turns you every way but loose. It was for people more daring than me," said Frenkel.

Food Flair

The Pensacola Interstate fair features 120 food vendors. "The Maple Bacon Funnel Cake, which is not new but was new to our fair, was very popular. They came last year with the Red Velvet Funnel Cake, and they built on that popularity."

The Pensacola Interstate Fair cuisine standard is the classic Pronto Pup corn dog, but Frenkel is quick to note that the fair doesn't limit itself to food-on-a-stick delicacies. "We have a complete variation of ethnic food. We try not to duplicate only the food you see at other fairs. We have diversity of Mexican, Chinese, American, you name it. We had a local  concessionaire, Asian Food, that had fried vegetables and shish-ka-bob. The presentation was wonderful, he had all the food out and whatever you wanted he fried up fresh."

He added, "you can't please everybody, that's why we don't focus on one type of fair food."

Equally important as the actual food items, is that show business is part of the entire fair business and just as critical to fair cuisine as it is to the midway, concert stage and other key components of a successful fair. Food has to be as fun as everything else in the fair. "The food vendors have to be great promoters too. You can't just come to the market and sit on a stool. The fair is about the flair."

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