If the first fair of the new year is any indication, cautious optimism may again be a forecast, but this year may justify more optimism. The 17-day South Florida Fair, in West Palm Beach, may have seen an attendance dip of about 20,000 compared to last year, but per capita attendee spending increased and food spending experienced a significant uptick.
Based on the positives of this season opener, Rick Vymlatil, CFE, President/CEO South Florida Fair & Palm Beach County Expositions, Inc. , said "I think it will be a good year for the fair industry."
But he is quick to caution that this upbeat attitude will prevail, only " if fair managers focus on value. The public is hungry for a good deal, the value of the entertainment available their local fair, give them that package for what they consider."
The South Florida State Fair, which ended February 2, is a private nonprofit enterprise, with an operating budget of about $12 million.
Only a few short years ago (08-09), when the great recession hit, "the real estate market here suffered real bad, there was more unemployment than there is now," said Vymlatil. "The fair was impacted, but not as much as our flat-shows and other events. We have seen a turnaround since then."
A noticeable rise in the comfort level concerning spending seems evident. "We see a lot more families, and they are spending. When the fair puts out a good value, it doesn't really matter what is happening in the rest of the economy. Fairs are affordable fun."
In addition to a focus on value, Vymlatil predicts a good year for the industry "if the weather holds out. That is probably the biggest factor and the one thing fair managers cannot do anything about."
The last weekend of the fair - the South Florida Fair concluded on Super Bowl Sunday - was classic South Florida weather, 83 degrees - but precarious weather patterns preceded this sunny conclusion. As the polar vortex descended on the Midwest and Eastern portion of the United States, daytime temperatures plummeted into the 50s and even reached into the 30s on more than one evening. "It was an unseasonably cold fair," said Vymlatil. "Senior citizens especially do not like to come out in the cold. People are not used to that kind of weather in South Florida. Also, we had two days of heavy rain, which is also unusual for this time of year. It was coming down in buckets. It was the kind of day when you don't want to open the midway."
Final attendance was 550,173 (the 2013 total was 579,918). The peak seems to have been approximately 589,000, reached in 2005. Vymlatil feels the number has held steady, in spite of challenges. "We had two full days of rain this year. Our numbers were pretty typical this year."
The primary concern about attendance is not so much quantity but distribution. "Our focus has been on growing the weekdays. We run while school is in session, our challenge has been in pushing the attendance away from the weekends."
Some discounting programs - the ticket price is $12 - help boost those weekday nights. "We continue to improve our advanced ticket sales, which has grown our opening at the fair and with that ticket, you get free admission for other days of the fair," said Vymlatil. "It has been a very effective promotion."
In spite of the 2014 attendance dip, "spending was pretty strong. Although the gross revenue was down, because of the attendance, per capita spending was up. The people who did come spent more than last year."
Aside from a standard offering of fair cuisines, including chocolate covered bacon, it was the second year of using cash registers by the concessionaires, a policy being adopted by an increasing number of fairs in recent seasons, improving auditing and payment options for fairgoers. "We are getting better financial results, and it has been a learning curve among some of our vendors. There have been concerns that the cash register slows them down and nobody wants long lines waiting for food. But from the fair's perspective, the cash register systems allows for better accountability. Fair food is like any other retail business, so the cash registers have been an improvement."
Vymlatil recommends that, in order to remain in a market over-populated with options competing for the entertainment dollars of a typical family budget, "in spite of the economy, do not reduce your spending for advertising, marketing and romotions. An old friend of mine, who ran fairs during the great depression, told me that the fairs that survived all continued to advertise."
Grass Roots Marketing
This year, the mix media didn't alter - except for the ever-expanding utilization of social media driven promotions, but the television marketing - aided of course by YouTube - underwent an effective innovation that cleverly incorporated the fair's catchy theme song. People from the community, often leaders and other-well known local personalities, were filmed singing the theme song. The groups represented a cross section of the ethnicities populating this five county market, home to about 3 million. Not only did the fair film 12 versions of the commercials, the introduction of each was staggered through the marketing period of the fair, in steady rotation on select networks.
"We wanted to try a more grass roots approach with our television commercials and it worked," Vymlatil explained. "People were looking out for the commercial, and to see who would appear in each one. It worked really well."
Augmenting this grass roots marketing was offering non-profits and community groups event space on the grounds. The fair organized small, private events, such as receptions, breakfasts and other events for local chambers of commerce and other organizations. The combination of showcasing communities in the marketing and offering event space to community organization served to sustain the fair one constituency at a time. "The grass roots makes more people feel personally part of the fair," said Vymlatil.
I Heart N.Y.
In addition, the logo of the fair is modified each year to highlight the annual special exhibit. The logo of the 2014 edition of the South Florida Fair included the familiar tourism slogan: "New York… Be a part of it." This tagline referred to the annual special exhibit the fair produced. "The exhibit each year gives us an answer to the question..."What's new at the Fair?"," said Vymlatil,.
Each year, in the fairgrounds Expo Building, the largest exhibition space of the event, a themed display is presented. The 2014 theme was the Big Apple. " This year's exhibit featured the sights and sounds of New York. Some of the elements of the exhibit included a recreation of Times Square complete with large video boards, an exhibit on Harlem from the New York City Historical Society & Museum, an exhibit from the Skyscraper Museum in NYC, the Empire State Building built out of canned goods which were then donated to our local food bank after the Fair, a recreation of a subway station and a model of the new Freedom Tower. We also tie in public school art exhibits and try to add other elements that fit in with the particular theme."
The NYC theme also tied into the advent of Beatlemania being celebrated this year, an event invoked by The Fab Four -The Ultimate Tribute, a Beatles tribute band, one of the fairs featured concerts. "The Fab Four Beatles tribute band had an Ed Sullivan character which recalls the Beatle's first US appearance in NYC 50 years."
Concerts are free with admission ($10 for limited, reserved premium seats), acts including Cassadee Pope, Swon Brothers and the Leroy Van Dyke Country Gold Tour performed, but according to Vymlatil, like they did 50 years ago, the faux-Beatles drew huge crowds of determined fans. "The Fab Four filled every seat, even though that was on the night we had torrential rainfalls."
Agriculture exhibits and events remain core to the mission and appeal of the fair. The South Florida Fair is not just one of the first events of the year for the industry, but holds a similar premier spot in the annual business cycle of the Southeastern Agriculture industry. "We are the winter vegetable of our area, and we have well established steer and hog contests. Ag is very big here and is a strong part of the fair and it attracts the most people from outside our region. It is one of the first Ag events of the year."
The fair hosted it's first Southeastern Angus Show, a celebration of steer and beef that featured the crowning of an Angus Queen. "We had a lot of people from outside of Florida come just for the angus competition."
The major change for the fair was a reduction in the size of the Midway layout, mandated by a government regulation. The fair was required to increase the capacity of their rainwater retention pools, the only solution was to change the Midway design, which reduced the ride offerings from 80 to 72. "The layout is now an abbreviated L shape, but we moved the campers and bunkhouses, actually cleaning up the appearance."
"Revenue was up, even with our smaller footprint," said Frank Zaitshik, President/Founder, Wade Shows, the midway provider for the South Florida Fair since 2006. "We cut out eight rides, but our revenue and per capita spending were up on the Midway. We had to reduce the size, but we tweaked the layout to make it more inviting and friendly. We received a lot of good comments, it was easier to navigate. It was more user friendly."
According to Zaitshik, if the South Florida Fair is a harbinger of the season to come, then "my outlook is very bright," he said. "South Florida is a major fair. The best indicators are not the rides, but the food and games. Revenues for the food were up. People still want to go to the fair."
Zaitshik has introduced new premium wrist-band program, called Gold Access, that offers a premium fair experience -with holders being allowed to the front of the line, among other perks and discounts. "We are doing more of these promotions with advanced ticket sales, and doing more promotions on our own as well as working hand-in-hand with the marketing by the fairs," he added.
For Wade, South Florida also was the stage where some new refurbished attractions had their debut, including a 70-foot high HUSS Rainbow and the Wacky Worm, the company's most popular kiddie ride. "We continue to update our ride arsenal and that motivates spending," said Zaitshik . "I am excited about this year, we have a great route. We want to continue to be in the forefront of midway rides and presentations."
CLICK HERE to view photos from the 2014 South Florida Fair