The Florida Sate Fair - held February 6 - 17 on The Florida Sate Fairgrounds in Tampa - signals to many in the industry a new fair season has begun. Charles "Chuck" Pesano, executive director of the Florida State Fair Authority (FSFA), acknowledges that due to its lead position, his fair - this year marked its 110th anniversary - is a "test Fair" for not just new food items and new rides, but a harbinger for fair managers and their stake-holders of what the season may hold.
Reading tea leaves can be tricky when it comes to the fair business, but Pesano pointed to a few notable signs that augur well for a more positive economic climate this year. Most apparent was that the fair's sponsorship revenue was up 20 percent. "The companies have more money to spend," said Pesano.
Another encouraging indicator for Pesano occurred while on his "walk throughs" of the 90,000-square-foot Arts & Crafts Hall and the 90,000-square-foot Exposition Hall, retail emporiums populated by hundreds of sellers and a multitude of buyers. "The vendors were very pleased with their sales, more so than in previous years," said Pesano. "I take this as a positive indicator of consumers having more discretionary income to use. People were pleased with their sales and more upbeat than last year. If that is any forecast for the fair season, that I think fair managers will be very pleased."
Pesano added that all 300 spaces in the Exposition Hall were sold out. "We had a waiting list this year, even turned some companies away. Last year, we had 35 empty spaces."
Even some of the negative economic results of the fair contained positive indicators. Rain dampened overall Midway revenue (2014 midway revenue dipped 10.4 percent compared to 2013), but individual days recorded revenue upturns. Pesano said, "Day 8 and Day 11 showed significant increases and Day 10 was a record breaking Saturday regarding Midway revenue," said Pesano. "Per capita midway gross revenue had increased from 2013."
With 110 (the same amount as the anniversary) rides in 2014, the Florida State Fair claims to be the largest independent midway in the U.S., with seven carnival companies: Deggler Attractions, Wonderland Amusements, Myers International Midways, Reithoffer Shows, Dreamland Amusements, Arnold Amusements and Wade Shows; and five independent companies (with five rides or less): Lauther Amusements, Wood Entertainment, Rio Christiani, Jeremy Floyd, and Tom McDonagh.
"The Comet II roller coaster had its 2014 premier here," said Persona. "It was a big a hit, as was the return of the 130-foot Dutch Wheel, which is the largest traveling Ferris wheel on the east coast."
The 110th Florida State Fair premiere digitized ride ticketing. The FSFA implemented the Fun Card System, the scanning and debit card system used by other fairs and carnivals. The system replaced paper tickets, a transition that succeeded in spite of a few glitches, the most apparent being a WiFi snafu that caused some ride card readers to fail. "We switched back to the paper tickets for a couple of days," said Pesano. "It was our first time using the system, so the start wasn't as smooth as we hoped but by the end of the fair, it was working without a hitch. I'm sure by next year we will be using the system every day of the fair without a problem."
The fair offers armband promotions - fairgoers pay one price for unlimited rides - during certain fair days and the new Fun Card system allows for a more accurate allocation of ride revenue among ride operators. The Florida State Fair used to base the allocation on the number of tickets each operator collects, with other qualitative factors - such as ride location, which can affect traffic and popularity - weighed into the calculus that determines the distribution of reimbursement. "The Fun Card system is more quantitatively accurate," said Persano. "Most of the operators understood. A few of the smaller ones complained but I think everyone was happy with and accepted the end result."
By providing more precise accounting, the digitized ride ticketing also creates a new metric, which can be analyzed then utilized for future fair improvements. "The Fun Card system also gives us another data stream that we are thinking of ways to use," Persano added.
Admission prices ranged from $11 (weekdays) to $13 (weekends) for adults, and $6 to $7 for children (Seniors on senior days were $11) - an increase of a dollar over the 2013 price. Free-admission promotions include Heroes Day where all active reserve and retired military, law enforcement and first responders were admitted free: two different 4-H and FFA days where members received free admission; and Family Fun Day where a family up to 4 persons received $20 flat fee admission. The fair also features four student days - a separate day for each of the school systems of the four surrounding counties - when students received free admission.
The largest attended student day, on the first Friday night of the fair, for the Hillsborough School System turned into a night of havoc. The Tampa Bay Times (February 16) reported: "teenagers rampaging through the midway at unprecedented levels, forcing an early closure... deputies struggled to contain hundreds of teenagers they say were running, fighting and stealing during the nighttime hours of Hillsborough's student day, when schoolchildren are given a free ticket and the day off from classes."
"The safety of our patrons is our first priority," said Pesano. "We partner with the Hillsborough County Sheriff's office and rely on their expertise throughout the year when planning the Fair, and to provide law enforcement during the Fair."
Periods of rain persisted throughout the day. The groups of rowdy teenagers huddling to find shelter grew larger, making the scenario for trouble more likely. "The were altercations between groups of students and the FSFA together with the Sheriff's office, made a decision to close the Fair at approximately 10:30 pm due to inclement weather and a number of disorderly individuals," said Pesano. By 9:30, law enforcement had closed the admission gates and 99 teenagers had been ejected. A 14-year-old male was struck by a vehicle and killed while crossing a nearby Interstate Highway, about two hours after being ejected from the fair.
The fair immediately changed its Student Day policy, requiring all free student ticket holders to be accompanied by an adult after 7 p.m. Hillsborough, the 9th largest school system in the U.S. (Digest of Education Statistics 2013) - and the home county of both the fair and Tampa, the 3rd largest city in Florida - is more urban and more trouble prone when it comes to Student Day. Pesano pointed out the other school systems are less populated and more rural areas, perhaps explaining why disorderly conduct incidents are less frequent during other Student Days at the fair. Ejections for disruptive behavior are far from uncommon on Hillsborough County Student Day for previous Florida State Fairs, but nowhere near the amount of ejections or violence level of the 2014 night in question.
"We are meeting with Sheriff's department, and the school board," said Pesano. "The FSFA is committed to solving this problems. There were always a few ejections, but why this happened we do not really know yet. We are looking at a variety of options for next year."
If the past is prelude and the Florida State Fair and its lead spot in the fair season as the "testing ground for new food items" still carries validity, the hot fair food item of 2014 will be the Ramen Noodle Burger, an inventive combination of fair cuisine and Asian-Fusion cooking, concocted by Car Carousel Foods.
The Ramen Noodle Burger is a fresh beef burger inside a Ramen Noodle bun, with Asian Slaw and an Oriental Sauce mixture of mayonnaise, ketchup, soy sauce and hoisin. "My brother-in-law, who is a real foodie, said it was delicious," said Jennifer O'Brien, Marketing & Communications Manager, FSFA.
The Ramen Noodle Burger became famous in February. Not only making the local press, but images and video of this new addition to the Ramen-verse - Ramen Noodles are an obsessive food product among many millenials - proliferated on internet newsfeeds and social media outlets.
"We had numerous stories about the Ramen Burger, it really caught on," added O'Brien. "It was the hit of the fair." While not achieving the same level of internet notoriety as the Ramen Burger , other new burgers by Car Carousel Foods introduced at the Florida State Fair included the 3-Bs Burger (Beef, Bacon, Brisket), the Donut Burger and the Healthier Burger, a soy burger inside a whole wheat bagel thin, topped with provolone cheese, parmesan-crusted eggplant and other vegetables. According to O'Brien, attendee feedback indicated a demand for more healthy food options and this new burger is a response to the requests of those fairgoers.
More than 200 food vendors were featured at the Florida State Fair; 2014 sales figures were not available at press time. The fair also held its annual Taste of the Fair, where attendees were treated to samples at reduced prices from participating vendors.
The Florida State Fair has an annual budget of approximately $18.2 million. The FSFA operates the Fair from revenues generated from the annual State Fair and other events throughout the year. Although the FSFA is an instrumentality of the State, it does not receive any annual tax appropriations from the City, County or State. The Fair Authority operates under the direction of the Florida Department of Agriculture and Consumer Services, and its board of Directors.
"We did not meet our attendance goals primarily due to weather," admitted Pesano. "But we had a strong fair. On the good days, the Midway was packed."
The fair has a total marketing budget of $425,000, which includes all advertising and public relations. The mix of course includes old and new media and like other fairs, there has been an increase in social media (Facebook, Twitter, Pinterest, Instagram). The Fair's Facebook page, for example, has more than 7,000 followers. "Social media allows us more dialog with fair goers," said O'Brien. "We did a lot of posting, especially a lot more tweeting."
The most significant impact of social media on fair marketing has been how it increases involvement with fairgoers. "We reinforced our promotions and we are able to carry on conversations with our customers and respond immediately to the feedback," said O'Brien.
"After the fair is over, we immediately start looking at all our data and evaluate our performance," added Pesano. "Then we start having meetings so we can improve next year's fair."
2014 Florida State Fair Photos | 2014 Florida State Fair ride ranking