Cooperative weather may be the most obvious reason the Florida Strawberry Festival in Plant City, February 27 - March 9, exceed its 2013 attendance by several thousand, but other new policies within the organization made significant strides towards achieving the positive outcome of this year's event.
The Florida Strawberry Festival has an unabashedly agricultural focus - fruit is in its title - resulting in a level of community support many other fairs envy. But what has made the difference is systemic change in attitude the fair implemented a few years ago.
The attitude change? All segments of the fair now have a unified directive: put the customer first.
"In spite of how trite as it may sound, fairs are still a slice of Americana," said Paul Davis, General Manager, Florida Strawberry Festival. "That means everyone is greeted with a smile and made to feel welcomed."
According to Davis, the 11-day fair in 2014 attracted 531,659 attendees, an increase over last year's estimated figure of 526,100, with overall revenue up by more than $2 million. Davis said that these figures are evidence that the policies he and his board have put in place are now having the desired effect. "People are now responding back," said Davis.
Davis has been General Manager for the fair for six years, and credits the 30-member board of this nonprofit, as creating and instituting the new policy imperative. "We have a great board and they really want the fairgoer to come first, their positive experience at the fair is what is the most important."
Davis brought to his position a wealth of experience - 32 years with the Hillsborough County Sheriff's Department, where "I worked with security for the fair every summer."
Board Members Meet Fairgoers
When the fair board hired him and policy changes were discussed, Davis recommended that the board members themselves walk the fair with identification - logos on their shirts - and talk to the people. This direct interaction between customers and decision-makers and stake-holders helped change attitudes among both fairgoers and fair management.
"People would see they're board members and complain about something or tell them what they liked," said Davis. "This began to make a difference, it gave our guests a sense of ownership and community "
The board soon implemented a specialized-training program for all of the front-line fair workers: ticket-takers, parking lot attendants and the whole plethora of the seasonal workers who have the most immediate interaction with individual fairgoers. "These are the people who start the fair experience for our guests," said Davis. "Everyone who comes to the fair is greeted with a friendly smile, everyone is made to feel welcomed. We train all employers to be better at greeting everybody, to he always be helpful and friendly. There were workers who didn't really buy into it and they are no longer here."
In addition to better greeting training for these employees, the fair created a new position of Hospitality Ambassador. Like many fairs, the Florida Strawberry Festival has Information Booths, the Hospitality Ambassadors are an extension of that concept. They're human welcome wagons on the alert for fairgoers they can greet and assist.
"Our ambassadors are roving information booths," said Davis. "They wear hat and vests that identify them as Strawberry Festival ambassadors. They walk the fair, looking for people who may have lost their bearings. They give out maps and know where everything is happening at the fair, so they can give directions and make recommendations. This was our second year for the ambassadors and I think it really has started to make a difference."
A more pro-active board and general manager, new customer-oriented staff training and the creation of the Hospitality Ambassadors positions, increased direct interaction with the Florida Strawberry Festival fairgoers, but Davis also points out that the entertainment selection attracted larger audiences.
Reserved ticket prices (not included in fair admission fees) ranged from $15 - $55, with a total of 22 different headline concerts; two concerts per day were held - 3:30 and 7:30 - and major headliners included Rascal Flatts, Charlie Pride, Little Big Town, The Band Perry, Boyz II Men, Third Day, and STYX.
"We hired a new talent buyer - Triangle Talent - this year and we had a four-person committee approving the acts, and submitting names of acts we wanted, some we got and some we didn't," said Davis.
The formation of a committee and hiring a new talent buyer also meant more research and more aggressive booking than previous years. "We were had a better mix of country and rock, and we had music for seniors, like the Tommy Dorsey Band, in the afternoons," said Davis. "We had better planning of when the shows and who were targeting with each one. There were also a lot of good acts touring this year."
The festival also had free music - "our bread and butter acts" - which this year included an additional stage, the Paradise Grilling Systems Variety Stage; among the free-with-admission acts the new venue showcased included Shannon Magrane from American Idol and Billy and the Soul Circus Cowboys.
Entertainment Boosts Midway
The 2014 entertainment lineup, as well as the more customer friendly programs the fair implemented, also created more synergies with the midway and the entertainment. "We have seen improvements every year, but this year the fair really had entertainment that brought more people in," said Charles Panacek, President of Belle City Amusements, who has provided the midway for the past six years at the Sunshine State's annual celebration of everything strawberry.
One of the improvements, Panacek said, was a more direct communication by fair organizers with Belle City. "They are working directly with us, and we even had input on the entertainment line ups. They needed to spend more money, especially on the weekend nights, to bring in more youth-oriented headliners and that is what they did this year."
Panacek noted that the Friday night show featuring Colt Ford was very successful for the midway. "You bring in more young people, and they're the ones that are going to go to the midway."
While declining to disclose revenue figures, Panacek said he estimated it was up by 12-15 percent, compared to last year (2014 was Belle City's sixth year as the Florida Strawberry Midway provider). "Per-capita spending was up too."
Rare Midway Recognition
In line with the fairgoer focus example Davis has set for this year's edition of the Florida Strawberry Festival, Belle City set up a Guest Relations Booth. Actually, last year was the first time the midway set up this special customer-service desk, dedicating a staff member to handling any and all complaints and/or questions. This year, Belle City Amusements implemented a second such booth, in the Kiddie Korral, the children's ride section of the midway. "We were getting most of the questions from parents last year, so we saw the need for one in this area," said Panacek. "We get emails with questions all the time so we realized we needed someone immediately available."
The Guest Relations Booth led to one of those rare fair-moments Panacek cherishes. The day after the customer-service employee helped a family and a special-needs child through some ride issues, the parents returned with a plaque thanking the midway provider and their employees. "We've gotten official plaques from fair boards and the like that thanked us, but this was the first one from the actual customer," said Panacek. "That was very special."
Some of the new rides for Belle City included an SBF Groovy Bus, a Monster Truck by Wisdom Rides, the King's Circus, which Panacek claims is the only four-story funhouse in the country and the return, after a 10-year hiatus, of the Moonraker ride. "It's been completely refurbished, and it has been popular," said Panacek. "Our most popular rides are still the Giant Wheel and the Zyklon Roller Coaster."
The Florida Strawberry Festival's customer-centric approach is an attitude make-over long over due for the fair industry. "I am hoping the spending is a sign the economy is improving," said Panacek. "This fair's customer base is growing, but the fair has done a wonderful job in keeping in touch with their customers. Amusement parks have done this for years, being more aware of what fairgoers want and making sure the overall experience is positive and the fair industry has really just started doing that."
New Marketing Partners
The fair also had a new marketing sponsor this year - Publix Super Markets - a grocery store chain with 200 locations, which was more than the previous year's supermarket partner. "That helped us to sell more tickets, just because we now had more locations," said Davis. "We also had to print more brochures to have them available at the stores."
This brochure demand surge may have caused the print portion of the marketing media mix to edge back up, but Davis claims that the mix of media has remained has remained fixed in recent years, with of course a steady increase in internet and social media. "We have nearly 85,000 followers on Facebook and nearly 10,000 followers on Twitter," said Davis. "We have found great success with sending information to our patrons through these two sites, particularly breaking information"
Davis related an anecdote from this year's fair that shows a new use for social media and the fact that Wi-Fi is now quicker than walkie-talkies. Somebody posted on Facebook of a traffic jam on one of the highways leading to the fairground. "Traffic was at a stand-still and law enforcement hadn't been made aware of the problem," said Davis. "We were able to jump right on it. Social media keeps us on our toes, makes us be on our A-Game. When there's a problem, you hear about it right away, but that also means you can solve it quicker."
Davis admitted, "social media seems to mesh really well with our attitude about the overall fairgoer experience."
As the name of the fair indicates, Strawberries take center stage at the event. According to the fair, about 10,000 acres of strawberries are grown the area, an economic impact of more than $700 million (the agriculture industry has an economic impact of over $1 billion in Hillsborough County). The more typical fair cuisine takes a back-seat to this celebration of the strawberry, with popular items strawberry shortcake, strawberry milkshakes, strawberry cookies, strawberry cakes, strawberry pies, fried strawberries, strawberry pizza, strawberry lemonade, strawberry cheesecake, strawberry tarts, chocolate-dipped strawberries, and even a strawberry burger.
With strawberries being so paramount in this community, the enthusiasm seems already built in for the Florida Strawberry Festival, first held in 1930; new policies, an improving economy and good weather enhanced this following. "Our two weekends were tremendous weather-wise, and I like to think the economy is getting better," said Davis. "Our fair is a good value for families. But we also keep wanting to make the fair better and we have been doing that by focusing on our guests, how to make sure they have the best possible fair experience."