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2014 Fiesta San Antonio: Becoming the Texas Mardi Gras

6/2/2014

By Timothy Herrick

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Despite a few drawbacks, any event that attracts an estimated 3.6 million  probably qualifies as a "tremendous success," and indeed, that's how John Melleky, CEO of the Fiesta San Antonio Commission, describes this year's edition of Fiesta San Antonio.
Unlike other large events with a midway, food and music and outdoor revelry, Fiesta San Antonio is not your traditional fair. But it can be viewed as a fair of fairs.

Family-Friendly Mardi Gras
 Fiesta San Antonio features 100 (107 in 2014 to be exact) separate events. By holding concurrent mini-fairs with food, music and other activities, these dozens of non-profits and other organizations join together to celebrate the history and culture of this renowned Texas city. "It is a city-wide event and a great party," said Melleky.
Both in scope of the activities and the way festival inspires residents to express pride in their city and its unique culture, Fiesta San Antonio resembles the Fat Tuesday celebrations the Big Easy has long been known for. In fact, one objective of the organizers is to eventually  achieve the same level of Mardi Gras notoriety.

"It is a family friendly Mardi Gras," said Melleky. "Fiesta is as ingrained into family traditions as Mardi Gras is in New Orleans. Everyone who grew up around here goes to Fiesta, people take their vacations around Fiesta.  We are always looking at ways we can improve how we work as an organization and we are looking at longer goals of improving the Fiesta."

Easter Extension
However, even though estimates indicate that people, numbering in the high hundreds of thousands, consistently participate in many events held during Fiesta, this year the calendar worked against optimizing attendance at the San Antonio extravaganza.

"Attendance was slightly down due to the Easter holiday falling in the middle of Fiesta," said Melleky.

The usual 11-day festival was extended to 18 days, as a way to accommodate the Easter Holidays. With Easter falling on April 20, and the fact that tradition - and municipal statutes -  dictates that one of the festival days must occur on April 21, the date of the Battle of San Jacinto (Fiesta San Antonio, which went by other monikers, such Spring Festival, before settling on that official name in 1960, originated as a commemoration of the Alamo and San Jacinto, two key conflicts in the Lone Star State's War for Independence).

Last year, the decision was made to add days to Fiesta, which meant an earlier start to the festival, resulting in a staggered schedule for some Fiesta events, making it more challenging to gather the multiplicity of Fiesta festivities under one San Antonio umbrella. "Easter weekend is such a big celebration here in San Antonio, and we want to respect what people do during that holiday time with their families," said Melleky. In spite of what the hit on attendance, "There are more lull periods, although it being spread out gives you more breathing room."

The anchor occasions for what was near three weeks of events were the midway - called the Fiesta San Antonio Carnival by organizers - and a series of parades. The three major parades are:  the Battle of Flowers Parade, the oldest single event and largest parade of Fiesta San Antonio, attracting crowds of more than 350,000 on the second Friday of Fiesta (also, the only parade the United States produced entirely by women), the Fiesta Flambeau Parade, an evening pride that starts at sunset on the second Saturday of the festival and is  illuminated by thousands of lights on the floats, dancers, horses, and other parade participants;  and the Texas Cavaliers River Parade, which takes place on the San Antonio river. This water-based procession, which has been part of Fiesta San Antonio since 1941, includes boats and barges that float down the river as spectators watch on the San Antonio Riverwalk.

Midway Dip
The midway at Fiesta San Antonio, which had a footprint of approximately 20,000 square feet, has been held in the parking lot of the Alamodome since 2009.  Wade Shows - the 2014 midway was the company's sixth consecutive year at Fiesta San Antonio - featured about 40 rides at the event.

"The Fiesta Carnival is a lynchpin event for Fiesta," said Melleky. While the first Fiesta San Antonio took place in 1891, the carnival with midway became part of the festivities in the early 1900s, when the event was still called Spring Festival.

"The Carnival is a family friendly event that attracts a variety of people in the community to celebrate this fusion of arts, heritage and culture," said Melleky. "There are special sale days such as dollar days when all rides are $1, and military appreciation night.  The Carnival also had a day for individuals with special needs and it was only open to those in that community, a way for them to celebrate Fiesta and enjoy at their own pace."

"The most effective promotion was Carnival wristbands were available for purchase at a discount at Walgreens locations" Melleky added.  A noteworthy ride premier for Fiesta San Antonio was Wade's new helicopter simulation attraction,  Charlie Chopper.

By most accounts, while the traditional parades attracted robust crowds, the addition of an extra week to what  was an 11-day festival did not favor midway business.  "It was a little bit of a down year at this year's Fiesta," said  Frank Zaitshik, President, Wade Shows. "There is a large Hispanic population in that city, and they are very religious and we didn't get the three weekends of the fair, we only had two and the opening weekend for us was Holy Thursday, Good Friday and Easter Sunday. Attendance was down for the Holidays, as were the days following Easter Sunday. Business did pick up, although the final day had 98 degree weather, which suppressed attendance."

The midway revenue downturn was further exacerbated by the expense of co-op marketing and midway entertainment. Usually these aspects unique to providing the Fiesta San Antonio midway grow attendance, but this year they proved to only make these financial commitments more burdensome. "There are a lot of expenses at this show, obligations for advertising and entertainment," said Zaitshik. "These are contract related expenses. The entertainment we provided was The Fearless Flores Thrill Show."  

While the overall experience was positive, Zaitshik said for midway providers, the 2014 Fiesta San Antonio "…was not for the feint of heart."  Despite the Holiday-affected attendance dip, Zaitshik remains very positive about Fiesta. "We are honored to be a part of such a terrific event", he added.

School Holidays
 One challenge of an April event is that schools being in session can hamper turnout, but for Fiesta San Antonio, more events means expanded options to fit into the school schedule. "Events take place during the day, evenings and weekends so there is plenty of opportunity for families to attend," said Melleky. "Additionally, the second Friday during Fiesta is a school holiday, which enables over 300,000 people to attend the Battle of Flowers parade ."

Nearly all the individual events that culminate in the entire Fiesta San Antonio experience are sponsored by local nonprofit organizations. The coordination of all these events is also a city-wide fundraising effort to fill the coffers of charitable organizations. The Fiesta marketing tagline is "Party With A Purpose," which reinforces the fact that money raised during Fiesta, through sales of separate event admissions as well as food and merchandise concessions, goes directly to the nonprofit that is hosting each event. "For marketing purposes, we focused on our hashtag, #FiestaSA, enabling us to track all social media activity by the public, which was very successful," said Melleky.

Melleky points out that the economy as seen through the lens of this city-wide extravaganza, provides evidence that recovery continues on an upswing. "We increased our corporate sponsorship by 25 percent," said Melleky. "Our advertising revenue was up by 35 percent," said Melleky. The advertising revenue Melleky refers to is the Fiesta San Antonio program. "We sold more ads than ever before. We also reformulated packages to meet the goals of the corporations."

In addition, the Fiesta San Antonio Commission implemented new marketing strategies. "This was the first year we launched an official Fiesta mobile app," said Melleky. "It was available for iPhone and Android. It was very successful, we had over 16,000 downloads."

New Marketing
What the app enabled was a wider exposure of the entire event, making this complex and vast festival more user-friendly. "It was a whole new way to interact with the Fiesta," said Melleky.

Fiesta also greatly expanded its social media presence.  "Fiesta utilizes Facebook, Twitter, Instagram, YouTube and Pinterest," said Melleky. "Over the past two years numbers have increased dramatically. Instagram is proving to be the be the fastest growing. Fiesta San Antonio has 90,000 Facebook fans and 16,000 Twitter followers, according to Melleky.

This was the first year of an implementation of a  five-year Strategic Plan for Fiesta San Antonio, the goal of which includes improving relationships between community organizations and the commission, expanding community outreach, and better telling the San Antonio story. The mobile app as well as the increased social media resulted from studies that were also used to develop the strategic plan. "We needed to have a better impact on two groups especially, the Millenials and the Hispanics," said Melleky. "This being the first year of our strategic plan, I think we were successful.  What we found though is that both Millenials and Hispanics are very tech-savvy, they are heavy users of smart phones and apps. We are on the right path and moving the ball forward."

The ultimate goal is to make Fiesta San Antonio as widely recognizable as Mardi Gras is for New Orleans. "We are growing regionally," he said, emphasizing that despite some setbacks due to the calendar forcing some scheduling inconveniences, the 2014 festival achieved ongoing, incremental progress. "We are building a Fiesta San Antonio to be a national property like Mardi Gras." 



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