Many in the Fair industry see Florida as a business barometer. Because of its subtropical climate, but when fall begins to turn to winter in the rest of the U.S., Florida hosts some of the first and final fairs of the year. Florida is a bellwether state, a kind of canary in the coal mine where industry members look for signs of how healthy the industry was, is, and will be.
The Greater Jacksonville Agricultural Fair, which ran November 5-11 is one of the last fairs of the year. Fair industry watchers looking for tea leaves to read will find that the successful 2014 Jacksonville event indicates that the fair industry has shed much of its doldrums. As a new year dawns and a new fair season looms, Jacksonville justifies an optimistic forecast for 2015.
The largest of the final fairs of the season, the Greater Jacksonville Agricultural Fair had a notable uptick in attendance, a slightly higher increase in spending and perhaps more importantly, according to Martha Leverock, these positive numbers also show a positive trend. "Last year (2013) was good and 2014 was even better and I can say the fair is turning in the right direction," said Martha Leverock, President of the Greater Jacksonville Agricultural Fair.
Attendance reached 382,472, according to Leverock, an increase in the ballpark of 7 percent, "but the spending was up higher than the attendance," said Leverock. "There were lines of fairgoers everywhere, at food stands and rides and exhibits. I haven't seen lines like that in a while. The economy seems to have turned around, and I think we are starting to feel the impact of that turnaround."
Leverock would not reveal specific spending or fair revenue for 2014, but said that while business was good no record days were set. She added that Florida and the local economy suffered greatly from the Great Recession, "in 08 and 09, things were really bad. This area was hit hard, and fewer people came to the fair and they were really watching what they were spending," she said. But in 2014, with employment rising and some tough economic adjustments being made, "we are doing better. I don' t think it is that dramatic, but you see more improvements every year," Leverock added.
Best Midway Ever
This steady upswing in the economic well being of the Jacksonville fair and the community that supports it was most evident at the midway. "We had the biggest year we have ever had," said Charles Panacek, president of Belle City Amusements Inc., who has provided the midway for the Greater Jacksonville Agricultural Fair for the past six years. "It is a good fair, and we have always done well in Jacksonville."
This relationship between fair and midway provider has been so positive Belle City Amusements and the Greater Jacksonville Agricultural Fair just signed a mulita-year contract, according to Panacek.
Aside from what appears to be a steady uptick in consumer confidence and the regional economy, the weather was cooperative for the fair. Because of the timing in the calendar year, Leverock describes the Greater Jacksonville Agricultural Fair as an evening fair. Although a few nights dipped into the 60s, cool for November in the area, "the weather was very comfortable, especially nights," said Leverock. "Overall, it was a good fair."
The dates of the fair also aligned with Veterans Day, enabling an effective promotional opportunity, as well as a School Holiday – the local school systems add extra days into the calendar in case that weather events causes school closures. But severe storms didn't reach Florida this hurricane season, so the school was not in session for a Monday, which was declared a School Holiday and resulted in a three day weekend. "I'm sure that School Holiday and three day weekend helped attendance," said Leverock. "We were able to get more kids on that day."
Another fairgoer enticement caused by the 2014 calendar was that the NFL team, the Jacksonville Jaguars, had away games. The Jacksonville Fair & Expo Center is directly adjacent to Everbank Field, and some parking is shared. "We do not really get much attendance from people going to the games," said Leverock. "When there's no game during the fair, there are no parking problems and that Sunday is always better."
Gator Country Music
The Greater Jacksonville Agricultural Fair features free entertainment, with VIP seating for some acts. The fair partners with a local Country Music station to feature the "Gator Country Music Series". The station books the country acts, which are the bulk of the entertainment, as well as provides additional promotion and produces live spots from the fairgrounds.
The focus this year was on up-and-comer type acts, such as J. Collins Band and Thompson Square, as well as Lindsay Ell, American Idol winner Scotty McCreery, and RaeLynn, a star of the "The Voice" whose single, "God Made Girls" was the highest charting debut single by a solo female in 2014. Brett Eldredge, who earned a Country Music Association Award nomination for "New Artist of Year," and has a current hit single, "Mean to Me", was probably the biggest draw, according to Leverock. "He was our biggest national act this year" said Leverock. "He had the most people and people really liked him."
She added that country music has always been the dominant musical choice for entertainment, and the partnership with the radio station makes economic sense. "They've been a sponsor for at least five years. It has worked out well."
In addition to the music series being a high point of the 2014 fair, Leverock emphasized that agricultural exhibits celebrating Florida's farming industry remains an important part of the fair's mission. "We had great educational programs this year, and were able to give scholarships, have 4-H competitions and have high school interns," said Leverock. "We had great cattle and crop exhibits. But people come here wanting to learn about farming, and they get an education, seeing chickens or how milk is gotten from the cow. That's always been an important part of the fair."
The highpoint of the fair was unmistakably the robust showing of the Belle City midway, which Panacek said was a record year, " a 5 to 6 percent increase in the total ride gross," he said. "The weather was good, and the advertising and marketing the fair did at the gate and that we did helped a lot."
The promotional discounts Belle City Amusement instituted included a dollar night, and a $5 off armband. "We do discounts on the weaker nights of the week, and they really paid off this year," he said.
The Zycklon Roller Coaster had its Jacksonville premier in 2014, and another highlight for fairgoers was the Moon Raker, which made its return the fair after a several year hiatus. But Panacek insisted that the most popular rides were the classic standbys that fairgoers have to come to expect. "The Giant Wheel is always the most popular, and the Rock & Roll Himalaya," he said.
Panacek added, "the layout of the midway at Jacksonville is somewhat restrictive, and there are a lot of curves and fences you have to work around, but we changed it up a little."
The most significant change for Belle City was an expansion of the children's ride selection. "You see more young families and you want to cater to them. We had more kiddie rides this year," he said.
Low Gas Prices
The Jacksonville event is the last event of the year for Belle City Amusements. The company's season runs from February to November, with a territory that spans from the Midwest down to the Southeast. "The economy picked up last year and we are looking forward to a good year," he said. "We did see improvements in per capita spending and the overall economies doing better, although we are not quite where we ought to be yet."
This upbeat conclusion to what was a comeback year for the fair industry was underscored by the much welcomed drop in gasoline prices. "I think the impact of lower fuel costs was just being noticed at Jacksonville," he said. "It helped our bottom line and the I'm sure the fair and customers had more money to spend. This drop in prices will make a bigger difference for fairs if it continues."
More significantly, the Greater Jacksonville Agricultural Fair proved to be "a very strong fair, it was a good year for Jacksonville," said Panacek. "Their promotions were good, and they have a committed, hard working staff which any successful fair needs. They've been many years working to make that fair what it is today."
For Leverock, who joined the fair as a part timer in 1978, "the fair exceeded expectations. I think fairs are getting popular again, it was a good year. We offer people something they can't get anywhere else."
She added, "fairs aren't in competition with each other, and we all offer something unique. We in Jacksonville love the fair industry."