As one of the first of the larger fairs of the new year, the Florida State Fair is often seen as a harbinger. There is no one single crystal ball and fair professionals tend to look a variety of sources data for indicators of a seasons. Frank Zaitshik of Wade Shows, the new midway provider for the Florida State Fair, is apprehensive about reading too much into one fair.
But, as soothsaying mechanisms go, the Florida State Fair - the 111th edition of this event ran February 5-16 - will lead to a positive prediction. The Sunshine State event saw record days and a boost in revenue that bodes well for the industry in 2015. Or as Zaitshik proclaimed, "buckle your set belt, we're going to have a great year."
In spite of storms early in the fair - the weather played its part and attendance responded.
Chuck Pesano, Executive Director of the Florida State Fair Authority, said this year's Florida State Fair "overall, went very well. The weather was good. We had two days of major rain but they both occurred on weekdays - Opening Day and the first Monday."
Revenue & Attendance
Fair attendance reached a healthy total of 388,830, with some very strong showings on several weekdays "Wednesday doubled in revenue and the second Thursday was up 50 percent from 2014 and for attendance, Wednesday was 40 percent above our 10 year average, and second Thursday was up 20 percent above the 10 year average," said Pesano.
He added, "Our numbers are very preliminary, but we are projecting a revenue increase of almost 10 percent versus the 2014 Fair. Gate per capita spending increased by over 7 percent. Gate revenues increased by almost 6 percent and midway revenue was up almost 15 percent."
This 15 percent boost in midway revenues - midway revenue was $4,399,446 - is not just a positive indicator for the 2015 fair season, but is ripe for analysis by the fair industry. The Florida State Fair has had an independent midway for the past decade, but in July, following a very public bidding process, the midway contract was awarded to Wade Shows. The question that observers are pondering is how much a factor in the uptick in business can be attribute to abandoning an independent midway model.
But neither the question or the answers are uncomplicated. The new format is not as simple as going back to being the sole product of one carnival company. "When transitioning to a new system or provider, initial glitches often occur," said Pesano. "The Fair was pleasantly surprised at how smoothly the transition to Wade Shows actually was."
In actuality, the Florida State Fair Authority coined the phrase hybrid midway - Wade supplies approximately 60 percent of the 115 midway rides, then handles all the subcontracting with the other carnival companies. (The Florida State Fair Authority had final approval of all rides, but management of the midway was entirely the responsibility of Wade)
According to Zaitshik, Wade Shows had subcontracted about half dozen ride companies, including Dreamland Amusements, Myers Amusements, Wood Entertainment, and Jeremy Floyd, all of whom had both worked with Wade Shows and provided rides to the Florida State Fair under their independent midway format. Big Rock Amusements and Powers Great American Midways also made their debut at the Florida State Fair.
"All of those companies knew what we wanted and knew what the Florida State Fair expected," he said. "All of our team members delivered what they were supposed to deliver. They did a fantastic job. They understand the Wade Brand."
In addition to the increase in midway spending, the "As one of the largest midway operators in the nation, Wade Shows' midway expertise and fresh perspective was an additional benefit for the Florida State Fair that was brought to the table," said Pesano. "Changing over to Wade Shows as Midway provider resulted in an estimated cost savings of $50,000 per year in rentals, employee labor and contracted services."
According to Pesano, the contract also called for a $100,000 sponsorship fee from Wade, and from $100,000 to $200,000 spent to "improve the midway and enhance the patron experience. Wade Shows took on the financial investment to have portions of the midway expanded with new asphalt, add new rest areas, and provide uniquely Florida State Fair customized canvas for all rides and vendors. This resulted in a top-notch looking midway with great consistency."
Zaitshik said he opted to spend the bulk of the upgrade funding up-front (i.e. this year), the investment ranged from improving landscaping to new awnings, canopies and uniforms. "It was a labor of love," he said. "We reinforced the Florida State Fair with our landscaping and other improvements because I know that in the long run it will pay bigger dividends."
The Wade makeover project not only beautified the entire midway, but made it more attendee friendly, adding more than 16 rest areas with large umbrellas, 40 picnic tables and 100 benches, 16 light towers and a wider midway, allowing for easier pedestrian movement and safety.
Wade and the fair also added observation towers for better crowd control and safety. "We had a positive response to all our changes," Zaitshik said.
The walkway was widened to 64 feet, which "increased customer satisfaction. When people are pushed together, there can be the tendency to react negatively," Zaitshik said. "With the observation towers, security could control the crowd better."
According to the Florida State Fair, the transition to Wade introduced 22 new rides to the Florida State Fair. Major new rides include Delusion, Centrifuge, Quasar, Frenzy, Star Dancer, Beach Shack, Farm Tractors, Flying Dutchman, and Khaos. The most popular rides however were the Super Slide, Sky Glider, Comet II, Giant Wheel, Hit N 2000 and Delusion.
"There are a lot of fairs that may be larger than the Florida State Fair, but no carnival has been presented in a better footprint," said Zaitshik. "We play a lot of great fairs, but this year's Florida State Fair midway was as fine a midway as any other fair in North America."
Another factor in the midway success was expanding the usual weekend only armband promotion to everyday of the fair. "Offering a weekday armband in addition to weekend armbands was well received," added Pesano.
The combination of new rides, midway upgrades and enhanced promotion resulted in a predictable fairgoer behavior. "People came earlier, stayed longer, spent more money," said Zaitshik.
The 111th Florida State Fair was the second year of digital ticketing system. Last year, the inevitable glitches of a freshman program occurred, but with Wade's assistance, the sophomore year of the new ticketing system was nearly trouble free. Overall the system worked quite well, with only minor glitches," said Pesano. "We incorporated many fixes and the system ran smoothly. Having Wade Shows as the midway manager was an asset, as they are familiar with the system and use it at many other venues."
The fair's advertising budget was $400,000, about the same as last year. The media mix of its advertising campaigned was divvied as follows: 32 percent Television, 17 percent Radio, 11 percent Out of Home (Outdoor), 14 percent Digital, and 26 percent Print. "In 2015, we targeted specific markets that might not otherwise attend the Florida State Fair, and increased our digital and television presence," said Pesano.
The most successful social media promotion was a pre-fair hamburger contest, The People's Choice Burger Contest. The winning entry was the Parmesan Crusted Burger ("A twice-fried burger patty coated with a potato chip/parmesan-Romano cheese mixture until crispy. Topped with bacon, a mayonnaise-parmesan sauce and torched until melted.")
According to Pesano, the fair licensed 189 spaces for food vendors outside the midway (22 food vendors were within the midway, managed by Wade). "Being the first State Fair of the year, many vendors use the Florida State Fair as a test market for new foods," said Pesano.
The Florida State Fair supplemented its regular offerings with two emotionally moving and profound exhibits - The Wall that Heals, a traveling replica of built and by the Vietnam Veterans Memorial in Washington, D.C., and the 9/11 Never Forget Traveling Exhibit, a high-tech, tractor-trailer that unfolds into a 1,100 square foot exhibit featuring interactive education, artifacts, news and video recordings.
"We are grateful to have such extraordinary programming at the 2015 Fair," said Doyle E. Carlton, III, Florida State Fair Authority Chairman of the Board. "Both the Wall that Heals, and the 9/11 Never Forget exhibits represent critical eras in American History. We feel these will give an opportunity for reflection, inspiration and will strengthen all that view them."
"As a compliment to our other diverse range of educational and entertaining exhibits, this meaningful programming targeted and brought in numerous patrons that might had not otherwise attended the Fair," said Pesano.
All the numbers are not yet verified, but Pesano said that for the 2015 fair "Overall revenue was strong and should exceed the budget."
A good year may be good enough for most fairs, but the Florida State Fair underwent a huge change that was both complex and visible. While that transition was well-thought out, the midway is the core of most fairs and abandoning more than a decade of independent management and experimenting with a hybrid midway inspired, however concealed, at least some trepidation.
Now that the fair is over, fair organizers are both relieved and gratified the right decision - and mindful execution of that decision was made. "The Fair's new programming and exhibits, and physical enhancements and updates including the Midway, provided Fairgoers with a unique and family-friendly experience," said Pesano.
For Wade Shows, the success seems most based on partnership. Zaitshik: "When you do business with a fair committed to achieving a goal, amazing things can happen."