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Fastest Growing Florida District Fair Overcomes Opening Storms
Reithoffer Shows reports best gross ever at Lee Co. Fair

4/13/2015

By Timothy Herrick

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The 91st Southwest Florida & Lee County Fair - which ran February 26th to March 8th - started off wet but by the end of the run, this fast-growing event showed significant gains. "It was a great fair," said Fran Crone, Fair Manager. "The weather was rainy and cloudy the first weekend, but once it cleared the weather was great - sunny and warm. After dodging a few raindrops the first weekend, we had a great Fair."

A few rain drops is one way to describe what some considered a torrential downpour,  but the final judgement is that his fair was able to overcome a wet start because of new marketing efforts and a well-established presence in a growing community.

"This year at the Southwest Florida & Lee County Fair, we posted our best gross ever," said Rick Reithoffer of Reithoffer Shows, who provided the midway. This positive performance was accomplished against the challenge of opening weekend weather. "The first day was a rain out as far as we were concerned," added Reithoffer. "The rain kept away customers but we made up our losses. Even with the total rain out, we blew up and it was one for the record books."

Growing Area
Reithoffer feels that this District Fair - it now represents six Sunshine State counties: Charlotte, Collier, DeSoto, Glades, Hendry and Lee - has become one of the fastest growing mid-sized fairs of his season. Revenue was up about 10 percent over 2014, which also showed an increase of about 8 percent over the previous fair. Some of this growth can be attributed to a thriving demographic. "The county of Naples, just south of Fort Myers is a big, growing community and they love family entertainment."

But a growing market is not enough without effectively reaching the totality of that market. Reithoffer also credits the new marketing programs the fair has implemented in the two years that Crone has been at the helm. "They do a fabulous job of getting the message to the people about the fair and getting the people out to the fair," he said. "They bring the people and we can do our job better, which is provide them rides. Every year our ride gross has been increasing. This year, they had some great promotions." 

Marketing & Promotion
Improved and expanded marketing and promotion were the keys to the success of the 2015 fair. The fair's advertising budget is relatively modest - about $80,000 - which Crone indicated was unchanged from 2014. The 2015 change was in the allocation of those resources.

 "We purchased more TV and radio spots this year," she said. With billboards, those three media make up the lion share of the budget, with print declining but still essential to the mix. "We added more television segments, three different television segments, and we did more radio, including country music and Spanish radio," she added. "We really hit the Latino market." 

She added that digital billboards  were more heavily utilized this year. "Billboards are a huge advertising power, since you can change the slides out daily to advertise various promotions."

In addition, it was the second year of the fair utilizing a public relations firm to supplement its marketing and advertising strategies, included creating three new public service announcements, and increased output of press releases and e-blasts. "We got the word out," she said.

Community Fair
As one of the largest District Fairs in Florida, the Southwest Florida & Collier County Fair must draw from - and represent - six counties. Through the improved marketing, expanded public relations and publicity and more effective community outreach, the growth of the fair has been sustained through deliberate grassroots efforts. "Our feeling is that the fair is about the kids and our communities, that the fair is an extension of the kids and our communities," she said.

She pointed that school exhibitions - which are divided into Elementary, Middle and High School divisions, saw - increased to 73 schools, an increase from 71. There were 319 livestock exhibits, with 533 exhibits overall, another high for the fair. "The agriculture industry is very healthy in this region," said Crone. "We are more successful in bringing those outer communities, who are more rural, back into the fair." 

According to Crone, the fair had an estimated attendance of 104,000, which was up by "approximately 3,000" compared to 2014. "We had several record days this year, and on our second Saturday we had over 22K though the gates...a definite record," she said. "This is truly a family event. Our entertainment is free and we market this as a community event, which is exactly what it is."

Midway Records
Aside from the expanded marketing and other programs that increase overall attendance, Reithoffer emphasized that midway-specific promotions increased ridership. Effective promotions included a Moonlight Madness on two nights, running from 9:00pm to 2:00am, a  $12 Tuesday, which had unlimited rides and a $2.00 Thursday - "only a moderate success, but I think we will try it again." 

The Reithoffer midway featured about 50 rides, with new additions including an Air Race, a Sky Race - "which is like a baby brother, Kiddie Ride to the Air Race," a Magic Maze, Circus Train and Himalaya.

Another plus for the midway was the decline in fuel prices. The fair was one of the first in the season for Reithoffer to see the effects of the decline - although he pointed out that the per-gallon price jumped to approximately $2.70, up from a low of $2.25 only a few weeks ago. 

"But it is still a lot lower than the $3.25 to $3.50 that it was a year go," he said. "It is always a good thing for outdoor amusement business when fuel prices are lower."
He added, "the real benefit is with the public, when it costs them less to get to the fair, they are going to spend more money for their entertainment."

Food Limits
The Southwest Florida & Lee County Fair featured 30 Independent Food Vendors - although the fair doesn't directly track their sales, anecdotally "they were having a good fair and are signing up for next year." 

Food vendors have to reapply every year for the limited space, by invitation. "If we don't want them back, we would not send them a form. We review their products and their presentation, and for fall new vendors we want to share they will fit in the fair."

The fair limits the number of vendors within each category. "For instance, we only have two corn dog vendors," said Crone. "We want to keep things contained. We limit the numbers in the spirit that they can maximize their sales and have a good fair. Some vendors have played our fair for more than 25 years."

One of the most successful vendors this year was Cracker Billies, a locally based provider of fried and food-on-stick food that epitomizes fair cuisine. "He was wonderful and a lot of seafood items that were very popular," said Crone.

Economic Recovery
Weather eventually turning cooperative accompanied by a more effective marketing program was key in ensuring that the  Southwest Florida & Lee County Fair was able to continue what has been an upward trend in recent years. But Crone also acknowledged that the economy is improving  in Florida, and 2015 was the year she was able to verify fair success as indication of this overall upswing. "Increase in attendance means an increase in revenue, thus a positive reflection on the economic recovery," she said. 

"We think the economy has shown improvement," said Reithoffer. "It was one reason we were up significantly at the Southwest Florida & Lee County Fair."


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