The Pensacola Interstate Fair suffered a lament familiar to most fairs: A strong, sunny year was followed by a wet, weaker year.
The 2014 Pensacola Interstate Fair-the 80th anniversary - had what Don E. Frenkel, General Manager. described as 11 days of perfect weather and great crowds.
The 2015 edition? Out of the 11 days, four days of rain - heavy at times - and two additional days when the downpour was so severe the fair closed.
"The crowds showed up when it wasn't raining, " said Frenkel. "We had a great opening weekend and topped attendance for many days on a day to day comparison. The days it didn't rain we had record attendance. But in the end the rain got us."
Total attendance was down in the neighborhood of more than 70,000 - 2014 attendance hit a record of 426,000 - and the frustration Frenkel, his staff, vendors and midway company is felt is something the fair industry knows all too well. "There's nothing you can do about the weather."
In spite of this reality, this Florida tradition - an agriculture fair that draws fairgoers and agricultural competitors from Florida, Georgia, Mississippi, Alabama and Louisiana - had many bright spots, including free entertainment, agricultural exhibits and the embracing new marketing technologies.
The fair's headline entertainment, on the Pepsi Open Air Stage is free with admission, and Frenkel feels this year was a successful draw for fairgoers, weather permitting. The most popular acts he said were Telsa, Frankie Ballard, and Cole Swindell, "which was a huge night. He did an outstanding job, and we were fortunate to get him," he said.
The Swindell booking fulfilled what most fair managers consider the ultimate fair headline act - a rising star who is more popular at show time than when the contract was signed. "He was not as big a star when we first signed him," he said. "You want these up and coming acts and to get them while they're still affordable, and then by October they are selling a lot of records and everybody wants to see them."
Unfortunately, these optimum bookings are getting more uncommon and Frenkel anticipates that the seller's market is only getting more severe. "The concert business in general is getting tougher, and entertainers are really pricing themselves out of our price range and it is really hurting the fair business."
Frenkel pointed that "acts that used to be $30,000 just a few years ago are up to $60,000 and even $75,000. But we are satisfied with the people we booked, they drew very well and they were a buying crowd, the concessionaires were very happy."
He added, "looking forward, talent buying is very important for the fair and we are not trying to cut back. We set a standard and then try to beat that standard. We work with Capital International Booking and they do an outstanding job for us. We are working on getting a few names for next year. "
Ground Acts & Ag
Other bright spots were two new grounds acts for 2015, a Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles meet-and-greet and the popular dog show, Tricky Dog. Frenkel said these two additions "were great. With the turtles, there was a movie that came out and so that gave it an extra boost. There was a line of kids to have their picture taken with them. Everybody loved the Tricky Dogs."
A returning act included Eudora Farms "Animals From Around the World" Interactive, Educational Animal exhibit. "We've had them for four years and they put on a beautiful show, really exotic. This year they had giraffes, which people don't ordinarily see and they sell food packets to feed the giraffes."
Sponge Bob was another returning grounds act - available for photo-ops - and Al The Artist, a caricaturist who drives around the fair sketching free caricatures of fairgoers. "He's a tremendous attraction," he said. "The Grounds acts add great deal to the fair. We run a family show, and it's a great value that is included in the cost of admission. People feel they got their money's worth with the free entertainment. If you don't make them feel that way, they don't come back."
Another bright spot has been the "Progress Through Education" program, giving out $30,000 in scholarships "for the furtherance of education. To be eligible for the scholarship, the student has to have participated in the fair."
He added, "this is still an agricultural fair, and we push the educational value of the fair very strong."
Two agriculture educational highlights of the fair are the Antique Farm Equipment exhibit, and the hands on, interactive educational experience the Ag-Venture Barn, featuring a range of agriculture activities with field trips that welcomed, in spite of fair closures and rainy days, more than 1,000 students.
Magic & Memories
According to Frenkel, the fair's advertising budget was $214,000, about the same as last year, with funds allocated to a range of media - radio, TV, billboards, digital, social media and newspaper. "It stays pretty much the same as last year, but we did increase our social media presence, which is very cost effective," he said. "Your online is the coming thing, and kids advertise for you with photographs of them coming out to the fair and having a good time with their friends."
He added that the fair posts every day on Facebook, Twitter and other social media platforms, "it drives traffic to our website, and we really have a tremendous website. We've changed it and made it more user-friendly."
With an unprecedented monsoon suddenly afflicting the region that also forced fair closures, the immediacy and direct-fairgoer communication possible through social media became essential. "It was definitely a tremendous advantage to easily communicate with fairgoers through social media. We had to make decisions at the last minute, and it's too late to post on TV. We can do it on radio but social media is faster."
Making Memories & Magic at the Fair was this year's marketing theme, which tied into the selfie-phenomena perpetuated by social medial. "We always try to improve on the theme, we had making memories at the fair, which was my personal favorite. But people responded on Facebook, that was where I got engaged or I remember coming here when I was a kid and we had a lot of those type of pictures people posted."
Carnival Eats TV
The Pensacola State Fair featured 120 food vendors. Frenkel said that corn dogs and other traditional fair cuisine items tend to be the leading sellers. "Corn dogs are big sellers, and you can get them in the in the store, but there's not thing like having them at the fair," he said. "We have a complete inventory and assortment of fair foods."
Frenkel pointed out that Mama Jane's Funnel Cakes - "she's appeared on the Carnival Eats TV show," he said - had some of the most noteworthy new food items, "she cuts all different kinds of Funnel Cakes, Oreo Funnel Cakes was one I recall as being popular. She had a lot of new funnel cakes that you rarely see."
He added, "ethnic foods, Mexican and Asian food are very popular here. There's a number of concessionaires who sell an assortment of ethnic foods. One vendor is Rubin Mendoza, he has a local restaurant but travels around to other fairs. He really puts on a show, people flock to his stand."
Rain had a predictably negative impact on food revenue, "but I didn't hear any complaints from the vendors and you know, they can complain more than anybody. But everybody understood and the days that we were open they did very good business. They were extremely happy with the crowds we did get. A majority of them told me they would definitely be back next year."
The fair's midway was provided by Reithoffer Shows, and featured 67 rides. "All the rides are equipped with LED lights, it was quite a show."
The spectacular hit of the midway was the "Galaxy" Roller Coaster, which Frenkel said was the largest roller coaster we've ever had, and took up the entire back of the fair. It was quite an attraction, a real people pleaser."
When inclement weather negatively impacts a fair to the extent experienced by the 2015 Pensacola Interstate Fair, fair organizers cannot help but feel frustrated. Especially stinging for this late season event is that the regional economy is on the upswing and two separate surveys showed the positive role the fair plays in the economy and the popularity of the fair among its patrons. "We are a Navy town, so our economy stays steady and we have a very good employment rate here," Frenkel said. "Last year, there was a survey that showed the fairgrounds bring $31 million to the local economy."
He added that the fair contracted for a third-party, professional survey that found, "100 percent of the people are very pleased with the fair, were satisfied and would come back."