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South Florida Fair Survives Massive Rain, Attendance Decline & H-2B Shortfall

3/28/2016

By Timothy Herrick

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Potential disasters both natural and government-made threatened the South Florida Fair. Continuing the monsoon-streak that plagued the southeastern fairs that ended the 2015 fair season, the South Florida Fair - considered by many the inaugural event of the annual outdoor event season - had tornado warnings and 5.5-inches of rain throughout the 17-day event, resulting in an attendance decline of 28 percent compared to the year before.
 
But weeks before satellites could detect the storm fronts heading for the January fair, the H-2B crisis jeopardized the Wade Shows midway.

For 2016, carnival companies and others participating in the program are able to get their usual allotment of foreign workers, but this was a hard-fought, anxiety ridden, process in 2015.  Issuing H-2B Visas had been vacated following one ruling, only to be resumed under a stop-gap measure enabled by an appropriations bill that passed with rare bipartisan support. While the future of the H-2B beyond this year remains uncertain,  in 2015 the legislative, lobbying and legal efforts by all parties made possible the H-2B program for 2016, but with a delay. 

Temporary Labor
The ramification of last year's H-2B crisis was a shortfall of H-2B workers in early weeks of the new year. Wade Shows and the South Florida Fair were the handful of carnival companies and fairs threatened by not being able to get all the H-2B workers  for opening day.  According to Frank Zaitshik, President, Wade Shows, with he likelihood of the H-2B visas not being processed in time, the company could have been short about 80 workers.  

By November,  Wade Shows decided to implement its own temporary work program. Using social media, industry publications and word of mouth, the company sent out word they would be hiring workers for its January events, the highest profile being of course the 70-ride midway, the first major midway seen as the annual "opening day" for the fair season. "We advertised very aggressively," Zaitshik said. 

The offer appealed mainly to experienced carnival workers who were veterans  and current employees of other midway providers but whose season begins later than Wade's. Job applicants came not just from Florida, but from all parts of the country, said Zaitshik and the company provided bus tickets and other transportation expenses.  "For most of the men and women, this was a chance to make some supplemental income." 

Workers started arriving to the Florida Winterquarters  in December, and two days after Christmas,  Wade Shows was already on the South Florida fairgrounds for designing the midway layout and assembling the rides, about  a week earlier than typical (Wade Shows is now in its 11th year at the South Florida Fair). "Most the workers were experienced, but they were new to the Wade system, so we wanted to make sure that the South Florida Fair would run smoothly," said Zaitshik.

The H-2B Wade workers started to return in January as the 2016 program started and "we had to carry a much higher payroll than usual and because of the law, we couldn't displace American workers with foreign workers, so we offered full time employment for anyone who wanted to stay and, were up to our standards of course."

By the end of January, with the H-2B issue having resolved itself for this year, and Wade Shows foreign workforce again in place, about 40 of the temporary workers are still with the company,  said Zaitshik.  Just like setting up the midway a full week earlier than is usual, hiring what turned out to be a surplus of workers, was a way for the company "to hedge our bets. We take our responsible to the fair so seriously that we go above and beyond to ensure a successful midway. It cost us extra money because we have to go heavier on the payroll to expand our workforce," said Zaitshik 

No Deadwood
But the workers had to be in place of course, rain or shine. Multiple tornado watches and warnings, thunderstorms and nonstop rain on consecutive days plagued the fair, especially the opening days. Overall attendance was 402,620 compared to the 2015 fair's attendance of 558,675.

According to Zaitshik even with the tremendous attendance dip, plus six days nullified by bad weather, including  two days the midway never opened, two days it only opened after 5:00 PM, and "two days where opened but nobody was there," the 2016 South Florida Fair, "was  the second best ride revenue that we have had there, the last four days were a very strong comeback." 

But as bad luck with weather goes, the South Florida Fair had the most positive scenario for the midway. The deluge may have negatively impacted most of the days and night, but the final weekend was clear and more typical of the Florida climate that draws so many snowbirds from the north in January. "If you have to lose days, I would rather lose them on the front side than the back side, because you can't make it up on the back side," said Zaitshik. "When there's no tomorrow, you make up the losses. In that sense, we were very fortunate with the South Florida Fair, they have a great product and following." 

The Wade Show midway consisted of  70 rides, about a half-dozen having their fair premier at the South Florida event. What stood out the most for Zaitshik, was  New York, New York, a four-story fun house, "that was a great addition to the midway." 

Another new addition to  Wade Shows midways are free lockers for fairgoers, where they can store personal items  like wallets and cellphones in a secure locker, which uses a card system that allows for combination locks, he said, adding "It's for convenience, for people who do not want to ride with personal items. We are continually improving our customer experience."

"We worked in concert with the organizer and all aspects of the fair," said Zaitshik, adding that much of last year the company spent time developing a more effective midway, "There's no deadwood in our arsenal, every piece of equipment has rider appeal."

Horrible Days
"No fair manager loves to deal with the weather we had, but that's part of the business, and the days it wasn't raining the people did come,"  said Rick Vymlatil, CFE, President/CEO South Florida Fair & Palm Beach County Expositions. "There were horrible days, and we had cold weather, not the kind of days  the Chamber Commerce wants pictures of."

But as many long established fairs experience - the annual South Florida event is a 104-year tradition -pent-up demand kicks in. "When people were there, they spent money, which is a very positive sign of the economy," said Vymlatil. "The vendors and concessionaires had a good finish to the fair, a few said they did a little better than last year. The economy seems to have improved, it was a better than a year ago.

In spite of the massive rainfall, the fair never  officially closed. The show went on, especially the entertainment, which included Tenth Avenue North, Hoobastank, Emerson Drive, The Guess Who, The Buckinghams, The Grass Roots, The Brothers Osborne, and Starship featuring Mickey Thomas. The grandstand used an enclosed A-Frame Tent. 

Like all fairs, rising entertainment costs are a major factor, mainly due to the fact "there are more and more festivals. Also cruise ships are booking similar acts, and that is more competition for us because they all dock here," said Vymlatil.

The South Florida Fair has found a niche - mainly former headliners and tribute acts. "We book recognizable names in a price range we can afford," said Vymlatil. "We don't look at entertainment as a profit center. We sell some reserved seats, but it is really an added-value for customers."

Marketing and promotion for the entertainment begins at the first week of December, and it's a "good driver for advanced ticket sales," he said.

In addition, the entertainment and its reliance on stars with a back catalog of hits means they attract die hard fans, attracting new customers to the fair. Even when the midway was closed and fairgoers sparse, "there were still fans who came to see the show."

He added, "our fair had traditionally been known for country, but we have been diversifying our line ups. We have less country music, but country music has gotten very hot down here, there isn't as much still in our price range. We are not going to get Brad Paisley." 

This year, the fair expanded their Rat Pack show - celebrity impersonators who  sing favorite tunes by Frank Sinatra, Sammy Davis Jr. and Dean Martin - by adding a second show and a full orchestra. "We had this on Senior appreciation day and it was one of most successful promotions," he said. 

Menu Control
The fair featured 127 food venues, and Vymlatil said he didn't notice any new food trends. The fair has taken a less is more approach when it comes to Food & Beverage, steadily focusing the offerings while improving the concession areas. Vymlatil called this new policy "menu control," which has not only reduced the number of vendors every year - about three years ago there were 140 food vendors - but making sure there were less duplicate items. The fair is more rigorous about making sure that vendors only sell what they are contracted for - giving exclusives on specific items to specific vendors - and not adding items to compete with other vendors. "It has made it more financially viable to reduce the vendors and change up the menus."

In addition, "we added more seating, more tables and have big collapsible  umbrellas. We improved the infrastructure, have more efficiently laid cables, we made the area so people will hang out more and eat more." 

In spite of the rain-soaked fair, "I happen to be optimistic about our fair and our presentation," he said. 

Taking a long view is probably second nature for a fair now more than a century old. Unlike some fairs in the Southeast, especially smaller ones, who now are either cutting back, dipping into reserves or increasing their credits for purchases, the South Florida Fair budgets "on a three year average, so we won't change what we are doing because one year was lower than the other," said Vymlatil. "We also have a very conservative fiscal policy from our leadership. They are very bullish on our product, and we don't add programming unless there will be revenue to off-set that expenditure."  


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