The string of weather-damaged Southeastern fairs that marked the end of 2015 and the beginning of 2016 seemed to end in March with the annual celebration of everything strawberry. The 11-day Florida Strawberry Festival saw clear skies for its entire run, and while no record days were recorded, attendance reached more than 561,000 and spending saw a double-digit increase.
"We had a phenomenal run, 11 days of great weather, no rain and no real cold days," said Paul Davis, General Manager, Florida Strawberry Festival. "We were totally blessed. The weather was in the 80s and 70s even at night, it was perfect Florida March weather."
Last year, the first weekend of the "Berry Fest" was a complete rain out.
While no records were broken, the numbers recorded wer
e strong, such as 84,000 on the first Saturday and 91,000 on the second (99,000 in 2014 remains the record holder).
"I do not remember a festival without a single bad weather day," said Davis. "This was the best weather of any festival I remember."
He added, "it was our probably best all around festival."
The Florida Strawberry Festival had an advertising budget exceeding $500,000, an increase of about 6 percent over last year. The marketing theme was "Royal Fun For Everyone," and featured a strawberry with a crown and scepter. "We had a lot of fun with the logo, and a lot of vendors used it at their stands," he said.
Marketing also include printing 950,000 brochures and 400,000 tray liners - which were used by local diners and eating establishments - "which were more than we ever done before." The festival also expanded its billboard advertising presence.
With 2016 social media marketing, more consumer targeting was used. "We did several social media ad buys, but we earmarked particular customers. "We targeted 17 to 25 year olds for the midway, an older audience for classic country. It's amazing with the social media how well they can pinpoint specific groups, and you can tailor the message that will appeal to them."
The headline entertainment was a mix of up-and-comers with old stand-byes. The Florida Strawberry Festival features 24 acts, with most days having two acts per day, which helps to turn over the crowd and increase attendance. This year's line up included: Charley Pride, Josh Turner, Mickey Gilley, Lecrae, Cheap Trick, Shenandoah, Gene Watson, Lonestar, Dick Fox's Golden Boys starring Frankie Avalon, Fabian & Bobby Rydel, Ray Stevens, Martina McBride, Oak Ridge Boys, ,Casting Crowns, John Anderson, Cole Swindell, Kris Kristofferson - who was filling in for a cancellation by Merle Haggard, who passed a way just a few weeks later, Charlie Wilson, Echosmith and The Band Perry.
"We've traditionally been a country music fair, but we have been trying to be a little more diverse, with bands like Cheap Trick and The Band Perry," he said. "About 30 to 40 percent of our acts are probably nostalgia acts now, but they have a built in audience, are very affordable and put on great shows."
He noted that a surprising big draw was Dick Fox's Golden Boys starring Frankie Avalon, Fabian & Bobby Rydel, a trio of famous hit makers from the golden age of post-Elvis, pre-Beatles 1960s pop music. "They were popular with the senior citizens, but a lot of their grandchildren too," said Davis.
The main goal of the fair is "family friendly music, and affordable ticket pricing," he added. "We try to keep the tickets as affordable as possible, $20 to $25, especially for the senior acts. Our highest acts are $50. "
But even though the Florida Strawberry Festival was often viewed by many promotions and agents as a quality stage with a built-in family audience, booking the kind of shows at the kind of costs this event requires has not gotten any easier. "It was very difficult booking acts this year, it was probably the hardest year for booking.
The major obstacles were the rising cost of entertainment and the related reality of increased venues, casinos and festivals that have sprung up for the snowbird season of the Sunshine State. "The competition has much more intense," he said. "This area has become a bedrock of entertainment during the winter, we have the warm climate and it is a perfect environment and there are more stages for the acts. This drives up their prices and there are more radius clauses to deal with."
Besides the competition, "the music business has changed. It's all about streaming, and they are less signed on to radio stations. We cannot do the radio promotions like we used to. There are three major country music stations, and if we make one happy we are going to make two unhappy. This has also means we are paying more out of pocket to the acts. All the costs have gone up."
Harvest & Economy
Davis said the Florida economy seemed noticeably better than last year, although he mainly credits lower fuel prices rather than job growth or salary increases. Gasoline is under $2 a gallon, less than half the price of only a few short years ago, which made a difference.
"We were getting more people driving here, from 70, 80, even 100 miles away," he said. "We always get these folks but I think this year we were getting more of them, because of the lower gas prices. People do seem to have more money to spend, but I think it is mainly due to the lower gas prices."
Of course, the titular fruit industry the event celebrates - the local strawberry industry - "had a very good year, it was one of the best berry seasons," he said, adding that more than 10,000 people are employed by the strawberry industry.
He added that the strawberry season started strong "but then we had some cool weather," which curtailed harvests until warm weather returned resulting in a strong season, encouraging more turnout and a high spirits. "It really boosted the celebration. That has a huge impact."
More than 275 strawberry shortcake - the signature dish of the fair's signature fruit - with other popular strawberry variations being chocolate dipped strawberries - "were selling by the thousands," as well as cobbler, shakes, donuts and salad.
The Florida Strawberry Festival spent more than $50,000 in heightened security measures, which included wanding fairgoers before they entered the turnstiles, extra monitors and cameras, more security officers in and outside the park, which included 70-foot tall security towers and mounted police patrolling the fence line along the perimeter of the event space.
Davis - who has a background in law enforcement - is quick to emphasize the move was not due to any incident at the Florida Strawberry Festival, but rather erring on the side of over-caution by organizers. "It is just the reality of the world we live, a sign of the time," he said.
There have been sporadic reports of violent incidents at fairs in recent years, and security was a workshop and seminar topic many national and state level conventions. "There have been bad elements at some fairs, unruly criminal gangs and you only need one bad incident to ruin your event, which can take years to overcome," he said. "It's not just fairs either, it's skating rinks, shopping malls. If people do not feel safe, if they expect not to feel safe, they are not likely to come or if they come they will not stay as long."
The increased security presence seemed to succeed as a deterrent. "We don't think there was one arrest made anywhere in the festival," said Davis. "I don't remember hearing about even one argument."
Belle City Midway
The clearest evidence of the upbeat nature of this year's Florida Strawberry Festival could be found at the midway, which saw an unmistakable improvement compared to 2015. "We had our biggest ride gross, up 17.6 from last year," said Charles Panacek, President of Belle City Amusements "Last year we lost an entire Saturday because of rain, but this year the weather was very good."
Promotions aided the revenue rise. The festival had two Sundays of $5 off admission with a Coca Cola product, "which always increases attendance and revenue," he said.
The midway also added an armband day throughout both weekends, "which did very well. You get parents who drive all the way from Orlando with their kids."
Panacek predicts that armband days are fast becoming the norm. "It is going from a fringe customer to the mainstream. People go to the amusement park and expect to ride all the rides for one price, so they are expecting it from a fair."
The Belle City Amusements midway featured 90 rides, with a new Hurricane, a spectacular ride and a new children's ride, the Dumbo Elephant, making their Florida Strawberry Festival debut. The best rides for the carnival company were its Giant Wheel, always the number one, and the Moonraker, "which is the only one of its kind in the U.S.," Panacek said.
Panacek noted an uptick in the game business at the 2016 Florida Strawberry Festival. "Games are doing better this year, because of the economy. They have a little more money to spend. Games are pretty much on the bottom of the totem pole, but if they got money left over, that is the one thing they are to spend it on, the games."
The Florida Strawberry Festival "has a lot of big entertainment, and they have afternoon and evening shows. They also have a great lineup of free acts, of magicians, music, all sorts of acts that really draw people and keep them here," he said.
Panacek pointed out that the security was implemented "out of an abundance of caution, but the fairgoer was made to feel very safe, it wasn't intrusive at all. All of our employees had to show their ID to enter the fairgrounds, there was a scanning system that that was in place."
Belle City Amusements also extended their contract for seven more years at this event. "We are very happy and pleased with the Florida Strawberry Festival," he said.
He added, "Florida fairs are a pretty a good indicator about the season. There seems to be more money to spend. Fuel prices are down, people seem very positive."