The 2019 edition of the South Florida Fair was the last for Rick Vymlatil, CFE, President/CEO South Florida Fair & Palm Beach County Expositions. After nearly 40 years in the fair industry, he has announced his retirement, effective in June and will be replaced by Victoria Chouris, Vice President/COO of the South Florida Fair.
The South Florida Fair retains a unique position in the fair industry. Not only is it one of the top 50 fairs in North America, it is also one of the bellwether fairs for the industry. Its January date makes it one of the first fairs of the year and industry observers and prognosticators usually read the South Florida Fair tea leaves for signs of potential trends for the season to come. Vymlatil started his Fair career in 1982, after working with the YMCA. He first joined the St. Lucie County Fair in Fort Pierce Fl, eventually serving as Manager. He joined the South Florida Fair in 1982 and assumed his present position in 2004. Carnival Warehouse interviewed this fair veteran about his experiences at the helm of one of the premier fairs of the year, of which he sums up as “ I'm a lucky guy who's had some good opportunities.”
Carnival Warehouse: How do you feel about being in charge of one of the first fairs of the year? Do you feel any pressure? Do you look for any signs at the fair that might have implications industrywide?
Rick Vymlatil: We enjoy our position as the first major Fair to occur in the U.S. each calendar year. Every Fair has influences in their particular market but I think as a general rule, our experience each year can provide a “barometer” for other Fairs and events with regard to how the public feels about the economy. Are they willing to part with their discretionary dollars at an event like ours or are they pulling back and deciding to spend less than they did last year due to market influences. This doesn't provide any pressure to us. The pressure that we feel is more related to our ability to create a theme that is attractive and exciting to our audience.
CW: Did you attend fairs growing up?
RV: Growing up in Cleveland, Ohio I don't believe my parents ever took us to any of the Fairs in and around Cleveland. We were more likely to go to the amusement parks in our area each summer. After moving to Florida in the early 1960's I'm sure we came to the South Florida Fair once or twice but I honestly don't have any particular memories of a Fair visit prior to working here.
CW: Do you have a favorite ride?
RV: I'm partial to coasters but most of my years as a rider are behind me. My wife and I still will take a ride on a Giant Wheel or Skyride just to see our Fair from higher up but I'm not a fan of spinning rides at all. Now it's all about watching our grandsons enjoying the rides.
CW: Every year, the fair food I look forward to eating___
RV: A gyro from Nick Strates' Greek stand. If it's not that then it's one of Nick's salads, or fried cheese .So many good foods it's hard to pick just one!
CW: What do you think the South Florida means to the people of West Palm Beach (and region)?
RV: It means all of the typical Fair fun….food, rides, entertainment but I truly believe that at its heart the South Florida Fair…..and perhaps most fairs…..mean tradition. A tradition of those fun parts of the Fair but more importantly it's the tradition of a family activity together over generations in some cases. It's the fact that the Fair provides a unique escape from everyone's day to day concerns. Your opportunity to relive a Fair visit from when you were a kid coming to the Fair with your friends or with your family and even though that may have been 20, 30 or more years ago, you can do the same things, and a whole lot more, at the Fair. That possibility to relive your youth to some extent keeps Fairs relevant in the world today. You never tire of being able to taste that first bite of your favorite fair food, year after year; to see the steers and hogs in the barns, to walk hand in hand with your sweetheart down the swirling carnival midway. Each year that experience is renewed and you never tire of those memories.
CW: What are the changes at the fair that you have been responsible for and feel most proud of?
RV: We've been fortunate to have a very supportive Board of Directors who have enabled us to continue to make physical improvements to our venue that make a visit to the Fair more enjoyable. Repaving our carnival midway with the help of Wade Shows, adding more seating areas for folks while they're enjoying their favorite fair food or just needing to “take a load off” for a few minutes, new shade structures. We've also taken a somewhat conservative approach to the management of the business side of our operation. As a not for profit that receives almost no recurring governmental support we have to earn every dollar that we spend. That means planning for an occasional rainy fair and being able to survive the financial impacts that go along with a changing economy.
CW: What were the toughest years for the fair during your tenure as CEO?
RV: There's no question that the downturn in the nation's economy that we all experienced early in the new century provided serious challenges for everyone, especially those of us who depend on the public's willingness to part with their discretionary dollars. Like many businesses we had to dial it back a bit, reduce expenses and manage through the downturn. We were able to do so because we generally take a conservative approach to our budgeting process each year whether the economy is strong or not so strong. Our Board adopted that policy many years ago and it has served us well.
CW: What is your favorite part of the job?
RV: The constant variety of what we get involved with. With the Fair, even though we have all of the traditional elements of most any fair, each year we highlight a specific theme that changes every year. Our Expo team creates unique displays, we work with industry pros to bring in special attraction related to the theme and we try to carry that theme throughout the Fair. This gives our entire staff something exciting and different to focus on each year and it sets the tone for so much of what we do.
CW: What part of the job will miss the most?
RV: Easy answer….the people. With any Fair that is meaningful to its community you have the opportunity to touch so many lives in a positive way it's unlike any other business you could be in. That goes not only for our customers but also for all the folks who return each year to help us with the presentation of the Fair. That's what I'll miss the most.
CW: What advice would you give a new fair manager starting out in 2019?
RV: To be open to ideas and to listen. As the Fair Manager you have the ability to mold the Fair into whatever you want it to be but you have to have to be open to things that you may not necessarily have interest for you — but they're very interesting to your audience. A quick example of what I mean: you may not like certain genre of music but there are millions of folks out there that do. You can't just present what you like, you have to be open to what your audience wants to see and do.
CW: What issue do you think most threatens the fair industry?RV: From my viewpoint the two things that have the most potential to hinder the continued growth of Fairs: the H-2B issue and the threat of violence from bad actors in our communities.H-2Bis not just a carnival problem it's an overall labor issue and if congress doesn't address it to the point that it's a nonissue, it could irreparably impact our Fair industry for years to come. As for the threat of violence we cannot operate from the perspective of “that won't happen here.” It can happen anywhere and all of us in our industry need to work closely with our local and regional law enforcement officials to insure that we are aware of potential threats in our communities and have effective plans in place to deal with such threats when they occur. To turn a blind eye to this potential threat is not in your Fair's or your community's best interests.