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First-Quarter Forecast: Belle City Amusements Breaks Florida Route Records
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Belle City Amusements at the Sarasota County Fair

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Florida plays a crucial role for the fair industry. Not only is the Sunshine State the home office and/or winter quarters for many of the leading midway providers in the country, its tropical climate means that the first fairs of the years are held here. Many of the economic, consumer and midway trends that will influence and even dominate the North American fair season for the coming year tend to first emerge at Florida fairs.

At the front line of this annual bellwether series of outdoor events is Belle City Amusements, in business since 1948, in more recent years the company has carved out a unique niche among carnival companies playing a sequence of Florida Fairs that begins with the Manatee County Fair in early January and followed by some of the leading county fairs in the state, including the  Charlotte County Fair, Hendry County Fair, and the Sarasota County Fair. The largest event on this early leg of the annual route is the Florida Strawberry Festival, which was ranked #30 on the 2022 Top-50 Fairs, as compiled by Carnival Warehouse and one of the largest outdoor events in the state.  

 What signs were to be read into this year's Florida tea leaves? The core question two years out of the COVID lockdown, can the robust consumer confidence that many fairs – especially the Florida events –  experienced during the pandemic shutdown and reopening continue?  Fairgoer attendance and spending in 2021 and 2022 can be seen as an upward trajectory. Community support for fairs rebounded often beyond expectations.

Post-Lockdown Scenario

The post-lockdown scenario has been attendance resurgence and high-levels of consumer confidence, typified by spending. But a drying up of stimulus funds, price-but-not-wage inflation, bank failures and layoffs in the tech and other sectors are negative factors causing economic consternation for 2023. During the pandemic era, the public demonstrated a new interest in community, local connections and positive activities for the youth, all of which were crucial factors driving fair participation post-lockdown.

For the first quarter of Belle City's route, it's been a repeat and then some. The largest by far event – the Berry Fest – whose midway he's provided for most of this century – Panacek declared: “We had the largest ride gross that we've ever had. Last year we had a record midway but we surpassed that this year, we're beating our pre-pandemic grosses.”

Last year was a record and this year beat it. This ideal phenomenon was not isolated to the largest event. The Manatee County and the Sarasota County Fair – among the largest of Florida's county fairs – were also record attendance and revenue events, or close to it. While Panacek is quick to thank a cooperative Mother Nature – “a lot of it can be attributed to weather. We didn't have any extreme weather this year.”

Weather may be top-of-mind for all outdoor event professionals, but a closer analysis of this year's Florida events reveals issues fairs will be navigating through for the rest of 2023. What Panacek is most confident about is the long term viability of family-oriented, community-centric entertainment. “I don't think there's a big attitude change between this year and last year,” said Panacek. “People do the math. Our product is an excellent entertainment value for the money. People want entertainment they can experience as a family or with friends, as a group.”

Diversifying Fairgoers

Another factor fueling steady turnout upticks is that new demographic of attendees are discovering fairs. “We are attracting more Hispanic and Latino families. It's a very family oriented community. The midway and fairs are perfect for them. My Florida fairs are extremely well-managed events, they were able to get through COVID and have been doing an exceptional job in reaching out to all parts of their community. They have great people on their board of directors, and they are very involved.”

Improved outreach, promotions and marketing also highlighted this year's fairs. “Fairs refocused their efforts and are doing a lot more with social media than before the pandemic,” he said. “I notice too that on the midway, people are a lot more patient and understanding and nicer to each other. There's more of a feeling of community. Also, I think fairs are more popular with people in Florida, people are going to fairs in other counties.”

If there's a fly in the economic forecasting ointment it would have to be a trend other midway providers first noted towards the end of 2022 – upticks in credit card usage. “Perhaps with the economy being a little tough now with inflation, and things are costing more, people are using credit instead of debit. What that will mean in the future, I don't know.”

Fairgoer resurgence post-lockdown certainly helped midway revenue, but workforce issues undermined many gains. Fewer rides and open hours became the norm throughout the industry, the result of problems with the H2B system, which had begun processing guest worker visas from the Northern Triangle nations to supplement Mexican and other workers. “My labor is slightly better than last year, but I was not able to receive my entire work force. I still haven't received about 25 percent of my workers. This worries me immensely because I've had to operate with less people when you do not have all the employees. The problem is a paperwork logjam with the Northern Triangle countries, people are not being processed fast enough.”

To make up for the labor shortfall this year, Panacek has upped his subcontracting and agency hires. “I have  had to book in more independent ride operators. I've also had to use employment agencies, which is not ideal.”

Unfortunately, labor is far from the only cost on the rise.  “Food products have increased and shipping costs on all of our items all increased. I don't think that has stabilized. You try to be as efficient you can, we try to keep the prices from becoming too difficult for families.”

Unlike many of his carnival peers who are busy welcoming spring with local fairs and still-dates in the months of April and May, the Belle City Amusements crew is sequestered in their Deltona, Florida quarters refurbishing, reconditioning and otherwise preparing for the Bluff City Fair in Memphis (5/19) and travels through Tennessee and Kentucky before returning to Florida for the Greater Jacksonville Fair in November.

“Florida is a unique place so being a bellwether doesn't always work well,” he said. “Once you get out in the summer, get up further north, it doesn't always transcend. We had a great start to the season. We provide an environment that's safe, and family-oriented, people are turning out and spending.”
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