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Florida Strawberry Festival Breaks Records Under New President
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Many large fairs celebrate and promote a state's agriculture, and many smaller fairs focus not just on focus on a single crop, like citrus of peanuts. As a testament to the importance the titular fruit means to Florida, the Florida Strawberry Festival is the only single crop event that is also one of the top 40 fairs in North America (#27 in 2023). And, Florida's largest fair.

The 2024 “Berry Fest” also was the first for a new president, Kyle Robinson, who took over for long-term veteran Paul Davis, who retired after last year's fair. “It was my first time flying without a net,” said Robinson.

The net may have been removed but he wasn't flying blind. Of course there was a transition plan in place, and by all accounts the changing of the guard went smoothly. Robinson also had another advantage, “I grew up going to the event and have been to one every one of my 52 years.”

For 27 of the years he was on the grounds as a deputy from the Hillsborough County Office, and came to the fair after retiring from the position. “I had the advantage of knowing the vendors, the ride operator, the board of directors. I know how the fair operated, so it was an easy transition.”

The transition may have been easy, the actual job not so much. His approach to the fair shifted when he was in charge, and this attitude change might be something fair managers should keep in mind. “I realized that all the work is the preparation  weeks and months before the fair. Once the Festival opens you kick the ball. During the 11 days, it's relaxing and rewarding.”

In other words, remember to have fun. But he does admit post-fair was more demanding than anticipated. “It was a little eye-opening after the fair, as you pay the bills and shut down, that it's quite a task to wrap up the fair.”

Preventive Security

Like other long-standing events, the Florida Strawberry Festival is a well-oiled machine that runs regardless of who is at the helm. Nonetheless, every manager has their focus, especially at the start of their tenure. Robinson, drawing on his law enforcement experience and responding to the current wave of disruptive teens at other Florida fairs, his new initiative emphasized incident prevention. “My focus was on safety and security, which is not surprising since that's kind of my background. But security is changing, so you are constantly updating what you do. Acts of violence will hurt your attendance and the future of event. It can damage the reputation of your fair.”

The security budget was increased, spent on personnel,  new security systems, and  metal detectors at every point of entry. As important was the “training of our staff and our security. Everyone was clearly instructed on the new systems. They made sure that everyone knew that we don't tolerate bad behavior. We have earned the reputation for a family friendly event and we intend to keep it.”

With violent teens disrupting Florida events, including the Florida State Fair, South Florida Fair and the Miami Dade County Youth fair, the Berry Fest's visibly enhanced security measures did not go unacknowledged by fairgoers. “I heard many compliments from people that they really feel safe at this fair.”

The safe-space atmosphere, combined with a spate of optimum weather – only a rainy Tuesday marred the run. Removing the safety net seems to have improved Robinson's first fair performance – his 2023 apprenticeship set records that as full time president he then broke, with 2024 attendance reaching 634,779, exceeding 2023's banner turnout by 28,663 patrons. The fair even boasted its highest second Saturday ever – 112,000 –  “our greatest one day attendance,” attested Robinson. “We even had some complaints about the crowd, which is common, and we addressed with a widened walkway. We created more space, but in the future we will have to work harder to better accommodate crowds.”

The congestion seemed mostly due to fairgoers disrupting previous patterns by lolly gagging and lingering. Overcrowding previously was “self-correcting. We open gates at 10, turn over the crowd three times. More people were staying, not leaving in the early afternoon, but staying later and later. The crowd overlaps and does reach a level of capacity being reached.”

Nearby property potentially will be soon acquired to “expand our footprint, with more permanent solutions to the pedestrian chokepoints,” he said.

Out Of This World

Were the crowds spending? Consumer confidence remained high and record revenue was the welcomed result of record turnout, but even though the fair industry and regional economy are flourishing – in keeping with national indicators – “one of my biggest concerns moving forward,  is monitoring the economy, seeing how inflation will negatively affect the fair. People were spending.  At the gates I saw them leaving with prizes and to-go-food, hands full of stuff. They did spend money, but all fairs are seeing this across the board, your cash revenue is diminishing. Credit card sales are increasing. Credit card spending is at an all-time record high, people are carrying more on their credit cards. But we saw good consumer spending.  

The marketing theme for its 89th Berry Fest was “Out of This World!” “The sky's the limit,” said Robinson. “It was great slogan, we had a lot of fun with it but we put a lot work into it too. Space travel has been in the news, so have UFOs, so that gave us a jumping off point.”

The tagline is not just a cohesive theme for advertising, but according to the fair's press release “it also unifies vendors, FFA chapters, organizations, corporate partners and exhibitors, who create parade floats and displays throughout the event. The Festival's strawberry character featured in each year's theme artwork is an iconic part of the event's branding and advertising efforts. In this theme's artwork, he wears sunglasses, waves a peace sign, and holds a plate of strawberry shortcake as he stands in front of a UFO.”

The advertising budget “stayed constant (with 2023) about $500,000,” he said. “The biggest expenditure is television, about 40 percent. We also created radio spots. Digital is growing, and we have staff helping us with social media and other digital media. In Tampa and Orlando, we have some digital boards, but they're becoming increasingly expensive.”

He added, “before 2023 we had had Facebook Twitter and Instagram, but now added TikTok. We host and produce a little entertaining video,  a “Behind the Berry Interview Show,” that highlights topics that are interesting, during the Fest. Berry interviews headline acts but also highlight people who are local, a little peek behind the curtain.”

The 80-ride midway by Belle City Amusement saw a record gross, an increase of more than 5 percent over 2023, according to Charles Panacek, company owner. “We had a record year, they had a record year. We had a great weather, only a little bit of rain and good weather. But they do a fabulous job of building a family oriented event.  First off, they work on this thing year-round, this isn't a just month long or two weeks a year. They have a great fair board, and give a wonderful presentation.”

He added, “the grounds are great, it is a fabulous facility. We have 100 percent city electricity. We do not run single generator. We save on diesel.  The midway's new ride debuts included fan-favorite Hog Wild  and Raptor Run. “Our Giant Wheel and two coasters did very well. Our Rock & Roll Himalaya did very well.”

The Florida fairs on his route, of which the Berry Fest is the largest, all did well. “it is a good sign for the season that we did well. Well. The strawberry and ag industries are all doing well, so that is good.”

The titular fruit also had a good 2024, selling more than 250,000 shortcakes. The newest taste bud enticing strawberry concoction that caught Robinson's attention was a “strawberry parfait with a fried Oreo on top. It seemed bizarre to me but it was very good.” ?

The fair also added a new facility – the Florida History Center – with its premier exhibit is a history of the fair and the Strawberry Festival Queens pageant, which dates back to 1930. “No matter where you come from, the fair brings you back to your childhood and brings back great memories of when you were younger,” he said. “We are experiencing tremendous growth in population, many people have moved into our area and they are experiencing our fairs. That's why fairscontinue to be relevant. They're a little taste of yesteryear for everyone.”

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