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Florida Strawberry Festival Hits Big with Record Breaking Year
Belle City Amusements midway reports all time grossing revenue
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Attendance and spending increases and a record-breaking midway highlighted the Florida Strawberry Festival. One of the leading agricultural celebrations in the sunshine state, this annual tradition benefitted from positive weather patterns and a clever marketing campaign that broadened its audience. But there was one key component that when combined with the other factors added up to a record year for the 2019 ‘Berry Fest' – a better economy.

“We had great increases and it was an indicator that the economy is pretty strong,” said Paul Davis, President, and Florida Strawberry Festival. “We expected to have a good year. People are doing well, the unemployment rate is low. You build as much as you can, but the weather is determining factor.”

 Save for a rainy day and brief colder than usual snaps, the weather was why snowbirds flock to Florida during the winter – ideal temperatures and sunny skies – the kind of fair days any fair manager prays for.  Scanned tickets sales reached 562,327 – an increase of more than 36,000 fairgoers compared to 2018 – and the people who came were ready to spend. “Spending was up 12 percent,” said Davis. “We had a very good run, people were upbeat. The economy is better, the community was very involved.”

Positive Indicators 
Adding to the festive atmosphere of the Florida Strawberry Festival was the fact that growers and in fact, the whole industry around the titular fruit the event is named after had a good season. “The strawberry industry has its ups and down but this year was up, the strawberries were sweeter and juicier,” said Davis. “There are a lot of factors that go into the industry, but the growers were very happy.”

He added that another indicator of both a good economic climate and upbeat year for the strawberry industry were livestock sales. “The strawberry industry bought a lot of animals from the FFA kids,  it was a record year for sales of pigs and steer. It was a great boom for the program.”

Livestock auctions were “well over” $9,000, according to Davis.

It's a Hit! 
A noticeably improved economy and a pervasive upbeat attitude among an event's main stakeholders are crucial ingredients for a successful festival, but lubricating the wheels this year was a result-driven marketing campaign. Creating a comprehensive and effective campaign is not always make or break when it comes to the success of a fair, but while it may not break, it can often make more sales or least foment a marketing environment conducive to converting the curious into attendees.

For the 2019 Florida Festival, the tagline for its marketing both was snappy slogan that could cut through media chatter and grab attention as well as a way to tap into a regional demographic that may not be typical Florida Strawberry Festival attendees: It's a Hit! 

The “hit” in It's a Hit refers to the moment when bat meets ball. It's a Hit had a baseball theme, imagery that naturally lent itself to the marketing graphics, especially inspiring the nostalgic attitudes shared by both annual fairs and the national pastime. Festival promotions interwove the strawberry into the bats, balls and gloves of baseball, utilizing some very clever graphics in advertisements for every medium. “We also used it at our banquets and dinners and in all brochures,” he said. “Most of vendors decorated their booths with the It's a Hit posters, coinciding with the theme.”

The campaign also utilized sonic recognition with commercials featuring the classic homerun whack when a baseball bat smacks the baseball out of the park. 

Marrying baseball themes to Strawberry Festival traditions was just a clever way to reframe an annual marketing campaign. It also tapped into a seasonal demographic Floridians can often overlook. Baseball may be the national pastime, but for Florida, baseball's Spring Training season is a lucrative segment of the state's tourism industry. “The professional baseball teams have their spring training in Central Florida,” said Davis. “It's a Hit was a play on words, because we're a hit with the community, but we also were able to attract the people who come here for the spring training games. We brought in the baseball fans this year too.” 

The advertising budget remained similar to last year's total expenditures, although “we did increase our social media presence. Now you can boost your social media ads and we did more of that this year, we promoted more ride specials and reached a younger demographic. That paid off very well.” 

Social media drove the festival's newest event – a Battle of the Bands contest. Initial submissions were voted on by a panel of judges as well as festival followers – who had 50 percent of the say in who was selected – which winnowed down the bands to the nine who would perform live at the festival. From this cadre, the final two would battle for the winning prize of 25 hours of recording time in a professional recording studio. “We had every genre and it turned out pretty well,” he said. “It engaged a lot of people on social media.”

Unlike many fairs that've gone all digital, The Florida Strawberry Festival remains committed to print, albeit in targeted formats with proven audiences. A major daily newspaper in Tampa Bay is a media partner of the festival, according to Davis and the fair also advertising in a local magazine with a “huge circulation” that targets the area's sizeable senior citizen population.

The Florida Strawberry Festival also reached out to the influencer population by hosting a blogger oriented press junket. “We brought them to the flair, held interviews, and they blogged about their experiences,” said Davis. “We reached a new audience, some of these bloggers have thousands of followers. They touch a lot of people.”

Of particular interest were the food bloggers, their number plentiful throughout the state. Of course the main dish for these foodie scribes was the titular berry. “The strawberry association made them different strawberry concoctions. The stories in their blogs opened up the festival to a new audience.

Food sales increased 20-to-30 percent compared to 2018, said Davis. Typically, the Florida Strawberry Festival specializes in strawberry interpretations of fair cuisine and this year the imaginative creations surprised even the most experienced strawberry gourmand, including a Strawberry Forest Funnel Cake, that combined strawberries and the dark chocolate German cake into the well-known funnel cake. Another a fun food addition was a strawberry cheesecake quesadilla.   

Belle City Amusements Midway Record
The spending spree Florida Strawberry Festival fairgoers went on in 2019 was most strongly felt on the midway where Belle City Amusements had a record breaking year, up 18 percent from 2018.  “We had the largest revenue in our history there,” said Charles Panacek of Belle City Amusements. “We were up 18 percent from last year and last year was a good year but this year was a record year.”

For Panacek, it seemed all the favorable signs aligned to make 2019 the success it was. “The economy has been much better, it was good this year. We had great weather. They did a very good job marketing and advertising the midway. The baseball theme was a good theme. We also did a two dollar Tuesday for the first time there, which worked very well.”

The Belle City Amusements midway featured 87 rides, about the same size as last year, but with a new spectacular attraction. The midway featured a Huss Frisbee Ride, which the company booked in the ‘Berry Fest' – “it's the only in the U.S.,” said Panacek. “It's a high-capacity pendulum ride. We also had a new Bunny Wheel, which is a little Ferris Wheel geared up for children.”

The top grossing rides for the Belle City Amusements banner midway at the 2019 Florida Strawberry Festival were : the Giant Wheel, Rock & Roll Himalaya  and Magnum. 

“The Florida Strawberry Festival is a great tradition,” said Panacek. “There's a lot of community support, the whole county lets out their schools for the Strawberry Parade. The fair does a great job of marketing and advertising, but it's successful because it has a fabulous reputation for being a family friendly event and that always helps a lot with the attendance.” 

“We can't compete with Disney,” said Davis. “But what we can give people is a slice of Americana they can't get anywhere else. We can give them agricultural experiences they don't see anywhere else. We bring the community together, they can enjoy some laughs, eat some different foods. Where else can you sit on hay bales and see a cow being milked. You can't have these experiences anywhere else.”

As important to the longevity of this event is a consistent emphasis on customer service. “The fair experience doesn't begin on the midway, it happens as soon as the family pulls into the parking lot. If the ticket-taker is grumpy and not happy to be there, that affects the whole experience. We have roving ambassadors who work in teams and if somebody looks a little lost, they can direct them to where they should be. It's about the whole experience for everybody who comes here.”
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