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Florida Strawberry Festival President Retires: "What We Offer Is The Best Our Community Has To Offer"
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Outgoing and Incoming Strawberry Fest Presidents
Paul Davis (left) and incoming President Kyle Robinson (right)

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The 88th Florida Strawberry Festival was a transition event at the top. It was the presidential debut of Kyle Robinson, and the final fair for Paul Davis, who has been president for the past 15 years. One of the largest outdoor events in the Sunshine State, the “Berry Fest” holds a unique spot among the nation's largest fairs. While the vast majority of the “Fairs” on the Top 50 Fairs in North America, as compiled by Carnival Warehouse are “agricultural” fairs, the Florida Strawberry Festival is the only one devoted to a singular crop.

Davis served 33 years in the Hillsborough County Sheriff's Office before moving across town to the helm  his hometown event, which he has attended annually from his earliest years, and it was the setting of his first date, at age 14. The sheriff's department provides security for the festival, which is how Davis became acquainted with fair management and decided to switch careers.

Under his leadership, the festival has added tens of thousands of attendees, updated its ticketing and security systems and most notably, and has become a thriving annual tradition in the highly competitive Central Florida entertainment marketplace.


Paul and Sheryl Davis

The Florida Strawberry Festival is also one of the premier stages in the South East. This year's Berry Fest also found itself at the center of global attention. The first live show by the touring Lynyrd Skynyrd  band after the loss of Gary Rossington, its last surviving founding member, was an emotional evening for both the band and the festival, where they've headlined multiple times over the decades. Davis issued a statement: “Our Festival has lost a great friend, entertainer, and music icon. Our hearts go out to his entire family, all his fans and to the thousands of people whose lives he has enriched. We know we will have a special guest and guardian angel watching over this performance.”

This special showcase was recognized by the Academy of Country Music. The Florida Strawberry Festival has been selected as one of five nominees in the Fair/Rodeo of the Year category. Country music superstars gracing this stage include Willie Nelson, Tanya Tucker, The Oak Ridge Boys, Walker Hayes, The Gatlin Brothers, Chris Young, Neal McCoy, Josh Turner, Loretta Lynn, Toby Keith, Randy Travis, George Jones, Vince Gill, the Charlie Daniels Band, Charley Pride, Ricky Skaggs, and The Judds.  In another statement, Davis said: "We are incredibly honored to have been nominated for this award. Thanks once again to our patrons for making the Florida Strawberry Festival a nationally recognized event."

Davis's retirement from the Berry Fest went into effect in April, although it will not be the last they see of him. He plans to return as a volunteer next year. Before then, this outdoor event veteran was gracious enough to spend some time with Carnival Warehouse for a candid conversation about his career, the festival and the current state of the fair industry.
 

Carnival Warehouse: How long have you been involved with the Florida Strawberry Festival?


Paul Davis: I was working security for 32 years and was retiring from the Sheriff's department. I applied for the position and got it. I've always loved the festival, I grew up here. My earliest childhood memory is just feeling excitement and maybe panic seeing all the rides. I had my first date, it was a quasi-date. I was 14 and her parents dropped us off.

 

CW: While most state fairs and other events listed in the Top 50 Fair list as compiled by Carnival Warehouse are agricultural events or have large components of Agricultural programming, the Strawberry Festival is the only dedicated to one fruit and to have a crop listed in the title. What has this meant for the festival, what kind of pressure does it put on the event and what kind of responsibility to you feel because of this national stature?


PD: We were formed in 1930 and now the Strawberry industry here has grown to well over a $1 Billion, all within 20 miles. Even if you don't grow strawberries, people who come to the festival, they buy at the grocery stores, their money is in your bank. This impacts our community. Our berries are the best tasting strawberries and this year they never tasted better. The University of Florida's research center has developed the best ways to grow strawberries. The fair has had a huge impact on the community and the strawberry growers. They've been great partners. they buy our steers and support the festival. We've been so blessed in our growth. We have to turn down a couple of hundred vendors.

 

CW:  What is the biggest difference between the Strawberry Festival and other fairs?

PD: Southern Hospitality


CW: I can think of quite a number of fairs who make the claim.

PD: Nobody does it like us but I'm biased. Normally, this time of year of the festival, you have good weather, so that makes our hospitality different. But seriously, as trite as it may sound, we are still a slice of Americana. What we offer is the best our community has to offer. We have struck a good balance of entertainment, fellowship, rides, food and agriculture. We're also different in that we have a Strawberry Queen, which is a huge event, and the Florida Strawberry Festival parade. Our attendance figures only count counted tickets, but we are bigger than those numbers with our parade numbers and our Strawberry Queen Pageant.  

CW: Your fair is still alcohol-free. Why? Has there been pressure to bring in alcohol and the potential revenue stream? Do you foresee a change in this regard or do you feel that alcohol-free is part-and-parcel of the Florida Strawberry Festival experience?

PD: We would make a more lot of money. There is a big profit to be made in beer sales. That being said, we tout ourselves that we are a family event. Families can enjoy a fun day. I've worked security at arenas and many of the issues that occur start with alcohol. There has been some discussion about bringing in some alcohol, but I've never done it. We are successful without it. Part of our charm is that here people feel safe. The last thing you want is some drunk getting nasty because a line is too long.


CW: What was the attendance when you started and what are the reasons for its growth?

PD: We were in the low 500,000s. But we didn't really have a ticketing system, so many tickets I don't think were accurately counted. We've been scanning tickets since 2009, and we've stayed between 540,000  and 600,000.  Our sponsorships have grown because we can show them the numbers. With COVID, we dipped to 400,000, but we were one the first events to open,  we're, kind of guinea pigs for events.


CW: Attendance for the 2023 event was approximately 600,000 including a record closing Sunday. Has the festival plateaued in terms of attendance?

PD: I think we can do better in bringing in more people during the week, when we have the room.  Saturdays and Sundays we are about full. I think we're working really hard to get the entertainment to bring people to the fair. We can beat that number, but it will be during the week. We can get them on Tuesdays and Wednesdays with better ride packages and different promotions. We can make every day better attendance than the day before.


CW: You come from law enforcement, and while the Strawberry Festivals seems to have been incident free, teenage violence at fairs seems on the rise and many fairs have redoubled their security efforts. How much of a concern has this been for the festival, what programs have you put in place to prevent violence and what kind of security is now needed to put on the festival?

PD: It is a very big concern. Teen violence is on the rise all over the state of Florida. The way to do deal with it is that you have to prevent it. You kind of have to be stop if it before it gets out of here. It's getting the right people on the grounds and intelligence officers to monitor gang threats. Our security director will give people little leeway before they're ejected.  It starts by securing every gate. Sometimes they can cause trouble and run wild in the parking lots. So, it's important to have law enforcement patrolling the grounds. You have to prevent the problem before you have a major problem.


CW: Why are fairs – and the festival – still popular? Why aren't they more popular, or is that changing?

PD:  I grew up going to fairs. I remember the Ringling Brothers & Barnum and Bailey Circus winter quarters. What was popular then is still popular, we are a community together. We'd go as high school students to co-mingle with our friends, that is what you do.


CW: What is your favorite thing about the festival?

PD: People. I walk around and talk to the people. I can talk to more than 200 people. I answer everything I'm asked, I listen to every single complaint and we address all the complaints. In business, a happy person will take their time paying you a compliment, but a mad and angry customer doesn't waste time. I listen to everything, and when it was something we did or shouldn't have done, we try to make improvements.  Intermingling with the people, that's my favorite part of the job.


CW: What's the most challenging?

PD: Giving people a reason to come out to the festival. People can sit around home and have all kinds of  entertainment. Giving people a reason to come out  is a constant hurdle. That has changed some from when we started. There is so much going on in central Florida now. I think there's now 40 different events during the festival. But, you rise to the occasion and overcome challenges, and so far every year is successful.


CW: The Festival has hosted many famous concerts, most recently Lynyrd Skynyrd performed their first show after the death of their last founding member. What shows and performances stick out the most for you?

PD: Garth Brooks.  Conway Twitty, which was a long time ago, and he played the festival many times. I got into a skirmish with a very senior woman who was trying to get to  Conway Twitty  and she stood to make her move, she pushed  into me, she didn't mean it, but she socked me. Conway stopped the show and said, Hello Darling. He was a real star and gent.

Taylor Swift deserves her success. She played here, she was about 17 and just starting her meteoric rise. It was sold out, but she was just a real person. It was her little brother's birthday and they were chasing each other with silly string. She was involved with every task. She did a meet  & greet for 75 people, I never heard a complaint and she introduced herself to every person who was there, thanking them for coming to the shows. She's truly a cut above.  


CW: My favorite Carnival ride is_______?

PD: The Big Wheel! 150 feet tall, enclosed air conditioned cages or gondolas. You can see Tampa and all the surrounding communities.


CW: My favorite fair  food is ________ ?

PD: Strawberry shortcake, it's shortcake all the way.


CW: What strawberry concoction surprised even you?

PD: A barbecue biscuit sandwich with a brisket and strawberry something, and it was chocolate dipped. It was sweet and savory and it is really good, but probably a strange concoction.


CW: My favorite non-strawberry fair food is?

PD: Fiske Fries. Unchanged for 37 years.


CW:  My favorite fair activity is?

PD: Watching at the youth agriculture events. We have about 20 or 25 lambs in our jumping contests. I am big fan of all that stuff. You can only see it here.


Paul's daughter and granddaughter visiting the 2023 Strawberry Festival
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