Ideal weather patterns, a revamped marketing campaign boosted by more effective utilization of digital billboards, a midway that included an expanded Kiddieland and the fair debut of the largest transportable Euro Slide in North America all combined to make the 2019 Southwest Florida – Lee County Fair a success.
Attendance was an estimated 5,000 higher than 2018 – which hovers around 100,000 according to Fran Crone, Fair Manager – and the fair's run included several record breaking days, including the first Friday and the entire opening weekend, although the Sunday was “just under a record,” she said.
Heavy rains negatively impacted several of the Florida fairs that traditionally inaugurate the U.S. fair season and Crone was relieved the sun of the fabled sunshine state shone mostly for the Southwest Florida-Lee County event. “Some of the other fairs had horrid weather, but we were lucky, just a few sprinkles on one day, misting you might call it.”
Two other factors – new for 2019 – also added to the energy of the fair. The first was fair-made – a preview day – the fair traditionally opens on a Friday but the fair had instituted a “Sneak Peak” day on the Thursday before opening day. “We had 3,000 people there on the Sneak Peak Day, which was a good number.
The other factor – and one the event obviously has no influence to control – was a noticeably improved Florida economy compared to 2018. “The economy is better than last year, from what we've noticed,” said Crone. “People seemed happier than last year, and they seem to have more money to spend.”
The fair has a flat fee arrangement with its vendors and was unable to supply sales figures, but anecdotally “the revenue was higher, spending is up. Every vendor I spoke with said it was a better year and I think it's because everyone is saying the economy is better.”
“Record Breaking year,” declared Rich Reithoffer of Reithoffer Shows.
Reithoffer credited the “great entertainment, management and marketing they did this year. The fair committee is very committed to the fair and it has tremendous support from the community.”
Midway revenue was not just higher than last year by double digits, but Reithoffer elaborated that ride sales were up by 10 percent over pre-recessionary years. This year was the 20th anniversary for the Reithoffer midway at the event – 2019 was also the 95th anniversary of the Southwest Florida-Lee County Fair – and he said the robust sales this year was actually 10 percent higher than the pre-recessionary years of the event – more than a decade ago. “We were higher than previous record years, before the recession, and the downturn lasted longer in Florida,” said Reithoffer. “But the economy is doing great this year.”
The midway featured 56 rides – a larger footprint made possible by fairground layout modifications – “they enlarged the midway,” said Reithoffer. The expansion enabled an additional five children rides, which included a new Kiddie Carousel and Tea Cups – “which are absolutely gorgeous.”
The midway's children's section was also relocated to a more logical position – adjacent to the petting zoo, “which was a very good spot for us, it made sense and helped with traffic,” he said. The midway also catered to an overlooked segment of the ridership – those who can fit the 30 inch height requirement. “The other rides are all 36 inches,” he said. “It allowed us to get those smaller children, the toddlers.”
The fair also saw the return of the KMG Wild Claw, which underwent a comprehensive overhaul over the company's winter break, a makeover that include new armatures, seating and LED lightings.
Top grossing rides for the Reithoffer operation were the Super Himalaya, Galaxy Roller Coaster, Wild Mouse Roller Coaster , Stinger and Indy 500 Coaster.
The centerpiece of the 2019 Reithoffer lineup for the Southwest Florida-Lee County Fair was the Euro Slide, one of the newest additions to the company's ride inventory. This eight-lane extravaganza is 75' feet high and 230 feet long and boasts a spectacular LED display. The ride was supposed to have its American debut at last year's Southwest Florida-Lee County fair but unanticipated U.S. Customs issues delayed release until later in 2018. By all accounts, the ride was very well-received, boosted by a special new pricing package attractive to families. “My superintendent suggest instead of just charging $5 per ride, we offer a deal of three for $10, this enticed both parents to ride with their child or one parent with two children, it did very well,” he said. “The ride had a great week.”
Reithoffer added, “this fair is a great value, all the entertainment was free and they had new entertainment this year and I thought the entertainment was very popular.”
Strolling Act Increase
Crone confirmed that an initiative for 2019 was the additional of several new grounds and strolling acts. Some of these grounds attractions included Matts Family Jam, Fritzy Brothers, and the Moogician. “We increased the strolling acts, to have different types of shows on the grounds,” said Crone. “I was looking for acts that are interactive the families that come here.”
In addition, strolling acts also “give you a lot of selfie opportunities, it's that type of thing that appeals to our fairgoers, and they get posted in social media and that also promotes the fair.”
The fair's tagline is ‘Making Memories Since 1924,” which is the basis for the fair's marketing year-in-and-year out. But the fair does implemented a community-oriented, quasi-marketing program where schools and 4H clubs create 10' x 10' booths decorated in the theme – this year's was ‘We Have A Good Thing Growing,' an obvious tie-in with the agricultural roots of the fair.
The fair's advertising budget was $90K, about the same as 2018. The big shift this year was an additional $12,000 spent on digital billboards, which now accounted for 40 percent of total advertising expenditures. However, the fair deliberately took full advantage of the opportunities offered by the digital billboard technology, specifically the ability for multiple messaging. The marketing array include daily specials, sponsorship callouts, scholarship programs, show promos for acts such as Lady Houdini as well as rides, especially the Reithoffer Euro-Slide. “We are able to advertise many aspects of the Fair with digital – from daily specials to entertainment, and evening promoting scholarships with quotes from past recipients,” said Crone.
Social media utilization by the fair also increased, most notably a Facebook campaign that encouraged Megapass presales, achieving the sometimes tricky goal of converting social media likes into sales. “We pushed the Megapass, with unlimited rides, and we had a record number of Megapass sales this year,” said Crone.
The fair featured about 40 food vendors. Crone said that corn dogs and traditional fair cuisine items are the perennial best sellers, but 2019 saw a new beverage vendor – Mama Jugs Tea, “they did very well.” A new twist on both a fair and Italian food favorite was a calzone made with macaroni, cheese and bacon. Two of the bestselling vendors at the Southwest Florida – Lee County Fair – catering to the multicultural palate of the region – were the purveyors of Cuban food and of Chinese food.
Food quality, presentation and overall customer satisfaction are issues taken seriously by the fair. In order to maintain standards, the fair implemented a secret shopper program, where a staff member and/or volunteer – someone who is unknown to the food vendors – buys the product which is then evaluated by fair staff and stakeholders. “We test the food and if there are problems with it someone on the board will let the vendor know,” said Crone. “This year, bad reports were very rare.”
The absence of bad reports of course was not just limited to food. This Florida event could not have asked for a better 2019 – an economic recovery, success with an expansion of digital billboards, and the fair debut of the Euro Slide – all coincided to achieve success. “We were very pleased, everything we did goes hand-in-hand. We truly celebrate community and the agricultural history of our community and that's a lot to celebrate.”