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Record Crowds & Returning H-2B Workers - the 99th Southwest Florida & Lee County Fair Debuts New Reithoffer Midway
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How did the 99th Southwest Florida & Lee County Fair (SFLCF) go this year?  With ideal weather, enthusiastic community support and hordes of happy fairgoers with disposable income to spend, this Florida fair augurs well for the season to come.  Even the potential crisis – a devastating midway worker shortage that was raging on opening day was alleviated by closing day – was averted due to steady-if-slower-than-anticipated unclogging of the H2B visa processing.

“We had another great year this year celebrating out 99th Annual Fair,” said Fran Crone, Fair Manager, SFLCF. “ Our crowd was very positive again this year!  Everyone was happy to be out and about at a large event like the Fair, especially after Hurricane Ian.  Our Livestock Barns had great numbers and fairgoers said it was one of the best sales we've had.”

Beautiful Weather

While extreme weather events have plagued many parts of the nation,  with unseasonable storms impacting early events in Florida, Texas and elsewhere, Mother Nature was in a beneficial mood for the last fair of SFLCF first century. “We had beautiful weather,” said Crone. “A couple of warm days, but it would cool off in the evenings!  No rain!  Could not ask for better weather.”

Attendance exceeded 110,000, including two record attendance days –the first Sunday; and the second Thursday.

Our number were up this year, roughly more than 5K from last year,” she said. “Our revenue was up compared to 2022.”

The advertising budget remained unchanged from last year, with the major marketing changes being an expanded social media presence. “We now have a designated person who created and timed our posts — very effective,” she said.

The multi-platform social media strategy was more organized and effective in the post-lockdown marketing landscape, fueling trends always from old media and onto online formats. “We have been focusing more on digital, some print, radio, television,” she said.

Happy Vendors

Spending on the fairs famed food offerings also saw an uptick. About 32 food vendors make up the available slots for the event. Food vendors and concessionaires were among the segments of the fair industry impacted the most by the coronavirus crisis – mostly family businesses and independent operators – turnover seemed higher among these businesses than others, with many either closing up, selling out or on sabbatical until conditions stabilize.
For Crone, the post-lockdown turmoil in this category has largely faded away by 2023. Not only had the number of fairgoers increased, but so did their appetites. “We maintained our number of vendors, lost a few, but had some new ones come in,” she said. “We do not charge a percentage to our vendors, we are a flat fee fair, but all vendors seemed happy.”

What were the noticeable food trends being served at the one largest county fairs in the Sunshine State? Fair cuisine may soon get a very Latin makeover, with popular items coming from a more diverse range of Spanish kitchens. “Rosie's Nacho's which were fabulous!,” she said. “Maria's Cuban Catering is always one of our crowd favorites.”

Reithoffer Shows

The uptick in attendance and continuation of positive consumer confidence was most apparent on the Reithoffer Shows midway, which showcased the Lee County debut of 10 rides. “Last year was a tremendous year for Reithoffer Shows,” said Rick Reithoffer. “Our thought to ourselves this year was,  when will the uptick come down?  But it's not going down, not at Lee County. We didn't see a drop off. People came to the event, they came to have a good time and enjoy themselves. We had a better year than in 2022 and 2021 and those were strong years.”

He added, “the fair was very good. Beautiful weather for all 11 days. Terrific crowds, record attendance.”

According to Reithoffer, this new midway format – which will include other “spectacular” additions as the 2023 season progresses – was the realization of a reimagined midway with exciting new, high-capacity attractions designed to entice fairgoers through the gates.

Among the equipment debuting this year were Wave Swinger, Hulk, Madagascar Fun House, Monster Truck Ride,  Fun House, Himalaya, Zipper and Speedy Gonzales, a new coaster design by the creators of the Dragon Coaster. Shortages of parts, factory closures, chronic and prolonged back-orders have been the global pandemic rule, not the exception for the outdoor amusement industry.  And, while some orders remain in the pipeline for Reithoffer, those arriving late last year or just in time for the South Florida/Lee County event were actually placed in 2019.

According to Reithoffer, starting in 2017, he reevaluated his midway and implemented a capacity raising acquisition policy. “We decided to purchase newer, bigger rides,” he said. “We needed to have a greater capacity in our ride arsenal to handle the huge crowds that are coming out for fairs.”

Meanwhile, COVID's lockdown gave the company the opportunity to extensively recondition and refurbish rides, resurrecting many items, such as the Zipper, that had not been in the rotation for years. “We've been working on these rides in our workshop for a year and a half, two years. They are essentially brand new rides.”

However, Reithoffer Shows' workforce was down by approximately two thirds compared to its normal complement. On opening day – upper management – including Rick, his two sons Ricky and Matthew – as well as other superintendents – were needed on the midway frontline to operate rides – “push buttons.”
“We were still waiting on our visas,” said Reithoffer. “It was a whole new struggle for showmen to get their amigos.”

Amigos is not used facetiously or ironically.  Most of his workers are from Mexico, and the delay seemed most acute on his returning workers, some of whom have been part of this family business for more than 20 years.  “People were not able to make consulate appointments to get their paperwork processed. It was a real challenge, and it's happening on both sides, not just the Mexican consulate but the American as well.”

The second day of the fair, the south of the border calvary began arriving to, if not save the fair, at least alleviate the stress of an over-worked midway staff. Reithoffer was literally flying and busing in freshly processed workers during the fair – 15 one day, eight another – 33 H2B workers arrived between the Opening Day and Closing Day of the fair. “They were very thankful to be here, appreciative of their jobs and eager to work, so they could begin earning money.”

Reithoffer is still waiting for more workers and is still under-staffed compared to optimum measures. While the H2B program is by most measures, has shown improvement since new policies by the Biden Administration were enacted, reports of processing delays are commonplace.  “It's a tougher set up and tear down,” Reithoffer admitted. “But our moral is good. We set records.”  

For Crone, there's no resting on the comeback laurels and she leads her team to a long awaited centennial “ We are already deep in the planning stages of our 100th Annual Southwest Florida & Lee County Fair,” she said. “We are looking forward to another fantastic year as we celebrate our Centennial and continue Making Memories Since 1924.”
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