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South Florida Fair: Rainy Opening, Teen Violence & Security Issues Slightly Weaken Attendance
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As one of the “first” fairs of year, the South Florida Fair is often seen as a bellwether event for the season ahead. If so, then the problem of disruptive teens that has plagued the fair industry post-lockdown has yet to be fully solved.

On one of the key days of any fair – a Saturday – a melee erupted, a violent skirmish involving hundreds of teenagers, resulting in rejections, stabbings that required hospitalizations and arrests. Like many fairs, the South Florida Fair combatted unruly teens with polices restricting unaccompanied minors and allowing only clear bags through the gates.

Teen Riot

This year, according to the Palm Beach Post: “A series of fights involving about 200 juveniles Saturday night at the South Florida Fair resulted in five arrests and two reported stabbings… Investigators say the fights occurred from about 9 p.m. until the fair closed at midnight… Deputies say the fights broke in all directions of the fair midways. During that time, they said, they fired pepper-ball rounds into a crowd… Additional deputies from across the county were summoned to provide extra manpower.”

If adopting enhanced security measures, increasing the number of visible law enforcement on the grounds, and investing in other safety procedures fails to prevent teen violence from marring the event, what is wrong with the system?

“We did have some incidents during the middle Saturday of the fair in the late evening,” said Victoria A. Chouris, President/CEO. “There is a particular group of young people who try to create a scene in order to get attention. I would not say our system was flawed, but it did need to be tightened and enforced better at the gate to insure the young people were accompanied by an adult as outlined in the policy.”

It's unclear if admissions gate snafus were the sole cause of the melee. Chouris acknowledged the frustration of having the issue be top-of-mind by fair managers, yet having incidents not just reoccur but worsen year-to-year. “This topic is discussed at every industry conference I attend and no one seems to have a complete answer. The positive news is we are all trying what we can to help one another resolve this ongoing problem.

By the following weekend, Chouris made sure that gate security was tightened. “Our policy of making anyone between the ages of 11 and 17 purchase an admission and wristband prior to entering the Fair was strictly enforced the final weekend which resulted in some people being prohibited from entering. We also increased law enforcement presence at the entrance gates in addition to having the presence inside the grounds.”

As a fair manager dealing with a crisis in real time, Chouris emphasized that internal and external messaging management is key. “Communication between our Director of Public Safety and the Palm Beach Sheriff's Office is very important and we do a really good job in that area. My Director of Public Safety keeps me informed as to any incidents that are occurring. We focus on the positive and try not to feed into the sensationalism that some fairgoers post on social media.”
What is clear is that increased police presence is far from the needed solution to a nationwide problem, one faced by malls, amusement parks and other venues nationwide. “We have a very strong police presence on the Fairgrounds and fortunately, they were able to respond immediately to the call about a fight. Sadly, the people who are not behaving appropriately also tend to have no respect for law enforcement, so the officers also have to deal with that issue.”

Rainy Opening

Negative publicity mid-fair was definitely something this year's edition of this Sunshine State tradition could've done without. A wet start hampered the opening days of the South Florida Fair, but good weather was back in action for most of the remainder of the 2024 run. Attendance may have just missed last year's numbers due to the torment Mother Nature inflicted on the opening days, but by the event's conclusion, the fair has regained its momentum as one of the largest outdoor gatherings in Florida.

“When we opened our doors Thursday, January 11 for the Preview Ride-a-Thon, we were in the middle of a downpour. Needless to say, attendance was down, but our spirits were not dampened. Opening day, Friday, January 12 was beautiful weather and then the next four days were rainy and not nice! But, thank goodness, the skies did clear and we ended up having a wonderful fair and made up most of the attendance that we lost the first week. We had rain five out of the first seven days. After that, things cleared up and we had decent Fair weather”

Attendance reached 411,160 – 2023 total attendance: 420,043 – the under-performance due more to the wet start than the mid-fair melee and the negative news coverage it engendered, according to Chouris. She also pointed out a growing robustness among weekday crowds. “We had three record paid at gate days at the 2024 Fair and they were all on weekdays which is unusual,” she said. “We attribute this to people coming during the week when the weather cleared and people finally realizing the fair offers the same entertainment value during the week and it is much less crowded so waiting in lines is much less.”

The most significant metric from the 2024 South Florida Fair indicating muscular community support and an increasing fan-base was the uptick in advance sales. Overall, consumer-confidence and fairgoer spending patterns seemed on par with last year, but she noted that consumers are more aware of value even though spending has not been curtailed. “Our advance sale tickets were more than 2023 so this could be an indication that people were being cost conscious and purchasing in advance.”

Dive Into The Fun

This year's marketing theme –Dive into the Fun – highlighted a new series of ocean and marine wildlife- themed exhibits and attractions, including The Sea Lion Splash; Live Shark Encounter; Live Stingray Encounter, a life-sized inflatable Humpback Whale which was part of a cetology-themed exhibit by the Florida Atlantic University's Harbor Branch Oceanographic Institute and "The Dueling Pirates" – a theatrical performance with pirate ships, Olympic springboards and an 80-foot-tall high dive. Even this year's "Ice In Paradise" show featuring world-class skating had a marine theme.

“We featured an ocean exposition that was very well received,” she said. “It was a celebration of the ocean and marine wildlife. The themed expositions have proven to be some of the most popular attractions at the fair, and the ocean-centric theme is offering up a lot of fun options.

The fair increased its advertising budget by 9 percent. Chouris emphasized that this year, the use of Social Media Influencers – a collaborative relationship several years in the making – was also revitalized this year. “We put in place a program with Social Media Influencers – focused on content about kids, family, food and things to do in South Florida. We have worked with influencers for years, and we've really gotten to know them. It's funny, everybody has an angle on what they're doing. You have to learn who is doing what and how best to use them and we were more successful doing that this year.”

Deeper relationships with SMI's aside, the fair's 2024 social media marketing strategy introduced a new video series – Vicki's Views – hosted by Chouris herself, a behind-the-scenes tour of the fair, including special tips, promotions, attractions and “things to take advantage of” – at the 2024 event. Vicki's Views supplemented the fair's Tiny Mic series, which spotlights sponsors and food vendors. “We had more video content than any other year,” she added.

The media-mix for this year's advertising-buy was: Digital: 35.5 percent: Billboards (including Brightline, Miami's commuter-railroad): 16.5 percent; Radio: 21 percent; TV: 17 percent. Radio and TV decreased in spending, while digital and out-of-home spending increased. It was the first year that zero dollars were spent on newspapers and print advertising, The marketing budget was increased by 10 percent over 2023.

The fair showcased 111 food booths – 31 were booked through Wade Shows, the fair's midway provider – with sales “up slightly from the previous 2 years,” she said. New fair-cuisine items introduced this year included: Dizon's Chinese; The Crumb Up; Big T's Grilled Cheese and Sparky's Pork Rinds.

What food trends did Chouris notice in 2024? “Anything Pickle seems to still be pretty popular – we had vendors doing pickle pizza, pickle donuts, pork rinds, lemonade & chocolate covered pickles and Meatball Factory had their Korean Corn Dog, Grandma Browns Bacon Cinnamon Roll & Rosie's Nachos Banana Cream Pie Nachos.”

The Wade Shows midway featured 70 rides, according to Chouris. The Palm Beach Post reported: “In addition to dozens of favorites making a return to the midway, expect four new rides to be in the mix for 2024: the Venetian Carousel, Drag Strip Mega Slide, the Tesla, and the Cyclops — a machine that swings like a pendulum with a craw holding riders that rotates. (The Cyclops is returning after a recent absence from the lineup.)”

The 2024 South Florida Fair will also be the final one as CEO for Chouris, whose retirement takes effect May 1. Staff and vendors celebrated her career with a special parade featuring “Face Cutouts” – pictures of her on sticks to hold in front of your face – of Chouris. It was a fun and touching tribute to the leader of this Florida tradition.

Why are fairs still relevant to contemporary culture?

“Fairs are relevant because fairs are about family,” she said. “This is one of the rare occasions a family unit can spend time together without someone being tied to a device. The experiences are real, the laughter is real, the quality time together is real.”
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