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Super Heroes Save Rainy South Florida Fair
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The 2019 South Florida Fair suffered from the one factor outdoor event organizers cannot control – rain. The final fair for retiring Rick Vymlatil, CFE, President/CEO South Florida Fair & Palm Beach County Expositions, a position he's held since 2004, had the kind of first fair managers fear most – an entirely cancelled day.

Adding insult to injury, the lost day was the Sunday of the middle weekend of the fair's run, typically one of the peak days of the annual event. Compounding the frustration was that the fair had a theme certain to catch the popular culture zeitgeist – Super Heroes – and a Florida economy noticeably better than previous years. 

The South Florida Fair has a unique position in the fair industry. As the first major fair of the year, it is often highly scrutinized for signs of industry trends in the upcoming year. One hopes that the rain is not the omen indicating things to come but the upbeat economy part seems the most notable industry take away. 

Monsoon Conditions 

“Overall we had a very safe Fair this year and when the weather cooperated, crowds were strong,” said Vymlatil,  “Judging by our per cap spending results during the Fair this year I'd have to say that I believe our area has recovered greatly since the recession. In general, the public is not backing off of spending their discretionary income on events like the South Florida Fair.  I believe that this bodes well for all of us in this business as we move into the spring of 2019.”

But this celebration of Floridian community and culture was negatively impacted by unrelenting precipitation. “We had several days of continuous rain and one day, our middle Sunday, when the forecast was so negative that we decided to not open at all,” he said. “Overall spending was down but I believe that is a reflection of the impact of the weather for sure.  

Attendance was 359,020, down from 427,005 in 2018. Obviously this kind of steep attendance dip takes a toll on spending, but a deeper analysis of available metrics indicates an underlying strength still inherent in the event. “The weather really hurt us,” Vymlatil admits, however “we recorded record ride revenue days during the Fair and set per cap records for the midway on 11 of the 16 days we were open. At the gate, we recorded record revenues on 3 days of this year's Fair. Even with the horrible weather that we experienced, average per capita spending for the entire Fair was stronger than the past two years for admissions and the best that it's ever been on the midway.”

According to Vymlatil, “Admission revenue was $2,563,000, Ride Revenue was $3,900,000 and food gross is estimated at $4,800,000. Again, this kind of result helps us all realize that the fair-going public loves the South Florida Fair, when the weather lets them enjoy it!”

Empowering Manager  

The midway, provided by Wade Shows, featured 73 rides, including an expanded Kiddieland with the debut of a wireless music system that enhanced the fun-filled atmosphere with a children appropriate playlist. But there was no denying that the rain soaked fair meant ride revenue took a big hit.

“We had some bad rainouts at a lot of shows and this was not my worst,” said Frank Zaitshik, owner of Wade Shows. “To virtually lose the best weekend was devastating. But we were quite fortunate, that the last Sunday, which was the Super Bowl, was a wonderful closing day and we were up significantly. We had some great revenue days, but it was still a sharp stick in the eye.”

While 2019's edition of the South Florida Fair may have been rain-soaked, Zaitshik noted that the departing fair manager has created a successful tradition. “On a personal level, this year's fair was a sad moment for me,” said Zaitshik, who has known this fellow fair veteran for 35 years. “It's been a mutual admiration society between us. It's a great bonus when you like and enjoy being with the people you work with. Rick is one of the great fair managers of all time and I base that opinion on all that he has accomplished, and not through fear or intimidation, but through empowerment. He wants people to do well and has put a wonderful team in place. ”

Zaitshik has been the midway provider at the event since 2006. He added, “from my perspective, ride revenue has almost doubled and customer satisfaction is at an all-time high.”

​Wade Shows also participated in the marketing theme of Superheroes – which Zaitshik described “as a brilliant concept” –- by having “photo opportunities” in the midway, which included super hero picture frames where fairgoers could pose for selfies  and a snapchat app that incorporated superhero masks and other filters.

Meta-Human Marketing 

​​Vymlatil credited this year's marketing theme to Vicki Chouris, long-time COO of the fair who will also become CEO in June when Vymlatil's retirement takes effect. “There are a variety of factors that go into our decision on each year's theme,” he explained. “We consider how topical a potential theme might be, what is out there in our industry that we could incorporate into our Fair to carry the theme throughout the Fair but especially into our main Expo Hall and of course, how a particular theme can be incorporated into the various forms of media that we use to promote the Fair. Vicki works with members of our senior staff and creative staff to determine which potential theme is the right choice for each year's Fair.  I'd say that this year she really hit on a very strong theme.”

​​When considering various marketing strategies for 2019, several concepts were being suggested, The instigating revelation that led to  the Super Hero theme was noticing  not only that these comic book characters were dominating Cineplexes in Florida and across the nation, but their audiences ran the gamut of ages and ethnicities. “It's not just kids, they reach a broader audience,” said Chouris. “They reach children and adults too, the whole family. It just grew from there. People came to the fair wearing their t-shirts of their favorite comic book characters.”

​​Deeming it wiser not to choose between the Justice League and the Avengers, the fair contracted with companies representing DC and Marvel, the only caveat is that the days had to be evenly divided between the two comic book conglomerates – i.e., Superman cannot appear at the fair at the same time as Spiderman. “We had to keep them separate,” she explained.

​​Once that contractual reality was worked out, the fair featured the characters in their marketing and events, which included not only costumed characters roaming the grounds for photo ops, but daily parades as well as community oriented tie-ins with a “Not all Heroes Wear Capes,” that celebrate local heroes like law enforcement officials, fire fighters, first responders as well as teachers and even lawyers.

​​The fair's marketing budget was $500,000 – about the same as last year. “Our budget hasn't truly changed very much in recent years,” said Chouris. “What has changed is the mix of the various forms of advertising.  Social Media and digital marketing have revolutionized the way in which we all must market our events to the public.”

​​The fair added a staff person whose job is solely social media promotions, and also increased their flash sales and online discount promotions. The marketing mix in terms of spend didn't change from previous year, but that can be misleading. “We stayed with traditional avenues of TV and radio,” she said. “But when instead of just buying their spots we buy into digital campaigns and ours are featured on their websites and social media platforms as well.”  

Entertainment Budget

​​The fair's entertainment – which is free with admission and used as a loss-leader to attract crowds – featured a range of musical genres, including Building 429, a  contemporary Christian act, Frankie Ballard, Jordan Davis, Pat Travers Band, The Outlaws, Charlie Aponte and the Elvis Extravaganza. “We never anticipate that our entertainment offerings are going to be a profitable venture,” said Vymlatil. “We stick to our budget, hope we've picked artists that will have some interest for the public and that generate a bit of a buzz on radio prior to the Fair.”

​​A seller's market still persist for the fair's buying, with competitive pressure coming from not just other venues in the area, but cruise lines for whom West Palm Beach is a popular port of call. “It's as expensive and challenging booking entertainment for this fair as it has been for year's past.”

​​Fair industry prognosticators who look to the South Florida Fair for signs of trends might want to take note of a breakout food item at this fair. “The one that got a lot of publicity was a Dilly Dilly Dog,” said Vymlatil. “It was a hotdog, inserted in a dill pickle and dipped and fried in corn dog batter.  It was something featured at one of Louie Pacifico's Meatball Factory Corn Dog.” 

​​Unexpected torrential rain obviously has a negative impact on any outdoor event, but how does this long-time industry veteran assess his farewell fair? Did it meet or exceed expectations?  “From a financial results perspective, definitely not, as weather was a huge factor,” he said. “From a perspective of the public's reaction and acceptance of the South Florida Fair, I'd say we really had a great result.”
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