The 2015 Florida Strawberry Festival is a recovery story - a strong finish overcame a bad start.
The festival, February 26-March 8, turned 80 this year and anticipation was high for this unique agricultural celebration, which up until about five years ago, had fallen on tough times. But with a change in management, content and marketing, the Florida Strawberry Festival reestablished itself as a popular, regional event. The 2014 edition was considered highly successful, including record revenues on the midway, extending what has become an upwards trajectory.
That success suffered an interruption at the start of the 2015 11 day extravaganza that celebrates everything strawberry -more than 10,000 acres of strawberries are cultivated here, an industry generating more than $700 million in revenue. Inclement weather washed out the opening day.
"The first weekend was way down, we had rain and cold weather," said Paul Davis, General Manager, Florida Strawberry Festival. "The rest of the festival, we had beautiful weather."
But once the skies cleared and temperatures rose, festival goers showed their support once again. By the closing weekend of the event, record days of 89,485 and 94,991, on Saturday and Sunday, respectively, were recorded. While overall fair revenue failed to fully overcome the opening weekend losses, fair revenue and per-capita spending hit record levels during the closing days.
As everyone the fair industry knows, the factor no one can control has the most control over the fate of a fair. Even the compulsion to top the previous year's attendance and spending is undermined when nature decides not to cooperate.
Belle City Midway
"Last year was the biggest year we had at the Florida Strawberry Festival," said Charles Panacek, President of Belle City Amusements; 2015 was the seventh year Belle City Amusements has provided the midway at the festival. "This year we lost the first Saturday, it was a complete rainout. It was a good festival, but we were down overall."
The impact of the rainy opening meant that compared to the year before, midway revenue was down by about 4 percent compared to 2014. But the final accounting is not entirely negative - the silver lining in those rain clouds is that rest of the event was strong. Last year Belle City Amusements' revenue was up 15 percent compared to 2013. Given that an entire opening Saturday was lost, the overall midway revenue of the following 11 days being down by under 5 percent indicates the robust profitability of the whole event.
"We made up a lot of lost ground and the final Saturday and Sunday made up the largest final weekend we ever had," said Panacek.
He added, "it is a very good show. The entertainment they booked really brings in the crowds, and after they leave the show they ride the rides."
The scheduling of the headline entertainment, which is adjacent to the midway on the 6,000-seat Plant City Stadium, home of the Wish Farms Sound Stage, turns concertgoers into fairgoers. Evening shows begin at 7:30, ending by 9:30, giving ample time for post-concert, midway enjoyment. There are also separate afternoon shows, that start at 3:30, essentially creating two shifts of midway customers. Weekend nights feature Moonlight Magic - a pay one price for all rides from 10pm to 2am. "We do an armband deal and there's no gate admission," said Panacek. "Our numbers were up and the concerts drew in a younger crowd which was good for us."
Last year, the midway added an additional Guest Services Booth, where staff interact with fairgoers, answering questions and responding to complaints and compliments.
"We actually get lot more compliments than complaints," said Panacek. The second booth was purposely located near the Kiddie Korral, the children's section of the Belle City Amusements midway.
Having two locations for these booths - and stationing one near the family section - "turns out to be a real convenience for our customers," said Panacek. "More people used the Guest Services Booths this year. They don't have to walk to other side of the midway, and more people used the second location this year."
The new guest services booth as part of the Kiddie Korral is also part of a growing trend - a rise of families with younger children among fairgoers. "We want to attract families, and we want to cater to those families" said Panacek. "It is somewhat of a trend to expand to the kiddie and family rides. We added a couple of new kiddie rides, not an exorbitant amount, but it is growing. We are seeing more parents with younger children. The families with children from six to 13 seem to be increasing."
The Belle City Amusements midway at the Florida Strawberry Festival featured 90 rides. "We have them squeezed in,:" joked Panacek. "We're using the same space, so we always change it up."
Some of the rides that debuted at the 2015 Florida Straw included a Wisdom Squadron, Space Train, and Lolli Swing, Disco. Perennial Favorites are the Giant Wheel, Crazy Mouse Coaster, Spacer Roller, Magnum and the "the Moon Raker, which is the only one in the U.S., does very well," he added.
For Panacek, the Florida Strawberry Festival was just the fourth fair of the season for Belle Amusements. "People seem to have more money in their pockets this year. As long as the gas prices stay down, this will be a great season."
He added that "we gave a great working relationship with the festival personnel, from the volunteers to the paid staff and directors. They take an immense pride in making each festival better. We work together on all our promotions and our pricing."
Certainly, one reason the festival was able to recover from the opening day monsoon was that organizers modified its marketing. Several population segments attend this annual event. In addition, it is an alcohol-free festival, which may reduce attendance from some demographics, but combined with its top-of-the-line entertainment offerings, the Florida Strawberry Festival has gained regional popularity as a family-friendly Mardi Gras.
In addition, "we get a lot of snowbirds, people coming down here from the north escaping the snow and cold. People mark this festival on their calendar, it's a tradition," said Davis.
Festival marketing this year specifically targeted The Villages, a community north of Plant City that has a large senior and retired adult population. In addition, the festival partnered with a Christian Radio Station to market the two Christian music shows the festival featured. "We had heavy rotation on those stations and appealed directly to their fan base," said Davis
Billboard marketing was also increased, and the festival utilized more than 60 digital billboards to market the 80th anniversary of the Florida Strawberry Festival. "Increasing the number of billboards was the biggest change to our advertising," he explained.
One of the challenges for the festival is that it follows the Florida State Fair. "We have a very small window of opportunity to really promote the festival, because advertising any earlier we conflict with their marketing," he said. " This year we did do a lot more smart marketing. We made that most of that week and half window by having more focus and better targeting."
Last year, the Florida Strawberry Festival decided to improve the customer service component of the festival by introducing the Hospitality Ambassador Program, where trained staff walk throughout the festival and encounter festival goers, offering directions and suggestions as well as listening to concerns and complaints. These roving staff were increased to six from four in 2015, and their duties were expanding to include surveying, which included a question for future marketing.
"We made sure to get their zip codes, to find out where people coming from," said Davis. The process of compiling responses and analyzing results was still being under way as of press times. Festivalgoers also took a lot of selfies with the ambassadors.
Coke, Not Pepsi
Sponsorships also increased for this year, up 10-12 percent, which Davis partially credits with an improving economy. A big switch was that the festival's beverage contract with switched from Pepsi to Coca-Cola. "It was the first year with Coke and it went very well," said Davis. "It was a better contract and the technical aspects of the transition went very smoothly. Coca-Cola is now our official drink sponsor."
The Belle City Midway, in conjunction with the new beverage sponsor, offered a $5 off Armband promotion for fairgoers who brought a empty container of a Coca Cola product . According to Panacek, the numbers were higher for this promotion than similar promotions in previous years by the former beverage sponsor. Otherwise, switching beverage sponsors was nothing new to this midway provider. "It doesn't affect us, we just make sure our vendors are selling whatever the product is the sponsor," he said.
The Florida Strawberry Festival also boasts one of the best entertainment line ups off all the late winter Florida outdoor events. Davis pointed out that the star power of the closing concerts of the Florida Festival dramatically boosted attendance.
John Legend played the Saturday night, "and we got lucky because he was fresh off his Oscar Win," said Davis. (Legend won an academy award for Glory, which he also performed at this year's Oscar broadcast). The closing concert was REBA - Reba McIntyre, the country music legend and television star made the Florida Star Festival a stop on her new tour, a highly anticipated return to live performance for the country music legend, which is a build up to Love Somebody, her first album of new material in five years, scheduled to be released in April.
While country music tends to be a festival favorite, as the addition of Legend indicates, organizers are diversifying the musical line up. Other acts at the 2015 Florida Strawberry festival included: Alabama, Sawyer Brown, Happy Together Tour, Ronnie Milsap, Sara Evans, Ricky Skaggs, Craig Morgan, Oak Ridge Boys , Newsboys, Loretta Lynn, Boyz II Men and Parmalee.
Davis said that the central Florida location can be a double edged sword when it comes to talent buying and concert bookings. On the plus side, artists often tour the region this time of year to avoid the winter weather conditions in most of North America; but on the negative side, there are a growing number of venues in competition for acts, such as casinos and other location - and the accompanying radius clauses - making the Florida Strawberry Festival far from the only stage available.
"There are acts who love playing here and are loyal," said Davis. "But it is getting tougher to maintain that loyalty."
Newer competition for the newer, rising stars that round up a festival's line up - is now coming from a newer touring format, the Mega Tours. "The competition we faced this year was more from the mega tours," said Davis.
Mega Tours are all-star line ups - essentially a package of several acts with a major superstar as the headliner, and new comers used to round out the shows. Mega Tours book stadiums and larger venues, spaces the new stars are unable to sell out at this step of their journey to stardom.
"The problem is that the up-and-coming acts, who are just getting popular, were important to our festival," said Davis, citing as an example, Taylor Swift, who the festival booked early in her career. Her record sales and radio play was only starting to peak by the time she did play the Florida Strawberry Festival. The Mega Tour trend is now preventing those lucky coincidences for outdoor events like the festival.
"Mega Tours will grab two or three of the young acts that were bread and butter for the festival," said Davis. "Just as they fly up the charts, the tour snatches them up and it is hard to compete with opening up for a huge headliner. Then the radius clauses kick in and they can't play here for six months or a year."
The Florida Strawberry Festival avoided a near catastrophe the midway. An aluminum light pole became unattached to a fence and fell on a child, who was uninjured. The accident occurred, according to Davis, by fairgoers "leaning and climbing on a fence that could not support their weight. They kept doing so after repeatedly being told not to," he said
The child suffered what amounted to "to a scratch," said Davis. No hospitalization was required and the midway remained opened. Safety inspectors visited the site and met with Belle City Amusement personnel as well as and Festival staff. "It was handled very professionally," said Davis. "Any accident is one too many, but this very minor and caused by human error, not a malfunction of equipment. The light pole was very light weight, and it was a very minor injury and the problem was rectified immediately."