A real grass roots fair is how Dan West, General Manager of the Manatee County Fair describes this annual Florida event. The 2017 edition of this 101-year old fair had ideal weather condition for its 10-day run, an increase of more than 10,000 attendance - a noticeable uptick pushing attendance to 182,675.
"It was a good year, we had impeccable weather, we were blessed with 10 days of wonderful weather," said West. "We have a good product, and we have a clean, wholesome fair, one that the whole community supports."
From community competitions that range from cheerleading to decorating hay bales to a high-profile concert by Country Music legend Ricky Skaggs - and a stellar midway by Belle City Amusements - this celebration of Americana in Florida had a great turnout in 2017. "The economy was better than previous years," agreed West. "Agriculture in this area is holding its own, and there has been a lot of growth and development. All the vendors told me they did very well, and that spending was up."
Fair Fun 101
Like many county fairs, agriculture and agriculture education are main components of its mission. The advertising campaign - a modest $80,000 - utilized a marketing theme that had fun with the educational mission while at the same time furthering it. Most fairs will tie marketing into an anniversary year - such as the century mark. This being the one year after the centennial of the fair, the marketing theme was hiding in plain site: Fair Fun 101. "What we do is teach the community about agriculture, and how agriculture is important to this county," said West. "We were able to incorporate the theme into signage and other marketing, it was one of our more successful themes."
The fair also created a mobile app, enabling an expansion of the social media marketing. "We were able to do more on Facebook. "We also reached out to the Rotary Club and other organizations, we made a live video that we were able to distribute. We had a lot of people download the mobile app, which tied into our website."
The fair's marketing included "the whole gamut," said West, including TV, radio, newspapers, and an enhanced website and e-marketing. "We had more online presence," he said. "With the newspapers, we also had banner ads on their website."
A new video from a birds-eye view - footage made with camera on a drone that "was set to music, and really showed what the fair is about, and we shared this on social media and got a great response," West said.
Marketing timing can be tricky for the fair, which is held in mid-January, because the Christmas holiday can absorb a lot of attention - and also during the peak holiday sales seasons, ad rates are too expensive. "We begin our advertising the first week of November and then pick it up after Christmas," said West. "The only advertising we do during the holidays are during the College Bowl football games, where we buy a bowl package. We did begin our advertising earlier than we have in the past, we started booking time for earlier in the fall."
Belle Extends Contract
The Belle City Amusements midway featured 54 rides, which include a new Alien Abduction, a Marioland ride in Kiddieland, and two new Dalton Kiddie Rides. "We added new Kiddieland rides this year, this is a very family oriented fair," said Charles Panacek of Belle City Amusements.
He added, "we had a big year. We had an unbelievable increase of over 20 percent over last year, it was our biggest increase and our highest revenue at the fair."
The 2017 edition of the fair had special significance for the carnival veteran, "we signed a new contract at the fair that extends our run there another seven years. It was a great fair this year, people were very positive."
The weather was of course a main factor, with an ideal streak of weather taking place for the event. "We always got rain, and there's a possibility of cold weather in Florida at this time, but we this year we had absolutely gorgeous weather with temperatures in the mid-70s."
Panacek noted that the fair's marketing - "did attract more people," but attributed most of the increase in midway revenue to "we had more return business this year, people came to this fair more than once."
The economy may not have improved over the previous year according to indicators, but there has been positive change in consumer attitudes, which Panacek credited for improving attendance and midway revenue in 2017 "People feel better about the economy this year, they are spending more money than last year," he said. "If fuel prices stay down and the economy will keep improving this will be a great year."
The fair also made some landscape improvements that enhance the fairgoer experience. "They spent a lot of money on the fairgrounds," said Panacek. "They paved the walkways, they have troughs for all of the electrical wiring. The improvements in the fairgrounds, that definitely increases attendance."
The best grossing rides at the fair was the Giant Wheel - "which is always number one," said Panacek - as well as the Rock & Roll Himalaya and a Nitro ride.
Food Vendors Happy
The Manatee County Fair featured 40 food vendors, which included famous corn dogs by the Sunrise Kiwanis Club. New food vendors include Wisconsin Cheese and Amish Donuts. "Sales were up for all the food vendors," he said. "There are were a lot lines and the vendors were happy."
The fair offers limited entertainment - although a high profile show was performed by Ricky Skaggs & Kentucky Thunder, a rare performance for his renowned bluegrass ensemble. "It was a really great concert and he loves playing here, it was the third time for him at the fair," said West. "We also had Little Texas. Our music is always free."
Live music is mainly presented on slower weekday nights. The fair only has 32 acres of fairgrounds and the grandstand also doubles for staging the various competitions and exhibitions, including Youth Livestock Competitions, the Manatee County Fair Queen Pageant - which has four age divisions - and the Cheerleading Competition. For this community oriented fair, these events draw the biggest and most enthusiastic crowds.
In addition, there was an Arts and Craft Competition , also deeply rooted in the community showcasing home crafts produced on Manatee County farms. Other contests included: the Corn Dog Eating Contest, Pie Eating Contest, the 4-H BBQ Chicken Competition and the 10th Annual BBQ Competition.
New free acts at this year's fair included Rocket The Robot, Johnny Welde & His Bears, Dennis Lee, Steve The Pretty Good, and Sally Ann "America's Country Darlin." West said, "we try to have something for everyone, but we are offering more grounds acts. People love being surprised by what we offer."
The animal acts, which included a petting zoo, fit into "the educational mission of our fair," he said. West added that two other attractions were a Fire Fighter Training Show and the Agri-Puppets, "which fit right into our marketing theme, but it was for younger children, where we use puppets to educate people about agriculture."
With an attendance increase, a major country star, and a community enthusiastic for the fair, 2017 was a successful year for the Manatee County Fair. "We had a quality fair, and it is always satisfying when everything comes together," said West. "We had a good mixture of everything at this fair. We had a lot of those attributes, and we try to surpass each fair every year."