Sunday, February 18, 2018
Business

Strawberry Festival fueled by tradition, not trends

PLANT CITY — Visitors perusing the Florida Strawberry Festival's food vendors might notice something conspicuously absent: alcohol.

Booze turns up at many fairs, including the Florida State Fair, but it's a long-standing no-show at the Strawberry Festival.

Credit the festival's evangelical heritage dating to 1930, its founding year.

Ads for tobacco and casinos, including the Seminole Hard Rock Hotel and Casino in Tampa, also are shunned.

Organizers say so-called vice products clash with their family-friendly vision. But banning beer sales also makes good business sense — as do some other prohibitions.

As the 11-day festival opens today, organizers will unveil a product defined not by what's trending but by tradition.

That translates into agricultural exhibits, country music and Southern charm — the festival's cornerstones year in and year out.

The big business that is the Florida Strawberry Festival never strays from its small-town values.

"We always remember who got us to the dance," festival general manager Paul Davis said.

So far, the formula is working.

With 525,000 visitors, the Strawberry Festival was the state's biggest draw last year behind the South Florida Fair in West Palm Beach but ahead of the Florida State Fair, which last year saw 457,000 attendees, according to industry newsletter Carnivalwarehouse.com.

There's a midway with 95 rides and plenty of festival food. You might even see Strawberry Queen Kelsey Fry, resplendent in a red-sequined gown. But you won't see booze.

Rock concerts regularly fill out the lineup, but they're limited to a supporting role. Among this year's headliners, two throwback acts made the cut: Bret Michaels and Foreigner. That compares to 19 country, two gospel and two oldies shows.

Even the onslaught of sticky, fried concoctions is no match for the king of festival fare here: strawberry shortcake. The treat is hawked mainly by three local sellers. Among them, standout St. Clement Catholic Church sold more than 90,000 shortcakes last year, says Paul Hetrick, a coordinator at the St. Clement shortcake booth.

Davis and other festival boosters are unapologetic if they come off as old-fashioned.

When they looked around for a sponsor for their main concert stage a few years ago, Budweiser came knocking with a $100,000 offer — nearly twice the going rate at the time.

The festival politely declined.

"Some people told us we're losing money, but I think people bypass those other events to come to ours," Davis said. "When you're bringing children out, you don't want to deal with somebody who can't handle their alcohol."

Jim Tucker, president and CEO of the Missouri-based International Association of Fairs and Expositions, the industry's main trade group with 1,100 fair members, offers a simple explanation for the festival's success. It knows its audience and celebrates its heritage.

"The best fairs are put on by the community," he said. "They put it on for themselves, and that's what they do at the Strawberry Festival."

In Plant City that means agriculture and country music. Keeping the event small-town and family-focused epitomizes what the city is about, festival board chairman Ron Gainey says.

"We have a huge Southern Baptist contingent on the board and in the community, and we've been very successful without having to venture into those areas we consider vices," he said.

Davis illustrates that same point with a story from a few years back involving an entertainer's backup singers.

The women showed up in risque outfits. Davis took one look and told them to cover up. The entertainer stepped in, but when Davis placed the man's check in his pocket and offered to cancel the performance, he backed off. The women, dubbed "rump shakers," covered up and the show went on.

"It's not just about just coming together and making money," he said. "What we sell here is Southern hospitality and family fun."

Both appear in big doses at the Strawberry Festival. In addition to other acts, visitors can expect horse-shoeing and milking demonstrations; axe throwing; racing pigs; swine, poultry and rabbit exhibits; a demonstration of pioneer skills; a strawberry shortcake-eating contest and a display of quilts, homemade preserves and canned pickles.

Carnival rides, food vendors and musical acts also abound, but don't expect Las Vegas-style excess. Gainey says the small-town angle works because it's what many families desire.

Also key is the festival's growing entertainment budget. Ten years ago, it stood at $750,000. The past few years it swelled to $2 million to lure top music acts — or roughly a quarter of the festival's total budget. Earnings, meanwhile, were up 14 percent last year, Gainey said.

"A few years ago we were approached by the Hard Rock Casino Hotel right down the road," he said. "They wanted to put their name on the back of the tickets. I don't want say how much they offered, but it was a lot of money. We said 'no.' We try to shy away from the vices."

Rich Shopes can be reached at [email protected] or (813) 661-2454.

   
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