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Business Observer Friday, Jan. 5, 2018 10 months ago

Fair Warning

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Going behind the scenes of a state fair is a glance at a lesson any business could use: how to remain relevant in a sea of competition.
by: Mark Gordon Managing Editor

Why it matters: The Florida State Fair in Tampa, in a highly competitive world for entertainment dollars, aims to become a bigger attraction.

Cheryl Flood, a fifth-generation Floridian who grew up on a Polk County cattle ranch, brings a lot of history to her role as executive director of the Florida State Fair. She showed cattle at the fair when she was a kid, part of the Frostproof Future Farmers of America chapter. Flood, 41, recalls that her mom when to the fair, too, when she was a child.

While the nostalgia is nice, Flood, who will be going into her second fair as Florida State Fair Authority executive director in February, is a forward-thinking leader. Her goal is to infuse the Florida State Fair with new entertainment acts, rides, displays, contests and more. Another important goal: Help people think differently about the fair — it's no longer solely an Old Florida event. “People think of the fair is a carnival,” says Flood, “but that's not what we are.”

Flood, named interim executive director in spring 2016 and permanent director in September that year, is already off to a strong start. Attendance at the state fair, held every February at the Florida State Fairgrounds in Tampa, surpassed 440,700 people in 2017, according to the authority, up 11.4% from 395,435 people in 2016. That was the largest increase since 2005. In addition to more people, total revenue for the fair increased 13%, from $7.26 million in 2016 to $8.2 million last year.

Florida Agriculture Commissioner Adam Putnam, who oversees the Fair Authority, appointed Flood to the State Fair post. Flood worked for Putnam before, when she was his deputy chief of staff when he was in U.S. Congress. She considers Putnam, a Republican running for governor of Florida, a mentor.

Something Flood learned from Putnam, she says, is to always look many steps ahead — don't just solve what's in front of you. To that end, she has reshaped the State Fair to offer more things to more groups and demographics. To stay ahead of trends, Flood travels to other state fairs. “We have to know about what people are going to want and like two years from now,” she says. “We have to remain relevant.”

That means healthy food options while keeping the staples, she says. It also means BMX bike events, dance mom contests, Latin music shows and young children-themed shows and displays, such as Rusty Rivets and Paw Patrol. All of that and more is on the docket for the 2018 State Fair, scheduled for Feb. 8-19. “This year we're going to really blow it out,” Flood says.

Flood says another new aspect of the State Fair for 2018 she's especially excited about is a behind-the-scenes move: a partnership to sell tickets to the State Fair at Publix, the first time that's happened in a decade. Says Flood: “We think that's an awesome partnership.”

Even with the rise in attendance and early successes Flood — in another lesson from politics — guards against becoming complacent. “Just when you think you got it, you can always be stronger,” says Flood. “You always have to keep your eyes on it.”

(This story was updated to reflect the correct names of the children-themed shows, the first day of the fair and when Flood's mom attended the fair.)

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