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Business Observer Friday, Nov. 27, 2015 3 years ago

Ride into the future

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A sports facility with a big role in tourism plans to spend $1 million on improvements. The plans face some potential hurdles, including a lack of high-end hotel rooms.
by: Beth Luberecki Contributing Writer

Executive Summary
Company. Fox Lea Farm Industry. Sports tourism Key. Facility hopes to grow through marketing and new events.

Lots of people complain about the roundabout at Venice Avenue and Jacaranda Boulevard in Venice, with its traffic clogs and tie-ups.

But not Kim Farrell.

The COO of Fox Lea Farm in Venice, which produces horse shows at its facility some 40 weekends a year, Farrell appreciates that the roundabout design took into account the needs of her business. Fox Lea isn't far from the roundabout, and show participants often drive through the intersection after exiting Interstate 75 to get to the farm. So Farrell met with the project's head engineer when the roundabout was being built to provide dimensions for the largest horse trailers.

“They took that into account when they were putting in that roundabout,” she says. “A horse trailer can make it around there.”

That's some pretty significant support for one business.

But Fox Lea — in a best-kept-secret kind of way — has been an economic driver in south Sarasota County for more than three decades. It's well known in the national equestrian community, but many people in its own backyard don't have any clue about the number of people it draws to the Venice area, people who spend money at local restaurants, hotels and other businesses. It's also one of the top-three grossing venues for sports tourism in Sarasota County, with the other two being Nathan Benderson Park and the Baltimore Orioles spring training complex.

“I actually keep a calendar of their events to help control potential busy periods,” says Cesare Valenti, general manager at Valenti's Ristorante and Allegro Bistro, near Fox Lea Farm in Venice. “We see a lot of the same faces year in and year out, and it's really a very nice relationship.”

Now, through some ambitious marketing efforts, Fox Lea officials aim to turn the local secret into a well-known regional successes story.

A recent presentation to the Venice City Council, for instance, highlighted the business's economic impact on the area. And a new winter circuit of events will bring even more people to the site, providing the impetus and income to upgrade the facility to help it attract higher-level shows than it already does.

In 2015 Fox Lea expects to welcome more than 17,000 exhibitors, trainers, and family members. The winter circuit will add to that number, with people coming from all over the country and even worldwide.

“Most people will come for at least two weeks, and a lot of people will come for the entire circuit,” says Laurie Birnbach, Fox Lea's director of public relations. “So you're looking at an impact of a month and a half of people shopping, dining, visiting tourist attractions and everything else while they're here.”

'Positive direction'
Farrell's parents, Linda and David Aldrich, founded Fox Lea Farm in 1983 on a 46-acre site. Today the site contains seven outdoor riding areas and a covered arena, a main barn plus five shed-row show barns, paddock areas, a viewing pavilion with announcer crow's nest, a cafe and plenty of trailer parking space. Each year, it produces nearly four dozen shows licensed and recognized by the United States Equestrian Federation, American Quarter Horse Association and Appaloosa Horse Club, along with other shows not recognized by any organization that give riders practice opportunities.

Farrell's own experience as a participant in horse shows — she started riding at 4 and was the 2004 American Quarter Horse Association Reserve World Champion in Amateur Equitation over Fences — has helped the business get to where it is today and attract the caliber of shows it does.

“I've been on the competitor side, and now I'm on the management side,” says Farrell. “When you have an exhibitor talking to you, you can sit in their shoes and understand what they're saying. It's about listening to the exhibitors, who are our clients.”

While Fox Lea Farm has certain dates it leases out its facility to other horse show managers, its main source of revenue comes from the shows it produces and manages. It receives revenue directly from competitors from entry and stall fees, as well as revenue from vendor fees and other sources. The cost of putting on a show can range from $20,000 per weekend for a small open show to hundreds of thousands of dollars per weekend for larger shows.

Fox Lea Farm's revenues took a bit of a hit during the economic downturn, when participation in the more expensive, high-end shows decreased. To counteract that, Fox Lea went with a flat-fee system for non-rated shows rather than the usual à la carte pricing. That allowed participants to better budget their expenses. It also led to an uptick in participation for these shows, which helped the business ride out rough spots in other areas.

As the economy keeps rebounding, Farrell says things are getting back to normal. Revenues grew 16.8% from 2013 to 2014, while total expenditures were held to a 14.4% increase for the same period. Fox Lea officials project revenues will increase from 2015 to 2016 with the addition of the new winter dates.

“I'm seeing things going in a positive direction,” says Farrell. “Where maybe before you had a kid with two horses but only one went to the show for the weekend, now they're bringing both horses. Or a farm that used to have four stalls when things were down now has eight.”

A recent survey conducted by the American Quarter Horse Association supports Farrell's projections. It found that 93% of respondents plan to enter the same or more competitions in 2015 as in 2014, and 95.1% plan to compete in the same number or more events in 2016.

Spreading the word
Fox Lea officials hope the new winter circuit will play a big part in increasing marketing and awareness of the facility. It's called the Venice Equestrian Tour Winter Circuit at Fox Lea, and will take place Jan. 27 through March 6.

The business is also planning ways to bring more spectators to the site, including special Friday night events during the winter circuit with food trucks and opening ceremonies. “We want to make it more accessible for spectators and get the word out into the community,” says Birnbach.

If the new winter circuit goes well and participation keeps growing in other events, it will allow Fox Lea to make as much as $1 million in improvements over the next three to five years. The business is still identifying and prioritizing needs, but the list includes upgrading and expanding show rings, building new barns and improving spectator facilities and amenities.
One concern for Fox Lea with the new winter dates is what officials consider an already short supply of area hotel rooms. Because these new dates are in the middle of high tourist season, they're working with hotels to set aside blocks of rooms.

“We're keeping our fingers crossed,” says Farrell. “We had to cancel a show last February because there weren't enough hotel rooms. That was disheartening.”

The Ramada Venice Resort has become popular with show participants. Additional upscale choices would be helpful, as riders tend to be well traveled, sophisticated and from high-income brackets. The average income of readers of Equestrian magazine, for example, is $185,000, and 38% of readers have a net worth of more than $500,000.

“If we had a couple of higher-end options close by it would be good,” says Birnbach. “There are a couple of people who stay up at the Ritz in Sarasota.”

But sometimes lodging becomes less of an issue for repeat visitors. “A lot of people come here and they love it and end up buying property in this area,” says Farrell.

Fox Lea's closest competitors are in Wellington and Ocala. But Venice has one big thing those places to the east and north don't have — close proximity to the beach. “As the sport is growing and life is busier, you can't do six horse shows and your vacation in a year,” says Birnbach. “You're probably going to be combining it. People are making it more of a destination, which goes along well with where Fox Lea is.”

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