The cost of flowers, steel, and other supplies critical to creating the elaborate and iconic floats that roll down Colorado Boulevard on New Year’s Day has risen significantly over the past year, and the builders of the colorful floats are feeling the pressure as the parade looms closer. That means looking for ways to stretch a dollar.
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Rose Bowl floats are not immune to inflation, leaving builders looking for new ideas
December 20, 2022
For years, Kay Sappington has carefully measured how many seeds and petals she needs to cover every square foot of Sierra Madre’s float for Pasadena’s annual rose parade. As a float builder, she knows that every dollar saved is a dollar set aside for next year’s project.
But this year everything is just more expensive – up to 20% more. “We’re not panicking, but we’re stressed,” she said The cost of flowers, steel and other supplies critical to the creation of the elaborate and iconic floats that roll down Colorado Boulevard on New Year’s Day has risen significantly over the past year, and the builders of the colorful floats are feeling the pressure as the parade looms closer. That means looking for ways to stretch a dollar.
“We’re the smallest builder in the parade,” says Sappington, who, with her husband, is in charge of building the float for the nonprofit Sierra Madre Rose Float Assn. “We’re used to cornering.” But for the first time in years, Sappington said, costs could exceed the original budget estimate for the float, even after looking for small ways to save money or stretch materials a little further. It should be no surprise, given that consumer prices increased 9.1% between June 2021 and June 2022, according to the US Bureau of Labor Statistics. Inflation has shown some signs of slowing down recently, with prices rising by 0.1% between October and November. The COVID-19 pandemic and security restrictions have also hurt the efforts of cities and other organizations like Sierra Madre, which rely heavily on donations to pay for their floats.
This year, Sappington said, the association’s main fundraiser was a mailing to residents asking for help. In previous years, the group held a bingo event with a drag queen leading the bingo game with prizes, music, and comedy. That event drew more than 200 supporters. After the pandemic, the association was unable to find a rental property that would not cost too much, allow alcohol sales, and attract a similarly sized audience. Donations – along with supporters like the Sappingtons, who volunteer – are how the society gets its float from design to parade.
The last bingo Sierra Madre hosted was in 2021 and attracted about 85 people – about half the usual crowd. “We hope next year opens up more and we can get a few bingos in,” she said. According to the Pasadena Tournament of Roses Assn. a typical high-quality float costs about $275,000, from design to construction. The Sierra Madre Assn., Sappington said, has made floats for about $40,000. But with price hikes, it may be time for the organization, which has had a float in the parade since 1917, to prepare to pay more, she said.
Larger builders like Fiesta Parade Floats, whose award-winning floats have been part of the parade since 1989, have also felt the pain. “It’s really tough,” said Tim Estes, president of Fiesta Parade Floats. Estes said he is still recovering from the canceled 2021 parade, which left his company without income for a year. He said that this year, he estimates the flotation equipment cost has risen about 20%. For most years, his company works on 10 or more parade floats for various clients, but last year he only picked up six as he tried to get his company back on track. This year he decided to work on seven.
“There’s still the hardship of getting over a year where I had no income,” he said. “I lost all my income but still had to pay rent on an 80,000 square foot building.” Now he is faced with a sharp rise in prices for roses, orchids, daisies, carnations and steel. With contracts drawn up eight or nine months in advance, the increase in construction costs will hit its bottom line. “Not only are there higher costs to grow or produce the material, but you also have the cost of transportation,” Estes said. “If I get flowers from South America or Thailand, Hawaii or Europe, everything is affected by cost.” He considered looking for savings in construction. “I want to make money, but I also don’t want to lose the traditional look of a fancy float for the Rose Parade,” said Estes. “I’m trying to find different materials, both for building and decorating the float, but I still have to use steel and plywood, and I still need bolts and screws.”
He has declined to make changes that would affect the float’s quality, he said, such as using fewer flowers or using materials that would affect its appearance and quality. Since 1994, Estes said, his floats have won the Sweepstakes Trophy, considered the parade’s highest honor, in nearly two years. “I don’t want my quality to suffer,” he said, meaning it costs him more to build. “So I have a bad business model.” This year, the Sierra Madre’s wagon will feature a “papa bear” riding a scooter through the park while his three cubs climb a tree. Volunteers and workers make every cup of material count.
Sappington has purchased sacks of cinnamon to cover 210 square feet of the bear’s surface, and since construction began, she said the cost for the 5-pound sacks she purchased has nearly doubled. “Flowers have also increased, there’s no doubt about that,” she said, so she’s been looking at options like using fewer flowers per square foot. “It’s just being innovative and trying new things.” To save money, she searches for deals online or goes somewhere within driving distance to get more bang for her buck. She’s retired, she said, so she enjoys doing it. However, when it comes to working with flowers, it’s hard to know what to expect.
“Flowers I have to overorder because you never know how they’re coming in, or sometimes they don’t look quite right,” she said. A positive thing is that the association can sell the unused flowers and use the money for next year’s car. It’s a tough job, Sappington said, but Sierra Madre’s floats have won 15 awards over the past 16 years. “We’re just looking forward to 2023 softening up a bit,” she said.