Rose Bowl floats aren’t immune to inflation, leaving builders scrambling for new ideas

Rose Bowl floats aren’t immune to inflation, leaving builders scrambling for new ideas

For years, Kay Sappington has carefully measured out 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 panicked, but we’re stressed,” she said

The costs for flowers, steel and other supplies crucial for the creation of the elaborate and iconic floats that roll down Colorado Boulevard on New Year’s Day have increased significantly in the last year, and builders of the colorful floats are feeling the pinch as the parade looms closer. That means looking for ways to stretch a dollar.

“We’re the smallest builder in the parade,” said Sappington, who along with her husband are in charge of float construction for the nonprofit Sierra Madre Rose Float Assn. “We are used to cutting corners.”

But for the first time in years, Sappington said, costs may exceed the original budget estimate for the float, even after looking for small ways to save money or stretch material a bit further.

It should come as no surprise since consumer prices jumped 9.1% between June 2021 and June 2022, according to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics. Inflation has shown some signs of slowing down more recently, with prices climbing 0.1%between October and November.

The pandemic and COVID-19 restrictions have also hurt the efforts of cities and other organizations like Sierra Madre that rely heavily on donations to pay for their floats.

This year, Sappington said, the association’s main fundraising effort was a mailer to residents asking for help. In previous years, the group relied on a bingo event that featured 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 place to rent that wouldn’t cost too much, would allow alcohol sales and would draw a similar-size crowd. Donations — along with supporters like the Sappingtons, who volunteer — are how the association gets its float from design to the parade.

The last bingo Sierra Madre hosted was in 2021, and it drew about 85 people — about half the usual crowd.

“We’re hoping that next year opens up more, and we can get a couple of 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 been making floats for about $40,000.

But with price increases, it may be time for the organization, which has had a float in the parade since 1917, to prepare to pay more, she said.

Bigger builders like Fiesta Parade Floats, whose prize-winning floats have been a 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.

This year, he said, he estimates the cost of float materials has gone up roughly 20%.

During most years, his company works on 10 or more floats for the parade for different clients, but last year he picked up only 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 for an 80,000-square-foot building.”

Now, he’s facing a steep price increase for roses, orchids, daisies, carnations and steel. With contracts made out eight or nine months in advance, the rise in building costs will hit his bottom line.

“Not only is there a higher cost to grow or produce the material, but you have the transportation cost,” Estes said. “If I’m getting flowers from South America or Thailand, Hawaii or Europe, everything is impacted by the 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 beautiful float for the Rose Parade,” Estes said. “I’m striving to find different material, both building and decorating the float, but I still need to use steel, and plywood, and I still need bolts and screws.”

He’s refused to make changes that would affect the quality of the float, he said, such as using fewer flowers or material that would affect its look and quality. Since 1994, Estes said, his floats have won the Sweepstakes Trophy, considered the parade’s top award, in all but two years.

“I don’t want my quality to suffer,” he said, which mean’s it’s costing him more to build. “So I’m running a bad business model.”

This year, the Sierra Madre’s float will feature a “papa bear” riding a scooter at the park, while his three cubs climb up a tree. Volunteers and workers are making each cup of material count.

Sappington has been shopping for bags of cinnamon to cover 210 square feet of the bear’s surface and, since beginning construction, she said the cost for the 5-pound bags she’s purchased have increased nearly twofold.

“Flowers have gone up too, there’s no doubt about that,” she said, so she’s looked at options such as using fewer flowers per square foot. “It’s just being innovative and trying new things.”

For savings, she shops for deals online or heads out anywhere within driving distance to get more bang for her buck. She’s retired, she said, so she’s happy to do it. When it comes to working with flowers, however, it’s hard to know what to expect.

“Flowers I have to over-order because you never know how they’re going to come in, or sometimes they don’t look quite right,” she said.

On the bright side, the association can sell the unused flowers and use the money for next year’s float.

It’s a tough job, Sappington said, but Sierra Madre’s floats have won 15 awards in the last 16 years.

“We’re just looking forward to 2023 being a little gentler,” she said.