A better trained, more professional industry, especially on the frontline is the top agenda for the new Chairman of the Outdoor Amusement Business Association (OABA), E.J. Dean. A third generation carnival owner, Dean is President and Operations Manager of Fiesta Shows, one of the oldest and largest New England-based carnival companies.
Dean has not only grown up on midways and fairs, but has long been involved with the OABA on various committees before stepping into the one year term as association leader. But ironically, at 41, he's younger than many who have taken on this role, and he brings a Generation X attitude that is tech-savvy, upbeat and forward looking. The fair and carnival industry had a strong year in 2016, and carnival companies - helped in part by the strong dollar - have upgraded their
ride inventories with new spectacular attractions, but at the same time, issues such as stabilizing the H-2B workforce threaten the long-term well being of the industry unless remedied.
In a wide-ranging interview conducted by email and phone, Dean was surprisingly candid about industry issues as well as enlightening, especially on the H-2B problems some companies experienced so far. He brings a refreshing clarity about how the role the OABA plays in the industry has evolved. A carnival company no longer just brings rides into the local fairground once year, but creates a professional midway, akin to amusement park, with an ever increasing sophistication in rides, amenities, and aesthetics. As OABA Chairman, Dean is committed to raising and maintaining professional standards, especially those of the front-line workers, creating a best-practice standard all midway companies can attain.
Carnival Warehouse: What kind of year did the fair industry experience in 2016?
E. J. Dean: It seems that fairs, overall, have had successful year. You can look at the fair attendance reports from the East Coast to West Coast and see steady and sometimes remarkable growth.
CW: Was business up or down for carnival companies?
Dean: My sense from talking with fellow OABA Board members that business was up, however the challenge is that expenses are equally on the rise, if not greater than growth. The leaner, more efficient carnivals are the ones that can truly benefit moving forward. As we know, having their compliment of seasonal, foreign labor is a major factor in our business.
CW: Is consumer confidence back, are people spending again?
Dean: I believe it is slowly on the rise. If nothing else the consumer knows where they stand (job, expenses, etc.) and is more comfortable enjoying their discretionary income. I am hopeful that the new Administration and their emphasis on American economic growth will help, as well.
CW: What are the trends in rides that you are seeing?
Dean: I believe that family rides are still the bread and butter of our industry, when you factor what that demographic offers (higher spending, less violence) to the bottom line. However, to remain competitive many shows are constantly looking for that next great thing to set them apart from the competition. With the Euro in decline since last fall I think there are great opportunities to be had in bringing some very unique equipment to the States.
CW: What 2017 trend should fairs and carnival companies be most aware of?
Dean: One word: Efficiency. The margins are too small to be wasteful and careless.
CW: What worries you most about the 2017 season?
Dean: The many operators that will not get their trained, legal, H-2B seasonal guest workforce.
CW: What is the OABA doing to attract younger professionals into the industry?
Dean: Our Strategic Planning Committee has discussed this in the past and we have reached out to younger aged men and women, in the mobile amusement industry. We are seeing more and more step up to get involved with our Board. OABA's members are family, generational, small businesses, with lots of opportunities for the next generation. By the way, our younger board members learn from the senior board members when they are interacting. It's a good thing.
CW: What is the most surprising thing about being the Chairman of the OABA?
Dean: I am getting a better appreciation of what our small staff does for our national trade association, and all the wide range of member activities they are involved with, daily. My goal is make sure our Committee Chairs engage their Committee members to help provide more education, member services and greater advocacy for our industry.
CW: What are your top agenda items as the new head of the OABA?
Dean: My 3 main goals are: (1) Develop an on-line training program that will train our front-line staff on the many aspects of their job (inspection, operating, customer service, etc.) consistently; (2)Broaden the industry's involvement within the organization. This will be done by continue to solidify relationships with our sister organizations (IAFE and NICA, plus the various, active showmen's organizations in the U.S. and our industry safety training organizations, such as NAARSO, AIMS, Northwest Showmen's Safety Seminar etc.); and (3) Get our membership to know their members of Congress and engage more on our political front, especially on H-2B visa matters.
CW: What aspect of the H-2B visa program will the OABA be working and lobbying to change?
Dean: A long-term solution. We have been getting by with patches for better part of a decade. The program's volatility and constant uncertainty makes it very hard to for operators to plan one year from the next. We most likely will not get everything that we want, but knowing that we have a long-term workable program will allow the industry to improve and help our Fairs. The carnival industry is very unique, because of the mobile nature of our business, it is harder for us to find permanent labor. Only a certain percentage of American workers want to do this type of work and live the type of lifestyle it requires.
CW: Would change mean just raising the cap?
Dean: Maybe that's part of it, but we could also have the cap fluctuate with the unemployment rate. Now it is fixed, and when unemployment is low, we have a harder time finding American workers. The cap is now at 66,000 and even with the Returning Workers Exemption (RWE), that brings the number higher, to a modest 80,000. We are not talking big numbers when you look at the American labor force, and the mobile amusement industry is not the only industry using the program.
CW: Are you confident that the mobile amusement companies will get all their H-2B workers they need and in time?
Dean: Unfortunately, I know that wont be the case. Some colleagues missed the first cap and some more will likely miss the second as well. Being from New England (Go Patriots!) the need for seasonal H-2B labor in the summer is strong to support Cape Cod tourism, as well as the coastal towns of Maine.
CW: What is different this year at this time (first quarter) regarding H-2B than last year at this same time?
Dean: That we didn't get the Returning Workers Exemption (RWE). That is the main cause for so many to not get H-2B labor this year. We did not get it included this year's fiscal, only 33,000 visas available for the two quarters. My season opened the last week of March, without any H-2B, but the H-2B labor arrived the following week, so I barely had enough people for the start of the season. Over 10 years ago, our industry was never near the cap, but as labor has tightened up, that makes what the cap should be more important.
CW: Are you confident that the H-2B program will not be caught up in the anti-immigration rhetoric and policies of the new administration?
Dean: Confident, no, but vigilant in educating congress and the public that it is about seasonal jobs. We cannot ensure that it does not, but the only way that the OABA and our industry could be successful is by reaching out to their individual Congressional Representatives and Senators to explain just how vital and import this program is and what it means to their constituents.
CW: What is the status of the OABA training program?
Dean: We have had many discussions with other organizations and companies that potentially will be part of it. One such partnership is with NAARSO, which will assist in the development of the on-line course content and certify it towards its CEU requirements. I want the best of the best of our workers when it comes to their training.
CW: When will it go live and how can users access it?
Dean: I am optimistic that the training program will be live this season. Access will be very easy. Each company that signs on to use the program will have their own individual access point.
CW: What are the objectives of the new program?
Dean: The first objective is to design classes for our front-line operators. We want to ensure that that there is a set minimum standard for our front-line workers. These classes will discuss setup and teardown procedures and safety, proper operating and inspection processes, as well as customer service; and because the OABA encompasses all aspects of the mobile amusement industry we are looking to have courses not just on rides, but food and games, and guest relations, as well. Once those have been established we will look to expand the program by getting into specific topics at the micro level.
CW: Many states now have higher minimum wages - how is this affecting carnival companies?
Dean: Being from Massachusetts I have personally witnessed a 22 percent increase in the minimum hourly wage in the past 2 years. With revenue not increasing at the same rates it has required some changes in other areas, such as hours of operation and the amount of equipment on the road to offset it. The only guidance that I can offer is that carnivals need to keep a close eye on their labor usage and ensure that they are getting maximum return for it. A $15.00 mandated minimum wage cannot be sustained by carnivals who are not operating efficiently.
CW: What OABA committee will be the busiest in 2017 and why?
Dean: I would have to say it will be a toss up between the Education Committee and Government Relations Committee. The Education Committee as they have a huge task ahead of them to ensure that an easy to use product, with wanted content, is developed for the industry. The Government Relations Committee will have the responsibility of ensuring that members of this industry put in the necessary effort to be successful in Congress.
CW: What are you most looking forward to in 2017?
Dean: I am most look forward to seeing a new optimism for the economy. With the Dow at all time highs and jobs coming back to America, that our industry will truly reap from its benefits.
CW: What do you still love about the business?
Dean: Everyday is different.