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Inside the Minnesota State Fair with Jim Sinclair

8/27/2009

By Matt Cook

Photo courtesy of Matt Cook

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MCW is covering the 2009 Minnesota State Fair extensively with live updates, interviews and news from the fair.

Jim Sinclair is the Deputy General Manager of the fair and the key player in producing the event's independent midway. Over the past 15 years, he has selected the rides, games and food stands to be presented each year, developed a ticketing system for rides and games and clings to a no unlimited ride ticket policy.

Jim is a sought after speaker at state and national fair conventions and his advice and views are esteemed throughout the industry.

MCW caught up with Jim prior to the Minnesota State Fair's opening and we asked him questions about the fair and it's independent midway.

MCW: Many fairs think about producing an independent midway. Few pull it off and even fewer do it well. Photo By Matt CookWhat does a fair need to think about when considering an independent midway?

JS: Mounting an independent carnival midway presentation isn't "rocket science", but does require research into midway operations, asking and answering many questions, assessment of exposition goals, financial "due diligence", analysis of a fair,s support structure for such an undertaking (financial, political, board, internal staff, etc.), the correct set of circumstances (i.e. attendance, gross revenue potential, etc.), a staff eager to explore fresh ideas and integrate the associated labors into their routine, support service availability (within the industry, the local community and internally), a physical site with amenities adequate to accommodate such an operation and a willingness to do the work.

Producing an independent midway may not be for everyone, but it does present genuine opportunity for both fairs and those in the outdoor amusement/carnival industry. It has much to offer those confident of their ability to take control of this unique enterprise to: 1. create a safe, aesthetically pleasant environment that offers fair guests reasonable value and pricing, 2. choose the quality and "mix" of attractions, 3. develop a strong public image responsive to fair guests, 4. determine with whom they wish to do business in order to insure that midway business is conducted in a safe, ethical manner, and 5. establish a relationship between the fair and its midway partners marked by opportunity for growth and prosperity under reasonable contractual terms designed to share both risk and reward.

MCW: Has the independent midway system been good for you and why?

JS: The benefits an independent midway has brought to the Minnesota State Fair are numerous, and not solely monetary, though we acknowledge appreciable growth in this area. 2009 will be the 15th year we have produced an independent midway and from the very beginning the response of our guest audience has been outstanding and their comments, as well as their continued support of the endeavor, would indicate that we have exceeded our initial goals.

Presentation of an independent midway gave us control and made it possible to offer our audience reasonable pricing and high entertainment value consistent with our general philosophy that if we take care of the customer, the rest (including the "bottom line") will take care of itself.

What's more, it has helped us foster working relationships with our midway partners marked by good quality, value and public service, create an atmosphere wherein all parties involved experience balance and equity on the "playing field", implement partnership terms designed with sensible measures of shared risk and reward sustained through reasonable privileges and contract terms, and form business relationships predicated on prevailing loyalty, trust and unity of purpose.

MCW: What are some of the major challenges producing an independent midway?

JS: Our challenges are in many ways much the same as those experienced by the outdoor amusement sector of our business; i.e. rising expenses and an inability to correspondingly increase prices, competition for customers, their time and disposable entertainment dollars, the ongoing uncertainties of weather, the economy and changes impacting the world around us, equipment and operation costs such as generators, fuel and labor, governmental regulation/oversight which keeps expanding, etc.

What's more, our guest,s expectations, founded on the high quality, service and experience they receive from other industries have set the standard fairs and our amusement business partners must attain very high; which places upon us the responsibility for seeing to it that what we present fair guests is the best it can possibly be in every respect.

MCW: Do you inevitably have to make deals for ride packages ie. Ride company want to bring in new super-spectacular but in order to do so he must bring a Tilt and kiddy ride?

JS: When both rides and games operate on the same centralized/standardized ticket (no cash) system together, as they do at the Minnesota State Fair, sound reasoning exists for not permitting those who present rides to also present games, and vice versa. Therefore, we have a "rides or games only" policy.

What's more, there is also merit to limiting the number of attractions presented by each ride, show, game or concession provider such that the attractions presented by each receive their close oversight and attention. This also places everyone on a more equal footing and creates a more "level field of competition", whether an operator has six attractions or only two, and generates a higher degree of cooperation and support among the attraction providers.

That said, we also understand that those providing rides or games on our midway/Kidway are in business and need not only to cover their expenses, but are entitled to a reasonable profit for their efforts. Therefore, we work with all of our partner operators to create meaningful packages of ride or game equipment that will give them the opportunity to enjoy a reasonable financial return on their investment in doing business at the Minnesota State Fair.

MCW: How about games and food? Do you get the best of the best? What do you look for in a good operator?

JS: Food/beverage concessions in our midway and Kidway areas are managed exactly the same in every respect as such concessions placed elsewhere on our fairgrounds and we hold them all to the same high operating standards. 247 licenses have been issued granting food/beverage concession operation privileges at the 2009 Minnesota State Fair (7 of which are located in our midway area and 4 in the Kidway). As with any group of this size, there are those that rise to the top and those that fall to the bottom. However, over the years we have paid extremely close attention to product quality, variety and value, geographic balance in placing like products about the fairgrounds to avoid oversaturation or excessive product duplication, as well as operator professionalism, performance and aesthetic presentation, and feel very fortunate to have a working affiliation with the group of food/beverage concessionaires we have operating at the Minnesota State Fair.

MCW: How have games in particular done over the past several years? Are they holding their own under your ticket system?

JS: Taking into account the annual fluctuations in exposition attendance, we believe that games have consistently performed well at the Minnesota State Fair largely due to the incorporation of games into our midway promotions and the attention we insist that game operators pay to providing good value and a positive guest experience. In addition, we believe their adherence to our standards related to minimum verifiable stock throw, game pricing, standardization of prizes, sizes and their wholesale cost, elimination of customer confusion in prize displays, limitation of prize trade-ups/upgrades, simplification of prize trade-ups/upgrades by elimination of "double wins", etc. has been good for game operations.

MCW: What about Pay one Price days? Good or bad for the midway?

JS: We believe that to provide good value to fair guests, a "level playing field" between rides and games, create an equitable business environment for attraction operators, as well as to broaden the appeal and strength of midway promotions, all fair midway promotions should involve not only rides and shows, but games of skill and other concessions.

The Minnesota State Fair does not bundle gate admission with on-grounds promotions, e.g. a "Super Pass" that includes fair admission, unlimited ride privileges, etc., nor do we offer any unlimited ride wristband or "pay-one-price" promotions. P-O-P's make it difficult to include games/concessions in promotions, which makes the promotion less strong, and, without a substantial investment in technology, there is no real auditable, transparent method for accurately reconciling promotion period operation revenues per ride. What's more, we have found that attraction operators generally dislike wristband/P.O.P promotions for the preceding reason and P-O-P's tend to destroy the perceived value of the carnival product, don't provide enough monetary return in the face of rising operating costs and provide little incentive for operators to compete for business on any level.

While the Minnesota State Fair does not offer any "pay-one-price" promotions, it does reduce the number of tickets taken at attractions during promotion periods, which has made including games in promotions quite simple. Furthermore, we consistently allot less that 50% of midway/Kidway operating hours to promotion periods so that promotion period pricing is truly "special" and does not become the standard price, which drives the value proposition down and compromises the promotion.

MCW: What are you hearing about the economy's effect on fairs?

JS: Where the weather has been cooperative, fairs providing good value and a positive quest experience generally seem to be having a good year.

MCW: For the independent midway, who provides power junction boxes, etc?

JS: Over the 15 years we have been producing an independent carnival midway (since 1995) the Minnesota State Fair has invested in its own equipment for midway presentation including ticket boxes, an electrical distribution system (i.e. junction boxes, cable, cable covers, etc.) and guest comforts (e.g. benches/picnic tables, shade tents/umbrellas, plants/planters, etc.) Generators are rented from a local source with a national network of support.

MCW: Do you hire additional staff during fair time for the midway? Who are
they and what role do they play?

JS: A critical part of establishing an independent midway operation and a key to its success is assembling a cadre of qualified staff with the expertise and ethics to help properly manage a midway presentation. We're pleased to have the following on our fair-time team assisting Nikki Hines and myself:

Mike and Shawn Sandefur = Midway/Kidway Rides and Shows Team
B.J. Grace and Chris Walden = Games, Guest and Operator Relations Team
David Nixon = Kidway Guest and Operator Relations Team
Tom Atkins and Bill Ritter = Midway Electrical Coordination
International Leisure Consulting, Inc. (Joe Bixler) = Safety/Inspection Contractor

Chris Walden and Jim Sinclair (l to r)
Chris Walden and Jim Sinclair of the Minnesota State Fair (Left to Right)




Click here to view photos of the 2009 Minnesota State Fair in the MCW Photo Gallery!

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