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Ideal Rides weathering the tough economy
Regulations, government pressures mount
By Don Muret
Andy Schoendienst has a message for the federal government: Let the small businessman do his job.
Tighter labor and trucking regulations are making it more difficult for carnivals to find good help and transport their equipment over the road, said Schoendienst, co-owner of Luehrs' Ideal Rides. The Belleville, Ill. show, a 20-ride operation, completed its 55th season in 2011, playing dates in Illinois, Indiana and Missouri.
The Department of Transportation is cracking down on trucking companies "that are not good operators," Schoendienst said.
As a result, shows with sterling reputations such as Luehrs' are getting "handcuffed" by stricter over-the-road regulations. Inspections and checkpoints are tied to a points system that in some cases "counts as much as a DUI" for a minor infraction, Schoendienst said.
In addition, the Department of Labor is still considering whether to approve a potential increase in wages paid to non-skilled international workers under the H2B Visa program. The move could hurt many shows that may not be able to afford to pay those higher wages. Luehrs' Ideal Rides employs about 17 students from Mexico and South Africa and they are consistently among the hardest workers on the lot, according to Schoendienst.
"They have a good work ethic, they're conscientious, they pay attention in training," he said. "If you get American labor to do the job, it's not of the same quality. They're often not reliable and quit on the job. That is the part the government doesn't understand. Our carnival conducts drug testing and we know [the international workers] are drug free. They have clean background checks too. The wage increase could knock out this program."
Schoendienst is already having discussions with some of the carnival's fairs about cutting back on midway hours to make it affordable for both parties. Many fairs on Luehrs' route have already reduced their hours of operation, opening at 5 p.m. to 6 p.m. and closing at 11.
"The days of opening early and closing late are over, especially for the county fairs," Schoendienst said. "They are just now drawing the attendance like they used to. We had to drop one fair this past year and it was simply a matter of economics."
The same is true for the lack of carnivals buying new rides. As the economy continues its slow rebound, shows continue to hold the line on new purchases. Kiddie attractions alone now routinely cost $250,000 to $300,000, making it tough to justify the cost of a brand new piece of equipment, Schoendienst said.
Luehrs' Ideal Rides has bucked the trend to a certain extent, buying a few new pieces over the past two to three years, a Moser drop ride, an Owen's Beach Party, a Magic Maze and a Wiggle Worm. New for 2012 will be the African Twist, a spinning coaster from Wisdom that will replace the show's Orient Express.
To combat higher fuel prices, Luehrs' is using smaller generators for setup and teardown. In the long run, it saves money, Schoendienst said.
The best ride promotion are dollar days, $1 for one ticket per ride. People are always shopping for a bargain, he said.
One constant for Luehrs is the family running the business. Lorelei, Andy's wife, runs the office. Jean and Joe Clair manage the show's food concessions. Lorelei and Jean are the daughters of the late Hub Luehrs, who founded the show in 1957.
Their kids are involved with the show as well. The Clair's daughter Kristin is married to Chris Atkins, the son of Tom Atkins of Mighty Thomas Carnival.
Andrew Schoendienst, Andy and Lorelei's son, handles all the game concessions. Andrew has a journalism degree from the University of Missouri.
A few years ago, the carnival came in handy for two of Andrew's fellow J-school buddies who couldn't find a job, his father said. Andy offered them work and they accepted, to the chagrin of their parents who spent $30,000 a year putting them through school. Investing all that money in an education only to see their kids start their careers in the traveling amusement industry wasn't what they had in mind, the elder Schoendienst said.
"They had never had a chance to work with the public and I think it was a valuable experience for them," he said.
Andrew Schoendienst decided the carnival business was good enough for him. Besides running the games, he is responsible for booking 13 rides and some food stands at the Arkansas State Fair with Deggeller Attractions.
Other key personnel are office manager Jimmy Luehrs, Hub's nephew, and electrician Michael Snow, employed with the show for the past 25 to 30 years.
Moving forward, Schoendienst hopes for drier weather early in the year in 2012. In April of this year, Luehrs' was set up a quarter-mile from where a tornado struck the St. Louis airport.
"We didn't lose one piece of canvas," he said.