New rides, upgraded midway amenities and new fairs highlight the 2014 season for Big Rock Amusements. Matt McDonagh, founder of the company, forecasts an upbeat year for both his company and the fair industry in general, emphasizing the viability of his current business model, based on traditional industry values but still able to adapt to changing times. "The important thing is hard work, and running the carnival like a business," he said. "We listen to the young people in our organization."
McDonagh brings a unique perspective to the midway, being younger (43 years old) than many of his competitors, he has a Gen-X willingness to try new things, but that attitude is seasoned by growing up in his father's business, McDonagh's Amusements. According to the company's website, his experience resulted in "Matt's emphasis on running a quality, family operation" but he is also aware that the business "must change with the times."
One of the more noticeable changes is that the midway provider is becoming more of the marketing responsibility, including social media, with the fairs. "Communication is more immediate, the kids are coming out to the fair and instantly they are putting out pictures and communicating with their friends," said McDonagh. "We are expanding in that area. Our Facebook Page gets a lot of traffic and we are doing more marketing and social media in conjunction with the fair."
Those FB followers and other fairgoers will certainly be impressed by the new ride additions the company will showcase in 2014. Big Rock will soon feature a newly refurbished Sky Wheel - which are actually a combination of two Sky Wheels that were completely reconditioned then decked out with Denny's LED lights. "It really looks slick," McDonagh said. Although the project will not be finished for the 2014 season, Big Rock will be using a sky wheel from Pat Guthrie's Gold Medal Shows.
The most noticeable Midway change for Big Rock is an upgrade and expansion of their children rides. The company added four rides from McNair Amusements, a Zamperla Samba Balloons, Speedway, Raiders and a Sizzler Ride. "We are busy refurbishing the equipment we bought at the end of the season, said McDonagh. "We have added to our arsenal of rides, and are focused on improving our kiddie-land offerings."
The company has completely rebuilt the Speedway and balloons and they are currently painting the Sizzler. Bobby Myers is refurbishing the Raiders.
Other additions set to go live in 2014 include a refurbished Popcorn Wagon, 10 more aluminum benches, new ATM enclosures, a new bunkhouse and a reconditioned generator, "we are stripping it down, completing refurbishing it, with new fresh air intake louvers and new sound attenuated enclosures. This will our expand our distribution of energy."
Big Rock Amusement prides itself on being a family organization, values represented in both the wholesomeness of its midway and the management structure of this traveling carnival. Jill McCormack runs the food concessions, Mike her husband, heads up the maintenance department. The Big Rock Amusements game concessions are headed by another husband/wife team of Andrew and Stella Preston, and in 2014 there will be new canopies for the games as well as a new Bungee Jump. "the game concessions have not grown like other areas, but if the operator keeps it family-oriented, and has good family games, where everyone can get a prize, you can still get a decent business from game concessions."
Other key Big Rock team members include Justin Goodell, Dave Dwyer, Burton Porter, Ted Fraley, Lacey Salter, Don Morley and Bryan Burch.
McDonagh believes that DOT (Department of Transportation) and DOL (Department of Labor) regulations have become more burdensome, which along with rising fuel prices, "has meant that expenses are rising for our business."
With selected new rides, a renewed highlighting of the children's area and upgrades to the family-friendly amenities, "our numbers were up in '12 and again in '13, so we can't complain. We are seeing more families on the Midway and we are giving them a good value and experience, so I expect our numbers will be up again in '14."
Of course, he qualifies that expectation with a "weather willing". One other factor that, like the weather, no one has control over yet can still can make or break a season, is the economy. Has McDonagh seen any improvement? "Not really, the economy is still soft," said McDonagh. "I don't think there will be a change in the economy until we have a new president. But people still spend on the fair."
Big Rock Amusements picked up two new Michigan fairs, the Sanilac County 4-H Fair in Sandusky, and the Oakland County Fair in Davisburg. Although he declined to say the number of fairs, festivals and other events that will comprise his 2014 season, he said "I am very excited about our events this year. We have very quality fairs."
McDonagh said his season begins Mid-March. Big Rock Amusements is ready to embark on its circuit, with some new rides, an improved midway, and an expanded social media presence. Regardless of the challenges of rising costs and a sluggish recovery, McDonagh is both optimistic about the coming season and enthusiastic about the business where he has spent his life. "The fair industry remains strong, and if you do a good job, keep a clean and well lit midway, and keep a good crew, your numbers will be up," he said. "People come to the fair in good times and bad. County fairs are part of American culture, they are still very popular."