Soon after Independence Day, one of the largest independent midways in the U.S. may begin losing its independence. In June, the Florida State Fair announced it would be accepting RFPs from ride companies seeking to be the new sole midway provider for its 2015 fair.
At the 2014 Florida State Fair, there were 110 rides - the same amount as the anniversary of the fair; Florida State Fair promoted its 110th anniversary in 2014, and the organizers of the Florida State Fair Authority (FSFA) contracted with 15-20 midway companies, according to Charles "Chuck" Pesano, executive director of the FSFA, including some of the largest carnival companies as well as several smaller, independent providers.
The authority is now in the midst of a process that explores whether there's a one-stop-shopping alternative for its 2015 edition, although Pesano is says the move is more an examination of the current options available than a mandate for the fair abolish its independent midway. In other words, a single midway provider for the Florida State Fair is still far from a fait accompli. "We're testing the waters," said Pesano. "If you are not willing to change, you are not willing to get better."
The deadline for midways to send proposals to the FSFA was June 24th. Pesano said there are three possible outcomes: 1) A sole midway provider; 2) retaining the status quo - keeping its Midway independent - i.e., the fair contracting with multiple ride operators; or, 3) a hybrid model where a single provider is sub-contracting with other operators.
Open to Possibilities
"We are looking with an open mind to see if there are significant advantages to make a recommendation of one or another," said Pesano. "We feel there might be significant advantages going to a single midway provider, so we are exploring that as well as other possibilities to see what makes the most sense."
In June, the FSFA sent out notification of an Invitation to Negotiate (ITN); Deggeller Attractions, Mitchell Bros. Amusements, North American Midway Entertainment, Reithoffer Shows, Strates Shows, and Wade Shows were the companies that responded to the ITN, and a meeting was subsequently held between the bidders and the FSFA. "We invited them all down to a pre-bid meeting and we walked through the fairgrounds and let them know what we expected, "said Pesano.
Two companies, Reithoffer Shows and Wade Shows sent in final responses to the fair by the deadline of June 24.
The still tentative timeline for the process is that by July 3rd the top three finalists will be announced, beginning what is likely to be a meticulous analysis of the specific proposals, accompanied by rounds of negotiations. This stage is expected to conclude on July 14th. When exactly a decision by the FSFA must be made is still undetermined, but no later than Labor Day seems like a reasonable deadline. "We want to get it wrapped up so the ride operators who have contracted with us will have time to make other arrangements," said Pesano.
Regardless of what the FSFA decides the 2015 Florida State Fair midway format to be, the mix of vendors will likely be different than those who made up its 2014 midway. All the previous midway FSFA contracts ended with the 2014 fair. This both makes for a clean break with the independent midway tradition of the fair and removes potential obstacles for whatever new 2015 midway provider format is decided upon. However, if the FSFA selects the status quo or some form of hybrid midway, sufficient time will be needed to begin an entirely new round of contracting with rider operators for 2015.
If a single Midway provider does win the contract, Pesano said it will have a term of three years. "We want to give their brand the opportunity to grow the midway," said Pesano.
Multi-Million Dollar Midway
The Florida State Fair is one of the most high-profile fairs in the Fair industry. The 110 year old fair (it will be 111 in 2015), generates millions in revenue. It is one of highest grossing mid-winter events in the industry, with midway revenues hovering in the neighborhood of $4 million for the past five years. According to the FSFA, midway revenue was $3,808,768 in 2014, but $4,251,189 in 2013. The fair's most recent midway revenue peak was in 2011, hitting $4,479,388. But that high followed a low of $2,903,958 in 2010.
The softening of the midway revenue in 2014 was attributed to the combination of unseasonably cool weather, some rainy days and a teenage rampaging incident that forced the fair to close early on a Friday and garnered negative publicity. Midway revenue decreased 10.4 percent from 2013, but at the time Pesano pointed out: "Day 8 and Day 11 showed significant increases and Day 10 was a record breaking Saturday regarding Midway revenue. Per Capita Midway gross revenue had increased from 2013."
In addition, due to its February dates, the Florida State Fair is one of the first major fairs of calendar year, and as a result, the entire fair industry pays attention to this 11-day event. The Florida State Fair has become a test-fair for the industry, a preview of rides and other attractions of upcoming trends in the business. "If we go with a single operator midway, they will have to be able to handle the industry spotlight," he said.
Single Vs. Independence
Pesano cautions that accepting RFPs for a single provider midway is not the seismic shift in the Florida State Fair midway that it may seem. "The fair has had single midway providers before," he said. "The last time was in 2008, and as I understand it was that situation went on for five years, and there has been periods before then, in the 20th century, where we were independent for years, then a single provider for a few years."
Nonetheless, Pesano is not minimizing the challenge of transitioning back to a single provider midway for next year. "I believe these past seven years has been the longest we've been an Independent Midway and there are many advantages to being independent that we may not want to give up."
Key to the evaluation of any proposal will be the bottom line of the fair. A single provider must substantiate how the fair will be more profitable with it in charge. "We anticipate that in the proposals we will see potential cost savings, and there may be some cost-savings for us by just dealing with one midway company for everything," said Pesano.
But monetary gain is not the only issue the FSFA will evaluate. "Right now, we do have a hodge-podge of ride operators, and if you have one ride operator, there's a consistency of décor, all the same benches and comfort features," said Pesano. " We are looking at how the overall design and layout will be improved by the carnival companies and what they bring to the table."
A major change in fair management played a role in the FSFA considering a new midway format. Fred Brown, the Director of Operations for close to 30 years, has announcement retirement, and according to Pesano, he was the key liaison between fair management and midway vendors. "Fred is hanging up his spurs," said Pesano. "He's been in charge of the midway. We looked at this transition in management as an opportunity to consider new possibilities for that job description. It might more efficient if we streamline the process for the new director to just one midway contract."
Pesano also emphasizes that experience of fairgoers will not be diminished no matter what midway format the FSFA ultimately selects. "We are not under any pressure to change," said Pesano. "After all the evaluations are done, the most important thing is that we still have the best damn carnival in the South. Our goal is to maintain that. Whether it is an independent midway or one company, this is not a downgrade."