After a decade of running one of the largest independent midways in the U.S. fair industry, the Florida State Fair has announced an unprecedented midway makeover.
Instead of devising a typical solo-midway operator contract, the fair has created a hybrid midway, with one midway provider operating the majority - but far from all - of the rides and concessions, while also managing the entire midway.
Wade Shows, a Florida-based midway company who only a few weeks ago won a bitterly contested bidding battle for the New York State Fair midway, was awarded the Florida State Fair contract, which is for an initial three years but includes a three year option.
Wade Shows, long a part of the Florida State Fair midway, will take on the unusual role of midway coordinator in 2015.
"The hybrid format doesn't discourage me a bit," said Frank Zaitshik of Wade Shows. "Collaboration is not new to us. We want to make the best rides available to customers and we collaborate with many companies at several fairs."
Announced on July 28, the decision answers the question of what one of the largest midways in the industry - 117 rides - will look like when its February fair kicks off the 2015 fair season.
In June, the Florida State Fair Authority (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 request and a meeting was subsequently held between the bidders and the FSFA.
Only two companies: Reithoffer Shows and Wade Shows, submitted the final proposal.
Each proposal could include one or both of two options: one for a larger number of company-owned rides, more like a traditional midway and the other one as the manager of a hybrid midway with more independents.
This second format stipulated the company would bring in more than half - approximately 50-65 percent of the midway rides - then subcontract with other ride companies.
All the rides - as well as food and game concessions - will have to meet standards set by the governing board of the FSFA.
In addition, the board holds final approval power over rides and/or ride operators who contract through Wade Shows for this new midway provider.
One of the paramount issues the FSFA emphasized throughout the entire process was that all midway options must be addressed. "When we put out the ITN, we wanted any participant who wanted to respond to give an us both an A and B, option. One for if they got the entire midway, rides, games and food concessions; and the other for a hybrid where they controlled more than half the rides, with the rest of the rides being provided by other operators," said Chuck Pesano, Executive Director of the Florida State Fair Authority. "The two proposals helped us determine which final midway made sense for the Florida State Fair."
In the end, only Reithoffer Shows and Wade Shows submitted proposals.
While Pesano didn't expect all six companies to submit proposals, "I did think three or four would, so I was surprised by only two. But both proposals were great and it was very competitive."
The fair seems to have opted for a best of both worlds scenario. Allowing other operators means the variety of rides the fair is known for can be sustained, but with Wade Shows in the captain's chair, the FSFA alleviates the responsibility and cost of midway management.
As with the independent midway, the fair has ultimate control, with the FSFA retaining full authority over "who does get selected," said Pesano. "We can ensure that we have the best rides, and we don't duplicate any rides. Operators can still approach the board if they want their ride on the midway, but all the subcontracting will be handled by Wade."
Pesano added, "Ultimately our evaluation of the proposals, led to the hybrid mode. We didn't want to jeopardize the diversity of rides in our midway, and we overwhelmingly want to ensure the high quality of our midway, so we selected the hybrid model."
Wade's footprint at the Florida State Fair will more than double - in 2014, the company operated 31 of the 117 rides. The new hybrid arrangement means Wade will operate 50-65 percent of the rides at the fair, leaving about 40 rides available for subcontracting, according to Pesano.
The new contract contains no stipulation about who has to provide rides. "Any operator and their rides have to be approved by the board," said Pesano. "Just because an operator was at this year's fair does not guarantee they will be at next years or will have a contract".
Pesano also expects the new contract will mean less total operators. "Just by the fact that Wade will have more rides, it will mean less operators." The 2014 Florida State Fair contracted with 16 ride operators for its midway, a number Pesano expects to be slashed by at least half.
For the Florida State Fair, the expectation is that this new affiliation with Wade brings significant cost savings over operating an independent midway . There were nearly a dozen temporary and part-time workers that the Authority hired just for the midway. That labor force is now the responsibility of Wade Shows. "We are losing some of our expenses with this new agreement," said Pesano, which range from the cost of widening the new midway to fewer golf cart rentals.
Another cost and often headache the Florida State Fair has transferred is ticketing. "Wade will manage and operate our wireless scanning and ticketing system. It is a system they already have," he said.
Pesano said the comptroller for the Florida State Fair estimated the total cost savings for the fair is $1.29 million.
The new midway format will change the job description of Director of Operations. One of the instigating factors for the fair to consider a midway change is that Fred Brown, the Director of Operations for 30 years, is retiring this year. By outsourcing the day-to-day management and overall contracting - tasks that were the previous responsibility of Brown as head of an independent midway - internal changes are needed at the fair.
"When we replace Fred, that person will not need midway management skills," he said.
In addition to overt cost savings, there are other benefits for the fair in the hybrid midway contract. Wade Shows will be increasing the amount and improving the functionality of "patron comfort stations," including adding new umbrellas and other amenities.
Wade Shows will also assist in the marketing of the fair, according to Pesano, and in an unusual step - will be a "major" sponsor of the fair, the cost of which is about $100,000.
Wade is also investing approximately $100,000 in new canvases, custom for the Florida State Fair, creating a more uniform look to the midway "We are real excited about the new uniform look," said Pesano. "With so many different operators, our midway looked like a menagerie with all the different colors. Now with the common colors we have a homogenous and comfortable look, bringing us a step or two towards the theme parks Florida is famous for. This atmosphere people will be enjoying more, and ultimately stay longer at the fair."
The investment in color-coordinated canopies was worth it, according to Zaitshik. "The game and food concessionaires couldn't afford to make this purchase."
Although Wade Shows property, the fair will select the canvas and uniform colors, allowing the fair to also brand the midway. "We are very excited about the marketing possibilities," said Pesano. "The midway will be now an extension of the Florida State Fair brand."
Enhanced midway amenities, including wider entrances, improved comfort stations and a uniformed appearance, Zaitshik considers standard operating procedure at Wade. "There are multiple opportunities to generate enthusiasm and excitement among the customers, and that is translated into increased revenue," said Zaitshik. "We raise ride revenue by these same strategies and we're applying those in Florida, the only difference is that instead of Wade Shows taking the credit, we are making it a Florida State Fair midway and giving them the credit."
Expanding his presence at the Florida State Fair and stepping into the management chair for the entire midway is an achievement with personal significance for Zaitshik. As a young man in the business in 1980, he remembers driving by the Florida State Fair and seeing the grand spectacle of four sky wheels spinning in the horizon and making a promise to play this premier event in the industry. He came close in 1991 by operating rides at the Brandon Balloon Festival, which may not have been at the fair but at least was held on the same fairgrounds.
The next year he met his goal. From 1992 through 1997, when the Florida State Fair operated an independent midway, he was one of the anchor ride operators. In 2005, after eight years of having a single company midway, the Florida State Fair Authority once again resumed its independent midway format. Wade Shows was a major part of the 21st century midway.
Remembering that history with the Florida State Fair, becoming the new midway coordinator, "is a natural progression," said Zaitshik. "I feel I've earned my wings. I have always been very communicative with the fair, they know the quality of my presentation and our history together now goes a long way back. I will be supplying generators, extra ticket boxes and new equipment and new landscaping, but that's not why I got this contract. It's my willingness to communicate and cooperate with the fair."
The Florida State Fair get is one of the highest profile contracts for a midway provider, a fact not lost on the FSFA. "We recognize that we are a premier fair for the industry," said Pesano. "Our fair is in February and the fair season is in its early stages. Also, many of the industry's rider operators have their winter headquarters in Florida and are able to participate, and we've always had a our pick of the best rides in the industry."
New Ride Mix
While the new contract with Wade Shows means less ride operators, there are other pluses when it comes to the amount and caliber of the midway content. "This means Wade Shows can bring more of its rides, and he has the best Twister, the largest travelling roller coaster and the Spinning Mouse, and now they all can be at the Florida State Fair," said Pesano.
Wade will be subcontracting with other amusement ride operators with attractions new to Florida State Fair guests.
"We weren't able to get Powers Great American Midways, because they usually tour the northeast, but through their relationship with Wade, they will come to Florida next year," said Pesano. "We expect a lot of newcomers, so it will all balance out and the most important thing is that our patrons will have a fun and exciting midway,"
Other midway providers that Wade Shows has relationships with and expects to use in Florida next year include: Wood Entertainment Company, Powers Great American Entertainment and Dreamland Amusements. "I felt I could deliver on my proposal and meet the expectations of the Florida state Fair by continuing to include companies Wade has worked with," said Zaitshik. "Besides, who has a better Magnum than Michael Wood?"
Zaitshik expects to contract with about six or seven companies and complete the make-up of the midway by November 1, although he insists these are not rigid guidelines. "I would like to have everything resolved by the first of November, but this is not a hard line in the sand. I'm sure most of it will be resolved. But time won't be factor, and if there is an asset that I can get after that deadline, I will get that asset."
Within a 12-month period, through highly competitive bidding procedures, Wade Shows acquired three major fair contracts- Nebraska State Fair, the New York State Fair, and now the Florida State Fair. Each are multi-million dollar deals, but Zaitshik said that individual value was only one factor determinant the decision to pursue these midways.
"It's not for the money, it's the accomplishment of putting a fine route together," he explained.
Wade Shows operates three touring units and the three new fairs better enable the company, "to match fixed expenses of the units with their consistent revenue," said Zaitshik.
Wade Shows operates the midway of the South Florida Fair, which takes place in January, just preceding the Florida State Fair. Having larger footprints and two consecutive dates within close proximity of each other makes logical business sense for the company. "At West Palm Beach, we are all dressed up and in state fair mode and ready for the season," said Zaitshik. "We love playing the Florida State Fair, and we did very well with our complement of 30 or so rides, but our revenue didn't match our payroll and all our other expenses."
One reality of today's fair business is that payroll has become more of a 12-month a year cost, and in addition to making routing more economically feasible, the increased revenue helps maintain a more professional work-force. "In the old days, carnivals operated 6-7 months a year, then told employees see you later, go collect unemployment or find something else to do until next year," said Zaitshik. "Today you need to keep quality people and have the capabilities to play a major state fair. You have to give them year-round salaries."
Networking & Collaboration
Economists have observed that industries gravitate from fragmentation to consolidation, dwindling away the numbers of industry participants until only a few dominant players remain. By its flurry of fair acquisition taking place within the last few months, Wade seems on the surface to exemplify this classic consolidation trend.
According to Zaitshik, the reality is not so much Wade Shows growing as an individual entity - the company has not added significant numbers of equipment or staff as a result of its latest fair contracts - but instead, is expanding its network through partnering with select ride operators, a trend certainly illustrated by the Florida State Fair hybrid midway deal.
Consolidation may be inevitable in an industry, but if Wade is an example of this tendency, the Fair Industry is following a coalition rather than monopolization model. "The double edge sword in the fair industry is that most carnivals are family-owned, there's no board of directors to answer to," said Zaitshik. "They too often make their decisions based on their heart and emotion and not always on good business sense. Maybe the industry would be far better served with more collaborators than competitors."
Expanding his route makes financial sense, creating a revenue stream that better sustains the company. Adding more fairs, especially larger ones, has only become possible with greater collaborations with former - even still occasional -competitors. "I have a network of 80 to 100 rides that I can call upon when I need them and that allows me to play more dates," said Zaitshik. " I can negotiate with more companies for more fairs and that brings more benefits to them, and more benefits to us."
Regardless of what Wade Shows being awarded the Florida State Fair contract -or its innovative hybrid format - might indicate in terms of industry trends, the fact is this high-profile midway is far from the last brass ring this veteran carnival owner will reach for.
"Many of my dreams have come true," he insisted. "But I'm not finished dreaming."