A little more than half-way through his season, which runs February through October and covers Texas, Colorado, Wyoming and South Dakota, Alan Cockerham, owner of Carnival Americana, is upbeat about business specifically and the fair industry in general. "Our schedule continues to grow and this season is going well," he told Carnival Warehouse.
Carnival Americana operates a single unit of 15-50 rides, with 15 fairs and/or comparable events listed on his website calendar. "There are many factors that go into whether a season is good is not, and weather plays a bigger contributing factor than the economy to how well the midway performs," he said.
Cockerham admits the weather has mostly favored the fairs on his 2014 circuit; while hesitant to prognosticate about the economy, he acknowledges some signs that consumer confidence continues to strengthen. "Things may be a little better than last year," he said.
"They have not gotten worse. The fairs are well attended and people may be spending more. Our numbers are up compared to this time last year, but last year we had a good year too."
Fair Industry Strong
Cockerham declined to go into detail about the extent of the increase as of mid-July 2014 compared to mid-July 2013, but he is confident about the viability of the industry he has spent his life in. "People are still going to spend money on the fair, if you give them good value. The Fair industry is strong and continues to be strong. The Fair industry is so sensitive about every little glitch, such as fuel prices or all the other indicators. But what I care about is seeing that people are at the midway with smiles on their faces and are happy. The fair industry is healthy because we deliver a good product."
In other words, don't sweat the small stuff and stay true to solid, proven values. "I keep a positive outlook in everything I do, and anytime I can make improvements, I do," said Cockerham. "We are constantly reinventing and reinvigorating Carnival Americana, so we are confident about this season and the future."
Cockerham has been in the business 45 years, and was General Manager for Bill Hames Shows, before starting Carnival Americana. "We're an extension of the Bill Hames Shows, and we are building on that tradition he started."
Fresh Look, New Vertigo
But that tradition does not mean living in the past or being satisfied to rest on their laurels. Carnival Americana gave its midway a makeover this year, generating a new excitement that has been well received. "We have a fresher look this year," said Cockerham. "We have a strong winter headquarter program and refurbished our equipment with a variety of bright and vibrant finishes. We improved the product, we have a more colorful midway appearance, which fairs really appreciate."
The exterior enhancement of the midway though is part of the Carnival Americana philosophy, "We continue to reinvent ourselves, and the fresher look is probably the most noticeable change this year," he said.
The most attention-grabbing ride is a new A.R.M Vertigo Ride. "This new ride is a highlight of this year, it is extremely popular. At any of our fairs, it runs full the entire day."
One area of the midway that continues to thrive, if in a more limited capacity than the newest ride, has been the games of skill and chance.
"Games are doing very well," said Cockerham.
Where many other companies have found games to be an increasingly anemic component of the midway, this less is more approach has enabled Carnival Americana to retain a thriving game business. "With our game operation we don't book any outside games, we handle them all," he said. "We don't overcrowd the games section. There's not a lot of competition in the midway. We have a few, select games that do well and are popular."
During the 2014 fair season for Carnival Americana, Cockerham identified a trend that has been growing in recent years, maintaining a closer marketing relationship between fairs and midways. "We have always been strong in marketing for the carnival, and actually used to do a lot of self-promotions, which we still do of course," he said.
"This year we are partnering more with the fairs for their promotions, especially their pre-sale programs."
In fact, the ticketing relationship with fairs has noticeably reaped rewards in 2014. "Fairs are doing a much a better job in their own ticket department, by packaging admission with other events and with the midway in their ticket sales," said Cockerham. "Fairs are offering better discounts and in a better way too. We partner with the promotions that are being handled through the fairs and those promotions are effective."
Carnival Warehouse spoke with Cockerham about his midway reflections while he was little more than mid-fair at Cheyenne Frontier Days – the largest outdoor rodeo in the nation – held in Cheyenne, Wyoming since 1897. "We've had great weather and our numbers our up," said Cockerham.
"This is a really a first class event. Our midway has been well received, everybody is raving about the appearance of our midway."
The most exciting new gig for Carnival Americana in 2014 will be the Brazos Valley Fair & Exposition in Bryan, Texas, one of the youngest fairs in the Lone Star State. The Brazos Valley Fair & Exposition first opened in 2012. This 4-day fair and rodeo attracted 16,000+ attendees, including more than 900 entries in livestock and competitive events, It was awarded the Best New CPRA Rodeo of the Year in 2012.
The Brazos Valley Fair & Exposition runs October 16-19. This long time midway provider is eagerly anticipating the event, the final stop on the 2014 circuit. "Brazos Valley has become a good regional event in a relatively short time," said Cockerham. "They sought us out as their carnival, and were able to arrange their dates to accommodate our schedule, which was very generous. They want to improve their midway.
It was quite an honor to be selected by them and I am really looking forward to the fair."
An early stop for Carnival Americana is the South Texas Fair in Beaumont, Texas, (March 26 - April 7). Cockerham has been a long-term relationship with this event (Hames was the fair's previous midway provider), where he operates a full-capacity midway – 50 rides. In late April, he told Carnival Warehouse: "Per capita spending is basically unchanged from last year. The South Texas Fair is a very good fair on my circuit, it is a good-sized fair."
The Carnival Americana season is rounded out by smaller, Colorado events, including Community Carnival ( June 6 -15), in Highlands Ranch, Greeley Stampede (June 26 - July 5) in Greenly, and the Larimer County Fair and the Loveland (August 1 - 5). "The smaller fairs do very well, and they round out our season, and they act as a bridge between the other fairs," he said.
One the other side of the western fair spectrum is the Central States Fair & Rodeo in Rapid City, S.D., which runs August 15 - 24 and features a 35-ride midway. "This is a very major fair," said Cockerham.
"There is a lot going at that fair, and 35 is about all the rides we can fit on the fairgrounds. It is always well attended and a good fair for us."
The most noticeable contrast between the spring, summer and fall dates is not so much the revenue but the differences in peak demand. "Summer means vacation for the kids," said Cockerham. "It doesn't really have any bearing on our overall success, but it does affect our daily operations. We open earlier, which seems to level off the traffic.
There is more consistent traffic throughout the entire fair, the weekends can be more moderate, versus the spring and fall, which are always very weekend oriented, and there can be more crowds in a shorter span of time."