After more than three decades, the Champlain Valley Fair in Essex Junction, VT. will have a new midway. In December, the fair's Board of Directors announced it had signed a five-year midway contract with James E. Strates Shows, ending a decades-long relationship with Reithoffer Shows.
According to Christopher Ashby, Director of Marketing & Communications, The Champlain Valley Exposition, Reithoffer Shows has been associated with this Vermont fair for "more than 35 years," and describes the parting of the ways as "amicable. Reithoffer is a wonderful organization and they had a great run."
The Champlain Valley Fair contracts are always for a five-year term. After the 2014 Champlain Valley Fair ended, with the new contract up, Ashby said "we looked around and did due diligence to see what other midway providers were out there."
Ashby said that there was no publicized open bidding process, admitting that the only contenders were Strates and Reithoffer. "It came down to discussions with our board and the carnival companies, and it was always between Strates and Reithoffer," he said.
As in any contract negotiation process, several issues were on the table, but Strates clinched the deal by offering a dramatic technological upgrade in the ticketing system, potentially improving midway profitability.
Ashby would not disclose the exact value of the contract, but said the decision to change midways was due to a more intense-focus on the bottom-line by the Board of Directors. "Improving the profitability of the fair was a main concern," he said. "The electronic ticketing system by Strates Shows was very attractive."
Ashby also mentioned that "the Strates Shows had a routing opportunity in their schedule. There was also the possibility to change the ride mix and to brighten up our midway."
According to Jay Strates with James E. Strates Shows, "the vetting and background checks the fair conducted was quite extensive," said. "The fair was looking for growth, and we have a good and recent track record of double digit growth at a lot of our fairs."
Strates said the fair contacted the carnival knowing that August dates had opened up in the company's touring route. After a prolonged bidding process, the Strates Shows contract with the 2014 New York State Fair was not renewed, leaving a late August slot for Strates Shows empty during the peak of the Northeast Fair season.
Earlier in August, Strates plays the Erie County Fair, in Hamburg, N.Y. - the midway provider celebrated its 90th year at this fair in 2014 - and the Champlain Valley Fair dates smoothly aligned with the Strates' touring schedule. "With the loss of the New York State Fair, the Champlain Valley thought of us, because they now fit us from an efficient routing stand point," said Strates. "There are not a lot of carnivals our size in that part of the country that time of the year. It is very easy for the unit to bop into Vermont from upstate New York."
The timing of the Champlain Valley Fair and the open dates in Strates' touring calendar matched up, but key to solidifying deal was the FunCard, an electronic ticketing system that Strates Shows now uses exclusively at its fairs. "We are the only ones on the East Coast who use an electronic ticketing system 100 percent of the time," said Strates. "We are the exception, but more and more, fairs are starting to understand the benefits."
Those benefits include a "7 percent increase in revenue across the board compared to having a paper ticket system," he said.
That built-in savings, according to Strates, is derived from a variety of factors, including not purchasing or having to shred ticket stock. In addition, the system allows for a "well controlled environment," he said, allowing for more flexibility in pricing, promotions and online sales. "You can change things on the fly," said Strates. "You don't have that same flexibility with paper tickets. Say you want to add another sponsor closer to the fair date, you can do that with our system. You can also separate the pricing for different rides, and vary the pricing for different rides and promotions."
The new FunCard system not only allows for a more accurate, and instantaneous measurement, but generates trackable data. "Some things, like changing operating hours, or shortening certain days, it is very difficult to make those decisions without data," said Strates. "The system is a tool that allows for tighter control."
Ashby acknowledged that Strates' ticketing System, "was of great interest to the board."
Another attribute of the paperless midway that played an unexpected factor in selecting Strates Shows was that the Champlain Valley Fair "had some issues with counterfeiting of tickets, which electronic ticketing eliminates," said Strates.
A local news outlet, WCAX.com, reported on August 26: " Essex police say they arrested Jeannie Morrill, 32, of Burlington, and seized several hundred counterfeit passes. It's unclear how many people bought the bogus tickets, but police say fair staffers are now on the lookout for them."
Ashby pointed out that the fake ticket scam was for fair passes, not the Reithoffer midway ticketing system. It was also the first time there was any type of counterfeiting at the fair. Regarding the number of fake tickets that were eventually circulated, Ashby said "We estimate in the thousands. Because we jumped on media early, it's hard to say how many were out there and never used."
Aside from the counterfeiting incident, Ashby said the 2014 Champlain Valley Fair had attendance that exceeded 200,000. "It was a very good fair, no records were set, but we are a healthy fair," he said.
Although there were earlier incarnations of the fair, the Champlain Valley Fair Exposition was incorporated in 1922 and long had a near monopoly on warm weather, outdoor attractions in the region. Ashby said there is a Six Flag property about 2.5 hours from the fair that poses a competition concern, but the main challenge has been an escalating proliferation of "festivals and concerts and events outdoors. Now there's all kinds of festivals, beer festivals and family fun and kids events and food events in the Burlington area. We used to be the only concert venue and festival site, and we are still the state's largest outdoor event, but in the last 20 years, competition has been increasing."
Adding to the pressure to improve, even incrementally, the midway's profitability is that many of these newer, outdoor events include carnival rides. "There's always new competition in the area," said Ashby. "We have seen other fairs increase their midway grosses with Strates Shows, so we are looking for new opportunities."
The Champlain Valley Fair midway has a large footprint that Ashby said "takes up half the fairgrounds. We are looking to improve the aesthetics of the midway, which was part of the new agreement."
He added that the overriding goal is to ensure "that the guest experience is better. Your success is driven by your guest experience. That is our driving force."
The Reithoffer midway featured between 40-50 rides, said Ashby. The number of rides and games as well as the layout and other features for the inaugural Strates Midway will begin to be determined by March, when Strates will conduct an extensive study of the site and begin creating a ride list.
"They have a nice, contiguous midway, and a new infrastructure, including a beautiful front gate that was just built," said Strates. "It's a very well laid out facility."
Strates also mentioned that working with Timothy P. Shea, Executive Director of the fair, has been very positive. The company could not feel better about its first late August/early September excursion in the Green Mountain State. "It's a beautiful, fairground in a beautiful part of the country," said Strates. "They have a great facility, with a nice staff and board members and under good management. They are very professional, business minded and interested in growing their fair. We are very excited about this new relationship."