Michael Wood has held off on making ride purchases over the last three years. Instead, Wood, the owner of San Antonio-based Wood Entertainment Co. has been investing capital in personnel, spending more time and money educating his ride operators.
Almost four years after two people were injured in an accident on the company's Techno Power at the San Diego (Calif.) County Fair, Wood is doing what he can to make sure it doesn't happen again under his watch.
For Wood Entertainment, a small independent operation with seven major attractions playing some of the biggest events in North America, labor costs have gone up 40 percent over the last five years, due in large part to increases in airfare and recruiting fees.
he firm now employs 40 South Africans, up from 25 in past years, and they sleep in new bunkhouses, a $300,000 expense. Costs are also rising because Wood spends additional dollars for his staff to "double down" on training through the carnival industry's ride safety seminars.
Looking back at the accident in Del Mar in 2011, the person injured the most was the operator of the Techno Power who got "clobbered in the head," according to Wood. After the accident, Wood re-assessed his operation and its methods for training employees. Now, show officials take the extra step of putting their ride operators through mock situations such as removing electrical power mid-cycle to see how they react to those unexpected circumstances, Wood said.
It's the "show me, don't tell me," model, he said. "They not only need to know how to properly evacuate a ride but the need to be proficient at it. Tell us and do it both. One thing I learned to this point was our industry and my company in particular had room for improvement with personnel. I like to think we do things right. But we're a split-second away from fate when the right person at the right moment stands up in their seat. It's how you react that counts."
This year, Wood is the chairman of the Outdoor Amusement Business Association, the carnival industry's trade group. He's been spending a lot of time traveling to Washington as the long fight continues with the U.S. Department of Labor over the issue of equal pay for both international and domestic workers. Carnivals tend to pay internationals higher wages compared with Americans because they're harder workers and more dependable, their employers say.
Bottom line, the federal government "thinks we're too lazy to hire American workers," Wood said. "What they don't realize is the labor pool is crap."
The general public's misconception of the carnival business dating to the days of P.T. Barnum certainly doesn't help. During one of his recent trips to the nation's capital, Wood met with an executive from the Department of Homeland Security, another government agency tied to the H2B visa program. The man had a law enforcement background and Wood asked the official what comes to mind when he thinks of carnivals. Lawlessness and criminal backgrounds was his reply.
"You know now the very reason why I'm very involved with this effort," Wood told the DHS exec. "For South African workers, we're spending $3,000 a head for transportation and visa costs. Do the quick math and it gets expensive. We're left with people who desire an itinerant lifestyle. I want to get rid of the myth you just described to me."
Still, he says the responsibility falls on carnival owners to do a better job of taking care of their employees. "We treat our staff like a commodity ... instead we need to treat them as an asset, like a stock at a bank. We're in the people business."
Early in the season, business has been excellent, Wood said. The South Florida Fair, Florida State Fair, Florida Strawberry Festival and two dates in Texas were on par with last year or in some cases ahead of 2014. Both Tampa and West Palm Beach were up double digits. The San Antonio Stock Show & Rodeo "froze out the last seven days," he said.
For Wood Entertainment, the balance of the year includes the 50th State Fair in Hawaii, the San Diego County Fair and state fairs in California, Wisconsin, Minnesota, Oklahoma and Texas. The operation closes the season in November booking with Amusements of America at the Coastal Carolina Fair in Charleston, S.C.
For the most part, fairs and carnivals provide a good bargain for family entertainment, but Wood has concerns over whether they're setting prices too high considering their competition.
"At the Florida State Fair, you pay $13 to get in and $35 for a wristband," he said. "For $12 more, you can go to Busch Gardens. And because theme parks don't move, they can do a better job delivering a quality experience for $60. They do a much better job of customer service with a fixed labor pool and a lower rate of turnover. That's who our competition is."
Keeping that in mind, Wood has invested in refurbishing his equipment, including $150,000 to outfit the Magnum with an LED light package. In addition, the show's Gravitron was re-themed as an Area 51.The Techno Power remains in operation. After the accident in 2011, Wood made safety modifications to the ride adding layers of redundancy. It's similar to an Orbiter in its action with a Freak Out like seating layout.
Other than those upgrades and a renewed focus on labor, "I've retired all my debt," Wood said.