When Reithoffer Shows premiered its new Smart Card system at the Collier County Fair & Exposition, fair organizers were apprehensive. It would be the first time for a ticketless midway at the fair, and Rhonda Ward, Fair Manager had heard that other "smart card" system can be prone to issues of consistent functionality.
"We were worried that there might be a collapse or the entire system going down," said Ward. "But there were really no glitches of any kind."
Other than not having a catastrophe to avert, the fair probably gave the highest compliment this new system could receive. "I was impressed by the smoothness of the system," said Ward. "Nobody missed the tickets and we really didn't notice that a new ticketing system was being used for the rides. I can't say people complimente
d the new system, but there were zero complaints."
In other words, fairgoers took an upgraded transaction system in stride and did what fairgoers are supposed to -enjoy the rides and other attractions of the Collier County Fair & Exposition.
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"It worked flawlessly," said Rick Reithoffer of Reithoffer Shows.
Reithoffer is going ticketless this summer with a unique wireless system designed specifically for fairs both large and small and the head of the company could not be more ecstatic. "Our patrons, Fairs and Independent operators have given us a very positive response, The possibilities with this system are amazing and we have already seen the benefits," he said. "We are proud to be one of the pioneers of the carnival industry."
Smart Cards and a ticketless wireless midway have been around for a few years, but the Reithoffer system, which was developed with American Changer, a manufacturer of change machines as well as ticket, token and card dispensers, is an entirely new concept for midway ride ticketing. Compared to other systems currently in use, the Smart Card is a "dumber" system, meaning that less connectivity is required. Other systems require a larger internet platform as well as its own network of routers and servers. "I looked at the systems available, and they need routers up and down the midway," said Rick Reithoffer. "You need a server and you send the data back and forth to the office, and if something went down, the whole system goes down."
The new system has two main components linked by the card - a kiosk and a card reader. The kiosk, which accepts money - cash and credit transactions - and transfers that monetary value on to the Smart Card - and the card reader, which are stationed at every ride and reads the electronic ticket that is now on the card.
Using a touch screen, fairgoers purchase cards with cash or credit. The kiosk instructions are also bilingual. "We put kiosks in each of our ticket selling booths," Reithoffer said. "We no longer put people in the booths, but we have personnel near them to assist fairgoers."
At the ride, after waving or tapping the card in front of the card reader scanner, a light blinks green - go on the ride; or red - insufficient credits. In addition, there is a tablet/booth mobile reader to collect data form the card readers as well as units that enable card balances to be checked.
The cards have embedded microchips and not the Mag Stripe (magnetic strip) on other cards. The chips enable the card to be waved and scanned - as opposed to swiped - a slightly quicker process and less susceptible to malfunction - but they also are sell-contained. The chips are also used in wristbands, although the kiosks dispense vouchers and the wrist or armbands are given out by midway personnel.
Mag Stripes require communication with a network to transfer and receive data (in this case, amounts of money) - the American Changer System kiosks put the amounts on the card, and the cellular system means that a network is not required for those amounts to be read and/or transacted. Each card reader independently reads, records and stores the data.
At closing, a supervisor downloads the credits from each ride into a custom mobile application with an IPad using Bluetooth. After closing, the supervisor (usually by golf cart) goes to each card reader and collects data, i.e., the electronic tickets per each ride. Once the information is stored the mobile application will clear the card reader in preparation for the next day, the supervisor then has the option to provide the day's credits to each owner/operator for that ride. The application has the ability to provide all receipts on all rides immediately and the same data can be e-mailed, especially important to independent owner/operator who a midway may be subcontracting with for a specific ride.
Other hardware components include "check your balance" readers, located at various spots throughout the midway; they are there for convenience's sake and enable fairgoers to see how many credits are on their card. There is a "transfer of credit" station, located by the midway office - that is used in cases of fairgoer error or other mistakes and discrepancies. For example, if a rider's card is accidentally scanned twice, they can be given the lost credit by this unit.
The only internet connection required is for the kiosks to enable credit card transactions and as well as for remote monitoring of each kiosk. In case of a fair experiencing a Wi-Fi snafu, the system can go cash-only with no other interruption in services. "The rides keep spinning," said Reithoffer.
The smart card system, according to Wayne Snihur, President & COO, American Changer, is not "network based and does not have to communicate with a central office. The kiosk is the Point-of-Sale for the fair and midway."
Snihur said that competing, network based system can cost over $1 million for lager ride providers. The American Changer Smart Card system costs are approximately $17,000 per kiosk, $500 per card reader, and $2,000 per IPad/Bluetooth device. Snihur said that he has received a lot of interest by other carnival companies. "At least a dozen have inquired about the system, including a couple of fairs," he said. "There are a lot of cost savings. But we worked with Reithoffer and they are the first to have the system and will be the only midway with the system this year."
About eight years ago, Rick Reithoffer wandered into an American Changer Booth at the annual trade show of the International Association of Amusement Parks. At the time, according to Snihur, Reithoffer wanted an automated ticketing system and the company was introducing one. But as the midway provider and the change maker manufacturer started discussing operational concept design, the conversation evolved into a ticketless midway. "When we finished talking, we were both thinking about eliminating the tickets completely and developing a more sophisticated card system," said Snihur.
By 2015 - Reithoffer was able to introduce the company and the Collier Fair's first ticket-free midway. American Changer also developed proprietary software for the kiosks, which must both dispense and encode cards and partnered with Greenwald Industries to develop the tablet apps and other software.
While Snihur and Reithoffer researched similar technologies used in other industries, they soon realized that what they needed did not exist. The result is a Smart Card and infrastructure developed to address specific outdoor amusement industry rides. "This system did not migrate from another industry," said Snihur. "We developed it with Reithoffer specifically for the fair industry. It is a very unique system."
Although Collier County Fair & Exposition officials had no complaints with the new system, Snihur said "there were a few things that can be tweaked. There probably should be more kiosks, and a few smaller things that we're improving."
The appeal for the midway provider may be the amount of worry it removes from the daunting idea of taking away tickets, which have been in use for nearly as long as there have been outdoor amusements customers were willing to pay for to ride. "I love the simplicity, it takes away so many problems," said John Stoorza, Office Manager, Reithoffer Shows International. "You take a lot of human error out of the equation, there's no short changing customers or reselling tickets or having counterfeit tickets."
According to Stoorza, the combination of a card emblazoned with Reithoffer's name and logo and the opportunity to change the job descriptions of some midway personnel are image enhancers for the company. "My number one issue has been that the first person somebody meets is the ticket seller," said Stoorza.
Now, that first impression is the more controllable automated unit - as familiar and easy to use as an ATM - and the first human contact with are with helpful employees readily available to assist at the units. The ride operators are still there of course, but instead of taking tickets they monitor the card readers, assist riders and operate the rides.
"Every carnival company has problems with some ticket sellers who aren't honest," said Stoorza. "The system totally eliminates those problems, and other issues of accuracy. By digitizing the transaction, it tells you exactly how much money you take in, how many rides each have."
At the ride itself, the card readers "frees the operator, they no longer have to count tickets, the customer just taps the card. They can be more aware of the customer or any potential problems," he said.
The most apparent change comes after the midway closes and customers have left. According to Stoorza, the daily accounting procedures have been dramatically streamlined. Instead of having to weigh the tickets and rectify any discrepancy when calculating the day's total. "You just look at the data," said Stoorza. "It keeps track of every credit card and cash transaction, you just balance that, it is all digital and 100 percent accurate."
And also faster. He estimated that the post closing tallying time was cut by more than half. "It can easily take two hours, we did it in about 40 minutes. We had people sitting around saying, ‘is that all we have to do?' They were shocked."
Another priority has been the greening of Reithoffer, fulfilling one of its Corporate Social Responsibility objectives . "We as a company want to reduce our carbon footprint," said Stoorza. "Almost all our rides have LED lights. Not having to print tickets is another step. We have containers to collect the cards, and recycle the cards for the next day use. We take the environment very seriously, this is one more opportunity to make a difference."