During his kindergarten graduation ceremony, Richard Patrick Reithoffer, now 27, was asked what he wanted to be when he grew up. His fellow students had typical responses for five year olds - astronaut, fireman, cowboy - but Reithoffer said, "carny."
Riethoffer, 27, is manager of the Blue Unit of the Reithoffer Shows. His job includes managing all areas of operations, including supervising midway set-up and break-down, facilitating safety inspections, running rides and tallying receipts at the end of each fair day.
Given that he was the fifth generation of one of the most esteemed, well-known and longest lasting fair families in the industry, his kindergarten career choice becoming a self-fulfilling prophecy is not surprising. Midway management was always his career goal, and the bright, flashing lights, exhilarating rush from the rides and sounds of families laughing and having fun make up his earliest memories. Like many of his generation from carnival families, the midway was where he grew up. "I never thought of it as work growing up. It was just the most fun you can have. I always felt I had my own personal amusement park when I was a kid."
Even as he got older and became employed in the family business and found out exactly how hard this work could be, he didn't sway. "In high school, I still wanted to be a carny, I worked every summer with the midway. I remember once my father brought me to a dairy farm, the farmer was a friend of his and my dad told me, that's the only person who works harder than we do," he said.
With agriculture being so intrinsic to most state and county fairs, having the farmer as a comparative example still resonates for Reithoffer. "You see how dedicated they are to their industry, and the kids in 4-H sleeping in the same barns as their animals, cleaning and brushing them to get them ready for competition. I feel fairs carry on a tradition, a piece of Americana that if it wasn't for fairs it would be lost. I love being part of that."
Reithoffer was raised in Gibsonton, Florida, where Reithoffer Shows is headquartered. In 2010, he graduated from the University of Florida with a degree in Management. The experience gave him some distance from his family, and the education enlightened him about many aspects of contemporary business that are often overlooked by industry insiders. "I was on my own, which was a learning experience in and of itself," he said. "But I also got a better understanding of how cost-benefit analytics can be applied to the midway."
However, the years immediately following Reithoffer's college graduation were not the best for the fair industry. The economic downturn was in full swing - rising unemployment, stagnant wages, and record lows in consumer confidence - and combined with constant bad weather, Reithoffer found himself starting his adult professional life in one of the most challenging fair seasons in history. "We had the wettest spring ever," he said. "There were rainy days for seven weeks, one fair was a mud pit, there were two floods at fairs on our routes."
He mentioned that his grandmother, Bette (who is in her 90s) told him, "this was the rainiest year she remembered in the fair business and that's going back more than 70 years."
There were fewer good fair days that 2011 season, and even on the days without significant precipitation, the down-trending economy depleted disposable income. "We still had to make full payroll, pull 18-hour shifts, make opening day," he said. "It was a very difficult year, it was probably the hardest on the game operators. People will still go on rides and eat at the fair, but when the economy is bad, they don't play the games. I know a few game operators who went out of business."
Did this this millennial have second thoughts about his post-college career choice after the near-disaster of 2011? Turns out that tradition was stronger than any generational bias. "I suppose because I had a college degree I could have looked for a job somewhere else, but it never occurred to me. My family's philosophy is that we aren't quitters. We are always going to be surviving, always going to be moving. We will do what it takes, do an all-nighter so we can have the midway ready for opening day."
He added, "getting that midway up and running, seeing the people having fun, that's how we make our living and it's a blessing."
Reithoffer acknowledges that his generation - called millennials, AKA Gen Y (basically those born 1985-1995) bring a new attitude to the fair industry. "I think we are more open to new ideas," he said. "Any industry needs new blood."
At industry trade events, he said that his peers at other midway providers do hang out, network and have fun together. "We face a lot of the same issues and we have a lot in common," he said. "There are a lot of younger professionals entering the carnival business. I wish it was as true for the fair boards. The fairs could use some fresh blood, too many of the boards have had the same people for decades, and they are not as open to change."
The most significant generational difference is the comfort level of new technology. "I am amazed that our new Air Race Ride does its own safety diagnostic when I turn it on. The rides have their own computer drives, that has changed from when I was a kid. The rides are smoother, less jerky, but they need less mechanicals. But when those drives crash, the machine will not work. It is a lot more expensive getting a new drive than replacing a gear."
Social media is also the area where Gen-Y is expanding in the fair industry. "Social media is the biggest use of technology, that is the ticket now. You spend pennies to reach thousands, and you can pinpoint customers, and bring younger people into the fairs, because we're the ones using social media."
The next step Reithoffer Shows and other midway companies are taking is using social media and other online marketing tools to directly reach customers, supplementing existing fair marketing. "We are seeing our outreach to customers grow by leaps and bounds. Midway companies are using social media to reach their customers, and it's not just blasting out emails. We are building our own following."
Higher comfort levels with technology also seems to be increasing with each subsquent generation. For the 2015 season, Reihtoffer Shows is using a new, router-free Fun Card System, a first for the industry. The new system replaces ticketing and ticket boxes, and Reithoffer often takes shifts working as an attendant to explain how the new card system works to guests. "The system has been great, but some of the parents and grandparents, they seem scared at first. They like using the system, but they have a lot of questions. The kids, even ones as young as six and seven, they don't listen to me. They pick it right up and star swiping their cards. They're already comfortable with the system, they don't need it explained to them."