Midway Millennials is an ongoing series profiling the new generation of fair professionals
As Blake Huston sees it, his generation brings to the fair industry not just a higher comfort level with technology, but with communication.
Huston, 31 years old and Unit Manager for North American Midway Entertainment (N.A.M.E,), grew up on the midway and when he was of legal working age got his first job working game concessions. He graduated from Indiana University with a degree in Management in 2006 and never seriously considered another career path.
"I've spent every summer on the road," said Huston. "At the Derby and Water Race Games, I would hand out the stuffed animals. Going to college was great, it was a new experience, I got to make friends
and meet new people and develop marketing and management skills."
The family business offered steady work, but he never felt pressure to select the midway as his career. He explored other potential careers, "but nothing was ever as appealing," he said.
Part of the appeal was be able to participate in the evolution of the industry he has known since childhood. Previous generations, he points out, "didn't really need a college degree, but today the business is changing and carnies need to adapt," he said.
Like other industries, technology is transforming the fair industry. The most obvious change - especially when it comes to the millennial generation - has been social media and this new generation of midway professionals is using this communication technology to transform the carnival business.
N.A.M.E. has more than has more than 10,000 Facebook followers, and a growing presence on Twitter, Instagram and other internet platforms. In addition to effectively supplementing the marketing and promotion of the fair and/or event hosting the N.A.M.E. midway - encourages a Dead-Head-like following for the company.
This direct communication with midway customers was unimaginable even just a decade ago. "With social media, we promote when we're coming into a location, advanced pre-sale tickets, discounted prices, and print-at-home vouchers," said Huston. "We are better able to promote the N.A.M.E. brand. There is a group of customers who just love rides and love the midway experience. With technology we can market to that customer. We let them know in advance what rides will be there, what the height requirements will be. During the winter, we post the progress of projects we're working on at our winter headquarters. We get great feedback."
He added, "the younger generation just knows how to use technology better. With the iPads and iPhones, we have more information and ways to communicate right in the palm of our hand."
This creative attitude towards communication does not end with the latest computerized gadget. Like many Midway Millennials, Huston worked in numerous positions throughout the midway before being promoted to his current position, which he feels gives him a greater ease fostering high morale among the crew. "I think I am interacting with employees more. We have unit parties and jamborees when the whole company gets together, we go to Tigers games together."
By his own estimation, he's done every job there is to do on the Midway. "I won't ask anyone to do anything that I haven't done myself. When workers see you helping to set up a giant wheel, working side by side them, they have more respect for you."
The issue threatening the family-atmosphere N.A.M.E. has created has been the recent rulings that could severely restrict foreign guest worker hired through the H-2B program. "We started with the H-2B program 15 years ago, and it has worked out great. We have great Hispanic and South African kids, they have a great attitude, they love seeing America and many stay with us five or six years and come back every year."
As his generation of midway professionals fill more leadership positions within the carnival industry, labor issues "will be something we will have to deal with. The work force is different than when I was coming up and I'm uncertain to how it will look in the future. The H-2B program has worked out great, but if the program becomes unusable it will affect the entire industry. We have to get this right."
Huston spoke with Carnival Warehouse in early June, during what he describes as the Michigan County Fair season, when one large N.A.M.E. entourage of about 60 rides splits into three units - headed by himself, his brother, Miles Huston and long-time employee, Mike Curry - to play smaller fairs and events as Spring turns into Summer. The three units reunite in August at the Indiana State Fair.
"That's a great fair and it's always a reunion because brings everybody together again," he said. "The smaller fairs and festivals are great, but when we haven't seen each for a few weeks, it's a lot of fun to be together again."
At the half-way mark of the year, the 2015 season "has gone pretty well. People seem to be spending more. The weather has been good, we've gotten less rain than last year," he said.
Also, with N.A.M.E.'s arsenal of rides, featuring a refurbished Screamer, Kamikaze and Fun House, he feels they have a particularly strong offering. "Ridership seems to be up, customers are happy."
Huston is finding that the midway profession is as appealing as ever. "Every day there's something different, there's an unknown that needs to be solved. The midway has so many moving parts, there are so many details that have to be working so people can come and have fun. It can seem chaotic but when it all comes together it's a great feeling."