Midway Millennials is an ongoing series profiling the new generation of fair professionals
Nick Strates, a 4th generation Strates, one of the most renowned midway families in the fair industry, is the current Midway Designer for Strates Shows. In outdoor amusement business parlance, he's a "Lot Man," and at 25, he is one of the youngest lot men in the business. A lot man decides what goes where, determines the optimum layout for each midway, balancing not just the location of individual rides, but where all the various midway parts - food vendors, game concessions, generators, cables, ticket stands, trailers, etc. - should be positioned for the best presentation and fairgoer comfort and flow.
You would be mistaken if you think the Strates midway can be an off-the-rack, one size fits all proposition. Midway design means each layout is custom-fit, tailored to each fairground. Often the layout is not even the same for a fair one year to another.
Strates always either adds or switches rides each fair season and the fairgrounds is usually modified each year. "You have to work around a new tree or garden they've added, or they built a new entrance and now you have to find a different location for a generator," said Strates. "Every fair is different, and you have to meet with the fair managers and scout out the fairgrounds a few weeks before each fair."
Meeting this challenge of coordinating a multitude of details and personalities is what Strates finds most rewarding. "Logistically, there are a lot of moving parts," he said. "There can be whiners and complainers, but it is constant stimulation because of all the decisions you have to make. And, even when you have a layout, when you get there to open, things still have to be moved."
Most of the fair managers, concessionaires, unit and ride managers within the Strates organizations are older than this millennial lot man. What he finds most frustrating is a set-in-the-way mentality that can sometimes prevail when it comes to midway design. Some colleagues are not interested in an improved outcome, they often just resist change for the sake of resisting change. "Some people want to do things the same way for no other reason than because that is the way they did it last year," said Strates. "That does not mean it is the best location for that ride or stand this year."
While what the fair managers, board or other fair staff insist upon is generally the final decision, convincing other colleagues - both other Strates Employees and subcontractors - can sometimes be problematic. For Strates, he sees this stubbornness to do something differently not just for a midway layout at a particular fairground, but a tendency pervading in the overall industry. Gen-Y is known for its lacking this resistance to change, and even though there can be reluctance, the fair industry's willingness to change is growing. "As far as I'm concerned, the business I'm in has changed. The midway is much more efficient at most fairs. We've thinned out excesses and have adapted to the times. It is a smarter business because of these changes, like the LED lights which use less energy and look so much better. The fair industry needs to stay thinking of new ideas."
The earliest fair memory for Strates is sitting on a "pop-a-wheelie" ride while his mother supervised him. "I was just spinning around and around, it was so much." He grew up working the carnival.
Strates graduated from the University of Central Florida with a degree in Finance in 2014 and this season is his first in a fulltime management position. Besides having an inclination towards planning and a mind for detail that was well suited to the open position of Midway Designer, he said he has an uncle with a Masters Degree in finance already handling the books for the company, so he opted for a more hands-on post-college position.
"I switched majors from a general business degree to finance, and took a lot of marketing courses," he said. "The degree and college experience gives you a different way of looking at things other people in the industry take for granted, but my family traveled all the time and I just like the lifestyle. I thought about being a stock broker, but sitting at a desk waiting all year for your 10 days of vacation just didn't appeal to me."
He added, "most people like vanilla ice cream, but I want Rocky Road. But once you really get a taste of the carnival life, you just love it. At least I do. If you don't love it, you wouldn't last two weeks out here."
Carnival Warehouse caught up with Strates during the Brookhaven Fair, which runs through mid-June, the day before he had to hit the road by himself to do preliminary, fairground surveying on major July and August fairs, which include The Oswego Harborfest, in Oswego, N.Y., and The Champlain Valley Fair in Essex, Vermont, before rejoining the Strates crew before the June 19th opening of the Palisades Fair in West Nyack, N.Y.
His process for midway design typically begins with using Google Earth Maps to get a better idea of the topography of the location, and after he arrives and meets with the fair organizers to address any issues and concerns. "I meet with the fairground staff, and go over the lay out with them, then it's just me and an empty field," he said. He walks the midway location, "taking measurements, stringing it out, and then using orange marker paint, I paint out the locations for the rides, the concessions stands, all the parts of the midway."
Then he more specifically allocates the positioning of the multitude of components of the Strates Midway. "It will be the first time I will be at the Essex fairgrounds," he said.
Nick has worked most of the fairgrounds on the Strates Shows route, albeit in a capacity other than lot man. This will be the first year the company plays the Champlain Valley Fair, thus the first large midway he designs entirely from scratch. There's no previous Strates midway layout to use a guide. "It's why I love this business, there is always something new. I am very excited about designing the Champlain Valley midway. For me, that's where the rubber meets the road."