Millennials is an ongoing series profiling the new generation of fair
At 23, Christopher Barton is probably the youngest carnival company owner in the fair industry. Actually, he is co-owner of The Pride of Texas Shows, with his father, Douglas, who purchased the company in 2006. Christopher Barton is 4th generation in the business on his father's side and 5th generation on his mother's - Christy Barton - side.
Barton grew up on the midway and worked range of stints, from making funnel cakes to operating rides, through high school and college. The difference now is that instead of working for a carnival company owned by somebody else, the Barton-team now has the responsibility of calling the shots. "We got sick of working for someone else and the right opportunity came along," said Barton. "It's more responsibility and more headaches, but we can do things they way we think they should be done."
What distinguishes this operation from bigger midway providers is the hands-on attention they pay to the business. "When we worked for other companies, you would never see the owner on the midway," said Barton. "We are on the midway all the time, we lay it out, drive the trucks, rebuild the rides. There is nothing I would ask somebody to do that I haven't done myself."
Barton said his parents never forced him into the business - quite the contrary, since his older sister and cousins have chosen different career paths, they seemed to if not discourage him, they made sure he knew what he was he getting into. But the appeal of the family business could not be ignored. "It was in my blood and I never really considered anything else. It's what I've done my whole life," said Barton.
One of the fondest memories is helping his father work on "the first ride he bought, a Steeple Chase," which is a spiral slide ride. "Then I remember being the first one to go on the ride."
Barton graduated with a degree in Business Administration from Tarleton State University last year. The business education seemed a more formalized version of his experience working midways. "The business concepts and ideas that I learned in classes are what we were already doing in the carnival business," he said.
Acquiring college level communication skills, however, raised the level of professionalism of this regional midway provider. "College made me a much better communicator," said Barton. "When you sit down with fair boards and fair staff and go over midway layouts or proposals, those skills are really important, especially when it comes to the specifics of the contract. There's a lot of back and forth, both at the meeting and before and after by email. I think that is a difference between younger guys like me and the older generation. We are better at communication in that setting, and you need it because the business is more professional now, things are more spelled out and have to be clear."
In addition to the increased professionalism - which is accompanied by a more formalized relationship between the carnival company and both the fair and subcontractors, like game providers - another way doing business today is different from previous generations of midway companies is that the carnival company is proactive towards accepting some promotional responsibility for each of their midways.
"The younger generation is more hip to using technology and social media and promoting our midway to our customer," said Barton. "We believe in advertising our rides and midway for every carnival. In the smaller towns, the old school advertising still works best. We usually do newspaper and local radio, and we do English and Spanish. Right now, we're in Odessa (Texas) and running ads on Telemundo."
The Pride of Texas Fair route includes the titular Lone Star State, as well as extended forays through Kansas and Oklahoma, working about 43 fairs or other outdoor events, with about 30 rides, on a season that runs from January through November. Barton has noticed not just a growth in the Hispanic following for fairs and their midways, but as fairgoers they are loyal and bring the whole family. "Hispanics families really love the fairs," he said. "Every year, there are more and more Hispanics coming to the fairs. Fairs are a family activity they enjoy them together as a family, and they spend. They don't just buy one funnel cake, but they might buy funnel cakes for everyone in their family. They come back every year."
Besides a demographic shift in the fairgoer population of the smaller fairs, these events are growing faster than larger fairs. He added, that the smaller fairs on their route, "are getting stronger every year, they are quality fairs," he said. "We are doing more wristbands at the smaller fairs than ever before. They have a loyal following and people are coming out."
More closely observing fairgoer patterns also seems more of an attribute of the younger generation of midway professionals than their baby boomer counterparts. Barton has found that the growth in wristbands especially at the smaller events where the practice is still relatively new, encourages more overall spending. "Especially with these times and money being tight, most families come to the fair with a set amount of money to spend and when they spend the money they brought they leave," he said. "With tickets they keep having to decide a ride or something else, and will usually just spend on rides. With wristbands the spending is spread out throughout the midway and fair, they buy more food and play more games."
Carnival Warehouse spoke with Barton in late June, soon after Tropical Storm Bill, which hadn't directly impacted any of the company's events but residual inclement weather that affected the entire region was making this portion of the Pride of Texas season difficult. "It's been raining every day since Bill," he said, echoing a familiar carnival business lament. "Seems if the weather don't get you, the economy will. It's been a rainy Spring here, but the economy has gotten better. We're hoping things will get stronger next month."
This year the company is featuring a new A.R.M. Vertigo, now the most high-tech piece of equipment on the midway. "I don't know if rides can get more computerized, there's two main computers," said Barton. He joked that this father, Douglas Barton, who for most of his career was a considered one of the industry's top mechanics and electricians, "is afraid to touch it."
The older equipment may have had "less issues" when it comes their operation because computers were not or only minimally involved, and they could be easier to fix. But today's technology is superior in almost every other facet of ride management. "The rides are safer, there's 32 seat belts and only three buttons to press, it is much easier to operate," he said. "It is also much easier to train somebody to operate."
In addition to being more enthusiastic about implementing new technology on the midway, Barton feels that his Gen-Y sensibility can be seen in a more deliberate approach to designing midway layouts. "Basically, my philosophy towards midway layout is that I believe the Ferris Wheel must be as close to the main entrance as possible," said Barton. "You want the Ferris Wheel to be visible from the highways, and then as people get closer to the midway, the can see our Vertigo and Kamikaze. I think the younger generation like me are more aware of the presentation of the midway than the older generation."
Barton likes to say that the Carnival Business is something he both loves and hates. What he hates is that that among many of the communities there are biases against the carnival workers. The fact that being a midway worker can still carry a stigma can be frustrating. "I don't think it bothers the older generation of carnies, because that is just the way it is. I still feel in some towns we have a target on our back. But we're professionals and very well behaved. Our H-2B workers are very professional and we never cause trouble but that image still lingers. That is not fair."
What does he love? "The adrenaline of the midway is exciting," said Barton. "It can be a 24 hour a day job at the peak of the season, but when the midway is pumping, with families on rides and all the lights on, there's nothing better. I still love it."