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Midway Millennials - Butler Amusements
Sean Butler: Communication, Collaboration & Willingness to Change

8/31/2015

By Timothy Herrick

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Midway Millennials is an ongoing series profiling the new generation of fair professionals

This is the first time Butler Amusements is using a computer program (CAD) for midway layout. This carnival company, which has multiple units, provides the midway for 119 events a year, on the go from February through October. Until now the layout design was literally a sketchy affair. The various rides had to be hand drawn onto to a generalized map of the fairground. With the new program it's a 3-D computer simulation of the midway facts on the ground. 

"We can set up a specific plan of attack," joked Sean Butler, 25 years old. A third generation showman who grew up on the midway, Butler spent his high school and college years working summers part time in the family business. Last year, he graduated from San Jose State Universitywith a B.S. in Business Management and this year is his first season as a full time Unit Manager. 

Bringing CAD into the organization was his idea. "You can overlay the fairgrounds with the layout of the midway, and it makes it more precise. You can plan more details, like pedestrian flow, and take into account any new changes the fair has made. I can basically put in specific dimensions for each ride, game and food stand and any other space and the program calculates if there is any missing space, it is so much more accurate."

He added that "You can test out different options and really create the best possible, most optimal midway without the same amount of man hours. It's all about increasing customer satisfaction."

CAD also improves the working relationship Butler Amusements has with the Fair. Fair boards and staff are able to see the representation further in advance, making changes and suggestions. "It is a communication tool with the fairs too," he said. 

In fact, communication with the fairs Butler sees as one of the aspects that distinguishes the current fair industry from the business his father and grandfather knew. "We are in communication with fairs for next year within a week or two after the close of this year's fair. We are in communication throughout the entire year, because email makes that possible, that you can continue the back and forth. That is very different for my generation."

Communication that is immediate, earlier and ongoing is key in today's fair business. "As Unit Manager, you want to talk about the fair when it is still fresh in your mind. Things like crowd flow or layout, things that didn't go right or that we can improve upon. The conversations start earlier and you talk all through the year, it's not just one conversation months after a fair and you try to remember what happened." 

Sean Butler is the son of Earle "Butch" Butler, and the grandson of George "Budd" Butler, founder of the family owned and operated company. He is Unit Manager of what he says the company still calls the "Butch Unit," after his father who managed the unit until his death in 2011, leading about 70 employees.
 
"My earliest memory is of me  sitting  with my grandfather at a fair, I think it was the Redwood Empire Fair," he said. "I was sitting on his lap. I was four years old, and riding around him and watching him do what he did, putting all the fishing touches on the midway." 

Any pondering of alternative career choices was brief for Butler. What higher education seemed to instill was his appreciation of his family's business. "When I first went to college, I looked at other job opportunities, but that only made think more about this business," he said. "College gave me a better understanding of all the different facets of the fair business."

The result was that college prepared him to take on an executive position at an early age. "I learned a lot of about working people on the accounting side, and dealing with all the different personalities," he said. "Fair people have different personalities than the carnival companies and we all have to work together. You have to negotiate with different personalities"

Butler credits his father and grandfather for being visionaries in the carnival business. Nonetheless, he feels the most distinctive mark his generation is making on the fair industry is the openness to progress. "We adapt and change more quickly than the previous generation, we are not as resistant to change. We are using more resources, like social media and technology, and using them sooner than the previous generation, who had a different philosophy towards change, they were more structured." 

This is not a simple change-for-change's sake mentality, "but my generation is not afraid to ask questions to improve something. Other generations worked hard towards one objective, and it's important to have that goal and work towards it. But we're more open to asking questions to look for better ways of reaching that objective."
 
In addition to a higher capacity for change, an adeptness at collaboration is essential to his current role as Unit Manager.  "College training made me better and working with different personalities, different committees and different teams, both within our company and at the fair management level." 

He added, "you want to have a good team behind you, and you want to have a good working relationship with the fair, and the fair manager. You are in partnership with the fair."
This partnership philosophy also means being able to roll with the punches and do whatever is necessary to optimize the midway. At a recent fair, Butler told a story of how the fair manager noticed just before opening that the fairground was low on benches and they needed more seating. Another fair, in relative close proximity, has just closed and were no longer using their benches. Butler said that in California, "the fairs are not in competition with each other and they were glad to help."

But getting the benches from one fair to another was another issue, so Butler offered the use of the company's semi to transport the seating. "We were able to pick up the benches, and it is about our relationship with the fairs." 

 One of the biggest challenges for this California-based carnival company has been the ongoing water shortage due to drought conditions in the Golden State. Butler points out the company has already conformed to new regulations and implemented their own water-savings measures so that this year there were very few changes. "We've already adjusted so much that we didn't really have to do anything differently this year," said Butler. "The biggest adjustment is that we like our rides to be gleaming, so you have to wash them using a minimal amount of water. With the Flume Rides, we use reclined water and recycle the water."

But even in communities hardest hit by the California water crisis, enthusiasm for fairs runs high. "We play a lot of farming communities, and they are hit by the drought, but the people are coming out and the agriculture seems strong. It's been a great year so far and at most of the fairs, we've been up, attendance has been up, we've on track to have one our best years ever." 

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