WINSTON-SALEM, N.C. --- Strates Shows typically trends ahead of the curve, whether it's the colorful landscaping surrounding its show office or the clean, interactive website promoting its operation.
Now,the show has come up with another best practice for the industry. Strates is among the carnivals to use camera-equipped drones to improve its midway operation. The technology is used to record images overhead that can be used to make adjustments in the future for a better customer experience.
A drone, operated by remote control, is relatively easy to use after completing the proper training, according to Jim Strates, the show's co-owner. The flying machine takes super high-definition photos, providing higher quality images than many computer and television displays, he said.
The images can be loaded onto mobile devices to view the midway layout from high above ground. In addition to using them to make tweaks on the midway, photos and videos can be used as marketing tools online. The images can also used as evidence against potentially frivolous lawsuits, Strates said.
The carnival first started using the technology a year ago after hiring a person who owned a drone and offered his services to Strates. Separately in 2014, the Erie County (N.Y.) Fair used a drone to photograph of Strates midway to celebrate its 90th anniversary.
The Strates family eventually bought its own drone, but it was destroyed after crashing to the ground. A second drone was purchased and Jim Strates' son Nick has been operating it at the fairs and festivals the show plays along the East Coast and Southeast.
"My son has been laying out the lot for the first time and we're going back to the drone shots as a source of information to show him what I've been talking about in terms of doing it correctly," Jim Strates said.
"It's a great tool because you can see everything," he said. "We decided to go ahead and buy our own drone. We can use it at every spot and share it with the committees. A helicopter pilot will charge you $1,000 to do the same thing. You can buy a drone for $1,000 and use it every week."
For carnivals using drones, they must consider regulations when investing in the equipment. The laws governing the use of the technology vary across the board and some cities and states have greater restrictions.
At the Dixie Classic Fair here, for example, the fairgrounds has a "no drone zone" with signs posted outside the property, but fair management gave Strates Shows permission to fly its drone over the midway, Strates said.
"We could fly it several times during the day, but on average, its about once or twice a spot," he said. "You see where the crowds are dispersed. It gives you a snapshot in time."
In Winston-Salem, the effects of Hurricane Joaquin put a damper on the first few days of the fair before clear skies returned on the back end of the Oct. 2-11 event. The first weekend, Strates opened the midway but didn't get any business due to heavy rains across North Carolina.
"Opening up in bad weather is worse than closing," Strates said. "You don't get the revenue but still have expenses" due to the cost of ride operations and labor.
John Strates, Jim's brother, gave a thumbs-up to the show's East Coast run, including its first-ever appearance at the Champlain Valley Fair in Essex Junction, Vt. The 2015 fair marked the first year of a five-year deal for Strates at Champlain Valley. This year's dates were Aug. 28-Sept. 6.
In addition to Erie County, the string of New York dates covered the Hudson Valley Fair in Fishkill; Orange County Fair, Middletown; the Brookhaven Fair; and Harborfest in Oswego. In N.J., Strates played the Meadowlands State Fair, promoted by Al Dorso.
After Winston-Salem, the show headed further south to Augusta, Ga. for the Georgia-South Carolina State Fair. It's a convenient spot. The train transporting rides unloads right next to the fairgrounds at a huge rail yard, Jim Strates said.
The annual Southwest Georgia Regional Fair follows in early November and the show wraps the season at the North Florida Fair in Tallahassee before heading "back to the barn in Orlando," he said.
The show bought four new rides this year: a Zamperla Tea Cup, Zero Gravity, an ARM Rock Star and a Dream Wheel from Technical Park scheduled for delivery in November. The wheel's white tubs are back lit with LEDs that provide a glow matching the color formations, Strates said.
"It's a little bigger than a Mulligan wheel, a good-looking piece for a second wheel," he said. "We also plan to refurbish our Dutch wheel. It's been on the road a long time and getting corrosive. Too many paint jobs and touch-ups over the years. Dings on the trailers. It's about time we took it in the shop."
The carnival got a big boost in help this season after bringing over Mike Bray, William Messamore and Freddy Fowler from Myers International Midways. Show owner Bobby Myers scaled down to an independent operator in 2015, resulting in those three employees looking elsewhere for full-time work.
"Mike started doing some driving for us and wanted to come out on the road," Strates said. "He's an excellent welder and fabricator. They're all very capable guys. They're young in age but not in terms of depth and experience."
"Overall, we're in surprising good shape compared to the general assessment of the industry," he said.