The mobile amusement industry had a year of contrasts in 2015.
On the one hand, in spite of record rainfall negatively impacting the Southeast in the Autumn, the fair industry seems by and large to have had an up year. On the other hand, the H-2B work visa program - which provides affordable labor essential to the functioning and profitability of the industry - was under legal attack, including a moratorium, now lifted, on processing foreign workers visas, requiring an amped-up lobbying effort from the Outdoor Amusement Business Association, the largest organization representing the mobile amusement industry.
With so many peaks and valleys - not to mention more than a few scary twists and turns - 2015 resembled a roller coaster or other thrill ride that OABA members know s
o well. It was during this turbulent yet upbeat climate that Michael Wood - a 3rd generation 'carny' and president, of Wood Entertainment Company, a ride company who subcontracts with other midway providers - assumed the role of OABA chairman.
In early January, Carnival Warehouse interviewed Wood about the state of the fair industry, the year that ended and the shape of things to come in 2016. He said that he was raised with two mottos, "either lead, follow or stay out of the way," and "when you aren't willing to act, you give up your right to complain."
One trait this OABA chairman cannot be accused of is an unwillingness to act. Wood spent 2015 in Washington alongside industry lobbyists, talking about industry issues with other carnival companies and fair executives at conventions and trade shows, and of course, he was like he is every year, there on the front line of the business, interacting with fairgoers on the midway. In his Carnival Warehouse interview, conducted by email and phone, Wood both challenges the industry to embrace change while admitting that he gained a new found admiration for the future of fairs as they expand their "footprint" in the American entertainment industry. In many ways, Wood's attitude contains the same contrasts reflected in the year he just experienced during his tenure as OABA Chairman.
Carnival Warehouse: What kind of year did the fair industry have in 2015?
Michael Wood: 2015 was a good year, mired with rainy weather early, but a very strong finish. The Southeast did get a lot of rain at the tail end, which impacted some fairs, but they were not a total washout. When the weather cleared they had good days, which says a lot about the product fairs are bringing to their communities.
CW: Is consumer confidence back, are people spending again?
MW: Hard to say on the level of confidence, but they certainly are tired of the doomsday forecasters. Obviously people are spending more money, and the economy is not as bad as it was. Why it is better is debatable. People like what we do and fairs and the outdoor amusement business are perceived as a good value. Lower gas prices has put more money back into the family budget, hence the strong finish to the season.
CW: What has been the impact of the lower fuel costs on fairs and their midway partners?
MW: They have helped, but Department of Labor adjustments to the prevailing wages that are mandated for H-2B employees, and therefore all employees, more than offset those savings.
CW: What are you most proud of accomplishing as OABA chairman?
MW: Just to have been part of our history the most, more specifically that we did to impact the laws governing the H-2B program through our advocacy efforts in DC. We, for the first time in our 50 year history, actually are a force on Capital Hill, one of the very reasons for our formation back in 1965.
CW: What surprised you most about the job of OABA Chairman?
MW: Realizing the potential of our industry. We are some of America's great entrepreneurs. Until I was exposed to more of a world view, instead of my own personal view, I didn't understand what the potential for us really is. When I got to Capitol Hill, and I was discussing H-2B and sitting side by side with representatives from Marriot Hotels and Six Flags and big theme parks and other big corporations and engaging them in conversation and comparing our business models, I realized that the fair industry is now in the big leagues. We have barely scratched the potential of this industry. We sell fun, we sell family and we as a whole can tap into that, and together we can resolve all the issues facing us. We may have to change some of the ways we do things, but resistance to change is what holds us back. There's a lot of possibilities for us.
CW: Are presidential election years good or bad for the fair business?
MW: Good. Where do all the politicians like to go for photo ops, where can they go to make the most impressions? Every presidential politician likes to be interviewed at the fair, at least the Iowa State Fair. Also, every local and state politician goes to the fair to be interviewed. The fair business is where retail politics gets conducted, that gives us more attention and makes more people interested in coming to the fair. Presidential elections give our industry a lot of free publicity.
CW: What can the industry do in 2016 to ensure that the H-2B program does not become confused with some of the anti-immigration rhetoric that has emerged during the election so far?
MW: Engage with your fairs and the communities in which they reside to tell our side of the story. When I posted my jobs on the Texas Work Force website, for two months, I got zero calls. When somebody says that we are taking away opportunities for American workers, that is an opportunity to explain what we are facing in the mobile amusement business. The only way to change that perception is through telling your side of the story. The people who come here through H-2B work really hard, go through a screening process and go home after the season is over.
CW: Have the fairs supported the mobile amusement industry efforts in terms of H-2B visas?
MW: We received greater participation out of our fair partners last year. We've made a lot of progress with fairs, more and more have spoken out on our behalf, such as the Minnesota State Fair. Many fairs have answered every call to action we've put out. They recognize the benefits of the foreign guest workers to their organization and also to their customers. They like the kind of employee that H-2B brings in and more importantly they like the consistency of these employees, it makes their life easier with the midway contractors and third party subcontractors when they have the caliber of these employees on the midway.
CW: What can the mobile industry do in the near future about the H-2B Issue?
MW: The OABA spent over $1 million in lobbying and I've spent 8 and half years, on behalf of our members. We cannot continue to further fight the battle, effort-wise and financially, without more support from ride operators, manufactures, concessionaires and fairs. When congressmen and senators hear from a voter, from somebody in their district, from their area, writes a letter, that carriers a lot of weight, more weight than people think.
CW: What H-2B relief did the fair industry receive from the omnibus bills signed by President Obama at the end of 2015?
MW: Many procedural things, but the two most impactful are lengthening of the season from 9 back to 10 months, and reinstatement of the returning worker provision. Where anyone here on a H-2B visa in 2012-15 will not count against the cap in 2016 ensuring that everyone has a shot at getting their workers. Unfortunately the DOL (Department of Labor) is slow walking the processing so their arrivals may not be timely.
CW: How will H-2B workers and the carnival companies who use them be affected this year?
MW: What the Omnibus provisions did was give us back the returning worker exemption, which won't count against our cap. The question is timing, because usually I would have all my workers before Christmas, but now the processing has to begin on February 1st, so carnival companies at fairs with early start dates might be scrambling to get workers. But by Memorial Day, when the bulk of the season begins, all the workers should be in place. The benefit of lifting the cap is that this puts experienced workers back on the front line. I hire locals and many midway companies do at many fairs, but you need to put experience back into the equation. Having the experienced employees enhances the experience customers have of the midway.
CW: How do the provisions of a new National Labor Act affect fairs and midways?
MW: The Browning-Ferris Industries case out of CA, in the simplest of terms, a contractor is responsible for the employment practices of it's subcontractors. In our case, fairs can be held at least partially responsible for what carnivals and food and game concessionaires do on their fairgrounds as it relates to their employees. Yes that includes litigation over employment practices, discrimination, and wage and hour issues.
CW: What emerging trend in 2016 should fairs and carnival companies be most aware of?
MW: Without question wage and hour actions by State and Federal Departments of Labor. The simple fact is they never dreamed we could, or would, impact the Omnibus spending bill, so they have an axe to grind. They need to justify not only their existence, but validate they are still on the right path to those they answer to professionally and politically.
CW: What OABA event at the upcoming trade show are you most excited about?
MW: The Mobile Amusement Industry Summit held at the Gibtown trade show grounds. We are giving our industry an opportunity, members or not of the OABA, to communicate the issues that confront them to us. Communication is key to any association, and we cannot work on an issue we are unaware of. Most importantly, we also look to communicate what we have been doing on behalf of everyone in the industry thus far, and ask for their help to continue to do so. Our goal is to use something as simple as communication to reunite our divided house within the industry. Individually we are noticed, but together we succeed!