One of the highest profile fairs in the world has declared its independence, at least as far as its midway is concerned. The Iowa State Fair takes place not only in the Midwestern state that many feel epitomizes America's heartland, but every four years candidates running for the presidency stop by for a photo-op in this classic celebration of Americana. In early May, the Iowa State Fair issued a call for RFPs for "various components for its midway amusement area" for the 2017 fair, August 10-20.
Belle City Amusements has been the fair's midway provider for six years, but instead of renewing or renegotiating their contract - or soliciting RFPs from another large midway provider - Iowa is now following the footsteps of other Midwestern state fairs, such as Minnesota and Wisconsin and creating an independent midway. And, unlike some fairs across the decades that have gone back and forth between an independent midways and solo carnival company operations, this is an entirely new step for Iowa.
"It was a board decision," said Mindy Williamson, Marketing Director, Iowa State Fair. "This is the first time we are creating an independent midway, so this will be our first RFP for this initiative."
Williamson said that instituting an independent midway is no reflection on the Belle City Amusements operation. "We have been happy to work with Belle City Amusements since 2009," she said. "The decision was to make the midway managed in a way we manage the rest of the fair. The agreements will be handled on a component by component basis, much like we currently handle our concessions operations."
Will Belle City be encouraged to submit a proposal? "The process is open to anyone who meets the criteria to apply," she said.
Before making this decision, she said the board reviewed other independent midways, but also wanted adapt the contracting used in other segments of the fair to midway rides. According to Williamson, the Iowa event is divided into separate "components" resulting in any number of different contracts and numerous vendors, and now that approach is being applied to the midway.
"We looked at models of other state fairs with independent midways," she said. "We have a component model with concessions at the fair, where we hand-select each vendor, and do it piece by piece while looking at the overall big picture. With our concessions we offer our customers variety and different choices, so we will be doing something similar, with individually different rides and games."
Some Independence Already
Iowa scored record attendance last year - 1,117,398 - and record midway revenue, according to Charles Panacek of Belle City Amusements, whose midway featured 41 rides. But the fair has two additional, satellite midways that are unaffiliated with Belle City, the Thrill Zone and Kid Zone, accounting for about 10 rides combined, and contracted individually with other ride operators. "The Thrill Zone and our Kid's Zones are contracted separately and are different from the midway rides," she said. "They can be described as more experience rides with a slightly older audience or a very young audience specifically."
What sort of ride companies - large or small - and/or how many components Iowa State Fair stakeholders envision for the new fair - has yet be determined, and is dependent in what type of responses the RFP generates.
The RFP announcing specifies "Elements of the midway," and for rides, they are casting a wide net among types and sizes of carnival companies. "The very best spectacular, major, standard and children's independently-owned and operated and/or carnival-owned and operated rides," the RFP announcement reads.
"We are keeping the door open for all different components and companies," said Williamson. "We are open to both options, whether its wholly-owned carnival companies with many rides, or single ride or small groups of rides by independent operators. The agreements will be handled on a component by component basis."
Iowa State Fair has upwards of 200 concessions - and concession contracts - so the fair is accustomed to dealing with numerous vendors. The RFP also solicits proposals for a range of midway operations, including: "Outstanding shows and unique special attractions," "The finest games of skill," "Superior support equipment and services, including: Electric power generators and distribution systems, Safety, inspection and loss control services, Ticket sales booths, Staffing, Guest services and comforts"
While the bottom line is expected to improve, Williamson said no estimations of how much of an improvement, nor what internal changes will be made at the fair - typically, independent midways require an executive level manager to oversee all operations and deal with the many individual operators. Both internal staffing decisions and the review and approvals of the proposals will not be announced until after the 2016 fair. Whether the ride inventory will increase or decrease, or other changes to the actual fairground and infrastructure, will also not be announced until this year's fair is out of the way.
"The number of rides will depend on the size and depth of rides proposed and selected," she said. "We want to make sure and focus on the 2016 Fair, but we know that scheduling will require some time, so we have started the request of proposal process. The applications submitted will be reviewed after the 2016 Fair is complete."
The most important issue is that fairgoers, "won't notice the difference, they'll just a better midway," said Williamson.
While Iowa State Fairgoers are bound to be delighted with potential improvements to the midway, independence may cause a disruption among ride operators in August. The Iowa State Fair often overlaps with Wisconsin State Fair and is in the same month as the Minnesota State Fair, two of the largest independent midways in the country.
By the same token, most ride companies subcontract with smaller ride operators as well as game and concessionaires to provide a complete midway at a fair. With the Iowa State Fair independent midway now creating new opportunities for multiple ride companies during what is essentially the peak of the Midwest fair season, the market not only has gotten more competitive, but likely become more of a sellers market.
"Your traditional carnival company, does not want to see more independent midways because they make a huge capital investment and either they don't play the independent midway or only send a few rides," said Robert W. Johnson, President, Outdoor Amusement Business Association. "There are lots of smaller ride companies who book some of their rides with a larger carnival company, and, depending on their routing, may get a better deal for an independent Iowa midway. It will depend on who is available during the time of the fair, but yes, it could be more of a seller's market, because this does increase demand for smaller ride operators."