Midway Millennials is an ongoing series profiling the new generation of fair professionals
Unit 1 of Spectrum Entertainment can be called the millennial midway. Based in the Midwest, serving mainly small-to-midsize fairs, festivals and other events in Wisconsin and Michigan, Spectrum was started in 1988 by brothers Dan and Dave Barbacovi, who began with a single inflate ride and has grown to two units; Dave Barbacovi operates Unit 2. Dan Barbacovi with his wife, Paula, run the overall carnival company and Unit 1 is operated by their children - MichaelBarbacovi, 31, Midway Manager; Crystal Barbacovi, 30, Games Manager and Melissa Barbacovi, 27, Food Manger.
Unit 1 features 20 rides, 15 games and three food wagons, travelling with upwards of 35 employees, although for larger fairs and events full and part time employees can exceed 50.
This sibling trio, each directly responsible for their own segment of the midway, grew up together working outside in the family business."
You can depend on family," said Michael Barbacovi, , the oldest and technically in charge. "We get along and we all know the business. We can argue and family can drive you nuts sometimes, but we work together."
Some contemporary sociologists have pointed out that one distinguishing features of the rising Gen-Y generation now making their mark throughout society is their predilection for cooperation. Compared to boomers and Gen-Xers, millennials got higher marks for playing well with others.
At Spectrum Entertainment, cooperation is key and the ability to overcome natural sibling rivalry plays a large role. Michael Barbacovi is mechanically inclined and has always loved the rides - one of his earliest midway memories is watching his dad paint a Scrambler - and although he attended community college to become a certified welder, "college was not my thing."
As supervisor, Michael Barbacovi has upgraded the professionalism of the midway. "We've invested a lot of money in adding LEDs to the equipment, keeping a uniformed look. We do not allow smoking, regardless of the fairgrounds rules are and we all wear hard hats and harnesses during set ups and break downs of the equipment. Our workers all wear uniform shirts and khakis."
The biggest change for his generation has been with the technology. "The rides use a computer system, and learning those systems can be a pain, and they can't handle water or moisture so you have be more careful with them," he said.
Along with the technology, "inspections have gotten harder, and you have to stay on top of changes," said Michael Barbacovi. "We had to change our fencing a few years ago, and some inspectors are harder than others. We had to add a third rail to our Tilt-A-Whirl, but that was in Wisconsin, but we kept the third rail and so we exceed some requirements, which is good."
Both the reality of the midway and its appearance is to ensure safety. Unit 1 has gained a reputation as a family-oriented midway, with fully half of its 20 rides being child and/or family rides, including a new (and larger) Merry-Go-Round, Disco Cars and Groovy Bus.
"Some of our key rides we've had for many years, but recently we've been changing out rides to increase more family rides. We've noticed more little kids and parents want to ride with their kids, they want to share that experience."
"Families are getting younger it seems," said Crystal Barbacovi,. "People seem to be starting their families younger, and you are seeing younger grandmothers and grandfathers. They all like to spoil their grandkids when they come to the fair."
Crystal Barbacovi emphasizes that the type of events that feature a Spectrum Entertainment midway are very family oriented, and just as the family and children rides outnumber the thrill rides more attractive to teens and young adults, the games are more family participation. "We cater to families with our midway, it is very kid friendly," she said.
One advantage for the game operation is that with games, there's more competition with computer and video games, where as catering to younger customers coincides with nostalgic game selection Spectrum Entertainment is known for. "We still have all the old games, like the Goldfish game, Bottle Up and Ladder Up, but we added a new game, Scoop-A-Gator, which we saw at a trade show earlier this year."
As manager, she is involved in every aspect of the games - setting up and breaking down the games section, working the games during the fair times, and ensuring the prize inventory. "I fell in love with games," she said, starting as a "balloon girl" - replacing balloons for the classic balloon and dart game, still a part of the selection of games Spectrum offers.
According to Crystal Barbacovi,, Emoji Pillows are the most popular this year, "Minions are still popular," and a retro-fad of the characters - Gizmo and Spike - from the beloved classic movie, Gremlins. My Little Pony stuffed ponies, "they're still popular, what little girl doesn't love My Little Pony."
Monkeys - the bread and butter prizes -are also popular, in an array of colors - are "hot, we keep them in six or seven different colors."
The movie licenses are popular plush items, "but they do keep rising in price and are expensive," although super heroes do not seem to be as popular as prizes, perhaps indicating an oversaturation in the super hero movies based on comic book sequel market. Last year, a large prize caught on - a plush donut, "which was about four feet tall, had frosting and sprinkles, it was a donut," explained Crystal Barbacovi,.
Most of her prizes purchases are made at industry events, then re-orders supply as demand dictates throughout the route. But often after the season begins, a prize becomes hot. Her "stock guy" at the prize company last year said that the Jumbo Donut Plus had a sudden popularity. "I ordered one, and it really caught on and I reordered it right away and kept on reordering, everyone wanted it."
She added, "I have a few in stock this year, so far it doesn't seem as popular."
Tech & Flash
The most noticeable change she believes her generation has brought to the fair industry is an insistence that technology be used to meet contemporary consumer desires. "We've added more technology to the midway," she said. "Ten yeas ago, you didn't see credit cards or ATMs at the fairs. We've changed the business that way, adding more technology. We can stay in touch more with our followers and friends through Facebook, and we can market to the families who go to our events."
And even though she values the nostalgia, traditional fair games, the presentation is far from dull or dated. "I think my generation knows what appeals to the new families, you can't get by on just doing the same old same old. We wrap our games with flashier designs, have LED lights on our marquees. You have to show people it's fun."
Like her two siblings, Melissa Barbacovi, said the fair business is "in my blood," and has been working food since "I was 10 years old. I worked in the cotton candy stand, I always loved working food. I love cooking and serving food and having customers enjoy themselves. I started in foods.
With the food stands - Spectrum Entertainment food stands include: Funnel Cakes, Corn Dogs, Cotton Candy, French-fries and Lemonade. "You have to be able and willing to do everything," said Melissa Barbacovi,. "I learned long ago, if you don't do it yourself, you can't expect some one else to do it."
There are four full time employees who work under her, and she hires part times mainly through Craig's List for the spots throughout the route, although many of the part time workers return every year for their local event."
Inventory management is one of the most crucial responsible of her job. "I order food at least every two weeks, sometimes more often depending on what we need and use. It is usually based on what we used at each fair or whatever spot we're playing that we used last year."
She added, "prices have been steady. They increased about two years ago, but this year has been comparable to last year. Some prices stay the same, but others can go up and down, lemons for example can get very high. But we keep our prices to the customer the same, we raised some items by a dollar two years ago but haven't raised them since."
In 2016, Unit 2 premiered a new 18 foot Funnel Cake trailer, from Chester, which Melissa Barbacovi, helped designed. "It's amazing, we have a counter fridge, four fryers, it was more capacity, we made it so it speeds up the process. We can output more product, and we're not bumping into each other."
In addition, the new design "doubled the size of the Marquee and has LEDs on everything, it is a lot more noticeable."
The objective is to make midway cuisine a unique and fun experience. "The funnel cake hasn't changed, people love the funnel cake, but it's not something you can get everywhere, you can't get a funnel cake when you to a movie theater. That special experience of fair food is what you are selling as much as the food."
The best thing about working alongside her two siblings? "We all stick together, it's not like we don't argue but we have each other's back."