(Midway Millennials is an ongoing series profiling the new generation of fair professionals)
At 22, Mariah Weiland-Duchow, a fifth generation carnival worker, has one more semester to go University of Wisconsin to finish her dual degree in Organizational & Professional Communications and Business Administration. She currently is the Human Resource Director at Mr. Ed's Magical Midway, a carnival company founded by her parents, Chad and Lisa (Weiland is Lisa's maiden name, but named after Ed Larkee, who started Tip Top Shows (Ed is Mariah's great grandfather).
But even for a small to mid-size carnival company like Mr. Ed's Magical Midways, the Human Resources Director has a hands-on responsibility on the midway. Her main responsibility at the fairs and other even
ts is the "Air Maxx" - aka KMG Inversion - which she sets up, tear downs and operates.
"Titles aren't really important to our company," she said. "You have to be able and ready to do anything and the Air Maxx is the ride I'm responsible for."
Weiland-Duchow may have the bona fides of a genuine midway pedigree, she is intent on bringing her generation's cooperative attitudes and the latest best practices in corporations. "It is important, no matter what level your midway is, whether you have 100 rides or 25 rides, to keep up with the times, make specific goals and strive for new things."
Mr. Ed's Magical Midway is a regional carnival company, with 25 rides, 20 games, and six food trailers, including Momma Lisa's Pizza, Duke's Ice Cream, as well as stands for funnel cakes, cotton candy and gyros.
The company generally has a May to October route, concentrated in Wisconsin and some if its largest county fairs, including the Sheboygan County Fair, the Pierce County Fair and the Lincoln County Fair.
"The fair industry has made great strides, but we have a ways to go," Weiland-Duchow said. "My generation is bringing new and innovative ideas, but we want to make everything better for everybody, the fairs, our employees, the customers who come to the fair. We want the midway to be enjoyable, to give everybody a smile."
As Human Resources Director, she is responsible for the company's 50 employees, including about 30 H-2B workers, mainly from Mexico. The fair industry - as well as other businesses that rely on the foreign visa worker program-narrowly averted an H-2B worker crisis. While the future of the program remains uncertain, this year Mr. Ed's Magical Midway was able to get the workers it needed.
"Originally, we thought we had to wait until July before got our workers, so we were very nervous as we got closer to the season. I know some companies had problems with the delay. But then it turned out that we got all the workers we needed by May. I am not sure what the situation will be next year."
The company is determined to overcome any obstacle to the program because like most other midway providers, they have no choice. "We rely on our Mexican workers because you simply cannot get American workers for these jobs," she said. "Getting an American workforce has been one of our biggest problems, so had to resort to different options. We also have low unemployment in Wisconsin, so we have to look outside for workers."
It helps in her role as Human Resource Director that she is fluent in Spanish, but the company takes a family philosophy when it comes to the workforce. "We want to be a team, so we really consider our carnival company to be one big family," she said.
She is cognizant of the situation the actual foreign workers are in - trying to provide for their own families while at the same time seeking to experience American culture. As Human Resources Director, she has organized employee outings - such as to a Milwaukee Brewer's game or to Mount Olympus Theme Park or going tubing down a river.
"This gives us a better sense of teamwork, and really builds employee morale. Company outings are an organizational tool."
She adds, "everyone working the midway is away from home, whether they are from Mexico or Wisconsin. Outings helps us intermingle and create bonds, and that makes work as a team to complete goals."
One aspect she feels is unique to her generation is her pro-feedback attitude. "We listen more and we act on that information," she said. "I encourage employee feedback, and customer feedback - both what we hear on the midway and on Facebook and social media. We hear what they have to say and we learn what we need to improve.
Communication is important so our customers have a good time and our employees do their job well."
She added, "corporations and other companies use feedback to better their industries, and I think my generation is beginning to use that to improve the fair industry. Technology is key. We keep in touch with the fairs and our customers."
In addition to the handling all aspects of workforce management at Mr. Ed's Magical Midway, Weiland-Duchow also manages the social media platform for the carnival company. "We've added Instagram which has become very important. Every fair now has a Mobile APP that fairgoers download, so that has made it so much easier because we can update them on the rides at the fair, how much tickets are, it's a huge help keeping customers informed."
One big change that she has seen within the past decade or so is that the midway company has become more involved with the aesthetics of the fair.
"Midway companies are lot more aware of customer satisfaction," she said. "We want to make the customer comfortable, we've added rest areas, better fences and much more flowers and landscaping. One thing we've done is added Tot Lots, where children under 36 inches can play and run around, it's a free play area where the young kids can go while their older brothers and sisters are on the rides."
The objective of the new Tot Lots as well as not just leaving midway aesthetics up to the fair organizers, "is to keep families on the midway. You are always going to get the kids 15 years and older, but we cater to families.
Communication is key for that as well, because there are more families than a few years ago, so we are catering to them."
The biggest project Mr. Ed's Magical Midway will undertake next year is a full implementation of a ticketless system. She is helping investigate the different systems available and while the systems have dipped somewhat in price, the biggest factor "is the cost. It is a huge change and the initial cost is expensive," she said. "But this is the wave of the future and it's important for a company of even our size in having the ticketless system."
She estimates that once a system is decided upon - a decision that likely will be made by year's end - it will take about two years to fully implement it. "The first step will be the rides, and then the games and food. It will be a lot easier for all our book keeping and accounting, but it is a huge change, and we have to keep the fairs informed. They are very supportive for the most part, because they like the better tracking. But we will be taking baby steps once we know what system we will buy."
Weiland-Duchow admits she has never considered a different life-path than being part of the family business, and spending every weekend of the summer at a fair, festival or other event. Most of her early memories are of being at the fair, and even at an early age she was intent on learning the fair business.
When she was about seven years old, she was with her grandmother, Maryland in the Pizza Wagon - then as now, known as Momma Lisa's Pizza - "making fresh dough. She was teaching me how to flip the pizza, although I was probably too young to actually flip pizza. But I remember being with her and learning about pizza, and it was the best pizza."