European designed and manufactured rides have long been mainstays at American Fairs, but can the same success be achieved for European games?
Vermelon Amusements has come to America to find out the answer to that question this this year.
Cornelius Vermelon, founder of the company, has presented arcade games of skill enclosed in large trailers throughout Europe for more than two decades. Seeing an opportunity in the U.S., he has brought his two European arcade trailers from overseas for the 2016 fair season.
A handful of leading carnival companies have contracted with VermelonAmusements, believing that the arcade concept popular in midways across the pond but never tried stateside, might find customers among U.S. fairgoers as well as spark much needed new interest in what many consider a flat or dying segment of fairs.
"We've had success with these trailers of games in Europe, especially the Netherlands, Germany and sometimes Belgium," Vermelon told Carnival Warehouse. "You don't have any of these types of games here, so we decided to give it a try."
For the first time in the U.S. fair industry, Vermelon Amusements brings not just an arcade style game, but what is tantamount to a mini-arcade arcade within U.S. midways.
Vermelon Amusements has two very large trailers for showcasing an array of games nearly synonymous with arcades: Claw-Crane games - where the player operates a crane that grabs a prize, usually a plush toy, and Coin-Push games, where players drop coins (in this case, tokens) into a machine, landing on a table stacked with coins while another table slides back and forth on the table with coins, pushing the coins off the table and the player wins all the tokens that are shoved off the table. The tokens are then redeemed for prizes.
Claw-Crane and Coin-Push games have long been found on boardwalks, malls, amusement parks or arcade restaurants like Dave & Busters but less so recently as fair attractions, especially on this large a scale.
"It is quite common in Europe to have arcade games at the fair, but here it is a new idea," he said.
Vermelon Amusements had its American debut as part of the James E. Strates Shows midway in February for some of the company's Florida fairs. After a brief hiatus in his homeland, Vermelon returned in May to play a circuit of fairs and other outdoor events, joining the routes of other carnival companies, including Wade Shows and North American Midway Entertainment (NAME). By late June, Vermelon had played about a dozen outdoor events, most recently the State Fair Meadowlands in New Jersey.
According to John Strates, Director of Operations, Strates Shows, the newness of the arcade concept on the midway and the large-scale, European styled presentation of Vermelon Amusements were key sales point for bringing the Dutch-based company onboard. "It is unique the size of the two trailers, and the flash of the operation, it is a big operation, two large, expensive trailers," he said. "I saw pictures of what they were doing, and was impressed. So we made a deal."
He added that Strates shows has actually dabbled with Crane "games in the past, but not like this. With trailers this size, it is a really exceptional presentation."
The trailers are 50-feet long and 20 feet wide, with each devoted to a single game.
There are 50 coin-pusher games in its trailer, with names like Poker, Magic Vegas and Black Jack, neon illuminated with eye-catching displays equivalent to brightly lit slot machines found in casinos. Up to six players can play at one time for each game, and according to Vermelon, each has a different bonus system adding to the variety of the experience for the fairgoer. Instead of coins, players use tokens, which are then redeemed at a redemption center trailer for a range of prizes.
The Claw-Crane games - 38 are in this trailer - are E-Claws by Elaut, a European game manufacturer with U.S. offices. Aligned in the trailer, they resemble glitzy aquariums stocked with the latest plush characters. The days of the hooks of the claws grabbing teddy bears is over. "I don't think kids today even know what a teddy bear is," said Vermelon, who added that the big draws this year are the movie licensed merchandised. "Ghostbusters are really popular, and Finding Dory items," he added.
But for both the Crane-Claw and the Coin-Pusher game, Vermelon has noticed that the prizes "bring the customers in, but I am finding they are staying because they like playing, they are fun games. People come to the fair to have fun."
The fun combines the unusualness of these arcade games within a fair context with their innate familiarity - fairgoers know them from arcades, Dave & Busters and other environments.
"There was a merchandise vendor who came in and told me that he had never seen anything like my trailers at the fair," said Vermelon. "He said the Claw-Crane trailer looked like a showcase room for the licensed plush."
He added, "I have only gotten positive reactions from the fairs and the customers."
Vermelon Amusements may also inject what some feel is a much needed new energy to the game segment of the fair industry. "It is a very new look for the midway games," said Strates. "Which is great. People come back year after year, and they see the same old things and they get bored. It's the same with the rides. The [Vermelon Amusements] trailers have a very new look, there's a real nice redemption center for the pusher games. The customers really appreciated it."
Unlike many fair industry members, Strates has an upbeat attitude towards games, as long as some game adopt a new business strategy. "I don't think games are flat everywhere," he said. "Games are only flat for the operators who are not giving out merchandise. If you people are winning, games do well. If you are cutting stock averages then the games at your fair are not doing well," he said.
What Strates does see - and in some ways the company's initial fling with Vermelon Amusements indicates this direction- is that with new ideas and approaches, game business can both be revived and achieve reasonable growth . "We actually added more footage to games this year, mainly because of Cornelius," he said.
Strates pointed out that the trailers create an arcade atmosphere - fairgoers enter the trailers, a kind of sequestered space within the midway - resulting in a new experience for customers. "It is very novel for the midway, the customers go into a separate world to play their games," he said. "It's a very clean look, but exciting, very dynamic. The fair industry here needs new ideas like these game trailers."
According to Vermelon, this combination of the new at the fair yet proven popularity has had the appeal he hoped for. "People have seen this at malls and what not, but they haven't seen an arcade at fairs."
Vermelon admits to not being surprised that his hunch that that a European concept has been well received American fairgoers. In fact, he has long noticed more similarities than differences between European and American fairs. "The people who come to the fair are coming to have fun, they bring their families, that's the same and the fairs are always about our customers, no matter where they are held," he said.
He did point out one significant difference when it comes to fair organizations.
Vermelon said that when it comes to larger fairs, the managers and organizers are "very professional," he said. "But with the smaller fairs, in the states they are very professional, even the smaller fairs here have fair boards that are very professional when you deal with them. Very easy to work with. In Europe where we play, which is mainly Holland and Germany, the smaller fairs are not as well organized, they are not as professional as they are here."
One notable similarity between the midway providers of the two continents is that carnival families have long been the foundation of the industry. Vermelon said that he is the 8thgeneration - "probably longer" - carnival worker and in fact his name, which is Dutch, actually indicates that the lineage goes well into European history.
As he described it, Ver is a derivative of the word "Far" and "molen" means carousel or merry-go-round. He said that surnames (last names) were rarely used by the aristocracy, until the 17th century. Most European surnames were assigned by career - for instance, the ever popular Smith likely originated for blacksmiths.
"My family had a traveling carousel, which was horse drawn," he said. "It would be part of the earliest fairs in Europe, every village had their own fair. My family had a carousel, a merry go round, where a horse would pull it in a circle and wooden horses would go up and down. This was the first carnival ride. Far means that my family traveled from village to village, playing fairs."
Photos courtesy of Ben Ramey