Midway Millennials is an ongoing series profiling the new generation of fair professionals
Before working for James E. Strates Shows, Reed Sheldon tried several jobs, trying to find himself, a journey that included graduating from Florida State University, studying film and event production at Full Sail University, and working an array of technical jobs. Prior to working in the fair industry, his only previous midway connection was growing up and attending high school with Nick Strates, Midway Designer for the show.
With his work mostly unsatisfying and in-between jobs, John Strates, Nick's uncle, offered Sheldon a job with Strates Shows in 2015. At first, he worked in various capacities while also earning his CDL so he could drive trucks. But his background in electronics and computers eventually seemed best used in the midway office handing the Strates' FunCard system. These techie-skills and knowledge led him to be promoted to Ticket Manager for the 2016 season.
What was the real surprise was discovering that he actually enjoyed what had become a new career. "I never really thought about working on a fair, although I knew what Nick and his family did for a living," he said. "It's definitely a different lifestyle working for the fair, but I loved it immediately, I loved being outside and being part of a team. I liked the travel, which is something I didn't know I would."
Unlike typical 9-5 jobs, time off with a carnival company occurs erratically, usually on weekdays and always far from home. But what seemed like a negative Sheldon gradually realized was a plus. "I find the lifestyle appealing, during our off times we get to see the rest of the country, and Nick and I and other members of the crew will go surfing and dirt biking," he said. "We work hard but we have a blast."
But the camaraderie while working also has an appeal. "Everyone wears many hats, and there's always new problems to solve, like when one of the tractor trailers blows three tires and it's raining and you have to be on the road, it's a lot of work but there is a lot energy, I like that."
Last year, as he began assisting with the FunCard system, he found he had a knack. I was able to fix it when it was down, and the person I replaced was retiring, so they asked me to become ticket manager for this year," he said. "My background was mainly electronics, I understand the technology, it was simple for me."
The addition of the ticketless midway has made the Strates Shows more competitive, securing its position in the vanguard of forward thinking midway providers. "It's such an improved system, because it keeps track of all the financing, virtually eliminating any fraud. It cuts way down on loss, because there is no way to steal tickets. The cards or wrist bands do not hold any value."
He added, "It keeps track of every single ride, even with when we have independent contractors. The financials are much easier."
As he became more acclimated with the system, he noticed other advantages. "If a child gets lost, we can find out where the last ride they went on. This has happened a few times, where a parent comes to the office and we found where the child was last scanned. Just last week, the parents came to the office and we found the child had scanned in at the Monkey Maze. Those are little things, but we can easily track down the child and avoid any problem."
Ticketless refers to the absence of a paper ticket, but with the ticket transactions now essentially electronic, the Strates midway actually uses what is essentially a centralized ticket system. This makes the ticket office the nerve center of the midway, with Sheldon at its helm. His daily routine begins with running a diagnostic every morning, and making sure that the series of connectors and repeaters that enable the Wi-Fi connection to the Strates Midway is smooth and unbroken.
In fact, his set up duties pre-fair are making sure the entire system is online and seamlessly interfacing with the fairground's Wi-Fi. "The tricky part is that all these new concessions use big marquees, and you have position the stands and certain rides so you don't block the system."
He added, at any given fair there can be eight to 20 antennas that need proper positioning. "Sometimes they can be damaged during set up or tear down, so it is important to test the equipment and run the diagnostics. It's all about having the system working when the fair opens."
Once the fiber optic system at the fair is up and running and being monitored, Sheldon's other responsibilities include making sure the ATM machines are stocked and properly operating.
Within the last few years, the ticket manager position "really requires an IT background."
This emphasis and knowledge about technology and how it is used - and can be expanded - throughout the fair industry Sheldon feels will be the real contribution as more younger professionals enter the industry. "Carnival companies need to hire the younger generation, because to run the midway these days it requires a lot more brain power," he said. "The technology is getting more and more advanced, and you have guys who have operated analog rides their whole life, and switching to the new rides and systems can blow their minds."
The most noticeable generational divide is the comfort level. "For my generation, we grew up with technology. We want to use more technology and that is where the fair industry is going, it's the biggest change in the industry and is just going to grow. My generation is increasing that change too."
As the midway becomes more high-tech, what Sheldon also hopes changes is the image of the carnie. "The guys in their 60s, they tell stories about how it was a really rough industry. Things have change a lot since then. But my generation, we want to make this career a real profession, and clean up the whole image, and make it more respectable."
How will this continuing makeover be accelerated? Sheldon had worked in job recruitment a few years ago, and attracting young professionals into the industry is something carnival companies are increasingly aware of. "At Strates, we are trying ways to market the carnival company to young professionals. It is overlooked by our generation, but there are opportunities for professionals with the skills. You are seeing more of us, and we starting to shape the industry for the future."
And, while Sheldon may not be a carnival family member, he's about to marry into one. He's engaged to Kayla Fontana, who works for Fontana Foods, a leading food concessionaire in the fair industry.