The California Carnival Company is growing and so are the fairs it services. Within the last 3-5 years, this upstart firm expanded its ride arsenal and staff, is in the process of upgrading its website and marketing reach and more than doubled the number of fairs on its route. In a relatively short time, this former unit of Midway of Fun has grown through hard work, consistent success and significant reinvestment.
But to company president Kevin Tate, the guide to growth has been about sticking to a common sense credo. " My job is to getting people come to the fair and then have them stay longer at the fair because they enjoy riding rides," explained Kevin Tate, President of California Carnival Company,
That simple philosophy has inj
ected a fresh energy to the small and mid-size fairs in the vast California market. Tate focuses on an unique and sometimes overlooked niche - county and district fairs and other festivals in California. These events are smaller, the locations a little more remote. County and district fairs, attracting tens of thousands as opposed to millions, only flourish with robust community support and a reliable relationship between the fair and the vendors.
With the past five years, The California Carnival Company has nearly doubled the amount of fairs, playing 38 events per season (which begins in January and concludes in October); 25 of these events are fairs. During this time, his staff nearly doubled to 75-80, depending on the event.
The company has invested more than $2 million in new rides, with an anticipated ride selection of 32 rides for the 2017 season. New rides include Tango, Frog Hopper, Freak-out, Wave Swinger, and a refurbished Gravitron. In addition, the company is revamping its website, social media presence and marketing programs.
The California Carnival Company is one of only a handful of California-based midway companies to receive the Circle of Excellence award by the Outdoor Amusement Business Association (OABA), and according to Tate, the only carnival company its size to receive one. "We're the smallest company in California to get this recognition, the others are double our size."
Tate joined Midway of Fun, a California-based midway company. In 2002, the owner, Sam Johnston retired and sold the company's two units - one of which, owned by Harry Mason, still operates as Midway of Fun. Tate took over the second unit, renamed California Carnival company, which had 15 rides and about 11 fairs.
The company partnered with Midway of Fun as well as other carnival companies for some fairs, but after a few years, Tate knew that to provide the midways he realized smaller California fairs needed, he needed to regroup.
For a few years,he "backed away" from the fair business, filling his season slots with lower-level gigs. "We played parking lots and festivals to fill up the summer," he said, biding his time until he could add rides and bid on larger contracts, instigating his more recent growth spurt.
"I knew to play these fairs, we needed to take the entire operations in different direction," he said. "I went into an expansion, which doubled our size and we got more fair contracts and quadrupled our gross."
That direction required a partnership of trust and shared goals. Together, the midway provider and fair stakeholders must find the sometimes delicate balance between annually reviving beloved traditions while bringing midway upgrades and fresh ideas, enabling hyper-regional, smaller scale outdoor events to grow attendance, increase revenue and fulfill their community-oriented mission.
The 2016 Humboldt County Fair was the second year for California Carnival Company to be the fair's midway provider. According to Richard Conway, General Manager, Humboldt County Fair, the midway saw a 10 percent increase in revenue and a "considerable rise" in presale tickets for its second year. But the clincher may the fair made the right midway decision was fairgoer response. "We had people telling us how great the carnival was as they were leaving or making a point to the come to the office," he said. "We had great positive feedback."
Even with a good fair, people are more apt to complain than to compliment. What is uncommon is both the fact and the numbers of fairgoers who went out of their way to give kudos to the new midway. "As far we are concerned California Carnival Company was a big improvement over the previous company, they were a great company to deal with," said Conway.
Great not just for the general manager, but for the fairgoer. "Their first impression was a really positive one," he continued. "They give a different feel and better setting than what we had. The presentation of the staff was excellent, an they make a point not just to know about the carnival, but the fair as well. Prior to the fair, they look at exhibits and other events on the grounds, so the midway staff was able to inform the general patron and answer questions."
Conway also noted that the company also "gave us great ideas for marketing and promotions. We worked closer with this carnival company than any other and it really paid off. When the fair is here, we're the only game in town and the biggest event of the year. The California Carnival Company makes the midway we have a step above similar midways for smaller fairs."
Tate is aware of how presentation can have a bigger impact on a smaller, more community oriented event. "Our main thing is customer service," said Tate. "Obviously a clean and lit-up midway is a top priority, but having the staff say please and thank you goes a long way. You have to pay attention to that detail, because you are interacting with the community. I also want the staff to be well-rested - the laws says you have to give workers a break every four hours, but we give them a break every three hours, the more rested they are the more polite and courteous they will be."
Tate takes a holistic view of presentation, one that includes the appearance and demeanor of staff and of course the ride appurtenance and selection inspires a confidence in the fairs and their customers - a friendly and safe place for fun. Why is ensuring that impression so critical, especially at the county fair level? Tate states it simply: Carny Stereotyping.
Many larger scale ride operators pride themselves on uniform appearance and customer service training, but midways at smaller fairs can often skimp on or even ignore public perception. "People have this stereotype of carnies, and some of the carnival companies out there do not pay attention to presentation and customer service, especially at the smaller fairs," said Tate. "We are getting big enough to consider running two units, but I do not want to do that because with one unit I can control the presentation better."
This hands-on approach is something that seems to suit smaller California events just fine. "A lot has to do with the operator and owner being out on the midway and available to answer our questions," said Angie Avila, Interim CEO , The Kings Fair, a California district fair in Hanford, California. "The company is very welcoming, and if we had a problem they will listen and not argue over one thing or another so it really is a partnership. You want a partnership with the carnival company."
The presentation of the rides and staff Avila acknowledged as being crucial for this fair's heavy emphasis on family. "They are a beautiful midway, great for their size. The carnival is very clean and the employees very presentable. We got nothing but good reviews, and our fairgoers, they let us know what they don't like. The employees were very presentable. Because we are a small community, we attract families from surrounding communities, and we are very family oriented. We have a lot of elderly too, and we want the carnival to be safe, clean and welcoming."
She pointed out the presentation went beyond the carnival staff and shiny equipment. "Sometimes people care only about the front yard and not the background the entire layout, the trailers and motor homes, the whole area was very clean and orderly."
It was the second year for the California Carnival Company at the Hanford event, which experienced a 9 percent increase in attendance, and a 7 percent increase in midway revenue. "They suggested some new promotions, such as having a dollar day on opening day and all the rides were a dollar. It gave the fair a real boost," she said.
Outside The Box
"Partnering with the fairs on promotions has become huge for us and the fairs," said Tate. "It's really about thinking outside of the box, and making promotions work for that fair's community. Our own social media promotions are growing, we definitely have developed our own following, and we know we are bringing people to the fair who like our rides."
The most effective promotions to this growing audience of California Carnival-heads are contest oriented, "we do things like guess how many miles to the next show, or we do a contest where we give out clues, and it's important to offer prizes, like unlimited wrist bands," he said.
"What you want to do is have promotions that encourage them share the posts."
Tate feels the optimum ride/game ratio is one game for "every 1.7 rides. "Basically my theory is that games are a dying market, but we keep the games because it keeps people on the midway, and we do not duplicate games. We added shaded structures, so people can sit down in the shade, comfortable areas. The idea is to keep them longer at the fair, because the longer they stay the more money they spend."
Another strong tenet for this midway company is customizing the contract - including promotional and marketing expectations, guarantees and midway footprint-to the needs of the fair. "Many of the county fairs are getting more proactive and understand the guarantee is the base, they can make more than the guarantee, if the carnival can invest more money in promotions and marketing," he said. "Every fair we've played has gone up in attendance and revenue. We know what works, because we play so many fairs throughout the year, while the fair manager or board are familiar only with their fair."
He added that more California fairs "are starting to listen because they're seeing our results."