The fair season begins in January in Texas for Carnival Americana, and travels the Western region of the U.S., including stops in Colorado, Wyoming, and South Dakota before returning to Texas to complete the season in September. Cooperative weather patterns and a more upbeat attitude among fairgoers compared to last year have so far added up to, so far, a very good 2018.
The route includes such high-profile events as the Greeley Stampede, Cheyenne Frontier Days and The South Texas State Fair. “The year is going very well, we’re certain ahead of last year,” said Alan Cockerham, owner of Carnival Americana. “We’ve been consistently growing.”
Cockerham attributes the success this year to both the continued popularity of fairs, positive economic signs and internal improvements to his company he’s implemented recently. These improvements included some effective downsizing, shedding about seven events from the 9-month route. “We have focused more on quality, we do not really want quantity,” he explained. We focus on what we do best, so we are more profitable. We keep refining our product, improving in all areas.”
Carnival Americana’s midway footprint ranges from 15 to 50 rides, depending on the event. This year, the ride company added a new Dark Horizon ride, completing an inventory upgrade that began in 2017 with the addition of 8 new rides.
The equipment expansion has been complemented by a more robust marketing program, both creating their own following but also partnering with the fairs themselves. “We’ve always had strong marketing partners,” he said. “We continue to change this up, and change with the times. A lot of the marketing now is social media based. We’re not that active, most of the activity comes from the events themselves. A lot of the promotion we have done is with the fairs themselves, helping them in getting the word out.”
Social media may be leading the current marketing charge in today’s media landscape but Cockerham recommends that marketing programs must also be cognizant of the audience they’re trying to reach. In some of the more rural fairs and other events that make up the Carnival Americana route, radio remains an important tool. “The fairs know their communities, and for a smaller community, we still use some of the more traditional media,” he said. “Radio is very effective in many of the communities we play. They still listen to the local radio and we work with the fairs to create excitement, get the word out.”
Unlike many carnival companies whose season may begin in late winter but doesn’t really kick into gear until late summer, Cockerham feels his season is more of an even keel. “There’s no peak, it’s pretty consistent throughout the season.”
While reluctant to issue economic prognostications, he does “imagine the economy is doing better. At the events we are working this year the people are turning out, people are spending out money. My personal experience has been that the gross sales have been increasing compared to last year at the event’s we’ve played.”
He added, “What we do is a small portion of the national economy, I wouldn’t know if the economy is having an effect on our business. I don’t know if the carnival company is a very good barometer of the economy. Old timers will tell you that carnivals are recession proof, that when times are bad people will still come out and spend their money at the fair. Then other people say that when times are good, people will spend more at the fair. I think a lot of it depends on what the fairs are doing, and how well they know their community. The fair’s we’ve been working with have been doing an excellent job this year in reaching their community.”
Cockerham has been in the fair industry for about a half-century. He’s says he’s a second generation carnie – his parents were in the concession business. He was General Manager for Bill Hames Shows, before starting Carnival Americana.
This persistent local demand for the fair as a community event remains the bedrock of the fair industry. “What has stayed the same for me are the customers,” he says. “People look forward to the fair and the carnival every year. I haven’t seen much change in the level of enthusiasm and excitement for the carnival.”
What has changed – and changed dramatically – happens more behind the scenes, what the fairgoer doesn’t see or at least pay much attention to – the labor issue. “Labor, without question, is the biggest issue facing our industry.”
Cockerham says his company was one of the last “hold-outs” to using foreign labor. He said he only started using foreign workers through the visa program about four years ago. “I tried and tried to rely only on American workers, and really tried to develop that work force, creatively doing everything I could. But that has been in the biggest change I’ve seen in the last 50 years, that we can’t find those workers. People aren’t coming to apply for jobs like they used to. The only solution has been foreign workers.”
Cockerham uses about 35 foreign workers, a substantial portion of his workforce, which fluctuates in size depending on event. It was about the same number of H-2B employees as last year, and he says that so far he has avoided cap-related constraints that have plagued many carnival companies in recent years. “We haven’t had to modify our labor force,” he said. “But the fact is carnival companies are not going to be able to operate without labor, without a good work. It’s amazing that there would be any restrictions at all by the government on these workers. These are good workers, they are not a problem.”
He points out the H-2B controversies are just one aspect of other labor issues facing the carnival business. Labor issues also loom at the management level of the industry. “When I was younger, there was no problem finding life-long, dedicated workers. They chose the carnival or concession business as their profession. You do not see that anymore. That is why, one of the biggest challenges for the industry in the future is developing qualified managers. You are not seeing many young people who are career-oriented and long-term professionals coming into the carnival business. People aren’t willing to travel they liked use to and are not seeing the industry as a profession.”