The largest association of U.S. carnival companies starts the new year with the a new president whose background includes nearly a quarter century of overseeing midway operations for one of the country's major fairs. After an extensive executive search, the board of directors of the Outdoor Amusement Business Association (OABA) announced that Greg Chiecko has been named President and CEO, effective February 1, 2019.
Chiecko replace Bob Johnson, who is retiring after 24 years at the helm of the OABA. Chiecko is currently Director of Sales at the Eastern States Exposition, aka The Big E, which was ranked the sixth largest fair in North America on the 2018 Top 50 Fair list by Carnival Warehouse. The Big E had record attendance last year of 1,543,470. “Greg's diverse professional, industry experience, proven leadership and business acumen gained at Eastern States Exposition coupled with his affable leadership style, make him the ideal CEO,” said Jay Strates, Chairman of the OABA. “This is an opportune time for Greg to join the OABA and work with our Board to accomplish our strategic goals as we approach the 55th year serving our members. I believe Greg's steady and thoughtful approach is exactly what we need to ensure the ongoing success and growth of this trade association.”
Chiecko grew up in Chicopee where he attended The Big E every summer with his family. He actually came to be involved with the largest regional fair in the northeastern U.S. not through the usual 4-H route. He was a member of the Junior Fair Board in high school, working summers at the fair with duties ranging from assisting with marketing to taking underprivileged children to the fair. After being graduated from Syracuse University and working in pharmaceutical sales he applied for the position at the Eastern States Expo, where he oversaw midway operations.
Chiecko describes his role at the fair as acting as a liaison between the fair and the carnival company and other vendors, which requires a skill set and perspective that will serve him well as he navigates the future of an industry beset by new regulations, labor issues and an ever-evolving outdoor entertainment event landscape. In addition, Chiecko has hosted industry fundraisers and regularly attended OABA events, International Association of Amusement Parks and Attractions (IAAPA) Expos and the International Association of Fairs and Expositions (IAFE) where he served as a Board member and chaired several committees. He has also taken on leadership responsibilities in the New England Association of Amusement Parks (NEAAPA) and the Massachusetts Agricultural Fairs Association.
“I am extremely honored to be named president and CEO by the OABA Board of Directors,” Chiecko said. “I look forward to working with, and listening to, the many talented individuals in our industry in order to provide an association that fulfills the needs of its members. After my 24-year career with Eastern States Exposition I am ready to utilize my skills and experience in the carnival, fair, circus and concessions business to benefit the outdoor amusement industry. My priorities will be to strengthen the communications and relationships between carnivals and fairs in order to forge long lasting and mutually beneficial relationships, continue to improve regulatory advocacy, member services, fundraising and networking opportunities.
Carnival Warehouse: You went to the Big E every summer growing up, what is your earliest fair memory?
Greg Chiecko: I don't recall my first fair or my first memory at the fair. But I do remember this one summer where we were scheduled to go to the fair on the last day, and I got sick. I had a fever, and I couldn't go. I remember that, not being able to.
CW: How old?
GC: I don't know, young, six maybe. Under 10.
CW: What were your responsibilities as Director of Sales at The Big E?
GC: The simplest way to describe it is that my department was responsible for all income flows to the fair except for the front gate. I acted as the fair liaison to the midway, concessions and sponsorships. Anything operationally that happened had to go through me. If somebody had an issue the issue came to me and if I couldn't solve it I would bring it to the fair management.
CW: What makes a good midway?
GC: Quality, safe equipment and good personnel.
CW: What makes good midway personnel?
GC: Consistency. Knowledgeable about ride operations. Neat in appearance.
CW: The Big E is one of the top fairs in the nation and one of the few top fairs that is not a specific state or county fair but a regional fair. What has this fair been doing that other fairs could learn from and that you can apply to the OABA?
GC: We encompass six states, I'm not sure if there's that much difference because so many state fairs are comparable because they draw from an entire region. There's a lot of crossing state boundaries. The Northeast is very densely populated, that gives us a diversity of geography and people.
CW: In the press release announcing your appointment, you were quoted: “My priorities will be to strengthen the communications and relationships between carnivals and fairs in order to forge long lasting and mutually beneficial relationships” – what part of this communication needs the most improvement?
GC: I didn't mean to imply there was any breakdown in communications. But let's be realistic, times have changed and the way we do business and operate has to change as well. Labor is going to be a huge problem, and that's just one example of a problem that is really a set of parallel problems for the fairs and the carnival campiness. Better communication is needed so we can and look to each other to solve problems and mutually understand those problems. For many years, carnival companies acted independently and had an agreement with the fairs. But now we have to work more closely with our partners and identify ways both parties can help reduce and solve the problems we both face.
CW: You've also stated that a priority as OABA president will be to: “improve regulatory advocacy” – what regulatory issues require advocacy improvement and how has that lack of advocacy affected carnival companies and/or their fair partners?
GC: There are some DOT regulations that are a big problem, and a lot of new state regulations. It has been hard on a lot of companies to work under these regulations. The OABA has to be to supportive. Our industry is subject to a lot of unintended consequences of regulations that solve problems in other industries.
CW: Is the H-2B crisis the biggest national issue affecting carnival companies and OABA members?
GC: Obviously it's a huge issue for our industry and for a lot our allied industries. It's unfortunate that Washington right now can't get anything done. There's legitimate reasons to have foreign labor in this country. It's not just private companies benefiting, but nonprofits. Most fairs are nonprofits. The nonprofit world is suffering because of H-2B. Federal legislators have to realize that foreign labor is key to successful family-friendly operations and shutting down the H-2B program will hurt nonprofits.
CW: What do you hope the OABA will accomplish regarding H-2B in 2018?
GC: Ultimately we need to fix the system. But the most immediate need is to get the cap lifted. We can fix the immigration system and raise the caps. But the deeper problem is an overall labor problem, and you really have to solve that labor problem. From state to state, there are different prevailing wages and overtime rules. We really have to look at solving the big picture labor problem. It's more than just H-2b.
CW: What is your favorite ride?
GC: Still the carousel. You can be a kid who is too small for other rides and still ride the carousel and you can put your grandchild on that very same ride.
CW: Every summer at the fair, I can't wait to eat a________
GC: Pork on the bun.
CW: What area of the midway should fairs and carnival companies stop overlooking?
GC: The overall prettiness and cleanliness of the midway. There should be more accommodations and more investments in capital improvements. Not just for drainage and the conduits for cables. There needs to be constant investments and upkeep from the fairs on their accommodations. That will make people stay longer and increase per caps.
CW: Why are fairs still popular?
GC: They still have relevance. Where else can you come to a family friendly place, it's a tradition that is deeply embedded. There's not too many other industries that make people smile, and have people come together. So many of those elements have fallen by the wayside in our culture. It's like they used to say about drinking Coke, it's the real thing.