For Crabtree Amusements, the first quarter of the year turned into an workforce scramble. His H-2B worker allotment was “capped out” by February and while he was able to receive an adequate number of foreign guest workers, they would not arrive until April.
“We work a long season, with a lot of big events early in the year,” said Pat Crabtree, who founded the company in 1978. “It was terrible, we did everything I could think of to find workers, and it really put us behind. I was taking our office staff out to operate the equipment. It slowed us down, increased operational costs but it was all hands on deck.”
Come April, the workers had arrived and the company was “rocking and rolling. The weather has been fine.”
Crabtree Amusements follows a south eastern route, mainly covering Texas, Wyoming, and Colorado. The company expanded its inventory to 75 rides, including a new Vertigo and Cliff Hanger. Due mainly to the uptick in fuel prices and other costs, Crabtree increased its armband prices by one dollar, “but nobody batted an eye. The economy does seem to be better, people are spending, so that must mean more people are working.”
Fuel costs have been dropping or flat for the past few years, but this year they are again climbing. “We are starting to feel the rise in fuel prices, we are running 10 generators. The increase hasn’t been that big, not like they were a few years ago and I am hoping that the increase in our prices will cover it.”
Another issue that is related to increased costs has been replacement parts for equipment. In the last two years, ordering replacement parts from manufacturers has become more difficult. The problem was exacerbated in the aftermath of the fatal ride accident in the Ohio State Fair last year. Ride manufacturers issued new guidelines on maintenance, and all ride companies have become more vigilant in inspecting and maintaining their rides in preparation for the 2018 fair season.
When this vigilance means new parts must be ordered, timely delivery is now the exception, and backorder delays the rule. “You stay up on maintenance, follow the regulations, refurbish equipment but when you order a specialty part the companies are no longer inventorying spare parts,” he said. “Not only do they cost more, but you can’t get them, you’re waiting six months for a pinion.”
What this means is that some equipment remains unused. It’s a frustrating situation – there are not generally manufacturers solely of parts, as there is in the automobile industry for instance. The blame seems to be mainly with the manufacturers, who are no longer inventorying parts as deeply as they had in the past. The frustrating situation has only gotten worse, and it will probably determine future buying by Crabtree. When researching new rides for the company, one new criteria is the future availability of parts.
“I am at the point where I won’t buy new equipment unless they can guarantee that I will be able to get parts,” said Crabtree. “They sell you proprietary equipment, and I’m spending a million or half million dollars, and I can’t a part to repair. Can you provide parts is a question I am asking now, and if they do, how long will I have to wait to get the part?”
The most significant new development for Crabtree Amusements in 2018 was adopting Magic Money, one of the newest Radio-frequency identification (RFID) companies now specializing in the fair industry. While Crabtree Amusements has operated a “cashless” midway for about 15 years, they were using a token system. This year, the midway provider changed the cashless from token into the card and wristband Magic Money System.
Midways are keeping up with theme parks, water parks and resort destinations and using an RFID system seems an inevitable step for 21st century carnival companies. Crabtree researched the market and settled on Magic Money mainly due to its usage of the existing cellular network. Unlike other systems that carnival companies and/or fairs to set up their own Wi-Fi systems, Magic Money uses existing cellular networks, and when needed the capacity is by mobile cell sites – known as COWS (Cells on Wheels), which essentially are portable cellular towers. We didn’t have to build our own Wi-Fi system, I like the cellular system and that has worked. We’ve added more vending machines preloaded tickets. The system was more user-friendly than the others on the market right now. It works for us.”
While Pat Crabtree admits the company is still analyzing data such as how much per-capita spending rose, “the customers liked it, they liked the downloadable app. People love using their credit card on the midway.”
He added, “the customer likes the system, and it is the wave of the future. There is more accountability with the system, we weren’t as accountable as we are now. There’s a lot of opportunity with the system.”
The company is poised to have a robust 2018. From August to November is the heart of Crabtree Amusements season. “We had a great year last year and this year is strong. The biggest problem was foreign labor, but we got the workers we needed this year.”