This year started off several challenges for Brass Rings Amusements, a Northern California-based carnival company that operate under the moniker Midway of Fun. Foremost of course was the weather and for the first nine weeks of his season, “we couldn’t catch a full weekend,” said Harry Mason, founder and CEO, stating that his early season route, while having highlights, was off by 11 to 15 percent.
Mainly the weather was unseasonably warm in the region, rising into the triple digits some days, but California’s fire season also negatively impacted attendance at other fairs. Highlights of the year included the first ever North State Kiwi Festival, held on the Butte County fairgrounds, a weekend long festival celebrating the regional kiwi industry. It was an event Mason had a hand in organizing. “We did launch a new event, the North State Kiwi Festival,” he said.
New outdoor festivals tend to be uncommon but with the titular fruit leading the area’s agricultural economy the inaugural event was overall positive. The North State Kiwi Festival was smaller in scale than a full county fair, with free admission but “it was something different for the area for that time of year, with music, food and carnival rides “It had something of a mixed result, but it was strong enough to move forward with.” Economy & Agriculture
The economic outlook in the Golden State seems positive, although Mason sees it lagging behind the positive economic indicators, such as lower unemployment surfacing elsewhere in the country. “We’re not talking as bad as 2011, but there’s something wrong in California, there doesn’t seem to be an improvement from 2017,” he said. “The governor is raising fees and taxes and that seems to be having an effect, those costs are being passed along.”
On the positive side, not only have the California drought conditions have been dramatically — if not yet totally – alleviated, that foundation of the state’s fair system, the agricultural industry is having back-to-back upswing years. “Ag is pretty healthy; the animal sales have been up. The past rain season is 70 percent of normal, which is the highest it’s been in years. It has helped almond growers, although people are talking about the tariff war that might cut into the almond business.”
While the first part of the season may have some rough patches, Midway of Fun is in a strong position. Like most carnival companies, the season really picks up in mid-summer through early autumn, with August and September being his strongest months, where the majority of his profits are made. “I am optimistic, you have to be,” he said. “You keep hustling; you make your money at the end of the summer.”Midway Reinvestment
Even with a less than stellar start to the season, 2018 found Midway of Fun in a strong position. Last year was his “best year” in his 43 years in the fair industry and Mason heavily reinvested in the carnival, which included a massive facelift to the shows Italian built fun house, rechristened as Mayhem and adding new rides, including Jalopy Junction, Jumbo The Elephant and a Swing Tower. The company has also expanded its food offerings to 12 stands.
The company enhanced customer amenities with Galaxy Light Towers with charging stations for the rest stations at the midway. “The more customer conveniences and comforts you have translates into longer stays and more spending,” said Mason.
For Midway of Fun personnel, the company added new bunkhouses by Gorham Fabrications. “They did a really great job on them,” said Mason. “We now have 16 bunk houses, with four brand new ones. There are 20 showers and every worker has his own room, they get to live their life.”
The company has stabilized its workforce with 40 H-2B workers, the most he’s had in more than 15 years. “We tried hiring the unemployable. Today’s millennial generation just have a different work ethic. We capped out this year.”New Marketing
The company hired a fulltime social media and marketing specialist, who has grown the Facebook presence to more than 10,000 followers. The expansion of the social media presence coincided with an overhaul of the company’s website
, and an increased rebranding effort, centered on a new tagline “California’s Friendliest Carnival.”
“It’s been a process, but I look at my stats and see 50,000 likes, it’s been a great addition,” he said. “We had the same website for a long time, but now we put out a new clear, sharp website. We spent some money, and we are doing more marketing and advanced sales and its gone way beyond what we were doing.”
This new marketing push which is reaching both fairgoers for a specific fair as well as the growing following of midway aficionado fans. Mason cites an example of this new conceptual change. “Instead of just selling the Ferris Wheel, we are selling the Ferris Wheel experience. With our brand building, we have taken a different approach, which goes all the way down to our employee training. We are California’s Friendliest Carnival, and we are selling the experience.”
Gone are the days where marketing was handled entirely by the fairs. Midway companies are now active partners in the promotional efforts by any event. “We have to drive the gate with the fairs,” he said.
Some fairs are still hampered by ineffective boards, and are “stuck in the old ways of doing things,” he said. But other fairs, such as the Sacramento County Fair, are fully active in marketing and have been are enthusiastic collaborators with Midway of Fun. “Sacramento has been a great partner; they’ve grown their fair from 12,000 to over 100,000. Their board really knows what to do. Last year they hired focus groups of millennials and asked them about the fair and came up with a lot of good ideas.”
A season has its ups and downs but carnies tend to be a positive bunch. Naming his parent company – Brass Ring Amusements – exemplifies Mason’s attitude. The moniker comes from personal experience, on his first visit at eight years old to a midway of any kind – the Santa Cruz Boardwalk – and grabbed the brass ring on the carousel. “I haven’t missed one since,” he adds.