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2018 Top Carnival Companies: Improved Economy and Better Price Promotions Highlight Challenging Fair
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North American Midway Entertainment (NAME) retained its top spot as the leading midway provider to the Top 50 fairs in 2018. Carnivalwarehouse.com annually compiles a ranked listing of the Top-50 Fairs in North America.

The criterion determining ranking on the list is attendance: those with the most attendees rank the highest for each fair, most of which are the largest outdoor events in a region. It’s these larger-scale fairs setting most of the standards and creating many of the midway trends influencing fairs and their carnival company partners.

Trend Setters

The corollary compilation by Carnival Warehouse to the top-50 fairs is “Carnival Companies Playing The Top 50 Fairs.” It should be noted that five of the top fairs – Texas State Fair, Minnesota State Fair, San Diego County Fair and the Wisconsin State Fair use an independent midway format, contracting with several carnival companies to create their midway. The fairs are undeniably some of the most high-profile fairs in North America, all of which landed among the top 20 of the 50 events ranked.

For the rest of the 45 leading fairs in North America, their midways required one of what has become an elite roster of trend setters in the outdoor amusement industry, often setting the standard for ride selection, audience amenities, midway presentation as well as other aspects of the fair business for other companies to follow. The 2018 list narrowed down the top carnival companies to 16.

“On a personal level, I am flattered to be on any list determined by the top attendance,” said Frank Zaitshik of Wade Shows. Wade Shows was #3 on the “Top Carnival Company” and helping the company keep the bronze was The Great New York State Fair, which had a record-breaking year, increasing attendance by 10.1 percent, one of the fastest rates of growth for any fair. Other top 50 fairs by Wade included the San Antonio Livestock Show, Oklahoma State Fair, South Florida Fair and the Florida State Fair.

“The carnival is one component to a fair and attendance is only one way to evaluate the fair,” said Zaitshik.

Large-scale successes like the one experienced by New York are a combination of several factors, including weather, marketing and governmental support that keep a midway pulsating throughout the event. Zaitshik points out that he has several other fairs who either just missed out on being named; including the Missouri State Fair and the Nebraska State Fair.

“There are many fairs that don’t make the top 50, but report significant numbers,” he said. “At some of these fairs, a carnival company can make two or three times the revenue if they have the right rides for that fair. This is not to take away from any of the fine carnivals that handle the top fairs, and it’s not to diminish any of the Top 50 fairs, but if you look at per-capita spending, it’s a different methodology than just attendance.”

Challenging Year

Zaitshik point out that reading the top fair and carnival companies more broadly to get a better gauge state of the industry seems well taken. Carnival companies faced many new and costly challenges – a fatal accident at the Ohio State Fair last summer resulted in new maintenance procedures, new inspection protocols and more intensive scrutiny by fair officials, state and local government inspectors and the media. In addition, carnival companies had to deal with rising fuel costs, ongoing labor issues, and new DOT regulations causing an array of new challenges for the industry.

“2018 had a seemingly insurmountable set of circumstances but we conquered them just the same,” said Zaitshik. “In 2018 we were very fortunate because we had a lot of obstacles to overcome and I am very happy with the result.”
Not to mention the weather, which for many parts of North America included record-rain fall, intense heatwaves and one of the worst hurricane seasons in recent memory. On the plus side however, the economy showed a notable improvement in 2018 -- midway spending was up at many of the top fairs and the overall fair atmosphere often seemed more upbeat than last year, fueled by lower unemployment, higher consumer confidence and more disposable income.

Using an excuse-the-pun metaphor, Lance Moyer, COO/Executive Vice-President, Butler Amusements, summed up 2018: “it was a roller coaster year with the weather. We went from rain to heat.”
This west coast carnival company provides the midway for such top fairs as the California State Fair, Big Fresno Fair, Alameda County Fair, Kern County Fair, and Evergreen Fair. Rain may have dampened turnout for the Kern County Fair and Alameda County Fair, but Big Fresno Fair had a record attendance and the Evergreen Fair in Monroe, Wash., was able to make the list, albeit squeezing in at #50. This positive showing for a fair unable to crack through to this upper echelon in 2017 enabled Butler to maintain its 4th ranked position. “The economy was better than last year,” said Moyer. “Spending was good, especially in food and games. We had better grosses.”

A New Discount Era

Chris Lopez, Vice President, Ray Cammack Shows, agreed that the economy had noticeably improved. “Spending was up, 2018 was better than 2017. We are seeing customers spending more.”

But a cautious optimism may still prevail. An unmistakable trend that Lopez and other fair industry members can attest to is those most effective promotions by fairs and their carnival company partners were discounts. For instance, at the Arizona State Fair – overall attendance declined this year and the event was forced to close an entire day due to a hurricane – still experienced a record attendance day when a midweek food drive offered free admission.
“We are seeing more of that, people from the community supporting the fair through discounts, but also very discount oriented. Fairs are using a lot of new promotions to drive the gate, and they are utilizing social media to communicate with their base. You see more fairs offering deeper discounts at the gate and online. They are using discounts to drive the attendance at certain hours when it used to be slower, and people are responding to that and spending more. It’s very innovative and we are working with the fairs with their discounts and marketing to give customers a perceived value.”

Some top fairs, such as the Orange County Fair, took the discount marketing one step further by adding some 2018 technology. According to Lopez, the fair – which had a record attendance year - a 10.2 percent increase in fairgoer turnout over 2017 – was plagued by “heat and humidity” but “they were electronically able to see their attendance in real time, so they made adjustments to their promotions to react to customer flow, they were able to adjust their discounts with more flexibility, using discounted rates or pay-one-price offers at different times.”

Besides using expanded discounted gate promotions to spur midway sales, some top fairs successfully reversed the negative impact of costly national headline acts. Many fairs have cut back on their headline entertainment, but carnival companies at many top fairs have noticed that better talent buying made a significant difference in 2018. Moyer credits entertainment for pushing the Big Fresno Fair into record breaking attendance territory. “Fairs still investing in entertainment are the ones doing better,” said Moyer. “The entertainment the Big Fresno Fair had this year was really good. They also had two shows on the weekend, one kid-friendly and one adult-friendly. That really turns over the crowd.”

While discount marketing may have dominated marketing trends, casting a wider net, “advertising into new areas, reaching beyond your city limits really makes the difference,” said Moyer. “A lot of families can’t afford to travel to Disney, bit they are spending at the fair. The community involvement is a big factor. People enjoy the localness of their fair.”
RCS may have come in second in the ranking of the fairs, but the company does hold the distinction of providing the midway to the Houston Livestock Show & Rodeo, attended by 2,408,550, the most well attended fair in 2018. “The fair is our foundation to the season,” he said. “We’ve been there 25 years, it’s a great partnership because we share the same values for the safest midway and we are transparent in what we do and we are always in communication.”

Upward Powers

Powers Great American Midway had the biggest climb up the rungs of top carnival companies going up from #11 in 2017 to #6 this season. The company’s two top-50 fairs, the North Carolina State Fair and the Dutchess County Fair – the former retained its #19 slot in the top 50 list while the latter had a 2 percent increase in attendance, pushing it to #49 on the list. In 2017, the Dutchess County Fair did not make the list at all. “It was a challenging weather year,” said Corky Powers. “We are not at our at best when there’s a lot of rain and a lot of heat. We probably had the worst July we’ve ever had.”

For the fairs that did well, targeted and well-thought out discounts seemed an overriding factor determining that success. The North Carolina State Fair, he pointed out, offered a Pay-One-Price option every day instead of specific days. “That really kicked the midway into gear. Theme parks have groomed people into paying one price and getting all the rides, so it was very well accepted.”

He added, “the economy was better in 2018. The food and games did very well this season, people are spending more. The gas prices increased a little.”

Another bright spot for 2018 was a temporary reprieve from H-2B worker woes. Last year most carnival companies were able to receive their allotted foreign workers, but later into the season, causing some major headaches and last-minute scrambles to piece together a workforce for the first third of the 2017 fair season. “Last year we got our workers but we got them real late,” said Powers. “This year we got them on time, and luckily we got them. That a made a huge difference this year.”

Rebound Year

Repercussions from the fatal Ohio State Fair accident in 2017 were felt by both the top fairs and their carnival companies throughout the 2018 season. Last year, a fatal accident on the Amusements of America’s midway left an 18-year-old dead and seven others injured. The accident – on a Fireball, a KMG thrill ride –closed down the fair, pushing one of the highest profile Midwestern fairs down to #23 in 2017. In 2018, a court settlement between the victims and the Ohio Expositions Commission, the ride company and two private inspection firms had been reached. Prior to opening day, an extensive publicity campaign by Ohio State Fair stakeholders, including Amusements of America, was launched to reassure the public that fair rides were safe. In 2018, the Ohio State Fair grew 13 percent in attendance and climbed back to #20 on the Top-50.

“It was rebound year for us,” said Dominic Vivona, Controller, Amusements of America.

The rebound was hampered somewhat by the weather, which included a very wet summer in the Northeast and included two smaller fairs having to cancel. Amusements of America also went on the road with new ride additions, including a rebuilt Ventura Speedway, which was “parked for a year,” and a compressive overhaul of the company’s signature Giant Wheel. “We also added new phone charging stations and diaper changing stations,” said Vivona. “We increased our family amenities, which our fairs were happy about. The fairgoer needs a place to recharge the phone and when they do, they stay longer.”

The cause of the Ohio State Fair accident was due to erosion in the machinery of the KMG ride that went undetected by inspectors. As a result, ride companies issued new maintenance guidelines and carnival companies redoubled maintenance and inspection efforts, which also increased bottom line costs.

“The erosion issue that was bought to light in Ohio had tremendous ripple effects, on not just carnival companies but theme parks, anyone who has a ride. Things like that are so tragic and horrific, but a deeper and more thorough looking at all our rides is good. It was a sweeping change in the industry, but maybe out of this tragedy some good will happen.” Vivona added.

In addition to the Ohio State Fair, A of A picked up the Bloomsburg Fair in PA, an event they played for the first time in 2018. The fair was played by Dominic Vivona’s cousin Morris’ unit and the entire Vivona family was excited to add the fair to their lineup. Sadly, company founder and the oldest working showman in the industry, Morris Vivona Sr., passed away just before the company made its debut at the event. At 97, he lived a full and eventful life and was an inspiration to his family and the industry.

NAME Unbound

When evaluating 2018 in terms of the top carnival companies, NAME’s retention of the top spot reveals an interesting trend among the biggest players in the industry. Considered the largest carnival company in the hemisphere, NAME also freed itself from an acquisition only a few years, showing that the outdoor mobile amusement business and corporate ownership don’t seem to fit very well. . Family ownership – and the trust with fair partners and fairgoers this hands-on structure enables – remains the operational methodology of the carnival segment of the fair industry.

NAME plays 11 out of the 50 top-attended fairs on the list, more than double the number of fairs than any other carnival company, accounting for a total attendance of 9,412,857. The company is also the only company on the list to play Top 50 events in both the United States and Canada (13 West Coast Amusements, the only Canadian-based company on the list, was #13 for playing the Pacific National Exhibition, attendance: 705,381) NAME Fairs are: Canadian National Exhibition (CNE), Big E, Calgary Stampede, Tulsa, Indiana State Fair, K Days, Kentucky State Fair, Mississippi State Fair, Miami Dade County Fair, South Carolina State Fair and the Illinois State Fair.

The two Canadian Fairs under the NAME umbrella were their only Top-50 events that were in the top-10 fairs, however, only four of the 11 fairs showed an increase in attendance. It was a transitional year for the carnival company – NAME was acquired by Town Square Media, a diversified media and entertainment company in 2015 but the fit proved unfeasible and this year, Danny Huston, co-owner of NAME before the sale to Townsquare, purchased the carnival company back, returning the entity to private ownership for the 2018 season. “I am thrilled to own North American Midway Entertainment again,” said Huston. “. As the leading provider of outdoor amusements in North America there is nothing I’m more proud of than to own this company again. Our management team will remain intact and our Fairs will continue to enjoy our excellent service exceptional rides, games and food concessions.”

This commitment to safety, quality and enhancing the fairgoer experience remained a top priority for the leading outdoor amusement company in 2018. “Our greatest opportunities will come as we continue to make the experience of our guests the best that it can be and to increase attendance to our fairs,” Huston said. “Our goal is to deliver the safest, most advanced Midway to our Fair partners while providing an unforgettable experience for the whole family to enjoy. North American Midway Entertainment will stay a family-owned company and we have many loyal employees that we consider part of our family- it is just as much their company as it is mine… “I have the best staff in the business.”

With the ownership and management issues now behind them, Huston predicts 2019 will be a better year, made stronger by a recommitment to investment in the company. “NAME is committed to investing $4 million in new equipment in 2019.”, said Huston. 2019 should be an exiting year for NAME.

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