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Doing More With Less in the Carnival & Fair Industry: The 2021 Year in Review
A Carnival Warehouse Round Table Discussion
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Fairs are the great American tradition, spanning (almost) uninterrupted for generations.  A nearly extinct species in 2020, fairs, carnivals and concessionaires were determined to turn merely endangered into the pre-pandemic thriving mainstay of the popular entertainment ecosystem. For the mast part, that was accomplished. Events came back strong in 2021, often against many odds.

Adhering to new safety protocols, overcoming labor shortages, supply disruptions and a host of other obstacles, it was a year of persistence, struggles and setbacks.

But also one of triumph.

With unprecedented enthusiasm, fairgoers warmly greeted the return of the midway, creating some of the most exiting fair nights ever experienced. Many fairs recorded revenue and spending increases and industry-wide there's a sense that the midway model is stronger than ever, ready for the new challenges of 2022.

How was it done and what does next year look like from the end-of-2021 vantage point? To explore the multilayered, complex answers to that question, Carnival Warehouse interviewed a cross-section of fairs, midway providers, observers and leaders. Consensus is not the objective – although the labor shortage by unanimous decision was the highest hurdle to jump over in the race to reopen fairs in 2021.

Participants in this Carnival Warehouse Round Table are: Jeremy Parsons, CEO of the Clay County Fair & IAFE Chairman; Morris Vivona of Amusements of America; Andrea Stillwell, Marketing Director  Butler Amusements, Inc.; Davey Helm of Helm & Sons Amusements; Greg Chiecko, President & CEO, Outdoor Amusement Business Association (OABA); and Rey O'Day, Executive Director National Independent Concessionaires Association (NICA).

Carnival Warehouse: What were the most notable achievements of 2021?

Jeremy Parsons, CEO of the Clay County Fair & IAFE Chairman: The overwhelming sense of gratitude showed at the fair. They were excited to be at completely full fair, with little or no restrictions in place. The trend was that attendance was down or flat, but spending through the roof. In Iowa and the Midwest at least, it seemed revenue outpaced inflation. There was extra money because of the stimulus, and a pent up demand. There was some hesitation to travel long distance. Fairs are the perfect stay-cation. People were extending the length of time just to be at the fair longer.

Greg Chiecko, President & CEO, Outdoor Amusement Business Association (OABA): People are working and business was great with the proper weather.  Still some pockets of last-minute cancelations. 

Morris Vivona of Amusements of America: It's pretty unanimous. Everybody was short-handed. We never worked so hard. The crowds were big. We were doing more business with less. What we and a lot of people did was bring out less equipment, and we were able to show that you can do as much and even more money with less equipment. The fairs and their committees benefited.  This year was the year to show them that less equipment is capable of doing the job just fine.

Andrea Stillwell, Marketing Director  Butler Amusements, Inc.: We, like most carnivals did not know what to expect going into the 2021 season. We were optimistic that events would be allowed again, but there were no entities, state or otherwise, that could pinpoint precisely what date that would be. We chose to apply for operating permits outside of California, and if approved, try to build a route off that. However, only a few cities out of state were willing to host carnival events in early 2021 (January & February), certainly not enough for us to create a route. So we set our sights on opening one unit in April. We discussed with our partner, the Tehama County Fair, Red Bluff, CA what their plans were for their end of April Fair and the CEO emphatically responded, “We are having a full fair!” We were on board and it was the spark that lit up the remainder of our 2021 season.

Davey Helm of Helm & Sons Amusements: Some of the initial setbacks were understanding the new operational parameters we had to work within In California, fairs had reduced hours, educed crowds, and higher operating costs. Uncertainty was high that anyone would even show. In the beginning of the year, when we attempted to partner with our regular partners, local fairs, street fairs and church festivals, they were very hesitant. It was a hard challenge. 60 percent of our usual route cancelled, but 40 percent of those spots we codified as a rentals, not as a partnership – but we did have four actual partners with  fairs. But we made new contacts and did partner with local sporting arenas and it turned out to be an overnight sensation. We very quickly realized that we had to meet new challenges, But as the season picked up, things got better.  Some of our per-caps were up by 300 percent – all facets:  food, games and rides, Everyone's been locked up, they were spending upticks everywhere we went. We added new equipment, and ride packages. We created a ticketing app, we left the ticket boxes at home and focused on tech and customer service.  

Rey O'Day, Executive Director National Independent Concessionaires Association (NICA): When we learned the news and experienced the cancellations and harsh realities of the 2020 Pandemic, NICA's efforts were completely focused on helping our members and our industry survive.  NICA members survived because they helped fairs and events survive, and fairs and events survived because they helped our members survive. Together we discovered what our 2021 normal would be like as we all returned to work. We're very happy fair fans showed up ready to stay longer, eat more, stand in long lines, and pay higher prices with credit cards, debit cards and cash.   

CW: The good news was that the economy and fairs reopened. What were the reopening obstacles the industry faced? Were they all overcome? Which obstacle was the most difficult to overcome?

Jeremy Parsons: This industry is huge and the obstacles varied across the country, but the biggest challenge was labor and staffing. We had to change our staffing models, instead of hiring workers or using them for information booths, we hired non-profit groups to staff the booths. Also, we also dipped into youth organizations, we hired boy scouts to do barn cleanup. This turned out to be a win-win.
Greg Chiecko:  Lack of labor persists as our biggest problem.  Carnivals had to adjust the number of rides to match available labor.  Increasing prices and supply chain shortages continue to cause our industry, and many others, to be challenged.  Overall, the public most likely did not notice.

Morris Vivona: It was hard to get supplies. Shortages were everywhere. Carnival guys are resilient. Financially it was a good year, but physically it was exhausting. Trucking is out of sight, the cost of trucking blew up, it's more than it's ever been. Expenses were way up. Several of my fairs were up 30 percent or better in revenue, others were up by 10 percent, but all were up, but so were expenses and the amount of work we had to do.

Davey Helm: Not knowing if it was a right thing to do. Ethically to push it forward, we made sure our employees had a job and our company stayed afloat. Our company is 100 percent vaccinated, including spouses and children. We spaced out our rides. We all have the same end-game goal, keep everybody safe and healthy.

Andrea Stillwell: We only operated one carnival unit from April 29- June 20...when normally we would have three units operating during that time. On June 23rd we opened our second unit at the Santa Barbara Fair & Expo, Santa Barbara. Our third unit did not operation until September 2nd.
Rey O'Day: Due to necessity, many [Food concessionaires] simplified their menu offerings; often dropped multiple locations at fairs and events; shared supplies and storage with each other; learned that “minimum wage” is whatever it takes to convince someone to work for you; drove many daily miles to purchase products; and put every family member and neighbor they had to work.  

CW: The health and safety of fairgoers and the public is everybody's top priority. Do you think the  event organizers, health and governmental officials, and the public were convinced that an outdoor event could be held in the Coronavirus era?

Andrea Stillwell: We believe the incredible attendance numbers we experience at most of our events proves that the public was comfortable attending outdoor events during a pandemic.

Davey Helm: In the beginning people were very skeptical, I had a lot of health officials, under different umbrellas, inspecting me. They normally check the rides, but now they were checking protocols. At we first we weren't sure, but all the parties had good intentions and we gained knowledge. By the middle of the summer, when the inspectors came out we knew what they wanted to see. I felt very good, I won't say normal, but (I was) pleasantly surprised how easy the inspection process became.

Jeremy Parsons: We stayed proactive, and kept doing the different things we had been doing, like extra hand sanitizing stations, wiping down areas, promoting cashless transactions and systems. In Iowa like other fairgrounds, we have wide open spaces, which are safer.

Greg Chiecko: Absolutely, and the numbers prove it.  Hundreds of thousands attended our events with virtually no tracing back to the events.

Morris Vivona: Judging by the crowds we were seeing, I don't think the public was worried about any risks being at the fair.

CW: What operational protocols, ways of conducting business, trends or other aspects of 2021 do you feel will carry through to 2022?

Greg Chiecko:  I believe we proved to our fairs and events that carnivals can do more with less.  This practice must continue if we are going to survive and remain profitable for the carnivals and events we play.

Morris Vivona: Inflation. If everything goes up and the increases in prices keeps going up, that will eventually cut into grosses. Inflation may still be with us and may grow faster than revenue increases.

Jeremy Parsons: Looking at our operation in Clay County, the labor situation will probably be a trend that will continue. I am also interested to see if spending can stay the stay the same, or hit a new plateau, hopefully not decline. The extra sanitation programs will continue, everybody loves a clean fair.

Davey Helm: Efficiency in the operation. Moving forward, the higher costs of doing business in all facets of our business taught us to be more efficient. We are smaller, tighter, more thought out. Digital is here to stay. I am working my team of engineers and techs, to create beautiful programs and applications with Magic Money. Technology is giving us new solutions to new problems.

Andrea Stillwell: We hope that one of the major trends we experienced in 2021, the increased number of persons attending local, outdoor, family entertainment continues into 2022. We hope our fair and event partners who hosted new customers, who may have never visited previously, or perhaps not in many years, fell in love again with their local fair and have a better appreciation for their community.

Rey O'Day: Numerous knowledgeable and longtime fair manager and concession owner retirements are passing the leadership baton to a younger generation. Hopefully they will arrive with a balance of institutional memory and new solutions.  This change will definitely result in relationship building skills for everyone.

CW: What is your forecast for the 2022 season? What will be different? What do you see looming on the horizon?

Jeremy Parsons: The continuation of the comeback. The Midwest bounced back pretty quickly, but many areas were not as quick. This year's IAFE convention had a lot of success stories, it was  just a very positive meeting, this industry likes to get together and share ideas.

Morris Vivona: The attendance was not stellar, but the midway had some of the best years, especially in the case of the Bloomsburg Fair. We are changing perceptions about the midway, this year kept us from being complacent. We will be very happy looking at things with fresh eyes.

Andrea Stillwell: We expect 2022 to be a very strong year for our industry. It looks like many carnival companies have and will extend the length of their seasons, in turn communities will see more carnival events in their area than in years past. Economic recovery will continue. We still have some communities who's county has not allowed for a fair or a carnival since 2019 and we are looking forward to them receiving the green light to operate in 2022. Generally we are very optimistic about our 2022 operations.
Davey Helm: I'm very optimistic about 2022. A lot of people believe we will have a downtick, but that is solely up to the operator. Every aspect of everything I've learned is to give the customer a different experience. The customer is still as hungry for experiences as when COVID closed us all down. If we give them a new and exciting look and experience, 2022 will exceed to 2021.

Greg Chiecko: Hopefully one of stabilization.  I believe the country will not shut down because of viruses, but rather will adapt and move on.  The pandemic has taught all of us to be better communicators and to operate more efficiently.  By working together our industry will continue forward for generations to come.

Rey O'Day: We are learning to flex with new COVID surges.    “Capacity,” “touchless,” “supply chain disruption,” “PPP,” “hopscotching dates,” “Zoom,” “virtual,” “stay safe,” “non-essential,” “fist bumps,” “safety,” “online purchasing,” “single serve packaging,” “net over gross,” “length of stay,” and “less is more” have found new importance in our lexicon and actions. As an industry and organization, we will continue serving, surviving, and thriving TOGETHER using our wishbone, backbone, and funny bone and in our unique entrepreneurial styles.  Happy New Year!!

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