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Fewer Workers, Bigger Crowds as Skerbeck Entertainment Group Navigates the 2021 Fair Season
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Skerbeck Entertainment Group may be a regional carnival company, but the 2021 obstacles this family owned business, with carnival roots six-generations deep, are overcoming will be familiar to midway providers nationwide. A tight labor market and rising costs have had an impact on midway operations, while simultaneously fairgoer turnout and spending are soaring to near record levels.

The Skerbeck family has been involved in carnivals and outdoor entertainment for more than a century – 170 years is the most current estimate – and is believed to be the oldest Michigan-based midway provider. Their route – which typically runs mid-March through November – focuses on county fairs in Michigan and Indiana as well as subcontracting rides at the Minnesota State Fair.

Tulip Time Trauma

This year, the route had a rocky start, which included cancellations and heavily restricted events – but by June, with most restrictions lifted or dramatically eased – it was smoother sailing, but compared to 2019, the waters are still rocky. “It's a year like no other,” said Sonja Skerbeck, Director of Booking & Marketing, Skerbeck Entertainment Group. “What's been most important is to communicate well in advance with the fairs, about what we're seeing, the increased attendance and spending, and the lack of a service for some plush and food items, and the problems with labor which they're also experience. It's been a learning curve for everybody, and we also want to express our gratitude that they are opening.”

Michigan didn't fully lift its COVID restrictions until June 22, a delay that caused a ripple effect that especially impacted smaller events. “We lost the carnivals in April and a lot of the May events,” she said. “All the Catholic Church festivals cancelled. We lost a very big event in Detroit. It made it very difficult to plan, and we actively worked on communicating with the events. The Detroit metro area is not a good place for events.”

One of the largest early season events, Tulip Time in Holland, Michigan, did go on but “with a lot of restrictions. It was an incredible process to get the necessary approval to have an event even with these restrictions. In the case of Tulip Time, we not only had to work with the health department, but with the local school superintendents, it was a complete nightmare to get opened. Some of the events, we had to coddle and convince organizers.”

Tulip Time proved to be one of the last 2021 events where strict masking and six-foot-social-distancing protocols were mandated, which required monitoring and enforcement by midway staff. Even with capacity and other restrictions, turnout was high, the atmosphere festive and attendees happy for a return to normalcy. More tellingly, no spikes in COVID outbreaks were recorded.  

“What everybody learned from the whole process is that outdoor events are safe, that large groups of people can gather safely, she said. “Even with capacity restrictions, it was an awesome event.”

Work Force Issues

Luckily, Skerbeck Entertainment Group's H-2B workers arrived in time. “We were one of the few lucky carnival companies, our H-2B visas were in the ‘A Bucket'. We got our selected workers in the first round of filing. We couldn't do it without these workers, many have been with us four years or more, they're critically important. They have special training; they know how to put together a Ferris Wheel or Tilt-A-Whirl.  We know how lucky we are and pleased to have the returning workers.”

The company received 35 H-2B workers. The labor shortage is being caused by the lack of American workers, the show has approximately 30 American workers,  less than half of the usual contingent and a group she describes as “core workers” whose skillsets span the gamut – truck drivers, electricians, and game stand operators. “There's an extreme shortage of help and we're paying higher labor costs than ever before,” she said. “At the same time, there's been an exponential increase in attendance and per-cap spending.”

During usual summers, at peak season, the Skerbeck Entertainment Group employed approximately 100 workers, for a midway of 28-30 rides, 18 game stands, and four food stands. This year, it's traveling with 26-28 rides, 15 games and three food stands.

In 2020, the company's food division participated in several drive-thru events food events. “People would order from all the concessions using a paper menu and their food would be brought to their car, like a car hop,” she said. “It was kitschy and fun and peopled loved it. We were able to keep our lights on. It was somewhat profitable, but it was good for our morale and outlook. We needed to work.”  

The workforce and reduced midway footprint has also meant a modification of hours. Many of the county fairs open on Monday and close Saturday night. This year, the fair may officially open, but the midway's opening is pushed backed to Tuesday. “We're so short-staffed, it takes more time to be properly inspected and cleaned. But we're actually making more money because of the crowds, and we've received nothing but positive feedback from the fairs, who are having their own worker and volunteer shortages.”

No Discounts

The Post-Shutdown times have also transformed pricing and promotions. The emphasis is on unlimited ride wrist bands, generally either $25 or $30. “It's a supply and demand issue. It's my general feeling that if it's between somebody riding six rides or buying a wristband, the wristband should be the better value. It's better for families and for young people. You want to deeply discount the weekdays this year, people are coming out already.”

The carnival company's marketing has also incorporated the new midway realities. “Marketing has been easier this year because we haven't had to offer discounts or incentives. We've shifted away from advertising the event and price promotions.”

The company has been able to underscore its midway, which for 2021 includes two key acquisitions: a new Wisdom Music Express, a refurbished Alien Abduction, and a new bunkhouse.

“The Music Express is a great ride, it's beautiful. We debuted it at Tulip Time and the response was great, people loved it. It also moves on one truck, which is very important with our tightened workforce.”

The Skerbeck Entertainment Group is technically about 20 years old, which is when the company purchased half of the assets of Skerbeck Brothers Shows as part of a generational transfer of assets. This new generation includes a family-centric management staff, including Jamie's sister, Niki Skerbeck, Food Concessions Manager & Vice President, and another sister, Tory Burrows, Office Manager & Vice President, who's married to John Burrows, Operations Manager.

“It's a year like no other,” said Sonja Skerbeck. “But all our company has been fully vaccinated and we're grateful to be able to provide a safe environment for our workers and customers.”
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