The H-2B Visa crisis almost ruined ViVa Vienna!, the annual community celebration and main Rotary Club fundraiser in Fairfax County, Virginia – a suburb of Washington D.C. known for having one of the highest median incomes in the U.S.
ViVa Vienna! Has been organized and operated by the Rotary Club for the past 33 years, according to A. J. Oskuie, Festival Manager and for more than two decades, Cole Shows Amusement Company has provided its midway. Cole Shows has become dependent on 25 guest foreign workers through the H-2B program, but like many small-to-mid-size carnival companies a server crash followed by a legislative skirmish that took months to resolve put their operations in jeopardy.
Family & Friends
The solution that was eventually reached – expanding the cap to allow for additional returning H-2B workers – meant that many ride companies needed alternative measures to meet their labor force needs during the month of May. Cole Shows was forced to scramble to fulfill its long standing ViVa Vienna! contract. “We were shorthanded,” said R.C. Cole. “I called on everybody, family and friends. I needed everybody on deck. I called up old workers who were pretty much in retirement, who had not been on the road in years, to comeback. I flew in relatives up from Florida. Everything finally went off without a hitch.”
The fair must go on and Cole was able to provide the festival goers with 26 rides, the typical-sized footprint, with noticeable adjustments. “We were down one or two rides,” said Cole. “We weren’t able to set up the Rock & Roll Himalaya because I don’t have the foreman for that ride yet. Instead, we set up a Round Up and a Funnel Force. We had to focus on the less labor intensive rides to setup and operate. But we had basically the same number of rides, and they were well received.”
The fair also saw the debut of the Wonder Wheel, which Cole said the company just took delivery on. The top grossing ride at the fair was “probably our Rock Star,” he said.
But it was the understaffing due to the H-2B visa constraints that have afflicted so many carnival companies in 2019 that caused avoidable headaches for this Memorial Day Weekend outdoor event. One being that many of the rides were still being assembled and inspected on opening day. “It’s a logistical nightmare without the workers. But we got everything set up and inspected, everyone pitched it, even some of the concessionaires.”
The ViVa Vienna! ride revenue was down about 5 percent compared to 2018, mainly due to some weather woes. A pre-summer blast of heat on the closing day took a bite out of the attendance. “It was just one day, but it was hot, dreadful heat. People were not accustomed to that kind of heat in May.”
Rain proved to be an indirect factor. Thunderstorms were predicted in the area and poured down in nearby towns, bypassing the actual fair itself, or when the rain did descend it was after the closing of the fair. “We had the threat of storms, but we dodged them,” he said. “But people heard about the weather and that might have hurt attendance too.”
More Vendors, More Food
Without a gate admission, gauging exact attendance is not possible but other signs of the fair were positive. Oskuie estimates attendance to be in the 50,000 range – typical for the fair – and the “live revenue” seems to be up from last year. The fair saw an increase in vendors – about 300 – the bulk of which were selling a wide array of merchandise, ranging from specialty hot sauces to denim jackets and other garments.
About 22 vendors served food, which was a mix of local restaurants who set up an outpost at the fair, local food trucks, classic carnival cuisine contracted with Cole Shows, and a few other vendors who the regional fair circuit. The most noticeable were an influx of new ethnic food vendors – reflecting the growing diversity of this Northern Virginia enclave. “We had a new Indian restaurant, which was really well received and a Korean barbecue which was also new,” said Oskuie.
On the more Americana side, Big Fat Daddy – a local purveyor of grilled meats – expanded to several stands at the fair and “were probably the biggest sellers,” he added.
The festival expanded its food selections, vendors, and points of sale to coincide with the most significant innovation of this year’s ViVa Vienna! – additional stages. The event’s entertainment showcases grew from one to Main Stage to three Stages – Main Stage, a Children’s Stage and a secondary stage – the Lawyer’s Road Sage. The increase in food vendors allowed the positioning of the added food vendors closer to the stage areas, encouraging impulse fair food purchases.
“We wanted something in the immediate proximity of the stages,” said Oskuie. “The food we looked for was barbecue and other food that people could stop and buy, stuff that’s quick and easy to eat.”
With added stages, the entertainment offerings multiplied in both number and assortment. “We are always working on making our entertainment to reflect the diversity of the Washington D.C. metro area, which we are part of. We had Rock, Hip-Hop, Rap, Country music and even a ukulele band.”
The lineup also focused on local groups, such as the Vienna Singing Princesses and the Vienna Community Band. In addition to more stages, the ViVa Vienna created a high-tech information booth this year – an 80-inch screen booth that promoted entertainment, vendors, rides and Sponsors. “That screen was a big change,” said Oskuie.
Social Media Promotions
The fair increased its social media presence, especially on Instagram, which saw a 66 percent uptick in followers. “Social Media has been the biggest change. Our fair caters to high school and middle school students. Social media really engages the youth of the community.”
The social media promotion begins 4-6 weeks before the event, building in momentum as opening day approaches. Promotional campaigns include scavenger hunts as well as raffles ranging from mountain bikes to memorabilia from the NHL team, the Washington Capitals. “Our social media campaigned worked better than ever this year, and worked because we had different promotions leading up to the fair. In April, we ran an art contest for the fair, and the winning work was used for our ViVa Vienna! t-shirt. We really pumped that promotion and had many entries.”
Promotions such as an art contest that culminates in the official t-shirt, are cost effective and clever methods of reinforcing a community event whose mission is to fundraise for other charities, humanitarian organizations and other nonprofits. 100 percent of all donations, sponsorship and other revenue generated at the fair supports Rotary Club contributions, which last year netted $190,000, distributed to 72 organizations.
“2018 was a record year for us,” said Oskuie. The 2019 figures are still being tallied, but with an improved social media presence, more stages and more food and other vendors, the trajectory remains upward. “We had more children’s programming; we’re attracting more millennials and women members to the Rotary Club. Next year, we are improving our website and thinking of adding bigger name entertainment. We are growing. At the end of the day, ViVa Vienna is all about giving back to the community and in that sense, this year met expectations.”