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At 179, the Erie County Fair in New York may be one of the oldest fair in the country and for the past 94 of those years the James E. Strates Shows has been the fair’s carnival company. The contracts – not up for renewal until after its 100th anniversary – considered the longest partnership between a fair and midway provider in the history of American fairs.

Strates Shows dates back to 1923 when James E. Strates, a Greek immigrant, who had worked in a traveling carnival show, Southern Tier Shows, and in 1932 changed its name to James E. Strates Shows. During the extraordinary length of its contract with the Erie County Fair, generations have greeted the annual arrival of the James E. Strates Shows train, a colorful freight train filled with wagons and amusement ride. The tradition continued in 2018, when the last remaining carnival train pulled into the historic Erie Railroad Depot in the Village of Hamburg to be greeted by eager fairgoers, local news media and the Erie County Fair Marching Band, Fair Bear – the official mascot of the fair – and Erie County Fair officials.

Business Decision
Jay Strates – the 3rd generation of the family in the business – does not remember a time not being either on the train or at the station for the train to pull into this town. While appreciative of the importance of tradition and being the only remaining carnival company using a mode of transportation that most other multigenerational family midway providers long abandoned, his main reason for still using the train is more business than personal.

“We use the train like any other business decision, when it, makes sense,” said Strates “It depends on how far you have to travel and the size of the event, but usually you need 250-300 miles for the trip to break even for rail. We’ve adapted our train operation significantly and right now we are running coaches and adding more flat cars.”

The railroad may not be the major form of conveyance for the company’s entire inventory of rides, but at an event like the Erie County Fair, it makes good business sense to give the people what they want, and what fairs epitomize – Nostalgic Americana. “We had one of best train days ever this year,” he said. “The fair does a great job promoting, trying to get thousands of people to turnout for Train Day. It’s an amazing promotion for the event even after 94 years.”
Erie County Fair Train Day

Strates Train Day

The Erie County Fair, whose 2018 attendance is being reported as approximately 1.2 million, is one of the major stops of the Strates Route. Opening in early August, the event also kicks off the peak of the company’s fair season. As Strates explains it, the company’s season has three “different kinds of routes,” which starts with Florida fairs in the winter, then moves up to North through the spring and summer then heads southward to the Carolinas for the fall months. In addition, there’s a smattering of small events in Florida – such as Santa’s Winter Wonderland during the off months. “We really have three peaks to our season, but now is the busiest part. Santa’s Winter Wonderland is for marking time, it allows us to keep a payroll and keeps folks working, it serves the purpose.”

Even during the full-season, there are still smaller events in between major fairs. “We prefer to operate as one large unit,” he said. “But we do two or three units to shoulder the season, but it’s not a preference.”

Three Peaks
For 2018, the weak link in the chain so far has been the spring dates, plagued by rain and unseasonable temperatures. “Our Florida season was very strong, but the spring season was a little rough, we had cold weather, and then we had heat and the rain. We’ve had the same strange weather patterns everyone is experiencing this year.”

In spite of an uncooperative mother nature during the 2nd quarter the year, a rebounding economy and strong fair demand by consumers has infused the 2018 season with noticeable energy. “The economy is stronger this year. People are spending, they may not be spending as much since before the recession and may be waiting until after we’ve fully recovered, but they are spending on entertaining themselves.”

He added, “The changes to the tax laws continue to extend the economy in the upward trend. We’ve noticed the south and southeast are probably stronger than what we see in the northeast. A lot of these southern states are more business friendly, they are attracting retirees and immigrants. There was a little stronger tailwind in the South and Mid-Atlantic States. Their economy is stronger than last year, but normally when we go north the economy seems stronger but this year it really didn’t seem stronger.”

What has been healthy this year is fair support. “The crowds have come on strong, the fairs are all running strong.”

For the 2018 season, the most significant ride addition was the Pirate, which was actually welcomed aboard by the company in 2003, but more recently was out of commission so Strates Shows could completely overhaul the ride, including a new electric drive system and new LED lighting. “It’s a high capacity, multi-trailer ride, it looks great on the midway.

Strates also serves as chairman of the Outdoor Amusement Business Association (OABA), and emphasizes the biggest threat facing the industry is maintaining its labor force. “The H-2B is the single biggest issue and there is no other issue that can impact the industry like that. The efforts by the OABA has consistently been the best of any industry using the visa program. We’ve led that effort, and we have great advisors and lobbyists. We need an increase in the caps, and have permanent fix so returning workers are not part of the cap count. We need to keep up that fight.”

He’s also confident that fight will be sustained. Strates, who holds an MBA, adds “I find this industry resilient. We’re going to get the job done, no matter what obstacles we face. You hear about the millennials being lazy, but I think we have a lot of great young people in the industry. They work hard.”
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