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Jimmy Strates: 2022 Already Less Volatile than 2021
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How does 2022 look so far compared to 2021? Who better to explore the multi-faceted answers to this deceptively simple query than one of the most well established carnival families in the fair industry, James E. Strates Shows?

Next year, the company will celebrate its centennial. According to its website, Strates Shows was founded in 1923 when James E. Strates, a Greek immigrant started  in the business working at “a carnival athletic show as a wrestler taking on all challengers. In 1923, James E. Strates acquired Southern Tier Shows, eventually changing its name to James E. Strates Shows, and a carnival dynasty was born.

The company is legendary for being America's only railroad carnival – traveling OG style by rail with personnel, and equipment and 61 rail cars. Unfortunately, COVID has temporarily derailed the train – overstressed rail systems have yet to fully recover and tracks were not available for usage this year.

In a candid and sometimes wide ranging discussion, Carnival Warehouse caught up with Jimmy Strates, who related perspectives on where this next stage of COVID recovery will take the fair industry.


Carnival Warehouse: What kind of year was 2021 for Strates Shows?

Jimmy Strates: In 2020 we were non-operational until the very end, but that was the beginning of the pent-up demand that we saw through 2021. It was very tentative behavior, people came out, but we saw that a lot of older people were absent, but they are not our biggest midway customers. People who did come were spending, and that helped us get out of a terrible financial hole and it was why we are able to go out in 2022. We were able to get aid like the rest of the industry, but nothing can make up for people coming out to the midway.


CW: Rumor is the famous Strates Train is still in lockdown.

JS: The government regulations doesn't make it feasible to take the train because ownership of some tracks changed and they increased the rates. We weren't able to take the train out last year, it's really an all or nothing proposition, the train is not great for short loads. But there are some market influences, like rising gas prices, that are making the cost more feasible. We aspire to have it at some fairs in 2023, which is our 100th Anniversary.


CW: So far in 2022, what has been the Strates experience, how has it differed from last year, and do you feel these trends will continue throughout the season?

JS: The season's been pretty strong. We had a good a good winter and spring route. We had a couple of new spots, but when you are going in for the first time, you can do well. The trend I've seen is that people are not as manic in their spending, so it's not quite as strong spending. But, we are seeing a bigger cross section of people. The older people are coming back. I don't think we're going to be working quite as crazy this year. Things are a little more predictable and a lot less volatile.


CW: What COVD repercussions are you still seeing?

JS: We're seeing more cashless transactions. People are behaving themselves with social distancing, but it's not enforced.  Everybody has gone through all the gyrations of mask wearing. We're all used to it and we're not focusing on the negative, so it is a lot like normal, the new normal is normal.

It boils down to this: COVID was a disaster.  During the rebound we saw more manic behavior, people were spending and staying longer and we had some of the biggest fairs we've ever had. It was a reversal of trends, that's understandable. They had a year to get that sudden urge out of their systems, but the economy is good and people are spending. I suspect we'll have closer to a regular year, a slight increase over 2019, but not as good as 2021.


CW: How is spending trending this year compared to 2021?

JS: Older people I think may come out in larger proportion than last year. It will be a good year, people are still riding the wave of a good economy and stimulus money. But some of that discretionary income may dry up towards the end of the year because of inflation. But sometimes when discretionary income dries up, our industry does better. Instead of spending thousands of dollars to rent hotel rooms and go to Disney Land, they go back to their local fair. I think more families will be taking “Staycations” this summer.


CW: Will Strates be running all units this year?

JS: We'll be going out with all of our equipment, a little over 50 pieces. Last year, when we sat down with fairs, we would normally shoot for 75-85 percent of our usual midway, because of staffing problems and what they expected their attendance to be. This was adequate for the crowds, who set some spending records. But this year, we're bringing 100 percent of the equipment to the midway, which will accommodate any volatility in the market.


CW: What has been or will be the impact of inflation and higher fuel costs?

JS: It's going to drop our margins. We need to be cognizant of it because if affects the whole industry. There's a sensitivity about raising prices to the customer, because if they get too high, you have to reestablish yourself with your crowd.


CW: Is your workforce stabilized? Are you under-staffed? Did you get your H2B workers?

JS: We got our workers. That's a blessing for us, because we don't have to worry about it this year, and they came in on time. But we have a broken system and everyone is waiting until after the election. You can't depend on a workforce where it's a lottery system because not everybody did get their workers.


CW: Will you be moving towards fewer and more high capacity rides, a trend we saw last year?

JS: It's an ongoing discussion with our fair partners. The fairs are always going to want more and carnival companies are going to be more resistant. It's a simple mathematical equation, if the carnival company can't cover expenses and make a profit; the reality is there is not going to be carnival companies. We are getting higher and higher expenses, from wages to fuel to new government regulations and the reality is there's going to be less equipment. It's an ongoing discussion. The reason we diverge on the number of rides is that the fair is concerned with gross revenue, and the carnival operator is involved with net revenue. More rides can increase the gross revenue, but decrease the net. Last year, we set records because we had we had higher net revenue.


CW: What are you looking forward to this year (what are you most positive about)?

JS: Seeing the people, not only the people coming to the events, but seeing the people we get to do business with. They produce some really good events in their areas for their communities. They are very exceptional people. That's my favorite part of the job, our interactions because it is a creative process. It's our good fortune that we work with some very exceptional people and events.  


CW: You sound very optimistic about the future of carnivals post-COVID.

JS: The market is only going to get better for carnivals. I am encouraged for our company, who else has three principals, me, my brother John and my brother Jay, who are college educated. And my brothers and our team rock. We have more expertise and bring more to the table than any of our competitors, so I feel the world looks very promising. A lot of companies didn't make it through COVID, so that means the market is less saturated.
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