In the first major midway disruption of 2020, the Kentucky State Fair announced that its Thrill Ville – the Kentucky State Fair signature ride area – will be operated by Kissel Entertainment for the next five years.
A state fair changing carnival companies may be far from unheard of, but the Kentucky switch is a significant development industry observers are sure to scrutinize. It's the carnival company version of a Cinderella story, the rare occasion where regional show playing county fairs gets the opportunity to gain a state fair contract.
Dramatic ContrastNAME (North American Midway Entertainment), considered the largest carnival company in North America, has held the Kentucky State Fair contract for the past 13 years but after the proposal calculations were made, the new contract went to Kissel Entertainment, a family-owned enterprise.
Kissel Entertainment, an Ohio-based regional midway company whose route covers Ohio, Indiana, Tennessee, Kentucky, Georgia, Mississippi, Alabama and Louisiana, has a modest boast: “no event is too big or small for us.” The Kentucky State Fair will be its first Top 50 Fair and according to R.A. Kissel, although the company plays large county fairs during its season, the Kentucky State Fair is its largest.
“We have some close seconds, but this will be the largest fair we play,” said Kissel. “We are thrilled to be working the Kentucky State Fair. We already play many local and county fairs in Kentucky, so we are very familiar with the state's fairs and people.”
2020 & Beyond“We are very excited to be working with Kissel Entertainment beginning this year,” said Bobby Bell, Director of Exposition, Kentucky State Fair. “The essence of the Kentucky State Fair depends on creating a memorable experience and one that makes our fairgoers excited to return again. With more than 45 years of experience, we believe Kissel is bringing knowledge we can put to action in 2020 and beyond.”
According to procurement documents Carnival Warehouse obtained through an Open Records Request from the Kentucky State Office of Open Records, Kissel bested NAME and Belle City Amusements for the contract, which runs five years, with two five-year renewal options.
Kentucky issued the RFP on August 2nd of 2019, which closed on September 17th. Kissel received higher points than its competitors on several criteria, with the biggest contrasts being Customer Service, Rides, Attractions & Operations and Vision, which was defined as “the contractor must describe how they would like to grow the Kentucky State Fair over the next three years.”
Kissel scored 9,110 points out of a possible 10,000 for the combined technical and revenue evaluations, besting the nearest competitor by over 1,400 points.
“Kissel provided the best-evaluated bid, satisfying both technical and financial expectations,” said Ian Cox, Spokesperson, Kentucky State Fair. “We believe that Kissel Entertainment is bringing a unique touch in its industry, providing a positive customer experience the moment you enter Thrill Ville. Kissel brings more than 45 years of industry experience with a down-to-earth approach and personable interactions, which our fairgoers expect. Working in partnership with Kissel Entertainment, we plan to bring more spectacular rides for fairgoers to enjoy.”
Cox stated that issuing an RFP followed “the due-process required as a state agency to explore all viable options… A master agreement between NAME and the Commonwealth of Kentucky expired following the 2019 Kentucky State Fair and our standard process is to send out a request for proposals with outlined criteria (financial and technical) that help us select a future vendor. Kissel Entertainment provided the best evaluated bid. It's beneficial for us to review the terms of a master agreement anytime the agreement is expiring.”
Thrill Ville ImprovementsThat evaluation seems to include more spectacular rides, modifications to the Thrill Ville design and a stronger marketing partnership between the fair and its carnival company. “We expect to have no less than 45 rides with seven to 10 of those being spectacular rides,” said Cox. “We sought to guarantee more spectacular rides for fairgoers, bolster the commission the Kentucky State Fair would receive from rides and reexamine our position in the market. We are in the planning phases for the footprint of Thrill Ville but we are beginning with 2019's layout as our template. More collaboration with Kissel Entertainment will help us come to a decision on that.”
In the last several years, Kissel has bolstered its spectacular ride lineup, adding a KMG Speed themed Alter Ego, a KMG Inversion, a Cyclone Roller Coaster, and a second Chance Astro Wheel.
The fair has already selected its 2020 marketing theme – Where Kentucky Comes Together – and Cox is looking at ways to enhance its midway marketing. “In prior years, we have highlighted the experiences to be had at the fair, including rides, but never specifically promoted who our Midway Operator was,” he said. “We expect that working with Kissel Entertainment's team, we can uncover opportunities to promote their role in creating positive memories at our fair.”
The 11-day, annual celebration of everything Bluegrass State is actually one of the oldest agricultural fairs in the country, with its roots dating back to 1816, although it did not become an official state fair until 1902. Since 1956, the fair has been held at the 520-acre Kentucky Exposition Center in Louisville. Typically, the fair attracts upwards of 600,000, although the 2019 edition saw a 4.1 percent drop in attendance, which reached a still respectable 589,170 but still forced the fair to slip to #30 from #28 on the Carnival Warehouse Top 50 list of Fairs.
Kissel Entertainment is owned and operated by R.A. “Russ” Kissel and his wife, Tammy and their daughters Savannah and Madison, along with their sons-in-law Nick Seibert and DJ Jonker. Since 2005, the company has been on a growth streak. “I wanted just a little carnival company, but my daughters wanted a larger scale carnival.”
This larger scale carnival emphasizes quality and customer service. “We run a very tight ship, with very strict onsite management. You don't see our people wearing flip-flops or not having their shirts tucked in. They are very approachable, because fairs bring the community together and we cater to the people. That really sets us apart. We cater to the customer, not like a Walmart. We want a Neiman Marcus, a high-end boutique feel. We appreciate every county fair we play, every farm community and they see that appreciation in our rides and high quality customer service.”
Team Kissel is already developing ideas for the Kentucky State Fair. “We are working with their staff and we all want change up the midway, they are sick of having a tired layout. Too many carnival companies are not thinking of the patron, but we are working at integrating the midway better into the entire fair, so there's more flow and access.”
Acquiring his first state fair is the shot any carnival company seeking to grow could use, but how does he feel about the fact that an upstart regional carnival company has landed a high-profile major state fair? “Everybody loves a David and Goliath Story,” he said. Especially David.