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Positive But Complicated, OABA H-2B Seminar Promises a New Balance
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What will be the most impactful trends on midways for the 2023 season? The answer to that question if not found, will be discussed and explored along with other pivotal issues confronting  carnival companies, concessionaires and their fair, festival and other outdoor event partners during the week of the IISA Convention.

Held in conjunction with the annual Gibtown Trade Show,  other events are featured by the International Outdoor Amusement Business Association (OABA) and the National Independent Concessionaires Association (NICA).

The 2022 fair season saw strong – in a handful of cases, even record or near-record turnout – and robust spending. Generally speaking, it was a repeat of 2021 where the lockdown repeal induced enthusiastic community support. This time a year ago, the fear was, will the families still chose to spend their entertainment dollar at the annual fair now that theaters, concerts and other events had also reopened?

Last year proved that the fair industry remains a steadfast foundation to both communities and popular culture. However, the challenges of labor, inflation and supply disruptions negatively impacted all components of the midway, making 2022 while profitable, one of the most stressful.

Inflation & Shipping

Will 2023 be better? In some ways, especially regarding foreign labor and the stability of the H2B guest worker system, this year contains more reason for optimism than there has been in nearly a decade. In other ways, the path forward is still filled with struggles and potential pitfalls.

"I think we will have good participation during Florida Week,” said Greg Chieko, President & CEO, OABA. “2022 was a strong year for the industry and grosses were up for the most part. However, because of inflation and supply shortages, the nets were flat or down. I see 2023 as a strong year but carnivals will have to adjust their pricing to keep up with rising costs and will need to find creative ways to make themselves more efficient. Supply issues will continue to be spotty and random. Overall deliveries are being made but they are all late. New ride orders placed will generally take 2 to 3 years.”

Other OABA events held during the week fo the IISA Convention include the OABA Reception Honoring 2023 Hall of Fame & Pioneer Recipients; OABA Board Breakfast with Partners; OABA Board Meeting; and the 7th Annual OABA Top Golf H-2B Advocacy Fundraiser. “"We will be hosting our major H2B fundraiser at TopGolf,” said Chieko. “New this year will be our OABA reception, open to all members, on the show grounds on Wednesday at 5:00. This is a great opportunity for OABA members to mix and mingle with our manufactures and suppliers and hopefully will become an annual tradition.”

A centerpiece for OABA members will be the annual seminar the H-2b Balancing Act – Practical, Political Strategies For Survival In This New Abnormal” presented by James K. Judkins, President of JKJ Workforce Agency. “Our biggest challenge in 2023 continues to be a consistent labor force,” said Chieko. “We are doing everything we can to find a permanent solution to our labor issues. We will continue to open the lines of communication with our fair and event partners to make all of our events safe and profitable."

Biden Administration Favorable

This year's seminar promises to be more hands-on and practical than previous years, covering the array of compliance issues related to the array of protocols, including audits by the U.S. Department of State and Department of Labor that must be completed before the Department Homeland Security will issue any visa.

“Well, I don't know if it is the new normal or the new abnormal, but the bottom line is, many things are better this year and the vast majority of carnival companies will probably get all the foreign workers they need, especially if they have been part of the system already,” said Michael Wood, president of Wood Entertainment and OABA Government Affairs Committee Co-Chair. “The Biden administration has been the most favorable administration towards the carnival industry, having almost doubled the number of visas, just shy of 65,000 (64,714 additional H-2B for the fiscal year 2023). But the simple answer is that you have to deal with three autonomous governmental agencies for the visa, but some things are left open ended.”

The seminar will cover a host of new regulations and include an ample Q&A section. The new rules seem complex and require new paperwork that must be filed, accompanied by some new fees. Just as importantly said Wood, carnival companies will have to do their own soul searching in terms of the number of workers they will need and when you will need them, either by April 1 or May 15. That number will also vary due to a returning worker exemption. “It's more complicated, but I'm optimistic.”

The most notable H2B successes has been the use of workers from the Northern Triangle countries –Honduras, El Salvador, Guatemala, and added for this year, Haiti. 20,000 of the H2B workers must come for these countries. Last year, the freshmen year for the program, intended to reduce illegal immigration – or what the government now classifies as irregular migration –,  had a rocky start. Those issues have been mostly resolved for 2023. “The foreign ministries are doing a phenomenal job of training and recruiting workers and giving them a better understanding of what the work entails,” said Wood. “Processing these workers used to take up to four weeks and now it's down to less than seven days. We have happy employers and happy employees.”

The OABA will also update attendees on the ongoing lobbying efforts in Washington to find a more permanent and sustainable solution to the guest worker visa program. Wood mentioned that in Washington, the Seasonal Worker Alliance, the leading pro-H2B organization in Washington, has met with their onetime adversaries of lobbyists representing unions, heretofore opponents to foreign workers, seeing them as a threat to union jobs.

Turns out, through discussion, the two groups found common ground. “They understood that most American workers do not want to live the itinerant lifestyle of carnival company workers,” said Woods. “Their concern is issuing visas for meat packing and construction jobs, which we have no interest.”

Although efforts failed to achieve meaningful legislation, the discussions did lead to the concept of a new category for foreign worker – the P-5 Visa, which covers midway and other guest workers whose jobs take them through multiple states during their stay in the U.S. “We made strides forward last year,” said Wood. “The fact that we have a split chamber this year, with the Congressional Republican and the Senate Democrat, is traditionally good for these issue. There's bipartisan agreement on the need for these workers and they are going to have to agree on somethings to get anything done. But, it's going to be a balancing act.”

All In!

Trade show week also features the NICA Business EXPO & Fare Foods Food Show, which will be “the perfect opportunity to network around ideas and fellowship; learn more about topics like Propane, CPR, Affordability and/or Selling Successfully; reflect on 2022 accomplishments; install NICA's 2023 Leadership; and celebrate fairs, friends, and foods,” said Rey O'Day, Executive Director, NICA. “ We are proud to be part of the Florida week activities. Together we are All In!”

The NICA Business Expo provides Workshops and Discussion Groups as well as the Annual General Membership Meeting, which includes the Year in Review, installation of the 2023 Board of Directors, the Coca-Cola Membership Contest, and discussion from Benefit Partners. During the evening's Annual Gala, they will highlight the NICA Foundation and honor a new Hall of Fame Recipient. The Fare Foods Food Show features exhibitors showcasing the latest food trends and technology that will define and kick-start the 2023 Fair Season.

“We are excited about our upcoming 2023 NICA Business Expo and Fare Foods Food Show,” said Audrey Poole, VP Business Development, Fare Foods. “There will be new vendors displaying several new items and ideas as well as those who exhibit yearly.”
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