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Primetime Carnival Survived Lockdown with Trump Store, But 2021 Crowds Are Bigger Than Ever
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Primetime Carnival Company survived the cancelation culture that decimated the 2020 by getting into a new business – politics. More accurately, political merchandising.

Last year, with its entire route – fairs as well as still dates – cancelled, Amanda Stine, co-owner of Primetime Carnival Company with Joshua Macaroni, started selling Trump merchandise, first at rallies then through a mini-chain of stores in Tennessee. Their flagship “Trump Store” opened in July in Gatlinburg, Tenn., a vacation destination that notably adopted little-to-no lockdown restrictions.

The Trump Store was not officially related to the presidential campaign, but Stine worked with suppliers and merchandise manufacturers to create an inventory. According to Stine, several carnival companies also dabble in Trump “Merch,” selling products to the Trump faithful outside of rallies or as pop up retail stores. By July of 2020, she had opened the Gatlinburg location, striking gold by being not just in a deep red state – Trump won 66.6 percent of the Tennessee vote – but in one of the few vacation spots open for business in 2020.

Election Mania

Sales boomed – by Labor Day, as the campaign heated up – she opened four additional pop-up stores, with a growing range of inventory; flags, t-shirts, mugs, and of course red MAGA hats. At the start, she wanted to be a bi-partisan retailer but there was a noticeable lack of blue customers. “I put in one order of Biden t-shirts when we started, and I still have them,” she said.

In addition to the brick-and-mortar establishment, Stine also loaded a truck with Trump memorabilia and sold the items at Trump election rallies.  She said other carnival operators selling Trump merchandise were also present at rallies such as  the heavily publicized ones in Myrtle Beach and Pensacola as well as throughout Florida, Georgia and Texas. “I tried it and ran with it.  Sales got better and better the more intense the election got. We followed the rallies and had huge sales days.” 

By December, the rallies were over, ending the onsite vendor business, and she  closed the other pop-up locations, except for the original Gatlinburg location, which still has healthy sales that are likely to grow further as the 2024 election race gets closer “If Trump announces he'll run again it will do great, and everyone expects he will.”

Primetime's political merchandising sideline proved almost as profitable as the company's regular route, albeit supplemented by the concessionaire setting up roadside food stands and participating in drive-thru events organized by cancelled fairs. 

This year has so far been steady, at least schedule-wise for now. Primetime Carnival Company's route generally begins in March, with a series of still dates and parking lots, until the Martinsville Agricultural Fair in Illinois, which opened June 8th. The route covers Illinois, Indiana, and Ohio then heads south after September into Georgia and Tennessee. 

One of the frustrations of last year – and one that inadvertently led to the Trump merchandise vendor business – was not just the cancellations, but those weeks after March when many fairs, getting mixed signals from local, state and federal governments, were uncertain whether or not they could open and waited as long as possible to make the decision to cancel the event. “All our fairs wanted to go on until the last minute before they threw in the towel,” she added.


High Demand

This year, with little-to-no cancellations, is thankfully the opposite of 2020's limbo that preceded the cascade of cancelled events.  Stine's route has not only moved forward, but business has been brisk. Midway customers are enthusiastic and spending, putting the company on pace to having one of its best years ever.  “We've been seeing higher turnouts, it's just crazy,” she said. “I don't know if it's the government stimulus money or people are ready to get out of the house.”

On the downside, two obstacles are impeding the smooth transition from lockdown to normalcy. One has been shortages in several product categories, resulting in increased prices. Cotton candy buckets, fryer oil, meats, disposable food preparation gloves, lemons, apples and nearly every line of plush and game prices. “Teddy bears have gone up 25 percent,” she said. “There are shortages in a lot of stock, so that is driving up expenses.” 

A more long-lasting trend is an issue inflicting carnivals nationwide is the labor shortage.  Recruiting American workers has been  particularly difficult this year and Stine said she's been offering $20 per hour with little to no takers, a situation further compounded by H-2B shortfalls. An unexpected increase in Visa filings this year has depleted the pool of foreign workers for 2021, forcing many carnival companies to get capped out of foreign labor this year. The federal government provided some “cap-relief,” i.e., increasing the amount of visas allowed to be process, but below levels of previous years.

Primetime Carnival Company was not capped out, but received far less workers (35 instead of 55), and COVID-related processing delays meant the workers didn't arrive until May, more than six weeks later than anticipated. “What a year, to have demand up but be short of workers,” she said. “We're adapting as well as we can, and I know a lot of carnival companies have it worse than we do. Labor is the biggest challenge every carnival faces. We're at the mercy of labor, and we're at a point that from one year to the next, we're never sure if we can have a show.”


Labor Issues

Workforce shortages is also one of the newer issues confronting the industry. Stine and Macaroni are third generation carnival workers – coming from Stine Amusements and Macaroni Family Attractions respectively, but they're also in their 30s – Gen Y millennials, who bring a fresh perspective to midway traditions.

Primetime Carnival Company was started as Primetime Concessions in 2006, building a food and game route before adding amusement rides in 2014, rechristening themselves as Primetime Carnival Company. Macaroni handles the rides and Stine still oversees the concessions, but she remembers the first years as being more trial by fire than just extending their midway operations with rides. “Everyone told us, the first year is going to a nightmare and it was tough. Every dollar we made we spent back on the business and we made less money that first year than when we just had games and food. This one time, we had to wait until we had gotten $300 at the ticket boxes so we could go and buy diesel fuel for the generators.”

But the company continually upgraded its equipment and went from solvency to profitability. “We worked hard on putting together a route, pounding the pavement to find good fairs to play,” she said.

Stine had a family focus and took an innovative approach to making parents and their children comfortable. These amenities included a free “32-inches & Under Zone, with playhouses, a time out jail, and lots of photograph opportunities.  We have baby changing stations, cell phone chargers, a lot of gingerbread and fake trees. People are happier about those things than the new rides. We always get a lot of compliments.”

She's also infused a new energy into the midway with a slew of new signs for the food stands replete with millennial sass and hipster vibes – Shut Up & Bite Me (Candy Apples), Guilty Pleasures (Funnel Cakes), Put Some South in Your Mouth (Turkey legs and barbecue) Me So Corny and Totally Fried.

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