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COVID-19 Conversations: OABA Issues Ready to Open Talking Points for Carnivals and Fairs

The OABA is working with Carnivals and Fairs to have a re-opening plan in place. Photo by Matt Cook

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Half of March, all of April and what looks like the entire month of May – some of the busiest, highest revenue producing weeks and weekends for some carnival companies – have been lost due to the COVID-19 outbreak. What will happen to outdoor events for the rest of the year, will fairs be open and if so what are the safest policies to be instituted?

Like so many other questions about this global pandemic, the answers to them remain unknown. But that doesn't mean the fair industry should shy away from being an active participant in the conversation. Carnival companies have taken the lead in sparking these discussions. In late April, the Outdoor Amusement Business Association (OABA) formed the Crisis Communication Committee whose first order of business was to issue a memorandum to its membership – CARNIVALS ARE READY TO OPEN – Suggested talking points to consider when speaking with your partners and officials.

Conversation Starter

 “We want to stimulate conversations,” said Greg Chiecko, President & CEO, OABA.  “Whether it's local, county or state officials, as they formulate their own plans, we want them to know that the carnivals and fairs are ready to open and we know things are going to be totally different.”

At this point in the pandemic, nobody knows what procedures and other changes will be instituted. At the same time, these are the same issues being discussed by fair boards, festival organizers and public officials at every level of government.  The OABA faced a conundrum:  how can carnival companies contribute to the process in light of the fact that there's a vast dearth of actionable information.

The organization had no institutional mechanism in which to deal with industry-wide catastrophic events.  Debbie Powers – co-founder of Powers Great American Midway – and current Chairman of the OABA – formed the Crisis Communication Committee as a formal means to address issues, gather and disseminate information to the carnival industry and when applicable, organize OABA members. 

In the future, Powers foresees the committee addressing issues ranging from weather patterns to midway problems, but for now COVID-19 response encompasses the entire agenda, with the Talking Points memorandum spearheading the 10-member committee's maiden project.

“Carnival companies need to be proactive,” said Powers. “We're trying to stay ahead of the game and be prepared for all scenarios, and look at all the hypotheticals.”

Detailed & Encompassing

OABA Zoom Meeting
The OABA conducts a committee meeting via Zoom (an online video conference platform)

The committee cites more than two dozen points: topics to address in discussions, phone calls and Zoom video conferences. Concise and specific, yet encompassing what seems like every consideration for the fairgoer, carnival company employees, event staff, and the overall fair and midway itself. “While some of these talking points, they are all assembled in one place,” the document admits, but in actuality, many of the points are astutely observed and the cumulative result is a useful tool for the ongoing discussions with summer and fall events.

The intense level of brainstorming that went into creating this list of questions and prompts is apparent in the scope of issues it covers, everything from social distancing, mask-wearing, hand-sanitizing areas to asking if: Is the event in contact with other area tourism attractions? Are they working on a unified plan?”

The main objective is to encourage discussions with the event , but keeping foremost is that even as the world begins what is being called a “new normal,” each event and each community that both supports and governs that event will have different approaches. Awareness of this diversity, how one size will not fit all, is heavily emphasized throughout the talking points.

The document reads: “These are not guidelines and are not applicable to all events. They are meant to provide you discussion points to start conversations. It is obvious that different jurisdictional authorities will have a say in opening large venue events. All will be driven by geographical viral statistics. Now is the time to open a proactive dialog with your fair event sponsors or committees about how the outdoor amusement industry is committed to open by practicing important protocols…”

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“We all have been listening to each other and to fairs,” said Powers. “We were trying to address all the concerns, figure out a response to each concern.  There's been wall-to-wall news media coverage and social media coverage, and we all have our own opinions too, but the committee tried to put out a basic plan that we can build on. Every plan will be depending on the size of the fair or festival, not a one size fit all solution. We are giving people suggestions, hoping that if they chose to, we can help people find the plans that work for them.”


Avoiding Cancellation

“Carnivals want to stand with the fair, or any sort of event, as much as we can, working hand in hand with our events and when possible, avoid cancelling,” said Andrew Schoendienst, General Manager, Luehrs Ideal Rides and a Crisis Communications Committee Member. “We are working with the health department of every municipality, every county to find what they will find suitable. Every region is going to be different, but carnival companies need to be proactive, instead of just sitting back and waiting.”

The objective is not to pressure fairs and government officials, but for carnival companies to be a practical resource for best practices during reopening, which seems the most effective way to salvage the 2020 season.  “Carnival companies want to do everything we can to make it as safe an environment as can be, and control whatever we can control. There are a lot of intelligent people in the carnival industry, and we can be a source for our fairs and events. Carnival folks have a love of the industry, we've done this for generations. It's time to bring these ideas forth because right now is nothing short of the largest crisis ever to hit our industry.”

RELATED STORY:  Carnivals, Fairs, Festivals, and Amusement Parks - Are we last to open and why?

The specific answer for the question of what it will take to open and maintain guest safety and confidence is something fairs and midway providers are now figuring out. “We are having a lot of conversations. Everybody has their own thoughts, especially as certain parks begin to open on a limited capacity. I know we can make the rides and midway as safe as possible. I'm more worried about some of the barns, which are far away from the midway, it may be hard to be maintain social safe distancing there.”

He added, “We all expect the midway to be a little different and we will probably not be able to expect a full gate. But it's better to open, or to work to see if an event can be rescheduled. It's not only for our economic benefit. Fairs bring a lot of business to these communities. Most of the nonprofits and charity organizations use these events for fundraising, they sell a lot of strawberry shortcakes or they sell a lot of tickets. These nonprofits do important work in these communities, and they raise most of their annual budget at these fairs. The economic impact on them could be insurmountable.”

All About Safety

Hand Sanitizer Units

The Talking Points also play into the strengths of carnival companies – playing a route means interacting with a diverse array of communities, making them well acquainted with very different operational cultures of all their event partners. In addition, fairs have a well earned a reputation for safety, easily applicable to the current pandemic.

“Our industry is about safety,” said Powers. “We are trying our best to control what we can. Nobody cares about the safety of our customers more than us. Every fair is going to open differently, and they have to do what their state governors and local officials tell them to do. We're ready to work with them, take the necessary baby steps. Everybody wants to get back to work and that means making sure nobody gets sick.”

The new Crisis Communication Committee and Talking Points have been well received by carnival companies. “I applaud the OABA, Chairperson Debbie Powers & President Gregg Chiecko and all the officers on the committee because this is a fantastic start,” said Frank Zaitshik of Wade Shows.  “Fairs and carnivals are anxious to open, but all of us want a safe, enjoyable and memorable experience for our customers. This pandemic is a moving target that changes every day, every hour, but everybody's goal is the same. This is a much needed outline for us to have discussions with each individual fair, so we can go much deeper into the weeds and develop a plan that's right for each fair.”

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