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Gibtown 2024: More Exhibitors, More Attendees & Upbeat H-2B Updates
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The 2024 Gibtown Trade Show seems poised to become one of the most critical gatherings of the outdoor event and mobile amusement industries of 2024. As the first major industry meeting of the year, Gibtown is both bellwether for the season to come and a barometer of the one just past. This year, due to a robust 2023 for fairs and positive movement in the shipping, labor and inflation issues that plagued the industry during the pandemic, anticipation has been high for what many feel will be one of the biggest “order-writing” Gibtowns in recent years.

“Registration is running very high and our exhibition floor is almost sold out,” said Teresa Rimes, Trade Show Secretary, International Independent Showman Association (IISA), who noted that registration was stronger the last week of December than in recent years. Typically, while attendance for this industry conclave has been growing each post-lockdown event, registration always lags until the last minute, compared to other conventions.



More Positivity

A reversal of this tendency seems to have taken place for the 2024 event. Attendees are registering and exhibitors are promising more equipment to be displayed than in recent years. It makes sense. 2023 was the strongest post-lockdown fair season – eight out of the Top 50 Fairs, as compiled by Carnival Warehouse, had record breaking attendance. With their coffers full and outlook upbeat, Rimes predicts the core audience for the show – midway providers – are more enthusiastic than usual about the value of this year's show.

“I have to say, more carnivals have told me they had as good a season [in 2023] than ever, even though some of the big fairs up north had a lot of rain,” said Rimes. “But most fairs were up and people are gung-ho, there's more positivity.”

In addition to the robust turnout, high consumer confidence indicated by midway spending, and the proliferation of cashless digital systems creating new efficiencies, savings and actionable data, Rimes pointed that one key factor – labor – has steadily improved. The H2B system has functioned better in 2023 than in recent years. The majority of midway providers relying on the foreign worker visa program had stable workforces in 2023 and are confident conditions will remain the same or better throughout 2024.

“It's been a struggle for some companies to get their workers but [2023] was better and showed improvement,” she said. “Most carnivals didn't get capped out and the workers coming from the Northern Triangle are finally proving themselves.”

She also pointed out that industry has stabilized. The pandemic-related acceleration of inevitable attrition – businesses going out of business – seems to have concluded. The carnival industry, a relatively small industry mostly made up of independent, family-owned business operations, many of whom span multiple generations, endured a constriction of players due to COVID. Rimes noted that some of the “the mom and pops went out of business. We lost a lot of the smaller carnival operations. But the carnival business is just like any industry, during the pandemic people just couldn't keep up, they retired early while other companies eventually flourished.”

This consolidation of economic players, while not without stress, is a common trajectory for older industries. However, the COVID-induced acceleration of attrition that hampered previous post-lockdown Gibtown events has come to a close, as indicated by the registration trends, according to Rimes who believes the industry is leaner and stronger after this inevitable shakeout. “The mom & pop companies going out of business is still happening, but not happening nearly as much as when the pandemic first hit. There's not near the amount of worry as there was. People are purchasing again. Fairs want the latest thing.”



Shipping & Inflation

Although other aspects impeding the industry – shipping delays and inflation – are still critical issues, they've declined in severity while at the same time, after more than two years of the factors being the rule not the exception, carnival companies have long adapted to this new normal.

According to the association's website: The IISF Trade Show attracts owners, operators, CEOs, directors, managers, and supervisors from the following facets of the amusement industry – Carnivals; Amusement Rental Companies; Amusement and Theme Parks; Family Entertainment Centers; Fairs, Festivals, & Events; Concessionaires; Tourist Attractions. The core attraction of the event is the extensive Trade Show exhibition, which features more than 300 companies and includes amusement rides, food supplies & equipment, concession trailers, electrical supplies, insurance companies, novelty items & plush toys.

With international COVID travel restrictions nearly fully lifted, Rimes has already seen a flurry of international exhibitors returning after a pandemic hiatus as well some first time exhibitors from the United Kingdom and Canada. “We are seeing new trailer companies, a new video technology company that is being used in theme parks where they take clips of riders.”

Attendees can expect a more populous exhibition floor – both inside and outside the hall. “We're much bigger than last year,” said Tom Arnold, Chairman Emeritus of the Trade Show Floor, IISA. “We will have more equipment here than last year. Just a lot more stuff and more new stuff. The companies here are ready to write orders. I think carnival companies want to look at the equipment, kick the tires. I anticipate a big year for used equipment, because of the shipping delays on some new pieces, which can be up to two years where before it was only six months.”

Upgraded Bunkhouses | Equipment Solutions, representing Ital-Resina is one of those companies returning in full-force for 2024 after consecutive years of downsizing its Gibtown footprint. Some of the new equipment the company will display includes a Samba, Swings, UP & Away, and a Scooby Train. Stephen Lisko credits his optimistic outlook for the 2024 Gibtown based on the 2023 IAAPA Expo, held in November. “We had a very good IAAPA,” said Lisko. “Better than average, so I am expecting Gibtown to be good. We have different items than previous years, people are very excited. I think the industry had a very good summer.”

The IAAPA experience indicated that most of the economic tumult of the pandemic has faded, putting carnival companies in an acquisition mood. “I think it will be year for a lot of major rides, but there's still a lot of interest in the new Kiddie Rides.”

Gary Otterbacher of Lifetime Products also plans on exhibiting more equipment than last year in Gibtown, which will feature several new Bunk Houses and what he only described as a “surprise unit,” which will have its debut. Unlike rides, which can be updated with digital technologies, LEDs, etc. into what is essentially a new ride, Bunk Houses are not as flexible. In fact, one side-effect of the tight labor market and increased Labor Department scrutiny on living and working spaces has been a noticeable improvement in Bunk Houses, such as each living quarter unit within the Bunk House having individual climate control, have become the new standard.

“Lifetime has always had quality in the Bunk Houses, so the industry has caught up with us. Carnival companies are upgrading their Bunk Houses.”

The Gibtown Trade Show is must-attend for all game operators, and 2024 is shaping up to be a less costly event. In 2021, container costs soared as high as $27,000, but have settled back to $4-5,000, according to Sidney Karmia of Toy Factory. “This has brought down the cost of the merchandise. Carnival Companies want a mix of hot licensed products and nice generic toys, more retail quality toys.”

What the hot plush trends for 2024? “Pokémon is still hot, believe it or not. They keep introducing new characters. It's a hot property, what people want. Sonic Hedgehog and Super Mario Brothers are still very popular. Minecraft, Sesame Street and Scooby Doo are also strong licenses.”



Happy H2B Days

The key seminar for the 2024 Gibtown is the annual H2B update, presented by James K. Judkins, President of JKJ Workforce Agency and the Small Business Workforce Alliance. Echoing the positivity redolent for this year's event, this yearly interactive presentation and workshop will be its most optimistic – albeit cautiously – in recent memory. Entitled: “Happy Days are Here Again........ but for how long?” the seminar will cover the range of issues, including the new Supplemental Visas, WHD (Wage & Hourly Division/Labor Department), the P-4 legislation, and other issues, and ominously “Dark Clouds on the Horizon.”

While the pandemic disrupted the H2B program – along with nearly every facet of life – Judkins,, who leads the workshop, admits he's positive about the progress that has been made. “We've been on a trajectory for the last six years, except for the anomaly of the pandemic, and we had a very good 2023. It was an uphill batter, but we were able to shift 3,000 Visas to the April 1 start date. We've gained traction within the government, with both legislators and the administration.”

In addition to Judkins, other seminar participants include Leon Sequiera, an attorney who advises employers hiring temporary foreign workers, and on H-2B visas, and Gray Delany, Executive Director, Seasonal Employment Alliance, a lobbying coalition for H2B employers. “We will discuss new filing strategies based upon the new reality of the supplemental visa releases and our current ability to influence the Administration,” said Judkins. “We will discuss the history into how we got to this excellent position and the potential land mines moving forward, and of course new information on WHD audits, and methods to stay compliant with the ever changing regulatory environment.”

More tantalizing will be updates on the” P-4 Visa battle and provide updates on where we are at in getting this into law, and what happens if it becomes law and when it would go into effect.” Similar to work visas for athletes and circus, the proposal – which is currently part of two separate pieces of legislation already in committee – will “peel off a separate visa class just for the mobile amusement industry,” said Judkins.

In keeping with previous Gibtown seminars on workforce issues, the workshops will be hands-on, open-ended and comprehensive. “I will talk. Leon will talk. Gray will talk. We will open the floor to any and all questions -- and hope we have lots of questions -- and the session will go as long as it takes to answer everyone's questions. (It) Will not be broadcast. (It) Will not be recorded. So we can have an open and honest discussions.”
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