Midway Millennials is an ongoing series profiling the new generation of fair professionals
For 28-year-old Andrew Schoendienst Jr., General Manger of Leuhrs Ideal Rides, the carnival business is about family. He is third generation in the business. The company is on the brink of its 60thanniversary - founded by grandparents Hub and Winnifred Schoendienst in 1957 - has been family owned and operated ever since.
Not surprisingly, his earliest fair memory centers around family. "I was riding in a car with my grandfather "Hub," at the Will County Fair. It was a very busy day, and grandfather took me for ice cream and then we watched kids on the merry-go-round. It was the a tradition with him, to watch the kids on the Merry Go Round."
By observation, training and probably osmosis, Schoendienst both learned and grew to love the industry. "I'm very close to my family, and that aspect is spectacular because you grow up close and that is a blessing. We all have the passion for the midway. There's nothing like what we do, and there's nothing like the action on the midway. The travelling is great too. If you love it, you really don't have any other hobbies, although we play a little golf once in a whittle."
He added, "you better find this business fun because it is a lot of work. If you don't find it fun, you'll be miserable."
Schoendienst graduated in 2009 with a degree in Journalism and Business Administration from the University of Missouri, and he pointed out that education was of paramount importance for the family.
"My grandparents and parents always stressed education. I was not forced into the family business, they always wanted it to be a choice."
But, except for a summer spent as an intern at a cellphone company, the family business has been his life. "I was ready to get back on the road. The best job offer I had was from my father (Andrew "Andy" Schoendienst, President, Leuhrs Ideal Rides)."
As a general manager of Leuhrs Ideal Rides - Schoendienst insists that titles are not really used by the company- he has a variety of tasks and responsibilities. The most important is probably Game Concessions Managements, but also oversees ticket boxes and other midway supervisory duties.
But he also works in midway layout, and "putting out the electric and helping to set up and break down the midway."
The Leuhrs Ideal Rides route runs from Mid-April to Mid-October, and includes 23 rides and 15 games with a total of about 90 employees.
This year, the new rides include a Cliffhanger and a Street Fighter, a new midway office and all new canvas.
A family business means that relatives are involved at every level of Leuhrs Ideal Rides, creating an atmosphere of trust, dependability and unity of purpose. "You have complete control, you can keep everything very clean, you're able to make sure the games are run right and the food service is up to quality standards," said Schoendienst. "That control is an advantage to our carnivals because they have the same standard of quality, that's what they want to project to out customers. "
He added, "the overall perception is important, and as family, we are able to the keep the midway uniform. We are very proud of the appearance."
Not upgrading the midway and keeping up to the new consumer expectations - essentially having the mobile amusement midways meeting an amusement park standard - seems to be the dividing line for Schoendienst between how the fair industry was growing up and the one he has chosen to make his career in.
"There's not as many carnival companies in business than there were when I was younger," he said. "It's not about how big you are or the industry consolidating, it's about the strong surviving and changing with the times. You need a good quality midway, that is professional, safe and clean and well marketed."
The Leuhrs Ideal Rides route is through the Midwest, especially Indiana and Illinois. Being long established and family owned and operated means that the traveling can be a more pleasurable situation. "We have friends in towns, we know the people and we see them every year. "We know what hairdressers to go to and where to find a dentist, because you need to know these things to make the travelling easier."
But not all employees are relatives. Like most carnival companies, Schoendienst relies on H-2B workers, which because of legal issues delayed processing the workers, and the company was scrambling to fill their work-force requirements. "It is a little tougher this year," he admitted.
But in spite of a more hectic process and increased uncertainty and only a few days before their first event, "We are very optimistic that we will be getting the workers within a week and definitely by May we will be fully staffed," said Schoendienst.
The long term issue regarding labor in the outdoor amusement, he preferred not to address. "Labor in general is the biggest issue facing the industry," said Schoendienst. "Labor is not a short term issue, but a long term issue. We need to figure out how we can appeal to more American workers. It's tough to figure out but if the industry unifies, we can figure it out.
Like many fair industry members, Schoendienst is worried that the new anti-immigration rhetoric being bandied about among some candidates during this year's heated presidential race could negatively impact the H-2B program, he said "At the end of the day, it is just rhetoric. When the dust settles, the industry is going to have cooperate to solve the problem."
But coming from a carnival family - and being involved with the Showmen's League of America - Schoendienst has a decidedly longer view of the issue. "History repeats itself. You look at the history of the industry, labor issues have always been here. When my grandfather met with other carnival operators, they were dealing with labor issues. For this industry to thrive, we have to continue working together on this issue and get over these hurdles."
When Schoendienst was in school, other business majors "understood that it was a family business. Anyone with a business sense can see the value of a family business."
This emphasis on education by the older generation on their offspring Schoendienst finds a distinguishing factor for millennials.
What a more educated generation of midway providers pushes for the evolution of the midway. "There were a lot of things that created a bad image for the midway," said Schoendienst. "My grandfather implemented policies where everyone clean shaven, and really started to change the perception of the industry."
In addition to style, boomers created a more professional substance to the workforce.
Leuhrs Ideal Rides conducts drug and background test on all employees and implemented an ongoing training program, using videos and other instructional tools, which he credits his father with starting.
"From the first day, after we finish the paperwork and the background and drug testing, we start and continue the training," he said. "We always have new rides and even returning workers have to be brought up to speed."
This improved image is now being transmitted to a new generation of young families and other fairgoers. "We grew up with the internet and are very comfortable using social media and Facebook. As a carnival company, we promote and advertise through Facebook everywhere we go. We reach out to the fairgoers and coordinate with the fairs on their promotions. Social media by the carnival company grows every year."
The new generation of fair and midway professions like Schoendienst are not just building on the a new standard of quality, he feels they are making sure one of the oldest forms of American popular culture keeps in steps with the changing pop-culture landscape. "We are bringing a new voice to the industry and the industry needs,that " he said.
"The older generation enjoys the new blood in the industry and they want know what today's youth are thinking. Young people are bringing a new level of quality to the midway. I think we are putting a lot more importance on customer service, giving me what they need and the information they want."
Fairgoers and heads of young families who make the entertainment dollar purchasing decisions Schoendienst characterizes "as having a short attention spans, but that means they want things now, easier to understand. They want things like ticketing simplified. But you have to be able to "Wow" them, and that means having a good quality midway."
The unique experience of the midway is timeless. "We grew up on video games, but you can't get the thrill from a video game that you can from the a carnival ride," he said. "Once you get them on the ride, they will come with their families to the fair every year. I believe in that appeal, there's a lot in that appeal. It's Americana, and you have experience in person, not on a screen."