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Sunday, July 11, 2010 


On Friday I visited the Lewis & Clark Circus again, this time in Coudersport, PA. It was a 120 mile drive down from the Finger Lakes, and the day was very hot with temperatures in the 90’s. The week long heat wave broke in a big way in the late afternoon with heavy thunderstorms and torrential rain. In Coudersport the Lewis & Clark show played the Firemen’s Grounds, a tight gravel lot owned by the sponsor.

There’s an expression sometimes associated with electronics items and gadgetry. A great product is ready to use out-of-the-box, “it just works.” Because we have all become accustomed to computers, peripherals, phones, and personal electronics that don’t function as advertised until after we’ve spent too much time talking with tech support halfway around the world, “it just works” is a concept we can appreciate. Engineers, product designers, programmers, alpha and beta testers, the manufacturing facility, and the marketers got it right. Steve Jobs and APPLE are legendary for “it just works.” That’s not too say that there are never problems or flaws, but they are relatively few and far between, and when they arise they’re addressed. The traditional American Circus was once a study in “it just works.” The circus moved every day, set-up, filled the tent, packed it away and moved again through the night. Along the way they kept the paint fresh. Over the past twenty years any number of factors have made that harder. Cost cutting and aging equipment, an over abundance of regulation, reliance on a labor pool requiring significant upfront costs whom although hard working sometimes don’t speak the same language as management or the audience in Today’s Town. Fleet expenses, fuel prices, insurance – and marketing models that no longer deliver circus-goers. When shows downsize the first cuts aren’t always well thought out. Midway and front end operations producing actual revenue occasionally get left in Winter Quarters while the golf cart still goes out with the road. Bill posters spend the early season putting up the tent until the visas are approved for the real tent crew – so the show plays town after town with no significant publicity. The list goes on.

In the early days of this particular blog I remember wondering aloud if the real future of traditional mudshow wasn’t in smaller regional circuses capable of greater flexibility and with certain cost savings built-in by virtue of size. I worked for a big show then, but I’ve looked at a fair number of small shows in the years since then. I bring this up because Mr. Childress with his Lewis & Clark Circus operates just that kind of smaller regional mudshow, and seeming out of the box, “it just works.” I thought I’d spent a lot of time laying awake at night thinking about the little nuances required to put a real circus with fresh paint, spangles, and all the component parts into a small package. Mr. Childress has out thought and out engineered any idea I ever came up with. Not too over simplify a complex system, the hallmarks of Lewis & Clark and why it appears to me that the show works so well.

 The show looks good. Years ago I remember days now and then on Carson & Barnes when the tent crew took the time to power wash every piece of vinyl on the show before set-up. And Barbara Byrd herself would stand on the midway making sure that paint was properly touched up, banners and trailer skirts mended, that circus sparkled. A good looking show has the same “curb appeal” as a good looking house offered for sale by a realtor or estate agent. You drive by the house and you can imagine living there. You drive by a good looking circus and you can imagine coming back in the evening with the kids. When you do return, because it all looks good, you spend money before you ever go inside.

 Miami Gospel Tent produces another winner. The Lewis & Clark Circus uses a rectangular bigtop from the Miami Tent company. It it’s third season the tent still looks good and holds up marvelously in heavy rain. The rachets simplify set-up and keeping the “canvas” tight. The blackout vinyl allows the show to employ theatrical lighting inside. The tent is well made and well cut. Certainly there are flashier styles of circus tents, but few that go up so easily, or quickly – and Miami tents are moderately priced.

 The midway sells. Lewis & Clark still carries a full midway. That’s shouldn’t be a big deal – except that some shows don’t. A slide and a candy stand do not a midway make. Once upon a long time ago, some shows had at least portions of the midway up and running even before the bigtop went up, so the gawkers could buy a soda or spend a quarter to see the giraffe. The midway moved the show. On Lewis & Clark the compact midway includes, a petting zoo, a pony sweep, camel ride, bounce (slide,) face painting, hi-striker, the candy wagon (concessions,) and a joiut selling corn dogs and funnel cakes. . Anybody who has ever spun floss in a circus candy wagon has heard customers ask about corn dogs, or waffles, or whatever. Everybody is aware of the demand. But too often that demand gets overlooked at best -- or at worst somebody says, “That’s carnival food.” In reality it’s all revenue stream. My favorite joint on the Childress circus midway isn’t something that I would have recognized as an overt income source until Mr. Childress explained it to me. It’s an ATM machine. When I spotted the ATM on the lot in Troy, PA my first thought was, “I wonder how often the cell service or satellite sign is good enough to make that work?” I’ve seen too many wireless credit card processing machines that are problematic from one day to the next. “Be great if it does work most of the time,” I thought. I could see the advantage the ATM brings to putting cash on the midway – always an issue on any show, and I assumed that shifting the cost of transactions from a credit/debit card “sale” where the retailer pays, to a service charge where the consumer pays was a real advantage. But until Mr. Childress mentioned what the machines earn in the way of fees on each transaction it hadn’t occurred to me that the ATM was a revenue stream in and of itself, as well as augmented customer service in speeding up sales at the ticket window – where no card sales are necessary. Lewis & Clark certainly isn’t the first circus with an ATM, but the approach reflects the degree to which the show is well planned and framed, and on Lewis & Clark the wireless ATM using the Verizon network is down on a few days a year.
 Fleet. On the Culpepper Circus, a show of a similar size, jumps include significant detours moving aging semis around sometimes problematic scales. The commercial fleet is a paperwork nightmare in and of itself. On Lewis & Clark the biggest truck on the show is a Ford F550. The use of standard trucks that anyone can drive – all with automatic transmissions – assures that parts and shops familiar with the vehicles can be found in any town. It’s an approach that builds flexibility into the system. Once more, Mr. Childress’s circus isn’t the first to use smaller trucks – and it’s a standard practice in some places. But this flexibility was built into the system. The earlier Hendrick Bros. show still used some larger vehicles.

 The Lewis & Clark Circus lays down free children’s tickets in every town. The billing crew stays two weeks ahead of the show. The circus plays both sponsored and lot and license dates. Sponsors sell only adult tickets in advance of the show. The ticket laydown both directly drives traffic to the show and serves as advertising. Adult tickets are reasoned priced, just $12 off the circus website, and $15 at the box office. Because Lewis & Clark is upfront about the price of adult admission, and doesn’t seek to gouge surprised parents at the gate, the marketing works well and the show returns to the same towns periodically establishing the brand identification and engendering good feelings. Lewis & Clark doesn’t use a phone room, though it seems to me that there might still be a place for phones selling Senior Tickets...

(Part II tomorrow…)

About me

  • I'm B.E.Trumble
  • From Everywhere, United States
  • Ben Trumble works in circus, carnival, and media relations
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