Thursday, January 26, 2017

James Royal on Keeping a Circus on the Road Today

With Ringling about to close for good, the sawdust scene continues to favor smaller, and there is nothing wrong with smaller. Because fewer people are going to circuses than in more prosperous years past does not mean that there is no market for the circus.

A while back, I sent some questions to Jim Royal, who has managed both the Big Apple and Kelly Miller circuses, asking him for any comments he might have on recent closings and the future of big tops.  He has kindly taken the time to answer them from his unique vantage point.

Only the sub heads are mine.  I've not changed a word of Jim's report.

From James Royal

Like so many others in this business, I wish I had the answers. This thought reminds me of the Kelly Miller season of 2012, a presidential election year.  Tradition has it that it would be a poor season business wise due to the election.  For us that season, it was the reverse...we had our best season.  Did we drastically change the route, no.  Did we make big changes in the front end, no.  Granted the weather was good for most of the season, but why we had such a great season, I don't have the answer.

Big Apple's Crippling Operational Costs
I spent just short of 4 years with Big Apple, joining the show in Atlanta just after the Lincoln Center run.   This was in 2003, the 25th anniversary tour.  So, I can't speak of the earlier years.  There was great attention to detail, to make sure that everything about the show was right.  That costs money.  So many parts to the puzzle and all had costs. One example - Moving the show was extremely expensive.  In those days, the show moved on 33 semis, plus vans, pickups and RVs.  The air conditioning for the big top required 2 semis, a special fork lift and a separate generator. We also had a semi load of heating units for the cold weather. The show could do good business in a smaller venue such as Charlestown, RI or Hanover, NH but the cost of getting it there and out was huge.  Getting the show set in Lincoln Center took several weeks, and intricate planning.  The lot was on top of a parking garage and no stakes were used.  This required a special system of very large heavy concrete blocks and cable.

Gas Pumps are Kinder ... Getting Worker Visas Can be Vexing

Some shows have done well in 2016, so there is hope.  I don't think it is a bleak picture.  There are certainly more challenges these days to keeping a show on the road.  Fortunately fuel costs have come down, but for how long?  That has been a serious issue, for fuel not only moves the show, but also powers the generators.  The number of permits required and their costs have increased.  Even simple circus/carnival permits in smaller towns have cost more, as local authorities see this as a way to help their budget shortfalls.  Many shows depend on H2B seasonal worker visas for their workers.  This provides a dependable workforce that gets a show up and down without problems.  The government is continually tinkering with this program and making it difficult to obtain these legal visas. The visa process costs are considerable.  Now adding to this is the time and resources spent in lobbying Congress regarding the H2B program.  These days, it seems that damn near every show vehicle requires a driver with a CDL license.  Those operating scales and state DOTs are quick to issue fines.  For shows with animals, the extremists continue to cause problems.  Another issue that requires a great deal of time and resources to combat.

Booking Dates More Time-Consuming. Costly

Circuses that use local sponsors such as Chambers of Commerce, Rotary Clubs, Lions Clubs etc., are finding the process of booking dates with them more time consuming. Many of these groups are "graying", losing members and not as active.   Also, gone are the days when there were agents out there who could book these dates.  The costs of keeping an agent on the road is certainly more expensive than it used to be.

So Many Ad Outlets, Which Ones to Use?

Advertising costs have increased as it is harder to reach a broad spectrum of people.  Now we have endless TV channels, radio in its various formats, podcasts, blogs, and social media.  The audience has to be reached through so many new avenues resulting in a more expensive advertising budget. The marketing dollar has to cover a larger number of outlets.

Traditional Circus Still a Draw

There is one bright spot in recent times.  I have found that with Kelly Miller and Culpepper & Merriweather (where I am currently employed)  the customers like traditional circus.  It still appeals to people of all ages and demographic factors.  A traditional show with a strong performance and good customer service pleases the clientele.   Getting them into the tent, now there is the challenge.

Thank you, Jim!


Douglas McPherson said...

Thanks for a great insider look at the business.

Harry Kingston said...

Keeping a circus on the road today is expensive as was Cole Bros with Pugh as he said it was $32,500 a day.
Gas prices in Texas is around $2 plus a little or minus but I wonder what the future holds for the shows as it could down the road bite us in the rear.
Real on the road booking agents like Floyd King, Art Miller,J C Rosenhime are gone with the wind as costs would be out of sight and it is all done on the phone.
Real bill posters are also a thing of the past as today they come in with just a few posters and strong arm them on buildings way off the right away and they are so small the public cannot see them.
The old days the area was plastered with posters and banners etc and you knew a circus was coming to town.
TV costs but done right is very effective.
Free kids tickets helps as a good get them to the circus and every kid worth is salt wants to see a good circus.
I know keeping the nut down in this day and age is not an easy task as we live in an expensive world.
Sponsors for a circus that are good and want to make money I bet are hard to get as they are business folks and trying to keep there business going and trying to make money which is not easy today and just do not have the time to invest in all that work
Giving the locals a good bang for there buck and being treated right will bring them
back time and time again.
Circus Vargas had police sponsors to start with but later on cold dated it and made tons of money with a super performance and packed them in.
Carson and Barnes Circus has a new idea and a new performance and it the largest tented circus in America today keeps the torch lite for us fans and with animals.
Today smaller shows keep on a going and people still like circuses that takes us back to the days when we were young at heart and brings joy to folks from 8 to 80.
To all the workers that raise the white tops and the performers that keep the circus alive today we are with you till the end of time.
Some might not be the Greatest show on Earth, but we will have circuses to enjoy down the circus trail.