“We are excited to continue our partnership with RCS, a leader in the carnival midway industry that continues to offer our visitors a variety of unique rides, games and food that appeals to all ages,” said Joel Cowley, President and CEO, the Houston Livestock Show & Rodeo. “RCS has a long-standing commitment to safety, innovation and customer service, providing our guests with a truly memorable carnival experience.”
The quarter of a century partnership seems like the perfect arranged marriage between two fair industry titans. The Houston Livestock Show & Rodeo is a 20-day event that takes place in the first quarter of the year. The event has consistently been ranked the #1 the annual Top 50 Fair List compiled by Carnival Warehouse, with a record breaking 2,611,176 in 2017. Likewise, RCS has been consistently ranked by Carnival Warehouse as the # 2 Carnival playing top fairs – in 2018, the midway provider was responsible for, Orange County Fair, LA County Fair, Arizona State Fair, as well as the Houston Livestock Show.
Both the Houston Livestock Show & Rodeo and RCS firmly reside in the upper echelon of large scale fairs. The renewal of the RCS contract may seem like no surprise, but the fact the organization decided after a quarter of a century to survey possible replacement raised eyebrows. Cowley, who has been at the helm of the event for five years, explained that the move was part of overall initiative to reconsider all the expenditures and contracts of the nonprofit organization that operates the annual fundraising event.
“As a 501C(3) organization, we felt we should look all our purchasing agreements,” said Cowley. “We just wanted to make sure that we were good stewards of our resources. We wanted to make sure that when we are making businesses decisions, we are looking at the quality of those purchases, and to make sure they are really based on value, not just because it’s what we’ve always done.”
Last August, Houston announced they would be accepting RFPs. Cowley said the fair received “three very strong” proposals – one which of was RCS, he declined to reveal the other two companies but Carnival Warehouse can reveal the other two proposers were Talley Amusements and a joint venture between Wade Shows and Powers’ Great American Midways.
“The carnival is something we targeted because our focus is on the guest experience, that was the primary criteria,” said Cowley. “When we survey our guests, they always mention the carnival, it’s very experiential.”
According to Joy Picket, CFO of RCS, previous contracts were typically for a period of five years, with a five year renewal option. But this year instead of a contact renewal, the company had to develop a competitive presentation. Instead of simply resting on their laurels, the company took pride in reintroducing the Rodeo to the breadth and depth of the RCS operation.
“They went through the full RFP process,” said Ben Picket, Vice President, RCS. “It was a great opportunity to reassure the rodeo that we have are the best carnival company for their needs, and we believe that’s been confirmed by a multiyear contract. The presentation was the biggest difference with other contract renewals.”
The RCS presentation reinforced the carnival company has grown, supporting many of the changes that has led to the event. “In the beginning, it didn’t encompass Spring Break and that evolved into moving to begin the last week of February. We also had warmer weather with the move, which was in the early 2000s,” said Joy Picket. “As the event grew in attendance, we grew with the larger crowds by adding higher capacity rides.”
Attendance steadily increased within the past decade, and RCS began accompanying the higher numbers of fairgoers with such crowd pleasers as the La Grande Wheel XL, which can reportedly hold up to 216 and reportedly carried 70,000 riders at the 2019 fair
Since 2007, RCS has also evolved its Fun Pass cashless midway, which now operates with its own servers and is a hybrid system, far surpassing capacities of the more common Wi-Fi or cell tower based systems. The company now features more than 30 kiosks for ticket replenishment via fairgoer smart phones.
“RCS has been in the OBA’s Circle of Excellence for several years,” said Cowley” They have a tremendous focus on safety and technology, Their use of technology was something we took note of.”
Ownership & Control
What seems to be main crux of why Houston decided to stay with its reliable partner instead of switching to new is control. RCS brought 87 rides, 60 games and 38 food stands to the Houston Rodeo this year, and the company has a total of 2,800 employees, most of whom travel to the company’s larger events, such as the Houston Rodeo. “We really travel with a small city,” said Joy Picket. “We have a full time electrical department, specially trained electricians. We are also bringing up a new generation of workers with a plethora of knowledge about the new rides and technologies.”
“What has become common is a jack-of-all-trades mentality in carnival companies,” said Ben Picket. “We still have multiple talented workers, but with today’s ride technologies, you need more specially trained employees. There’s more structure and focus to our labor. The RFP process gave us the chance to show the structure of our operation.”
What the structure also revealed to RCS is the company’s control over the operation. “If I had to pick one difference in their proposal it was their love of ownership,” said Cowley. “The other companies had strong proposals, but they used a lot of subcontracting to fill out their ride footprint. RCS owns the rides and the games. The have a level of control the other companies don’t have. It’s a uniform operation with uniform training all focused on making the most pleasant guest experience possible.”
It’s an experience RCS looks forward to continuing, because as much as the Houston Rodeo showed some love to the carnival company, the carnival company is grateful that this Lone Star city remains in its route. “The people down there, really embrace the event,” said Joy Picket. “It’s a community owned event, the atmosphere is fantastic, the whole community is involved.”
Both RCS and Houston Livestock Show & Rodeo declined to state the specifics of the new contract or how it differed from previous contracts, except that is for multiple years. Regarding contractual changes to the midway and other stipulations, the answer was more wait and see. “There’s nothing I can share right now,” said Cowley. “But there is a greater incorporation of technology in the future that will better enhance the overall convenience of the guests. We are all talking about new things that are coming and making sure that they improve the experience of our guests.”
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