German showman Martin Blume has been working 14-hour days since 6am on 5 August erecting a four-storey, 23-metre high ghost train replete with a bloody fountain, grim executioner figurine and horned skull opposite the sober façade of Luxembourg’s Grand Theatre. “Tomorrow [19 August, the Schueberfouer’s opening] it will be ready,” he says, downing his coffee and silencing a phone call from his wife.
Blume has been trying to secure a spot at the Schueberfouer for thirty years. Although he takes his ghost train Daemonium to around 12-15 fairs a year; the Oktoberfest in Munich, Winter Wonderland in London’s Hyde Park, the Rheinkirmes in Dusseldorf; he has always had a soft spot for the Schueberfouer or Schuebi, as it is affectionately known.
“Amongst the showmen in Europe, the Schuebi is very well thought of,” he says. “Good atmosphere, good numbers of people.”
That’s an understatement. The Schueberfouer, Europe’s oldest fair, is a monster. It’s a vast sprawl situated over ten acres on Luxembourg’s Glacis carpark, the fair’s historic site since 1893, when it moved from the field it had occupied in Luxembourg’s centre since 1340. Indeed, Luxembourg’s historic end-of-summer fair welcomes a staggering two million guests annually over its three-week lifetime.
In 2022, punters can sit down and dine at any one of at least 10 restaurants, stuff their faces at another 70 food kiosks, drink themselves silly at more than 20 bars, dance on the tables at a Black Forest beer hall and, of course, ride one of the 25 or so rides. At the end of the three weeks of hedonism there is an eye-popping fireworks display in the sky over Luxembourg, then the showmen pack up their rides and move on -- whether to a new amusement fair or to a quiet few months in storage.
But behind each coveted spot on the Glacis is a competitive application process where fair operators are analysed by the Ville de Luxembourg, scored according to a ratings system, and selected based on points.
And if lucky enough to win a place at the Schueberfouer, the showmen are in for a very lucrative few weeks.
“The purchase value of any fairground ride is linked to the ‘emplacements’ it has agreed at different fairgrounds over different seasons - and the Schuebi is thought of as a good lease,” says Mike Mueller, who sells second-hand fairground rides across Europe. So what are the economics of fairgrounds?
Costs of rides and placements
Everyone’s heard the old story of the fairground showman making enough in one summer month to retire for the rest of the year. Is this still the case?
“No,” Blume laughs. For him, the season runs from March until early January the following year, covering spring, summer and autumn fairs, then the Christmas markets. “Two week’s holiday in January, followed by maintenance in February, then it all starts again.”
And although the income at fairs is good, there are a lot of costs -- not least purchasing a ride in the first place.
Fairground rides are expensive investments. At the Schueberfouer alone, there are millions of euros of equipment – including five rollercoasters, one big wheel, two ‘breakdance’ rides and several water-based rides -- and that’s not to mention the hundreds of restaurants and food kiosks.
At the priciest end are the so-called ‘dark rides’, which involve not just a train but a significant interior and exterior staging not out of place on a Hollywood film set, laid out over several storeys with special effects and pyrotechnics.
It’s not clear how much a dark ride like Daemonium would have cost to buy new, but according to sales site usedrideseurope.com, a ghost train-style dark ride’ constructed in 2019 retails for as much as €1.8 million.
Included in this price are the trailers for transportation, the ticket box and all lighting. In the case of the dark ride mentioned, 10 semi trailers (including four integrated) are required for transport. Once in place, it will require another three days and six people to put it up.
According to Blume, the Daemonium ghost train takes at its fastest five days, two cranes and 10-12 people to erect. All for a three-minute ride of thrills and spills.
At the other end of the investment spectrum, so-called ‘top spins,’ (whirling a seated bank of people high into the air), and ‘flying chairs’ which spin fairgoers at the end of a small chair on a chain (think the Jules Verne Tower) can retail as low as the €100,000 mark on usedrideseurope.com.
What determines the price? “The price of a ride depends on lots of factors. The complexity and technology is important, how it has been maintained,” says Mueller. “Then there’s its capacity.”
Breaking it down, Daemonium has six trains capable of transporting between 50 and 100 people per hour, according to Blume. The aforementioned €1.8 million dark ride runs seven cars each carrying six people with a maximum capacity of 540 people per hour. So at maximum capacity, it could bring in receipts of €27,000 a day at €5 a ticket. In the 21 days of Schueberfouer that could be up to half a million euros.
However, the value of the emplacement is everything. “Rides are bought with the emplacements in place,” says Mueller. “Just as the value of a shop is nothing without a lease, so the value of a fairground ride is determined by the value of its emplacements.”
An average fairground ride can rent as many as between 12-15 emplacements a year across the UK and Europe. These will range from small fairs in medium-sized towns to amusement park metropolises such as Munich’s Oktoberfest. Showmen with a pitch at the Oktoberfest know that they will have their share of the approximately six million visitors who visit the iconic beer festival every year.
As a result, Europe’s various communes can charge showmen a lot for their emplacements.
“Prices vary depending on the fair,” said Mike Mueller. “It can be a few hundred euros to rent a spot or a few thousand. However, from conversations I’m overhearing on the Grand Rue in Luxembourg, it’s been several thousand euros to rent an emplacement at the Schuebi in the past.”
A rental is typically calculated per square metre, so the bigger a ride’s footprint, the more expensive the outlay. On top of this, the showmen have to pay electricity, gas and water consumption (stratospheric in today’s climate), plus some of the advertising costs, according to a spokesman from Ville de Luxembourg.
This year, however, a helping hand has been extended to fair operators following two years of restrictions from Covid: the Schueberfouer placements are free in 2022.
“This year…the College of aldermen decided to waive [the placement fee], as a consequence of the pandemic,” said the Ville de Luxembourg spokesperson.
So should we all rush to buy fairground rides and retire early?
“No,” says Mueller. “Buying a fairground ride is not like buying a house.”
Financing, insurance and risks
Prices for used fairground rides range from €99,000 to €2m on usedrideseurope.com, upwards of the price of a small flat in Luxembourg. However, unlike with property, there’s no such thing as a mortgage to finance the purchase of a fairground ride.
“There are very rarely bank loans available for a fairground ride,” said Mueller. “Most banks won’t touch it. Instead, the purchase is financed between families.”
Mueller explains that one family will sell a fairground ride to another, with the purchase financed debt and equity over the course of several years. “It can be five years, it can be fifteen,” he explains.
This seller-financing arrangement mean that most rides are bought second hand between existing showground families. The owner of the Schueberfouer’s ‘Hangover: The Tower’, an 85m, 90km/hour gravity drop ride is fresh-faced 25-year-old Ewald Schneider, a sixth-generation showman. He is proud of his heritage. “Before I came to the Schueberfouer, my Dad brought his rides to the Schueberfouer,” he says. “My grandad too.”
For Blume it’s the same. “I’m eighth generation,” he says. “My mother was from the Italian circus, my Dad was a German showman.” Rides, and the purchase of them, seem to run somewhat in the blood.
Outside of the unusual financing arrangements, however, amusement park rides behave like any other asset. According to Mueller, a fairground ride will depreciate rapidly in its first few years but then plateau. Accelerating the rate of depreciation is the usual suspects – poor maintenance, over usage. But an unusual factor can help preserve a ride’s value. “Trends,” says Mueller. “Popularity.”
Just like any other consumer products, fairground rides are subject to the trends and whims of their customer base. At the top of desirability are breakdance rides, consisting of rotating cars on a rotating inclined platform. Zero-gravity rides like Hangover: The Tower, also do well, according to Mueller.
“Breakdance and zero gravity are unlikely to depreciate as fast as less popular rides,” said Mueller. “I know breakdances that are 30 years old, very well maintained, very good price.”
Once the ride is purchased, the showman needs to think about insurance. Again, this is a costly business. A brand-new fairground ride comes with a certificate of guarantee, but a second-hand ride is subject to an annual technical inspection like any other motor vehicle. With the technical certification in place, the showman can purchase insurance ranging in cost from €3-4,000 a year for a van selling candy floss and churros, €10-15,000 for a zero gravity ‘drop’ ride like Hangover: The Tower, and upwards of €20,000 annually for a rollercoaster.
“Agencies exist to carry out regular controls for the purchase of this insurance, and an event like the Schueberfouer will require all this documentation,” says Mueller. The insurance is to ultimately keep the average fairgoer, safe. Are the rides safe? “Yes. You’re more likely to have an accident in a car or in a plane than on a fairground ride.”
But other costs play into the showman’s outlay. Hangover: The Tower takes two days and six crew to put up. These people need to be paid for. Daemonium ghost train travels Europe with its own troupe of actors to terrify riders.
“Costs go up as the years go on,” explains Blume. “I increasingly find the crew won’t work six days a week needed to put up the ride.”
A changing world
When Ewald Schneider was just a small boy, his grandfather used to tell him about the fairs in Europe during the Second World War. “People still wanted to have a good time, even though there was a war on. My grandad told me that fairs were an important part of that.” Given that his grandfather would still do business during that bleak period from 1939-1945, it was difficult for Schneider’s family to conceive of any global event that could shut funfairs.
But in 2020, when the Covid 19 pandemic swept the world, Schneider was only able to take Hangover: The Tower to a paltry three fairs. Even in 2021, Luxembourg’s Fun Um Glacis fair was very much a scaled-back version of the full-blown Schueberfouer. Then it rained.
“I think being a showman has been more difficult for the new generation than the older generation,” he says thoughtfully. “There’s not just Covid, but there’s the cost of electricity and gas which is more than it ever was before.”
This sentiment is echoed by the catering trucks who are finding the costs of frying oil and wheat ever more expensive due to global supply disruptions started with covid, then exacerbated by the war in the Ukraine.
Blume, who has been in the showman business for his entire career, is circumspect when asked whether he would want any of his seven children to become showmen.
“I don’t think I would want this life for them,” he says, his phone still ringing in his pocket. “Out of the 365 days of a year I work 340 days. There are no weekends.”
For this reason, Blume hopes to retire in the coming few years to spend more time with his family. He thinks that the future of monster rides such as Daemonium lie in Saudi Arabia, where theme parks are growing in scale and ambition. In Riyadh alone there are at least five theme parks, some with water.
But with retirement comes some magic memories. “I’ve had a beautiful career,” he says. “I have incredible moments to look back on as a showman. Packing up and moving to magical cities, life on the open road, working in the fresh air. I’ve had the good fortune to work with other nationalities and mentalities, with some of the most hardworking and best people I’ve ever met. Who else can say that?”
Blume’s wife, even his mother-in-law are all from showman families so it’s hard for Blume to understand that there are millions of people out there who have no idea what life is like for a fair operator or a showman. “Perhaps I should write a book about it,” he jokes. Perhaps he should.
However, one thing is certain. People need fairs at the moment. “I get the sense that the people in Luxembourg have been waiting a long time for this fair,” Blume says, as a group of women working at the catering trucks troop into the glacis at 7am in the morning to prepare their wares on the eve of the Schueberfouer. They are smiling despite the early hour. “Everyone is excited.”
Mueller agrees. “I hope it goes well for everyone at the Schueberfouer this year. They all deserve it.”