We’ve seen a lot of carnivals, some of them good and some of them….less good. So here are some of the biggest mistakes we’ve seen this year, and how you can avoid them!
1. The Carnival That Didn’t Have Enough Volunteers (and How You Can Find More!)
This is one of the biggest challenges for carnival organizers. We saw a few instances this year where the organizers had put up a Signupgenius or other list, but not followed up to make sure that all the slots were filled, or to print out and record who was signed up for what. On event night, many slots were left open, and no one knew what was covered and what wasn’t.
Those that hired Kidsmart were in luck - we always leave a game manager, so when volunteers didn’t show up we were at least able to prevent damage to rental equipment or damage to guests caused by rental equipment being left unsupervised. We even ran some games here and there, and generally helped keep order.
Yoselin standing in at the Stand-a-Bottle.
But others weren’t so lucky - at one event, there were kids crying when they were pushed and shoved due to lack of line control, or when they didn’t get prizes because the prizes were left unattended and crowds of guests simply helped themselves. We saw children injured in bounce houses that were left unsupervised, and in one case saw volunteers leave in frustration and disgust when crowds became unmanageable.
These problems could have been avoided if the organizers had paid more attention to their sign-up sheets. When people haven’t signed up a week out from the event, it’s time to pull out all the stops! Beg, plead, call in favors, do whatever you have to, but don’t ignore the problem. Of course, for those who didn’t start asking for volunteers until a week out, those aren’t options - so start looking early! And don’t forget students - many high school students have community service requirements and are looking to fill those hours. Many events in our area are almost completely staffed by local high schoolers.
This awesome crew of high schoolers showed up at 7am to help set up for Barktoberfest 2018
2. The Carnival That Was Too Crowded (and How to Use Your Space Better)
Safety has to come first, especially when you’re responsible for 500 children that aren’t your own. That means taking fire regulations seriously. Poor space-planning is responsible for most fire hazards. At one event, too many things were crammed into spaces too small to handle them once the guests came in, resulting in crowding so severe that people could barely move. To avoid this problem, plan your space carefully. One idea is to draw out spaces out on graph paper, creating scale of 2 feet per square, and then cut out pieces of paper to represent your games, tables, etc., so you can experiment with different configurations on paper. It might sound like overkill, but it’s a whole lot better than creating a situation that endangers people’s lives. As you put items into your space - say, games in a gym - think about how many children will generally be in line (i.e. at a school of 700, with 8 games, you can usually expect 5-10 children at a time), how much floor space the line will take up, where parents will stand, if that might block an exit or other activity, and so on.
A well-planned event with about 200 guests. 4-5 children stand in line, while parents have space to hang back and watch.
Think about traffic flow and make sure activities aren’t too close to exits and entrances, causing traffic jams near the doors. And never, ever block an entrance, even if you think people can just walk around the obstacle. There should be a clear, fairly straight line to the fire exit at all times - a crowd should not have to dodge obstacles to get there from across the room.
A space always looks big when it's empty!
But remember that people don't just line up at the games....they also cluster in the middle of the room. Here there is plenty of room in the middle, and the exit at the far end is completely accessible.
Don't forget that some games, like the Balloon Pop, require lots of space for throwing.
One of the most common fire hazards is the tendency for the ticket table to be placed horizontally across the front entrance, so that people see it as soon as they enter. This is fine if the table backs to a wall and the hallway or foyer opens to the sides, but not fine if the table blocks the path people would normally take to exit the building (i.e. they would normally pass directly through the table area to get out the door). If you must put the ticket table indoors, placing it along the foyer wall will generally keep it out of the main flow of traffic.
Typical school entranceway - don't place tables in front of the doors.
If your interior space is just not sufficient for the crowd you expect, one way to thin it out is to make the event longer. This will naturally spread out the traffic over the course of the day, as opposed to having everyone arrive within just one or two peak hours. For example, a 2 hour event can become a 4 hour event.
This 4-hour indoor event saw over 400 people, but never felt overcrowded.
3. The Carnival That Was Not Inclusive
One unfortunate school ended up in the newspaper for holding an event during school hours and excluding all those who couldn’t pay the $10 admission fee. Although it goes without saying (or should) that any event during school hours should be accessible to all, the same could be said about any school event. After all, school events should promote a sense of community, and we all want our communities to be inclusive of all. You can ensure everyone can participate in your event by providing free tickets to those who otherwise could not attend. Speak with the school principal or counselor about how to go about doing this in a confidential, discreet manner. This has been done successfully, without negatively impacting profits or ticket sales, in schools with up to 30% of families receiving free and reduced lunch.
4. The Carnival that Ran Out of Prizes
This happens so often, it’s more common than not. When organizers order prizes, they are often guessing or sticking to a budget, rather than using real data about crowd numbers and game wins. Since the calculations can be so hard to do, that’s understandable. After all, it’s pretty hard to predict how often people will win games, especially if you aren’t familiar with the games. What the best carnival organizers do is to monitor the prize usage during the carnival, and adjust the game difficulty during the night to make sure that they are giving out prizes at the correct rate. When the prizes go too fast, they go around and instruct volunteers to give fewer prizes or prize tickets, and when they are going too slowly, they increase the number of prizes or tickets.
Most carnival games that we rent can be adjusted to increase or decrease the level of difficulty. Having a volunteer to keep an eye on prizes and adjust the games is essential, or you will either run out or have too many left over.
For more on the ins and outs of prizes, including calculating how many you need and deciding whether to give prizes or prize tickets, see blog posts "How Many Prizes Should You Buy?" and "Is It Time to Get Rid of the Prize Table?"
Our Chickens Can Fly Game, with 2 different targets, both easily moveable.
On the other hand, you can use Kidsmart Carnivals “Prizes on Consignment” service and have access to endless prizes, but only pay for what you use!
Some of our prizes.
5. The Carnival that Ran Out of Food
This is really common. Food is so hard to predict, and no one wants to buy too much. As an organizer, I’ve had it happen both with our own school concessions and with food trucks. The best thing to do is to collect data on each event you have and make sure to retain it for future organizers. If you know you sold 300 hotdogs last year, you’ll have a pretty good idea how many to buy this year. For concessions such as popcorn and cotton candy, you can come up with a good estimate by looking at the time of the event and how long it takes to make the item. For example, if the cotton candy maker makes 2 cones per minute (the average for a single volunteer running a standard rental), and your event is two hours long, 100 servings (2 cartons of sugar floss) is probably plenty.
Our cotton candy machines make 3-4 servings per minute, but volunteers who are also selling the cotton candy will generally make only 2-3 per minute.
Keep a record of the number of people at your events so you can give food trucks accurate estimates and they can bring enough food and staff.
Dealing with food trucks is a bit different. They often assume organizers will overestimate the number of people. If you know your anticipated crowd numbers, be sure to let the food truck know that the number is based on real data, not your assumption, or they might not bring enough food or enough staff. That means long lines or running out. Yet another reason to collect and retain data about your events.
In a pinch, if you do run out of food and your guests are leaving for lack of something to eat, consider running down to a local pizza place and selling slices of pizza. It’s one of the quickest and easiest foods to get, requires no setup or special equipment, and is almost universal in its appeal.