You know it’s summer in Coffs Harbour when the Carnival hits town. Chris Hennessy and his brother Luke now run March’s Amusements, the business that has been staging our Carnival for the last 25 years. Mel spoke to Chris about the joys and challenges of being a showman and why Coffs Harbour has a special place in his heart.
Mel: You and Luke are 4th generation showmen. Was it always your destiny to run the family business?
Chris: March’s Amusements was started in 1946 by my grandfather and his father, but we didn’t start out in the family business. When we finished school Luke started doing event management and I went into carpentry.
But we have a real passion for this industry. It took us a few months and we both came back into March’s. We gave “normal life” a trial, but it failed.
Mel: What is it you love about the show business?
Chris: We give so much enjoyment to so many people. That’s the best part of our job.
My brother and I supervise the whole attraction, making sure everyone does their job and things are running smoothly and safely. But come down to the Carnival and you’ll see us jump on a ride, or have a go at operating one. That’s what we really like to do: get on the microphone and get the crowd amped up.
Mel: What are the difficulties inherent in your industry?
Chris: It’s very hard to budget because you never really know what’s going to happen.
Last weekend we had two rides at the Nambucca River Festival. It was the weekend after Phil Hughes died, and people in his hometown were down. We earned half the money we did the year prior. How can you budget for that?
And weather affects us in a big way. We’ve been lucky lately; the last two seasons have been pretty dry. But three years ago at Coffs Harbour half the nights were rained out and we just completely lost the vibe.
Mel: How do you respond when an unexpectedly bad period occurs?
Chris: We have to cut back on wages. Our trained operators are full time, so they get paid no matter what. But the casuals really suffer. It’s hard, but you’ve just got to take the bad times with the good.
Mel: March’s has been around almost seven decades – is there a secret to your success?
Chris: We create a clean and friendly atmosphere and we keep the prices as cheap as possible, so families are happy to keep coming back.
Mel: As “cheap as possible” can be a difficult strategy. How do you decide the right price?
Chris: I go on what’s affordable for me. I think, “Could I afford to take the family and would I come back again at this price?”
And I listen. Sometimes I jump in the ticket box and sell tickets. People will normally tell you if you’re too dear!
Of course you have to be careful not to be too cheap, or you’ll find yourself with a worn out machine and no money to fix it.
Mel: The Coffs Harbour Carnival is different than your other Shows because you stay here for a whole month. What keeps you coming back?
Chris: We couldn’t see ourselves not being in Coffs Harbour at Christmas time. I was only a small child when we started coming 25 years ago, and now my girls love it too. I feel a part of the community in Coffs Harbour.