Sondra Wilson has fun at her job, and who wouldn’t surrounded by large inflatables, midway games, and machines making snow cones and popcorn?
Wilson spends her days around those items and more as owner and president of Creative Carnivals & Events in Overland Park. The family entertainment business carries a large assortment of supplies that can be rented for all kinds of events.
The company’s inventory includes inflatable moon walks and slides, food service items, and scenery and backdrops. There’s even a cow milking machine.
In addition, Wilson has a cadre of entertainers – from magicians and celebrity look-a-likes to tattoo artists – customers can hire. She said the company has something for all ages.
“I’ll do anything if they’ll pay me and it’s legal,” Wilson said with a laugh. “Anything to entertain you, I have. I get to have the best conversations.”
Wilson owns the business with her husband, Kevin, but she runs the operation. Wilson has six fulltime employees, about 20 seasonal workers, dozens of independent contractors, and a fleet of five trucks.
“I started out doing birthday party appearances as different characters – Dorothy from the Wizard of Oz, and ballerinas,” Wilson said. “It turned out people wanted to rent out moonwalks, too.”
She and a partner started a company offering more than 30 birthday party themes. They ventured into the school carnival market but then split up. Wilson went on out on her own, buying several other small related businesses along the way and never looked back.
Today, Creative Carnivals does more than 1,000 events annually.
“I never took out any loans to finance the business,” Wilson said. “Anything that came into the business I reinvested. If I need a new truck and I can’t buy it with cash, I don’t buy a truck.”
The one thing Wilson did take out a traditional loan for was Creative Carnivals’ 7,500-square-foot building. She moved into the new facility in February.
“It’s not big enough … (but) I’ll live and die here,” she said. “The rent I was paying on the other facility was outrageous, so I do have a note on the building.”
Each year, Wilson goes to a convention to see what’s hot in her industry.
“I tend to buy five to 10 new inflatable units or games a year to keep inventory fresh and unique,” she said. “It’s an industry that’s not regulated … but I’m very particular about safety and put special features on to ensure safety.”
Wilson said inflatable moonwalks are the most popular item to rent; she’s even gotten into designing some of them.
“I’m the only person in the world that I know of who owns an inflatable for wheelchair-bound people,” she said. “It does not have an inflatable floor — the ground serves as the floor. It has little obstacles that a wheelchair can go through.”
Q: What is your customer mix?
“About 40 percent is schools; 30 percent is church groups; 20 percent is our corporate business; and the rest is for private parties,” Wilson said. “We’d love that corporate event side to go up; the economy needs to improve so that part of the business will continue to grow.”
Corporate customers include the Kansas City Chiefs and Kansas City Royals for children’s entertainment.
Creative Carnivals has weathered the recession well, Wilson said.
“We’ve not had a down income year,” she said. “And with the introduction of Google ad words, we’ve seen an increase of 20 percent in gross revenues for four years in a row.”
Q: You are in a unique business. What differentiates you from your competitors?
Wilson said Creative Carnivals did several things differently. The company does not rent any mechanical rides.
“That’s for safety reasons,” Wilson said. “Our equipment changes, too. They’re massive and unique.”
The company’s drivers are responsible for setting the equipment up for the customer and doing a walk-through of the site.
“We have our customers sign off that they have been trained how to operate it safely,” Wilson said. “We are insured to be in any kind of venue – every ‘I’ is dotted and every ‘T’ is crossed.”
Q: What do items rent for?
Wilson said prices vary on the top of items. For example, moonwalks start at $150 for a set time, and the largest inflatable obstacle course is $750 for a six-hour rental. The company often runs specials on various pieces of equipment or event packages.
“There’s always some way we can work with someone,” Wilson said. That approach has paid off for Creative Carnivals.
“Rarely, unless there’s a budget issue, have I lost customers,” she said. “They come back and come back.”