Hungry for a splashy-but-educational eco venture, entrepreneur Joey Hundert put his brain to work. His first thought, an "eco village" made up of travelling museum exhibits, didn't seem a likely crowd magnet.
Then Mr. Hundert had his eureka moment. He turned to a friend and said, "Biodiesel Gravitron!"
It was a puzzling word association to the friend, but to Mr. Hundert the idea was crystal clear: a green carnival. Who doesn't like a midway ride?
Mr. Hundert was also seeing dollar signs: "I started doing research and found that you can run 900 riders per hour through a Gravitron and, if you charge them between $3 and $5, that makes for a pretty strong revenue case."
Mr. Hundert, 30, has been an entrepreneur since his teenage years. Born in Hamilton, Ont., he spent most of his youth in Cherry Hill, N.J., where he began repairing computers. He was lured back to Canada at 19 by an uncle, a construction contractor who hoped to get his help with the development of an Edmonton wellness centre. The project fizzled, but the experience made Mr. Hundert want to lay down roots in Alberta's capital city. Since then, he has undertaken a range of ventures, most focused on sustainability.
Now, with the birth of his first child just three months away, Mr. Hundert has launched Sustainival, which he calls the world's first sustainable carnival. The rides, which vary from the nausea-inducing Gravitron to a mellow Ferris wheel, run on biodiesel fuel, specifically used vegetable oil.
Before this summer, Sustainival had piggybacked on two other festivals – Edmonton's Freezing Man last winter, and Riverfest, in Little Rock, Ark. – but its showing this month at the Edmonton International Fringe Theatre Festival was considered its official Canadian debut.
For two weeks ending Sunday, Aug. 21, tens of thousands of people flocked to the green midway, which set up just around the corner from the Fringe box office.
Rides were fuelled by used vegetable oil from Japanese restaurants in Edmonton. Generators converted the oil into electricity on-site to run the rides.
In every city that Sustainival visits, it must source its fuel either from restaurants or farmers with crops such as canola or sunflower. Other logistical challenges include sourcing certified ride operators from the area, sustainable products to offer as prizes for the midway games, and advertising sponsorship.
Strangely enough, one of the easiest tasks was finding the rides. About 200 to 300 purveyors sell used carnival rides in North America, Mr. Hundert says.
Mr. Hundert sunk his own money into the venture, as well as that of about 65 partners. Just how much has been invested he won't disclose, "but suffice it to say, it's a lot of money, and we're a profitable business already."
In the beginning, he considered making his venture a sustainable enterprise rather than a for-profit one. He received a grant from Edmonton's Social Enterprise Fund, which helps mostly non-profit organizations. The $10,000 grant was for a feasibility study.
But just a few months into the process, Mr. Hundert was asked whether Sustainival would participate in the fledgling Freezing Man fest, an alternative music event. So, in January of this year, seven months before his target launch date, he acquired a few rides. Since then, with calls already starting to come in, he decided not to finish the sustainability study and opted for a for-profit company.
But Sustainival is not out of the woods yet. Ten thousand riders are needed at each event to break even, Mr. Hundert says. "But that's not a problem, given how many festivals there are with over 10,000 people," he argues.
And yet, even with 250,000 attendees, the Arkansas festival didn't pan out as expected. After hauling about $4-million in ride equipment to the site, Sustainival only broke even and Mr. Hundert took a personal loss.
But the young entrepreneur isn't deterred. He finds inspiration in Cirque du Soleil, which broke the traditional circus mould. "I see Sustainival creating a market for itself: The premium educational carnival experience."