Operating in Perilous Times
From COVID-19 to Earthquakes, A Walk Alongside Mall Operator Adam Pratt Through the Early Days of the Crisis
by Adam Pratt, Arcade Galactic & ArcadeHeroes.com
Samuel Johnson said: “The business of life is to go forward.” When I first heard about the COVID-19 crisis, the news was restricted to China, and I didn’t think much of it. I could never have imagined that it would eventually result in most businesses being brought to a screeching halt. I had heard of major viral outbreaks before, but they always took place in lands that were far, far away.
Even when I heard about the first panic run on toilet paper taking place in Japan at the end of February due to a rumor about the material used being the same used in viral face masks, I still didn’t think that we would find ourselves in the shutdown situation that has enveloped our daily lives throughout most of March.
I think that the possibility only started to hit me as I was getting off the plane from New Orleans, seeing various monitors blaring with the news: “NBA CANCELS SEASON AFTER PLAYERS TEST POSITIVE FOR CORONAVIRUS.”
Within a week, the daily routine of our family and work-life had changed, as the word “indefinitely” became the norm – the kids doing school at home, my wife working remotely, restaurants everywhere closing their dine-in options. That all said, my arcade was still open, as the mall I am in was hoping that the situation would blow over quickly.
My earnings fell drastically while I took additional precautions of using Lysol-wipe disinfecting runs, offering hand sanitizer at the front desk, and buying an expensive air filter with a UV-C light bulb to kill germs and viruses. I even discovered that my copper/zinc tokens are anti-viral, as science had discovered that most viruses, including the family of coronaviruses out there, die instantly or within moments of coming in contact with copper.
I was still open for business on March 17 when my Stranger Things premium pinball arrived, and I got to spend a good bit of the morning setting it up. Practically no one came into the store that day as “social distancing” was already being practiced by most locals. Still, I figured I would continue as best I could – even a couple of visits a day was better than zero, and without any crowds, it meant low risk for possible transmissions.
But in an ironic twist of fate, an unexpected event took place that shut my arcade down for more than a week – something that would have happened whether a pandemic was shutting the world down or not. On the morning of March 18, I was woken up by a 5.7 magnitude earthquake.
When I first noticed the room shaking, I quickly realized that it was an earthquake, but it took the intensity going up – and the awful sound of the earth groaning as though it was going to swallow my home – to realize that this was not your typical shaker. The TV in my bedroom taking a nosedive to the floor was also a good indicator that this was stronger than usual.
While a 5.7 isn’t as bad as what many of my friends in California have experienced, one problem that we found out is that the epicenter of the initial quake and the hundreds of aftershocks were only a few miles to the north of our house. So, for the next week, anything above a 2.0, we would feel.
As such, that is the primary event that shut the arcade down, as the mall closed for inspection and repairs. Damage to the arcade was minimal – just a break in the suspended tile ceiling with a little debris. Fortunately, my family was okay, apart from being rattled. My poor wife was hit with earthquake PTSD, as she grew up in Brazil where earthquake preparation and experiences were non-existent, so she did not receive the same conditioning that I had as a kid.
It was a weird blessing that the virus shutdown happened when it did though – I had been scheduled to spend all of that week in San Francisco to organize the arcade for the Game Developer’s Conference, but that was canceled due to coronavirus fears. My wife had also begun to work from home that very morning, so under normal circumstances, we all would have been separated from each other. Due to this unprecedented shut down/stay-at-home event, we were together.
This all leads me to another classic quote, one that comes from the ancient Roman poet, Ovid: “He who is not ready today will be less so tomorrow.” While I don’t think that any of us could have foreseen this precise situation unfold like it has, you can still generally prepare for a rainy day. Utah has always had a culture of preparedness about it – whether that comes from the predominant Mormon religion in urging their members to be prepared for natural disasters, or from the Boy Scouts of America with its motto: “Be Prepared.”
The only way I could ever imagine preparing for a shutdown would be in reducing or eliminating debt. In terms of earthquake preparation, we were sort of prepared, although I realized that same day that I should have done more to be ready, as the quake could just as easily been in the 6s or 7s.
“Loans and debts make worries and frets,” said W.G. Benham, which properly defines adult life, and more so that of a small businessperson.
On that side of things, keeping a small or non-existent debt load has been one of my primary operational goals, although I wish I could say that I’ve been good doing that in practice. The few times I did have a month or two without equipment payments, suddenly a “great deal” financing opportunity came my way for a hot new (or somewhat new) game…then another one…and another one. Still, I made sure not to take on more debt than I could afford, but with every new finance purchase, something in the back of my mind said: “Don’t you want to be removing debt instead of adding it?”
On the other hand, it’s tough to make it in this business without strong-earning equipment, and such games tend to be too expensive for me to buy outright. This is especially true of those appealing, but far-too-expensive super deluxe games. I have made additional payments when I can, but after this experience, I think it would be optimal to not only pay off some equipment but to build a game purchase fund to buy games outright. That would be easier if we had more games made with street operators in mind. They’re out there but are still few and far between.
Despite the amount of payments I have, the success of the business in 2018 and 2019 has allowed me to build enough padding in the account to cover expenses for a few months. That said, I have been very grateful to my lenders who have been willing to work with me on payment options, which is also going to help extend the lifeline. I imagine that by the time you read this, you’ll have already worked something out with yours. If not, then you shouldn’t delay. Everyone –– not just arcades –– are in this boat of uncertainty together.
The day of the calamity is indeed the worst time to begin your preparations, but if any of this has caught you off guard, then keep calm, and make the most out of what you have. I have heard of some locations using crowdfunding to help pay their employees; others are also offering home rental options of their equipment, which would otherwise be sitting unused in a location. Route operators are probably better prepared for that, but it can be a great way for some kind of income to keep heading your way.
One issue that survivors of this economic nuclear bomb will have to face, however, is the stigma that has been created around public entertainment venues. Social distancing is going to have lasting cultural effects that will be difficult – but not impossible – to overcome.
Once recovery begins, a lot of people will have lost income to spend on “non-essential” things like entertainment. That said, one thing that will definitely work in our favor is what I call the “Isolation Itch” – aka cabin fever. We were already holed up enough from winter, then we had the quarantine orders. Once those are lifted, I do believe people will want to escape it all, and that’s where arcades have an advantage. We’re going to have to be very clever in marketing our return though. Leaving it to just word-of-mouth and some memes on a social media page won’t be good enough to get people back through the door.
Ralph Waldo Emerson once said: “These times of ours are serious and full of calamity, but all times are essentially alike.” This crisis is not the first pandemic or major challenge that the world has ever faced. It will pass – hopefully, sooner rather than later. The question is whether we will allow it to beat us, or will we use it to come out stronger and smarter than before? I’m placing my bets on the latter.
Adam Pratt is the owner and operator of Arcade Galactic near Salt Lake City, Utah, and also publishes the Arcade Heroes blog site. He can be reached at [email protected].