Navigating the Lost Summer of 2020
Columnist Pens Update on Salt Lake City Mall Arcade Operations
by Adam Pratt, Arcade Galactic & ArcadeHeroes.com
It would be nice if I could ask the question: “How have you been faring throughout the lost summer of 2020?” and get an immediate response. Since this is a print article and not a social media post, that isn’t possible, but I can operate using some of the information I’ve drawn through the digital grapevine as to how business is going out there. I will combine that with what I’ve seen in my own venue, which I imagine will fit what many of you are experiencing.
As of this writing, many regions are still blocking arcades from opening, while allowing other businesses like casinos to operate. For those regions where things have been open, like mine, we’ve had numerous measures in place that businesses can put into practice themselves, or have mandated by the city, county or state government. We’ve had social distancing, mask mandates for months now and shortened hours along with various game sanitization protocols. Unfortunately, the pandemic spread has continued in many places despite many of these efforts, and fear pervades the public consciousness. I’m sure you’re just as tired of the social media debates about it as you are the “we’re all in this together during these challenging, unprecedented times” TV commercials.
I mentioned in my last article that Utah wasn’t strongly impacted by the virus like other regions of the country, and while that has remained true (there was a slight, sustained increase in cases and deaths in July, but still well below what other places experienced), it has been enough to affect us in the same way as other regions.
For us, summertime is usually our busy season with kids out of school, big movies hitting the silver screens and visitors coming in from out of town. With the latter two not happening, May was down 71% from the year prior; June was seeing a nice bounce-back as we saw a 54% increase in business from May.
Then the second panic hit when July started, and things stumbled again, July saw a 27% decrease in business from June.
A week into August it is starting to look like we’re seeing a June style return, but that has already been partially hampered by two events. One was a protest at city hall across the street on what was turning out to be a busy Saturday, causing the mall to be shut down out of caution. Then, the next day, a power outlet blew on a circuit that powers some of our most popular games, rendering them unplayable that Sunday.
The movie theater down the hall from us in the mall has been open since mid-June, but has been doing little in the way of creative thinking to drum up business as most big releases go straight-to-the-stream. Another major factor has been competition from the FEC also down the hall, that opened a week before the theater did. I knew having them open would change this summer from what we normally see, but I didn’t foresee the pandemic on top of it all.
That all sounds pretty negative so far, but with the pressures in place, we’ve been making it work. I was able to get an Economic Disaster Recovery Loan, which I used to pay off some games, and purchase a used Family Guy Bowling game that needed a home. A local pinball collector I work with has brought in another pinball machine, The Getaway, and I traded a Dr. Who pin for a very nice Space Shuttle. These additions, combined with the acquisitions from earlier this year, seem to have helped keep our regulars interested in coming back.
I’ve been eagerly awaiting some new releases to the Exa-Arcadia as well. Since that system works like the Neo Geo MVS, and we already have three titles for it, I just need one more to “fill out” the machine. Quite a few games have been on test in Japan throughout July and August. With new cartridges costing around $1,200-$1,500 (depending on the game), that will be another inexpensive way to add something brand-new to the mix. [Right now, it’s a toss-up between the Contra/Metal Slug-like game Blazing Chrome AC, the Ghosts ’N Goblins-like Super Battle Princess Madelyn and the Dragon Spirit-like shooter Vritra Hexa. None of these titles are available for purchase when I write this, although it is possible that they will be shipping by the time this hits the presses.]
All that said, I’m still just as concerned about the future of the business as I was when that FEC opened last year, which is leading me to consider the possibility of moving out of the mall. I began entertaining the possibility as soon as it was confirmed that the FEC was coming, but I had to wait to see how their presence would affect things.
After they opened – before the pandemic – business was down about 20-23% from the previous year. I expected to see it level off to a “new normal,” although the market aberrations of March cut that short so it’s impossible to know for sure.
I also keep getting calls from people who think that I’m them, and the mall doesn’t promote me at all since I’m not a big corporate entity. Any physical advertising I do runs the risk of sending business to them, as they have a nice outdoor entrance that includes the word “arcade,” while people have to venture deep into the mall to find out that I exist.
With that as a backdrop, I am traveling to Idaho to check out an opportunity that was offered to me there. Maybe it’s a “sign” to move or it’s just a coincidence.
I’ve also begun looking at some other venues around Utah to see if anything is viable for us. It’s a tough call, especially now, since that will mean essentially starting over for any place that distant from my current location. And, if I move far enough –– to a place like Idaho –– that will also mean having to relocate my family. That comes with plenty of its own pros and cons, and at a difficult time for my son, who is just starting high school. It will also be a big expense to move 70+ games, although I’ve already decided that if that comes to be, I’ll sell off a few of the larger pieces to reduce some of the headaches.
To move or not to move? That is the question and that is the risk. Maybe it’s better to stay, or maybe it’s better to find a greener pasture. We’d all love to have a crystal ball or oracle that tells us the best decisions to make in these situations, but no matter what, I’m grateful that I have been able to operate this summer, and that my decision is more about where to go as opposed to facing permanent closure.
How will this end? Perhaps by the next issue we’ll find out. Stay subscribed!
Adam Pratt is the owner and operator of the Game Grid arcade near Salt Lake City, Utah. He also publishes the Arcade Heroes blog site and serves as an advisor for the web-based game supplier BMI Worldwide. He can be reached at [email protected].