What’s New In Today’s FEC
A Quick Look at Some of the Trends in the Marketplace
By George McAuliffe, Chief FEC Strategist, Redemption Plus
In an earlier life, the family entertainment center chain I managed was bought by a large retailer with 2,000 stores in 18 different brands offering merchandise from menswear to women’s footwear. I remember asking: “Why us? Why entertainment?” They gave three reasons:
• The mutual mall orientation (that’s where you wanted to be in the arcade world of the late 1980s) and where they were.
• We shared customers with the retail chains: the young, mostly male apparel buyer.
• The company that bought us saw our arcade and FEC chain as a fashion business.
A fashion business? Well, yes, to the extent that we must keep introducing new elements to our FEC experience to motivate repeat visits.
Which brings me to four “fashionable” trends in our marketplace today.
You may have noticed the increased ink VR has received in the trade press. It’s a hot topic. My partner (and son) Howard and I recently stopped in at Family Entertainment Group’s (FEG) VR attraction at the Kalahari Resort in Pennsylvania’s Pocono Mountains. FEG installed Zero Latency’s fully immersive group game, which stages and plays much like laser tag. Players don a headset, earphones, tracking vest and weapon. By the way, the weapon is particularly interesting with a variety of play modes that were fun.
I should tell you that I am not a gamer. I’m more interested in what a game earns than how it plays. Plus, I’ve been following VR since 1993 when our company introduced Virtuality to the U.S., the first, public-space VR attraction. I was prepared to be underwhelmed. Instead, I had a great time in FEG’s Virtual World. The game was challenging, lots of fun and worth the $25 price of admission. I look forward to playing again. George Smith, FEG’s CEO, told me that “early returns are good; we are planning on continuing to improve and expand on the experience.”
Escape rooms are popping up around the world as stand alone businesses and as FEC attractions. Some FEC operators are turning to franchise companies, while others avoid the upfront fee and ongoing royalties by doing it themselves.
Creative Works, which certainly understands our industry as a leader in laser tag arena design and theming, is now emerging as leader in escape room design. They have installed their newest version, Infinite Escapes, in two facilities. Both locations are their Pharaoh’s Revenge theme, which feels like the inside of an ancient stone structure at an archaeological dig site. Guests solve puzzles and “break the Pharaoh’s curse” before it’s too late.
“Creative Works has more escape room installations on the way this year,” the company’s Chief Marketing Officer Danny Gruening told me, “and we’ll be rolling out our second Infinite Escapes theme called Inventor’s Workshop, with more to follow.”
You’d have to be on another planet to have missed the successful marriage of family entertainment and bowling in recent years. That winning combination has moved primarily in one direction –– adding FEC attractions to bowling centers. Traditional (non-bowling) FECs have been slower to add bowling, often due to space and cost concerns. Brunswick and QubicaAMF now offer “string bowling” machines that address those issues. String pins are suspended from a much less complicated, and therefore less expensive, pinsetter. Otherwise, players experience the look and feel of real bowling. Lanes can be shorter than regulation, but otherwise it’s “big ball bowling,” as Dan Borgie, Brunswick’s Director of New Center Development, told me. “Our StringPin machines still come with many of the features of our GS-X machines, including integration of LED lighting and music. We are the only company offering on demand pin selection, as well as a series of fun, challenging games for casual bowlers and group events,” he claimed.
Real-feel bowling in less space, at less cost, with a similar universe of features and attraction power? We’ll be seeing more FECs adding this version of bowling in the coming months and years.
If you follow this column, you know we are big believers in the redemption store as an alternative to counters whenever space and sales volume make sense. It’s catching on. The redemption checkout experience is so important to the overall FEC visit quality that more and more stores are being produced.
Aimeé Dolehanty, digital experience architect for Redemption Plus (our designers and a client), said, “Redemption must be able to compete with the game room visually and experientially. Allowing customers to touch and feel the product inside a store is a simple way to create an experience. Prizes become more desirable, players remember how that prize looks and feels when playing a game, and play more to win.” It is great to see Redemption Plus and others continue to break new design ground and innovate more merchandising practices.
This concludes our quick tour of trending industry practices; some still a work in progress. With VR, the cost will need to come down as the quality and variety of experiences go up. Escape room admission charges are in the $15-$35 range, historically high for community based FECs. We’ll have to see if they can generate repeat visits from the FEC community-based audience. String bowling and redemption stores are well established concepts with proven ROI. In all cases, it’s great to see the innovations coming, a testament to the health and relevance of our industry.
George McAuliffe has created and operated family entertainment centers from 2,000 to 150,000 square feet as a corporate executive, entrepreneur and consultant. He’s President of Pinnacle Entertainment Group and leads the company’s strategic advisory team. George, recently moved back “home” to the Jersey Shore with his wife Julie, has a passion for passing along what he’s learned in the fun business to the new generation of operators and suppliers.