Cover Story - Double Dribble - April 2018

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Nick DeMatteo (left), midway operations director at Dave & Buster's, and John Kopchak, amusements manager at Dave & Buster's in Irvine, California.

With creativity and determination, FECs can effectively attract the 18-plus crowd

by Mike Bederka

Call it an ironic twist in the family entertainment center (FEC) universe. Adults may be the focus of much of the marketing efforts and make the purchasing decisions at many facilities, but the game, ride, attraction, and food and beverage mix, as well as the promotions, generally favor those under 18 years old. 

The tendency, of course, doesn’t play out for everyone. Take Dave & Buster’s, for instance. Since its inception in 1982—and in the decades since—the Dallas, Texas-based company has built an entertainment empire by catering to the tastes of those people a few years past earning their driver’s licenses.

“We’re mindful that young adults are the core of our business,” says Nick DiMatteo, midway operations director at Dave & Buster’s, which boasts more than 100 locations in North America. “We target them heavily and spend an incredible amount of time thinking about what they want and how to give it to them.”

He says the company takes a holistic approach to draw this valuable demo, such as how staff greet them, the flow of traffic, food and drink selections, game packages, and more.

“The devil is in the details,” says DiMatteo, an industry veteran and a member of the IAAPA FEC Committee.

This methodical approach goes into motion when working with groups that some other FECs might feel skittish about, such as bachelor and bachelorette parties. 

“If we know a special event is coming in, we’ll ask if they want a dedicated support person to go with them,” he says. “They will explain the games and amp up the fun. Captains also are near the front door to greet people and guide them to where they want to go. When you have a physical presence on the floor with managers, support techs, and wait staff, that absolutely changes the environment.”

The immersion of Dave & Buster’s in the adult market also has the company constantly on the hunt for the latest trends, with fantasy sports a recent example of a strong push, DiMatteo says. Almost every location has party rooms that can be used to host fantasy drafts, and they bustle with activity at the start of each sports season as guests feverishly create their teams with friends.

“Laptops are everywhere, and people talking trash to each other,” he says. “It’s a lot of fun.” 

Other FECs have followed the example set by Dave & Buster’s by looking for new and innovative ways to attract adult guests—and not just as chaperones for their children. Funworld talked to several facilities about how they successfully pursue an older crowd, including fitness programs, birthday parties, alcohol as an amenity, and other promos.

INFLATA NATION

After opening, Inflata Nation adjusted its business model to appeal to adult guests, offering adult-only parties, corporate packages, fitness classes, and open play. (Credit: Inflata Nation)

UK’s Inflata Nation caters to adults with parties, a fitness program, and more

When Michelle Ball opened Inflata Nation with her husband Matt last fall in Manchester, United Kingdom, it didn’t take long for them to realize they needed to tweak their original business model.

Inflatable facilities generally cater to younger children, and they geared the programming as such. Within days, though, the duo noticed many adult guests actively playing with their kids on the attractions. They also had groups of older friends, especially millennials, streaming in for late-day open sessions to blow off some steam after work and, perhaps, recapture their fading youth. 

“We didn’t anticipate the demand,” she says, “but we quickly saw an opportunity.”

In a flurry, they tapped into this childhood nostalgia and the desire for alternative forms of entertainment in the area. The husband-and-wife team added adult-only parties, including birthday, bachelor, and bachelorette, as well as corporate packages, fitness classes, and open play. 

However, plotting the new slate of entertainment does take some fine-tuning. Whenever possible, they try not to book adult and child functions at the same time, Ball says. This extra planning increases the comfort level for everyone, and, importantly, it plugs in the schedule gaps to maximize their space and revenue potential.

No Goodie Bags

Ball acknowledges the facility’s adult birthday parties don’t differ that significantly from the ones for kids. In essence, both versions offer an hour of open play on all the activities, such as the climbing wall, extreme drop slides, gladiator duel, obstacle course, and more. After that, the party moves to a private room with a host, who helps with the food and drinks.

Yet, she notes some key differences with the adult events. The servers do a lot less “mothering,” which the adults appreciate. The food also caters more to grown-up tastes with pasta and fruit platters on the menu along with the standard pizza. “Plus, we don’t give them party bags with bouncy balls,” Ball says with a laugh.

The bachelor and bachelorette parties (called stag and hen parties in the UK) have a similar format to the birthdays. Following an hour of bouncing about, guests enjoy a buffet of sandwiches, cakes, coffee, tea, and soft drinks. 

Drinking alcohol or being under the influence of any substances, which tends to happen at traditional bachelor and bachelorette parties, is strictly forbidden at Inflata Nation, Ball stresses: “Our primary market is still families, and we don’t want to alienate them. Staff keeps an eye out for drinking, and we manage it quite tightly.” They clearly spell out the alcohol and drug policy every place they can—on their website, the pre-bounce safety briefing, and the waiver.

“We remind them they can’t be under the influence and to be respectful of the other people in the session with them,” she says, noting they haven’t encountered any problems with these groups to date. “After leaving here, they usually go out for a meal and then to the bars. That’s when things might get messy. We seem to get the best of them, and it has really struck a chord with our audience.”

Untraditional Fitness

Inflata’s fitness program has turned into instant success as well, Ball says. Capped at 40 people, each 45-minute class often completely books up.

The boot camp-style, high-intensity interval training (HIIT) program runs twice weekly in the evenings. Classes skew female up to around 35 years old, but men and guests who meet the 16-year-old minimum participate, as well. For all facility activities, including fitness, participants must weigh less than 300 pounds.

The unique, sweat-drenching workout has folks joining the popular class, where professional instructors get them running, jumping, and climbing around the 17,500-square-foot facility.

“It makes fitness more fun, especially for people who don’t want to go to a traditional gym,” Ball explains. “You never stand still on the inflatables. It’s great for your core and works you that much harder than if you were on a regular gym floor.”

Guests currently pay per session, with the seventh class free as part of a loyalty program. The facility plans to roll out a monthly membership due to the high demand.

Rounding out the adult-centric offerings, Inflata Nation features age 16-and-up open-play sessions on Friday nights—which even some octogenarians have joined—and corporate packages during the workday. 

A typical team-building activity might challenge people to navigate the “Inflata Balls.” Here, coworkers shout words of encouragement as their colleagues precariously leap across giant bouncy balls to reach a platform on the other side.

“Essentially, it’s about getting the more reserved characters in the office to open themselves up and join in the fun with the rest of the group,” Ball says.

More Facilities Coming

Strong word of mouth and cross-promotion have helped make year one a triumph, Ball says. For example, a person may come in for a friend’s birthday or bachelorette party, see some in-facility marketing materials for fitness classes, and sign up as a result.

In addition, the owners have benefited from a huge press boost. BBC aired a segment about the novel adult concept at Inflata Nation, which, in turn, Ball shared heavily through the facility’s social media channels. The strong visual of adults letting their hair down and having a blast further boosted interest, particularly among those who may be a bit skeptical about coming to a type of attraction traditionally geared for kids.

With the rush of business, they plan to open three new facilities in the UK by this summer and eventually franchise the concept internationally. All will follow the successful template they have established at the original facility in Manchester. But before long, she believes others may join them in this new niche. 

“The adult side of the market is underutilized,” Ball says. “Many facilities like ours could accommodate adults if they looked at their business differently, and they could profit from it quite significantly.”

URBAN AIR TRAMPOLINE AND ADVENTURE PARK

Urban Air Trampoline and Adventure Park's popular fitness program combines jump training, cardio, and strength-building exercises specifically for trampolines. (Credit: Urban Air Trampoline and Adventure Park)

Trampoline parks can help differentiate themselves with fitness programs for adults

Bryan Reinke will be the first to tell you: Certain markets have hit the saturation point with the number of trampoline parks in their areas, and as a result, some facilities may start to struggle. 

“Those who will succeed analyze their business, find out where the opportunities exist, and then differentiate themselves from their competitors,” says Reinke, general manager of Flight Trampoline Park in Springfield, Virginia.

For his company, with 11 facilities in the United States, that meant adding a formal fitness program called Flight Fit. 

“A lot of parks aren’t open in the day during the week—it’s crazy,” he says. “More and more people want diversity in their workouts, and we have the right resources in place to provide them with what they’re looking for.” 

Hire Top Trainers

Urban Air Trampoline and Adventure Park also saw an opportunity to tap into the desire for something beyond working out in a traditional gym or going for a long run.

“We’re more than a trampoline park, and our programs have to shift and evolve,” says Josh Tate, head of marketing for the company, which has 38 locations across the United States.

Besides its climbing wall, and dodgeball and “warrior” courses, the facility features a popular fitness program that combines jump training, cardio, and strength-building exercises specifically for trampolines. 

“You’re beat halfway through,” Tate says. “You can burn up to 1,000 calories in one hour. It’s a great, different workout that really pushes the intensity.” 

Reinke, an avid runner, agrees that guests will be huffing and puffing after one of Flight Trampoline Park’s workouts, as well. (See sidebar for Flight Fit class examples.)

Having top enthusiastic and certified trainers—and not just frontline staffers moonlighting as instructors—makes all the difference in creating a comprehensive, enjoyable fitness program, Reinke says. They explain the workouts in detail, reviewing all the safety guidelines and expectations, and modifying the program depending on the clients in the particular class and their abilities. Some sessions may have senior citizens mixed in with millennials. However, moms in their late 20s to mid-30s comprise the vast majority of Flight’s exercise business.

Make It Convenient 

The Urban Air fitness audience tends to be about 80 percent moms, as well, says Tate, noting the attraction tries to make it as easy as possible for busy parents to get in their workouts.

“You don’t have to put your kids in day care,” he says. “They can run and jump with you.”

While parents participate in the class, staff members will watch their children. Urban Air doesn’t charge for the first child, and moms and dads only have to pay $5 per each additional kid—“still an extremely discounted rate,” Tate says.

The schedule also plays a large part in making the fitness program convenient for guests who may have limited time between work and other responsibilities, Reinke says. At Flight Trampoline Park, classes last 45 to 60 minutes and generally run between 8 and 10 a.m. during the week and as early as 7 a.m. on the weekends. (Flight originally offered late-afternoon weekday classes but struggled to gain an audience then.) 

The ideal time may differ based on a facility’s location, target demo, and staffing requirements, Tate says. For example, an FEC may not want to open its doors early for just one fitness class. Instead, management might schedule the class at noon after an already-existing toddler program wraps up, so the overhead wouldn’t be as high.

Tate also recommends facilities not schedule fitness classes during peak general admission and party times, such as 2 p.m. on a Saturday, to lessen the overall congestion in the venue. 

“You want people in the fitness class to have a great experience,” he says. “You don’t want 350 teenagers doing flips by them.”

Spreading out the programming also lends itself to cross-promotion opportunities.

“The ancillary benefits can’t be ignored,” Reinke says. “All these young professionals who come in for their workouts see us as a viable option for their kids’ birthday parties, corporate events, or any other number of things. That’s how we get so much of our business.”

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 Guests at Flight Trampoline Park can choose from five different fitness classes: Tighten and Tone, Weekend Warrior, Boot Camp, Cardio Camp, and HIIT. (Credit: Flight Trampoline Park)

Bounce Around: One Facility Offers Five Ways to Get in Shape

At Flight Trampoline Park in Springfield, Virginia, guests have five different fitness classes to choose from depending on their experience level and if they want a more cardio/endurance- or strength-based workout.

New guests can drop into a class for free to see if they like it, and once they come aboard, they can pay per session or get a two-class, 10-class, or monthly pass based on their commitment level. Any option allows them to pick from these programs:

Tighten and Tone: This beginner-friendly class focuses on acclimating people to trampoline fitness with lighter cardio, body-weight exercises, flexibility, and core work.

Weekend Warrior: After a five-to-seven-minute warmup to increase the heart rate, this class moves participants through partner drills, relay races, obstacle courses, and a variety of other challenges.

Boot Camp: The instructor sets up stations throughout the park following a short warmup. Each one will have four or five exercises that incorporate fitness equipment—such as kettlebells, medicine balls, and resistance bands—or old-school military drills. People should expect pushups, situps, jumping jacks, squats, and lunges.

Cardio Camp: A short warmup flows into 15 straight minutes of trampoline jumping. Instructors encourage people to sustain an aerobic heart rate the entire time through a variety of jumping moves. After a minute or two break, participants jump for another 15 minutes, with this phase focusing on intervals and increasing the heart rate for short, defined periods of time. They take another short break before going into light cardio, mixed with strength moves. In the last 15 minutes of class, attendees conquer the “Ladder Challenge” to test their core strength or run the “Laser Maze Challenge” if they have any gas left in the tank.

HIIT (High-Intensity Interval Training): After a brief warmup, the instructor coaches participants through 20 seconds of cardiovascular and body-weight exercises, followed by 10 seconds of rest. These intense intervals repeat for 20 minutes. Following a short break, the class moves into phase two of more intense exercise intervals (again, 20 seconds on, 10 seconds off). Attendees work through all movements while pushing to achieve a maximum heart rate.

 

SCOTT FAIS

The menu at Dave & Buster's caters to adults with items like lettuce wraps, the "brookie sundae tower," a chicken-and-waffle dish, and alcoholic snow cones. (Credit: Scott Fais)

Dave & Buster’s plays on nostalgia (with age-appropriate perks) to drive repeat business

Visiting a Dave & Buster’s location for an office party or to watch a sporting event in a group setting pays dividends in the form of return visits, according to John Kopchak, the amusements manager at Dave & Buster’s in Irvine, California.

“They go home and tell their wife, their friends and say, ‘We have to take the kids. We need to come back. You need to try this place.’” 

Kopchak has seen a pattern of repeat visits developing over nearly two decades while working at Dave & Buster’s locations stretching from San Diego to San Jose. He believes the facility’s atmosphere—where friends can challenge themselves on anything from shooting basketballs, playing air hockey, or racking up points on video games—harkens back to an era when today’s generation of young adults visited FECs as children. 

“The lights, the sound, the energy, the excitement from other people can unlock memories from childhood. It sparks that sense of fun. It gets into you,” says Kopchak.

With the Midway Bar strategically located in the center of the games area he manages, Kopchak remains devout to the young adult audience that DiMatteo says is at the core of the Dave & Buster’s business. The menu catering to an adult palate is part of the allure. 

Ancho Caesar lettuce wraps are meant to be shared, along with the “caveman combo,” a platter piled-high with barbecued ribs and hamburger sliders. A chicken-and-waffle creation found on the West Coast offers miniature waffles adorned with fried chicken, a combination that’s designed to be passed around the table.

Even dessert serves as a memorable treat. The “brookie sundae tower” uses a stack of brownies, cookies, and ice cream that, if left too long, can melt into the Leaning Tower of Pisa on a plate. 

A custom drink menu also caters to adults. “Loco ’Ritas” feature mini-bottles of popular adult beverages arranged upside down and served as if they nosedived into blends of liquor, fruit, and ice. The chilled concoction is not to be confused with the company’s adult snow cones featuring soft drinks infused with a splash of rum and vodka.

Each item on the menu is designed to allow adults to sit, savor the flavors, and enjoy themselves longer than they would at a traditional dining establishment. For those visiting with children, the games captivate their attention, while the adults can relax and keep an eye on the fun from a nearby table. In addition, dozens of flat-screen televisions suspended above the bar broadcast sporting events.

“Whether it’s the sheer size of it, the giant TVs, projectors, the big bars, and the liquor displays, it’s hard not to lose yourself. You’re so concentrated on working and being an adult, you can come here and concentrate on being relaxed.”

—Funworld Managing Editor Scott Fais contributed to this report. 

In the Race

Alcohol gives go-kart facilities a competitive advantage, but safety must be paramount

More than two-thirds of customers at Octane Raceway in Scottsdale, Arizona, can legally imbibe alcohol. So, with such a strong adult base, it makes sense for the go-kart-focused family entertainment center (FEC) to responsibly serve drinks to its 21-and-older customers, says General Manager J.P. Mullan. 

“If you can offer an amazing entertainment experience that adults want with great food and drink options, you open up your facility to a much wider demographic,” he says. Plus, offering alcohol as an amenity helps attract holiday parties and corporate events, with the latter making up an impressive 40 percent of Octane’s business. 

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Andretti Indoor Karting & Games, with two Georgia locations, a brand-new facility in Orlando, and two more coming in Texas, also relies on a steady stream of adult clientele, says Edison Hamann, managing member of Andretti Entertainment, whose partners include the famed Andretti racing family. To best suit the needs of those guests 21 and older, Andretti features an upscale menu of items like grilled salmon, angus beef ribeye, and barbeque pork parfait, as well as a full bar with a vast selection of beers, mixed drinks, and wines (some from the Andretti Winery). 

“It’s simply another addition that makes the whole mix of attractions to customers appealing,” Hamann notes. “But we’re extremely careful.” 

Of course, drinking and driving—even if it’s a go-kart that goes half the speed of a standard vehicle on the highway—could raise some flags. That’s why these two FECs take special care to ensure the safety of their guests.

Keep a Close Eye

Hamann doesn’t consider Andretti Indoor Karting a traditional bar where customers may knock down more drinks than they can handle: “People know if they are going out to party, this is not that place. Andretti is the place to have fun and show respect for others.” 

However, for those outliers, trained staff members know to look for signs of intoxication among its guests. The bartenders, track attendants, and managers also keep in constant communication if they believe someone should not be driving a go-kart after having one too many.

“We put 100 percent of our emphasis on making sure people are not coming here to get drunk,” Hamann says. “At other places, people may have four or five drinks before the waiter or bartender says you’re drinking too much. Here, after two drinks, we tell them, ‘Make sure you’re not driving when you leave or riding the go-karts.’” 

Mullan agrees that taking a proactive stance curtails the majority of issues at his facility. For example, when a bachelor party limo rolls up at 10 p.m. full of rowdy guys, the front-desk employee or manager goes on alert. The staff member talks to the group, and if they show any signs of intoxication, they’re told about the alcohol policy and will be asked to return another time.

A Two-Drink Limit

At Octane Raceway, all guests sign a waiver to race, and those ages 21 and older receive a wristband, Mullan says. There’s a two-drink max per customer before racing, and after every beer, glass of wine, or cocktail, the bartender or wait staff makes a checkmark on the wristband. If someone orders a double Jack and Coke, that’s two checks, and the person can’t have any additional adult beverages during the visit. 

The FEC doesn’t serve shots or drinks extra heavy on the alcohol, such as a Long Island iced tea. It also skips the hard-to-monitor pitchers or buckets of beer.

“We don’t want to send six beers to a table and take that risk that one person drinks them all,” he says. “It’s one-on-one alcohol sales.”

Subject to Testing

To further prevent any situations on the track, Octane Raceway keeps a breathalyzer on hand. In fact, guests must be below a 0.04 blood alcohol concentration (BAC) to be allowed to race (the national standard in the United States is 0.08).

“We do this for liability reasons and to ensure we don’t have any customers coming in intoxicated,” Mullan says.

However, if the wait staff or bartender suspects a guest may be over the FEC’s limit, only one out of 10 people will actually take the breathalyzer, he estimates. “Most will say something like, ‘Oh sorry, I didn’t realize your policy. I had a few beers at the pool earlier,’” Mullan says. “We’ll just give them a refund and see if they want to schedule a race tomorrow. You want people to leave on a good note. We’ve had very few issues with this policy.”

Guests rarely require the breathalyzer at Andretti Indoor Karting, either, Hamann says: “When there are 2,000 to 3,000 people inside the building and everyone is with family and friends, the last thing they want to do is embarrass themselves.”

— Mike Bederka