Feature - Take Center Stage - April 2018

1804_center_stage_1

Higher levels of investment, fresh ideas, and IPs are shaping the FEC industry in the EMEA region

by Juliana Gilling

The thirst for indoor family entertainment centers (FECs) continues to grow in the Europe, Middle East, and Africa (EMEA) region, with operators creating exciting fusions, reviving classic concepts, and introducing new offerings and revenue streams. 

In an increasingly saturated theme park market, FECs remain an attractive, accessible, and affordable option. What’s not to like about a quality, family entertainment facility, conveniently situated in a controlled environment that’s conducive to year-round opening and rollout?

“The FEC industry is so entrepreneurial, inspiring, and diverse—every other field of the leisure industry could learn from it,” says Jan Maarten de Raad, CEO of Jora Vision, during the FECs day at IAAPA’s Euro Attractions Show (EAS) 2017.

FUN ARENA GMBH

Fun Arena includes one of the largest children's play structures in Europe, and its games and activities encourage competition between family and friends. (Credit: Fun Arena GMBH)

Fun Arena Combines Fitness and Games

Fun Arena in Henstedt-Ulzburg, Germany, is a case in point. Developer and owner Thomas Hildebrandt ventured into the FEC business after decades as a fitness studio operator. He had a personal motive: “As a father of three, I wanted a leisure offering where I could be active together with my boys.” Realizing no suitable concept existed in Germany at the time, he created a place where “all age groups can be active together.” 

Fun Arena, which opened in May 2011, combines a 7,500-square-meter indoor amusement park, a fitness and wellness club (3,000 square meters), and a 115-room hotel. Hotel guests can use the fitness facilities and sauna, swim, or enjoy the amusements. The synergies between the different leisure elements have created “unbelievable benefits, both for visitors and for me as an operator,” says Hildebrandt. 

Fun Arena has all the entertainment features you’d expect, including a trampoline park, two soccer fields, blacklight and adventure mini-golf areas, a laser arena with three games, and mini-bowling. There are also slides, climbing, interactive games, and one of the largest children’s play structures in Europe. “You pay one entrance fee, and you can use every attraction as often as you like,” says Hildebrandt. “We have no cinemas, electric karts, or computer games.” The center positively encourages competition between family and friends. 

Fun Arena opens three days a week and daily through the holidays. Visitor numbers are around 65,000-70,000 a year. Hildebrandt prioritizes listening to what guests want, refreshing the variety of activities under one roof, and “keeping everything clean and in good shape.”

NICKELODEON ADVENTURE MURCIA 2018 VIACOM

Mall Things Considered

Mall and mixed-use developers have learned FECs give people a reason to come back, stay longer, and spend more. “With the rise of internet shopping and the demise of anchor stores, FECs are viable anchors,” says Michael Collins, senior partner at Leisure Development Partners (LDP). 

But as more malls look to the FEC option, there is the possibility of oversupply. As thriving operators know, differentiation can make a difference. Intellectual properties (IPs) are one way FECs can stand out. Take Comics Station Antwerp, for instance, which opened in 2017 at Antwerp Central Station in Belgium. It has assembled six famous Belgian comic heroes, including The Smurfs, to entice the whole family.

French FEC company Gulli Parc collaborated with children’s television channel Gulli when the chain opened its first park in 2011 at the Les Armoiries mall in Bry-sur-Marne, France. There are now seven Gulli Parc sites across the country.

“We work with the television channel, and we are aligned with what they do,” explains co-founder Evelyne Villame. The parks—and their popular birthday rooms—are designed to reflect the spirit of Gulli rather than specific cartoons, which are always changing.

NICKELODEON ADVENTURE MURCIA 2018 VIACOM

The 5,000 square-meter Nickelodeon Adventure park includes a "Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles" adventure course with tunnels and climbing walls. (Credit: Nickelodeon Adventure Murcia 2018 Viacom)

Park Operators Diversifying

Park operator Parques Reunidos opened the first European Nickelodeon Adventure park in December 2017 at the Thader Shopping Center in Murcia, Spain, belonging to Merlin Properties. The launch follows a strategic agreement in 2016 between Parques Reunidos and Viacom International Media Networks to develop mall entertainment centers featuring Nickelodeon characters.

Parques Reunidos is diversifying into indoor entertainment centers as one of its main growth strategies. Nickelodeon Adventure seemed a natural step, after the group’s success with Nickelodeon Land at Parque de Atracciones de Madrid and NickLand at Movie Park Germany. 

“The agreement we have reached with Viacom will enable us to open a number of centers following this same format in other cities such as Madrid, London, or Lisbon,” says Parques Reunidos CEO Fernando Eiroa.

Visitors to the Murcia park will have “an interactive experience” in the company of Nickelodeon franchises. Within 5,000 square meters, guests will discover attractions including “SpongeBob’s Boating School Blast!,” “Paw Patrol Control Tower,” and a “Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles” adventure course with tunnels and climbing walls. There are Nickelodeon-themed birthday celebration rooms, a 4-D theater, and educational areas.

Parques Reunidos has also partnered with Discovery Communications to develop indoor themed entertainment centers in Western Europe, North America, and Asia-Pacific. The deal looks to produce about 10 centers themed around topics like nature, space, oceans, and adventure—inspired by brands including Discovery Channel and Animal Planet. “This partnership with Discovery represents a unique opportunity to create innovative, family-friendly, educational experiences,” says Eiroa. 

“More educationally oriented IPs, such as National Geographic, are coming into the mix,” says Yael Coifman of LDP. Orbi Dubai, launched by Majid Al Futtaim Leisure & Entertainment at the City Centre Mirdif mall last year, is another example (see Funworld’s October 2017 issue for more on Orbi). “We will continue to see educational elements added into FECs to justify school visits mid-week,” says Coifman. 

FUN ARENA GMBH

In its facility, Fun Arena has two soccer fields, a trampoline park, mini-golf courses, a laser arena, mini-bowling, and interactive games. (Credit: Fun Arena GMBH)

Rev Up the Revenues

Savvy FEC operators such as Janice Dunphy, managing director at the Web Adventure Park in York, United Kingdom, seek to maximize their facilities’ potential. Dunphy has a knack for bringing big ideas to life on a smallish budget. The former teacher transformed a disused riding school into an indoor FEC that opened in 2004. “It was a sharp learning curve,” says Dunphy, who is chair of FECA, the FEC subgroup of the British Association of Leisure Parks, Piers, and Attractions (BALPPA).

She quickly realized that to keep attracting people during sunny days, the center needed to expand outdoors: “Without our outside areas, I don’t think we’d be here now.” She decided on a setting centered around natural play, with wooden equipment and areas where children can make dens and dams, build sandcastles, or splash around in water. “I wanted to recreate my childhood in a safe environment,” says Dunphy, who was brought up by her outdoorsy grandparents. 

Cute animals have proven to be a hit. Dunphy also brought in two high-ropes courses to keep guests who are getting a little too old for the center coming back.

Given that she has “one site and one opportunity to make money,” Dunphy has found new income streams. The Web Adventure Park hosts a nursery for 85 children (up to 5 years old). Access to park facilities and a Forest School means “we are not like any other nursery, and it’s something I would like to expand,” she says.

Food quality is another priority: “We take more money over the serving counter than through the door. We’re basically a restaurant with play.” Dunphy also rents out space to a hair salon.

“We’re looking at every opportunity where we can bring more and different people to the site. We want to be a community building,” she says. Dunphy is considering inviting older people in to interact with the children. It’s part of her commitment to deliver a truly inclusive and accessible experience, which is good for guests and her business. The park attracts 250,000 visitors a year.

Trendsetters

Generally, for FECs, there is an “upward trend in terms of investment per square meter or per annual visitor,” says LDP’s Collins. As well as higher levels of investment, the next generation of FECs and indoor parks is focused on “more intense experiences and IPs from movies, TV, and books,” he says.

“We are seeing new FEC projects around technology and virtual reality, and increasing attention to high-quality food and beverage,” continues Collins. “We will also see the development of the next generation of high-tech entertainment centers for teens and young adults. These will offer fun, alcoholic drinks and good food in a themed environment with games and activities.”

Meanwhile, theme parks are continuing to develop FECs as “small-scale second gates to extend stay and help create multiday destinations,” says Coifman. 

While concepts come and go in the FEC industry, operators are continuing to find their niche. At EAS 2017, Jora Vision’s Jan Maarten de Raad highlighted De Voltage Indoor Entertainment in Tilburg, Netherlands, which offers a huge variety of activities, ranging from classic go-karting to escape rooms and new break-in rooms. Its busy workshop program offers everything from wine tasting to Bollywood dancing. Themed food and beverage outlets complete the De Voltage experience.

Jora Vision has also worked with GameState to design a modern twist on a retro amusement arcade. GameState has hit on a winning formula, becoming “an instant hit in the Netherlands,” says de Raad. 

There’s a prevailing sense of optimism—and a healthy dose of realism—running through the FEC industry in the EMEA region. Where is it all heading? “Upwards, I hope,” says Fun Arena’s Hildebrandt.