Predicting the future can be tricky business. After all, you thought you’d have a flying car by now, right?
Well, maybe not, but Funworld hopes it can do a little better with looking at family entertainment center (FEC) trends for the upcoming year. We surveyed a handful of experts about where they see the future heading, from food and beverage to redemption to rides and attractions.
BEC: The Bowling Entertainment Center
For years, traditional bowling alleys—with lanes, a bar, pro shop, and limited food—dominated the entertainment landscape. “Everyone bowled in a league,” says George McAuliffe, president of Pinnacle Entertainment Advisors by Redemption Plus in Lenexa, Kansas. “That’s what you did
for 39 Thursdays a year.”
Lifestyle and generational changes as well as competition from other forms of entertainment led to their gradual decline in popularity, he says. However, a variation on the traditional bowling concept has “hit its stride” and will continue to grow in 2013.
A bowling entertainment center offers more sophisticated lighting and seating and large high-def video systems in a full bowling area, he says. Other forms of entertainment include mini-attractions, laser tag, rides, miniature golf, and a game room dominated by redemption.
“On the business side, it allows you to sell into more day parts than either bowling or a traditional FEC can do on their own,” says McAuliffe, explaining that leagues and corporate events help to buoy these bowling entertainment centers during the week. “You want Mom there on the weekend, but you also want Mom there on a Wednesday afternoon having fun with her coworkers.”
Changing Supplier Base
The United States and Japan have long served as the base for an FEC’s many supplies, be it coin-op, rides, or attractions. The industry is now experiencing a global shift, with more products coming from Canada, other parts of Asia, and Eastern Europe, notes George Smith, president of Family Entertainment Group, in Barrington, Illinois.
The result of the new competition generally means lower prices and improved quality, yet FECs still need to be scrupulous with their purchasing decisions, he says. “In a down economy, people look to price, but that’s only part of the equation.”
For product recommendations, Smith suggests talking to peers for anecdotal support.
Laser Tag Growth
Once passed off as a fad, laser tag has not only grown in popularity, it just experienced a banner year for installations and upgrades, according to Erik Guthrie, vice president of marketing and sales for Zone Laser Tag Inc. in Dover, Delaware. And he expects to at least duplicate this success next year.
Guthrie attributes the upswing to a few reasons. First, bowling centers have embraced laser tag and have converted excess lanes to tag arenas. Second, there’s a “remarkable” return on investment when done correctly. Third, laser tag has become fully immersed in pop culture, with TV shows like “The Simpsons,” “South Park,” “How I Met Your Mother,” and “Castle” showing people playing the attraction, Guthrie says. Also, bands have filmed their videos inside tag venues, and there’s even a music group called Laser Tag.
“There’s a cool element to it now,” he says. “This has helped the industry to continue to grow and expand.”
A Familiar Brand
The Johnny Rockets was only serving up burgers and shakes for a few weeks at the Palace Entertainment-owned SpeedZone Dallas in Texas, but Albert Cabuco already had high hopes for the restaurant franchise. Food sales jumped 20 percent over the same period last year, when they had a standard FEC food stand.
Palace already has a Pizza Hut Express at three of its FECs and is considered opening a Nathan’s at a New York facility in spring 2013, says Cabuco, vice president of food and beverage.
FECs should at least consider linking up with franchises to capitalize on the brand-name recognition, he says. “The taste of the food is recognizable. You bite into a Johnny Rockets burger, you recognize it as a Johnny Rockets burger.”
Cabuco details other benefits of working with franchises:
- They only carry half the usual Johnny Rockets menu. By focusing on the top-selling items, guests have fewer decisions to make, leading to greater throughput. They also don’t need as many cooks to handle a limited menu.
- They maintain control and can negotiate certain parts of the contract. For example, the FEC staff doesn’t wear the Pizza Hut uniform.
- Food costs are lower because of their massive volume of buying.
Finally, Funworld asked a pair of redemption experts about where they anticipate guests will be swiping game cards and what they’ll be trading tickets to own. First up, Karyn Gitler, owner of Kreative sourcinG in Buffalo Grove, Illinois:
- The popularity of Angry Birds should carry into the first quarter.
- As Hello Kitty starts to license more reasonably priced products, the character will stay strong with girls.
- Lalaloopsy should continue to do well, but the product has some availability issues.
- Bling—the sparklier, the better.
- Justin Bieber is still topping the redemption charts.
- With the strength of the movie “The Avengers,” younger kids are turning to “The Super Hero Squad.” Both licenses are robust but probably will only hold through the first or second quarter.
Mike Lynch, vice president of sales for Sureshot Redemption in Ontario, California, also looks to licensed movie merchandise as blockbusters for 2013. Some films to keep an eye on: “Iron Man 3,” “The Wolverine,” “Thor: The Dark World,” “G.I Joe: Retaliation,” and the upcoming sequels for “Star Trek,” “The Smurfs,” and “Despicable Me.”
Other items on his hit list:
- Nerf and classic board games such as “Candy Land,” “Ouija,” “Twister,” “The Game of Life,” and “Monopoly” are in the midst of a comeback.
- Honey Badger plush and Fruit Ninja merchandise are in demand.
- Watch for mustache tattoos and robot jewelry, including necklaces, bracelets, and rings.
- Supersized merchandise such as giant tennis, soccer, and fabric balls. On the opposite end, consider micro-versions of popular items like bowling sets, sports balls, billiard balls, paddle balls, and army men.
- Items that will remain redemption staples include candy, yo-yos, whoopee cushions, pencil toppers, fans, bracelets, rings, puzzles, gliders, putty, and high-bounce balls.
Lynch expects the trends of animal-shaped rubber band bracelets and feather hair clips to fade away.
While Michael Getlan frequently relies on the opinions of redemption experts, he admits that he treads slowly with purchases.
“Since you will never know what is right for your location until you try it, try small amounts to see if there is any interest and be careful about loading up on anything,” advises Getlan, director of enthusiasm and opportunity! at Amusement Consultants Ltd., which operates FECs in New York and Nevada.
“Just because someone tells you that an item is the ‘next big thing,’ doesn’t mean that they are right or that the item is right for your guests,” he concludes. “Only you will know—and only if you are paying attention to the details.”
Contact Contributing Editor Mike Bederka at mbederka@IAAPA.org.