OnTarget - February 2017

As laser tag continues to thrive, set your sights on these trends

Ryan D’Amico helped build his family’s laser-tag arena in 1992. Looking back at the barebones setup and rudimentary equipment used back then, the general manager of Laser Bounce in Levittown, New York, can only say one thing: “Wow.”

In laser tag’s early years, the arenas often were little more than black barriers with sloppy fluorescent paint scattered about. Clunky equipment frequently broke down, and they generally lacked any sort of bells and whistles.

“At that time, businesses didn’t need anything more to get people to play,” says Armando Lanuti, owner/vice president of operations at Creative Works, the Mooresville, Indiana-based developer of attractions and themed environments. “But as video games and other in-home entertainment options improved, operators realized the basic arenas of yesteryear wouldn’t cut it anymore.”

Oh, how times have changed.

Today, laser-tag arenas have become fully themed environments that transport guests to another world. They use motion-activated sound effects, fog, and LED lighting, and many resemble popular video games or movie franchises, which helps provide a sense of familiarity to players. To quench customers’ thirst for visual stimulation (thank the ubiquity of smartphones for that), guns frequently have a display that features some combo of health, ammo, recharge, and current place in the game. In addition, technology has taken cues from online gaming, with many systems featuring online components that allow players to track scores, earn badges, and get power-ups.

Facilities can capitalize on all these trends and more as laser tag further cements itself as a powerhouse attraction.

Don’t Just Settle for Birthdays

Most facilities with laser tag rely on birthday parties for much of their revenue, Lanuti says. As a result, the typical audience generally runs from 7 to 15 years old, but you shouldn’t stop there.

“Operators have the opportunity to target older teens and young adults on Friday and Saturday nights,” he stresses. “Plus, the best operators bring in corporate groups for team building during the week when they would be otherwise closed or slow. So while the target audience is kids, themes have to cater well to older crowds.”

Lanuti also says operators should realize the typical videogame player (often a laser-tag fan) isn’t a teenage boy. Rather, the average age of a gamer comes in at 35, and more women play now than ever before. “It’s important to keep these stats in mind when building a laser-tag attraction,” he says.

With a prime goal of expanding his demographic base, Randy Lahn, co-owner of the Funplex in East Hanover, New Jersey, recently completed a major overhaul of his laser-tag arena. Now at three times the size of the former space, it can handle triple the capacity. The arena also features equipment upgrades, including better sound effects, points tracking, and, in a particularly favorite addition, guests can create a profile—with photo—and receive a scorecard via e-mail after the game.

“To do business later at night, get into leagues and corporate groups, and crack into the teen market, we needed a bigger arena and better technology,” he says, noting he’s already seen groups, like a sorority, that probably wouldn’t have visited before.

The game options on the new-and-improved equipment lend themselves to team building, in particular, says co-owner Amanda Lahn. For a setup popular with the area pharmaceutical companies, one person becomes a mobile base and the rest of the team must protect him or her. The whole team loses if the “energizer” dies.

“It’s a different mentality,” she says of the team-building exercise. “You have to protect people and keep the whole team together instead of a free for all.”

Blockbuster Ideas

As mentioned earlier, popular video games and movies serve as inspiration for arena themes, Lanuti says: “These are what their target audience is exposed to on a regular basis. But since the vast majority of projects don’t license intellectual property, we create stylized interpretations meant to be timeless variations. This keeps the theme familiar but maintains a look that will stay relevant for longer periods of time.”

Even the untrained eye usually can spot the hot movies during the time of construction, adds Erik Guthrie, vice president of sales and marketing for Lasertag.com by Zone in Dover, Delaware. Wizardly worlds became a favorite during Harry Potter’s heyday, “Avatar” spawned countless jungles, and the force of Star Wars has and will continue to make space and sci-fi a popular theme.

To complete the escape to another place, Lanuti sees trends in advanced DMX lighting and environmental effects, along with making the attractions more immersive to compete with the environments experienced in both video games and movies. “Basic plastic arenas and plain walls no longer excite the typical consumer, and you need to design in ways that get them out of their homes and to your facility,” he says.

Count on Camps

When the temperature spikes or the forecast predicts rain, the calls from summer camps start coming (and coming)—sometimes as early as 6 a.m., says D’Amico, of Laser Bounce.

Birthdays may be the bread and butter, but summer camps looking for a respite from the elements have steadily become a key source of revenue for the Long Island facility, says the 32-year-old general manager who entered the business with his father at age 14. The groups purchase a three-hour package deal, which includes laser tag and arcade games, and bring in anywhere from 20 to 400 guests. Some even rent out the whole place.

This major jump in group business didn’t come without an investment in human resources. Sensing an opportunity, Laser Bounce hired a full-time sales rep to go door-to-door and cold call all the summer camps in the area.

The extra payroll and sweat equity have paid off, though, as July and August now become bankable months, he says: “Sometimes we have to turn people away.”

A Novel Mixed-Use Space

No room to build a laser tag arena? No problem, thought Evelyne Villame, co-owner of La Boîte aux Enfants, which has six locations across France.

To solve the footprint problem, her soft-play area serves double duty for laser tag at designated times. The setup is simple: Two teams enter at opposite sides and have to battle their way across the de facto arena. While admittedly no frills compared to most typical themed-out spots, Villame’s creative use of space has allowed her to add the desired attraction at minimal expense (she just bought the packs). The soft play/laser tag combo has turned into a favorite part of birthday parties, she says, especially at night when the lights are turned off.

The Next Generation of Laser Tag?

While technically not laser tag, the game’s next-generation cousin made its U.S. debut last fall in Orlando on International Drive. Management at Main Event Entertainment knew it wanted to add an attraction that couldn’t be easily matched in this highly competitive area, says Wayne Stancil, the company’s vice president of operations.

V Play Reality—a 2,200-square-foot free-roam, multiplayer, virtual-reality experience—allows guests to play three different games: the shoot ’em up “Zombie Survival,” the space-themed “Singularity,” and the family-friendly puzzler “Engineerium” (which doesn’t have a gun).

Powered by Australian-based Zero Latency, V Play Reality uses motion-tracking technology and open-source VR goggles, along with optical sensors in the arena to detect players’ movements and actions.

“This is how you stay fresh and relevant in the eyes of the consumers,” he says. “The VR elevates it beyond typical laser tag.”

Barry Zelickson, owner of Big Thrill Factory, gave a hard look at adding a laser tag-esque VR system to his newly opened second location in Minnesota, but he ultimately passed in favor of a traditional setup.

“It’s definitely a unique experience,” he says. “I think there’s room for both. I just didn’t know if that’s a direction I wanted to go in,” adding with a pause, “that’s today, though.”

The hefty price and a potential lack of interaction among guests made him hesitate: “We have 30 people engaging with each other. What drives them is the interactivity. When you put the goggles on, it’s not the same.”

Stancil acknowledges guests don’t sprint around firing at one another as in a traditional laser tag environment. However, the gear with headsets allows up to six players to see everyone in the room and communicate as a team to achieve a goal, be it to wipe out a zombie hoard or battle robots in space. “That brings it to another level,” he says. “You still have the social interaction.”

If V Play Reality continues to perform well in Orlando, Stancil says he could see Main Event adding the attraction to additional locations across the United States.

“VR is here to stay,” he says. 

Mark Your Calendars for International Laser Tag Day

In the laser shot heard around the world, Photon opened on March 28, 1984, in Dallas, Texas. To celebrate the debut of the world’s first commercial laser-tag facility, the Laser Tag Museum declared this date as International Laser Tag Day in 2014.

“No one else would be here if it wasn’t for Photon,” says Erik Guthrie, curator of the museum in Louisville, Kentucky. “As an industry, we can’t forget our roots.”

Each International Laser Tag Day honors a historical milestone, he says, and the 2017 installment will acknowledge the 30th anniversary of the founding of influential manufacturer Q-Zar.

Facilities wanting to celebrate the occasion can contact the Laser Tag Museum (via www.lasertagmuseum.com) to receive a free poster, which shows the various iterations of Q-Zar equipment.

Guthrie also encourages laser-tag arenas and FECs to hold special promotions to drive business on this day. For example, they can offer throwback prices of $1 games or re-create Q-Zar-style play or point values with their current equipment.

Interest in International Laser Tag Day has increased each year since its inception, a trend that mirrors the game’s overall growth, Guthrie says. Current estimates have 2,000 laser tag attractions worldwide, with 1,000 in North America alone.

“Laser tag isn’t a fad,” he says. “We’re a legitimate staple attraction. Laser tag is now in the echelon of go-karts and bumper cars. We’re part of the clubhouse now.”

Hit the Mark: A Six-Pack of Laser Tag Tips

Ask for Help

“There’s one mistake we see over and over again,” says Armando Lanuti of Creative Works. “Operators make a big investment in a laser-tag attraction, but then they don’t take the time to learn how to operate it properly.” Facilities should seek out manufacturers for equipment training, adds Randy Lahn of Funplex, saying he worked through about a three-month learning curve to get adjusted. “It’s a complicated system. Someone has to show you the nuances or you can get lost.”

Built Tough

Always look for durable laser-tag equipment that can handle a beating and take on the daily rigors of an active arena, says Ryan D’Amico of Laser Bounce: “You don’t want a kid coming back five minutes after he starts, saying his vest isn’t working. That just kills the experience.”

A la Carte Pricing

With Funplex’s old arena, guests needed to buy a wristband to play laser tag. However, at the location opened in November, a card reader was added. So now, like on its other rides and attractions, guests can opt for a la carte laser-tag purchases in addition to playing off a wristband. With this pricing structure, Lahn says, impulse spending has increased.

Avoid Overcrowding

Don’t ignore the importance of the briefing room layout, D’Amico advises. When 30 or 40 players go at once, they all have to fit properly in the space. Set start times for guests might be beneficial during high volume periods.

The Hybrid Concept

By swapping out equipment, facilities can use the same environment to bounce between traditional laser tag during the day to tactical at night when the younger crowd dissipates, says Erik Guthrie of Lasertag.com by Zone and the Laser Tag Museum: “Certain guests want the paramilitary experience, others want the Flash Gordon experience.”

Marketing at Your Fingertips

E-mail marketing is consistently underutilized, incorrectly used, or ignored by facilities with laser tag, Lanuti says. “There’s so much power in an e-mail list. Operators can segment subscribers based on interests, age, how often they visit, and more. Using this data, operators can send targeted e-mails that will hit the right people with the right offer.” Plus, e-mail automation systems allow them to send out birthday promotions automatically, which increases party revenue with no work.

Contact Contributing Editor Mike Bederka at michaelbederka@gmail.com.