Opening a New FEC Amid a Pandemic
For any entrepreneurs, especially ones with no experience in the industry, opening a 28,000-square-foot family entertainment center (FEC)—complete with a six-screen movie theater—would be a challenge. However, opening a new FEC with a pandemic raging? Well, that might prove overwhelming.
Yet, that’s exactly what the husband-and-wife team of Julien Patterson and Terri Wesselman did over Labor Day weekend in 2020 when they cut the ribbon for their $18 million Compass Entertainment Complex in Irvington, Virginia. They accomplished the feat as “retirees.”
Patterson took the skills he developed during his career with the CIA and launched a successful security and investigations company. It was there where he met Wesselman. They sold the Washington, D.C. area firm in 2012 and decided to move about three hours south to a rural area near the Chesapeake Bay known as the Northern Neck.
“We thought it’d be a great place to retire,” says Wesselman, now 66 years old; her husband is 70. “I guess we didn’t quite know how to retire.”
In the ensuing years, the couple converted an old gas station into an art gallery, turned an early 1900s Sears, Roebuck & Co. kit house into a men’s and ladies’ clothing store, and opened a home décor store and a children’s clothing store to boot. They also entered the food and beverage space with a bistro located in a former dentist’s office (four large toothbrushes still prop up the entryway of the quirky eatery) and a coffeehouse.
How do they juggle it all—in retirement no less? “Great managers,” Patterson replies simply and succinctly.
Perhaps more significantly, why do they do it? The couple fell in love with their new hometown, recognized some needs, and decided to do something to help. “The community benefits when social capital can be tapped,” says Patterson.
The businesses they created provide jobs and services for locals, as well as reasons for visitors to come to the area. Still, the entrepreneurs sensed something else was missing—something that inspired their seventh and most ambitious project yet. Noting that there were not many attractions and that the school system was having trouble retaining staff because the teachers bemoaned the region’s lack of activities, Wesselman and Patterson decided to build an entertainment center and movie theater.
As with their other pursuits, the couple became students of the industry and spent three years systematically learning about FECs and gauging the viability of the business. They attended three IAAPA Expos and made valuable contacts. They also visited successful FECs, including Gizmos Fun Factory in the Chicago area, and gathered intel. They came up with a plan, set it in motion, hired a management team in January 2020, and had everything in place to open in May last year.
Then COVID-19 derailed their well-laid plans.
As with many businesses affected by the pandemic, the couple had to face the predicament of meeting payroll for many months while not being able to generate revenue. To make matters worse, because Compass Entertainment Complex was new, it could not qualify for the government’s Paycheck Protection Program loans that helped buoy other companies. Even when they could see restrictions easing on the horizon, COVID-19-related equipment delays stymied them. For example, the FEC couldn’t receive ropes course and climbing wall materials from supplier RCI Adventure Products that were being shipped from Canada because the borders were closed, and Amusement Construction Co. had difficulty getting parts for Compass’ new go-karts.
“We chose to do the right thing,” Patterson says about moving forward despite the uncertainty, confusion, and hardship. “We honored our commitments.”
In the intervening months, the management team kept busy developing policies and procedures, honing the FEC’s point-of-sale system, training to use the equipment, creating safety procedures, and attending to other back-of-house matters. To help get the center’s full-service restaurant, Meridian Bar & Grill, up and running, the managers sampled dishes and determined pricing. To comply with regulations and reassure customers, Compass developed a sanitation team to handle COVID-19-related cleaning and safety protocols.
The preparations paid off. Despite the pandemic, as well as the monthslong delay, Compass had a successful grand opening last September with crowds arriving to check out the facility. “There was a lot of pent-up demand,” Wesselman says. “After that, we knew people would come.” Attendance grew, she says, until the holidays when infection levels started to spike again.
The couple says that, like most theaters, Compass had a hard time programming its six-screen multiplex during the pandemic. (The few new movies that were being released typically also premiered on streaming services.)
In addition to go-karts, Amusement Construction Co. also supplied the FEC with outdoor batting cages and indoor bumper cars. Other attractions include about 50 arcade games, some of which are redemption, designed by Betson. The Challenge Zone at Compass is an obstacle course featuring equipment and TAG Active technology from iPlayCO. The company also supplied its indoor play equipment for the FEC’s KidZone. Minority Media provided its “Transformers: VR Battle Arena.” Compass also offers an outdoor course from Harris Miniature Golf.
With the pandemic largely receding into the rearview mirror, the pent-up demand has only increased, and business has really picked up. In fact, on Memorial Day this year, Compass attracted record crowds that completely filled the parking lot, as well as both sides of the property’s entry road.
Patterson notes that the buildings, outdoor attractions, and parking lot only occupy 11 acres of the 28.5-acre site, so there is plenty of room for expansion.
“The feedback and suggestions from the community have been great,” says Wesselman. One of the most common requests Compass has received from guests? Build a water park. “We just have to get through our first year,” she adds with a laugh.
- Arthur Levine covers the attractions industry for USA Today and authors Funworld’s The Art of Attractions column each month.