Perfecting Performance in a Pandemic
Young couples on date nights and families with small children have started frequenting the Fun City family entertainment centers (FECs) in Pakistan again, but like other attractions, the experience is a bit different than pre-COVID-19 times.
Patrons often wait half an hour to enter the Giga Mall, the site of Fun City’s flagship FEC, about an hour outside Pakistan’s capital city of Islamabad, as they queue to walk through self-sanitization tunnels and have their temperatures checked. Once inside, they line up again before passing through Fun City’s turnstiles, as staff perform more health checks and ensure that every visitor wears a mask and sanitizes their hands. If visitors don’t have a mask, Fun City gives them one.
Yet, with all the precautions for their well-being, not every visitor has been receptive to the safety checks.
“I thought it would be a lot easier because people shop in the supermarkets and should be used to social distancing measures,” reflects Fun City Owner and Managing Director Kashif Ali. “But we find that many customers are not understanding of the fact that we still need to follow these strict protocols. They think that everything is back to normal and are frustrated when they need to queue again. So, managing the customers and getting them to follow the SOPs (standard operating procedures) has been the hardest part.”
Fun City’s customer service representatives explain the procedures to guests waiting in line at the entrance to the FEC, as well as the rationale that they simply want to ensure a safe environment for children and their parents. Ali notes his regular clients are the most understanding and appreciative, as his company has built a reputation for placing safety first.
Like most attractions in this new era, Fun City faces two broad categories of challenges: one, ensuring the health and safety of guests while also regaining their trust, and two, managing costs at a time when revenue has yet to return to pre-COVID-19 levels. At times, these goals appear in conflict. Hiring additional cleaning crews to sanitize the surfaces of every game and ride, for example, can increase cash outlays. However, there can be a synergy in the solutions to these issues as well.
Technology and Touch Points
In Australia’s Gold Coast, Luke Phillips recently launched his second FEC, a 450-square-meter arcade-type attraction named Ticket Time. “Getting rent relief and paying wages have been the biggest challenges,” says the former professional rugby league player, who has had a passion for pinball machines and shooter games since he was a boy. “So when we opened Ticket Time, we decided to get a kiosk. It’s almost like having a second staff member on duty.”
Phillips placed the kiosk from Embed near the front of the store for customers to register new cards or top up existing ones. Unlike his first FEC, Level Up, he doesn’t need to bring in a part-time staff member for “those few hours a day when you get that busy run.” Phillips estimates the kiosk saves at least AU$1,000 per month and that the unit will pay for itself in a little over a year. Other game play options the kiosk can offer guests include additional revenue-generating features such as timed-play, instead of game-by-game deductions.
“A new type of customer will emerge from this pandemic. After a long lockdown period, consumers will only go to businesses they perceive as safe,” says Embed CEO Renee Welsh. “It’s all about the low-touch economy. People don’t want to touch cash, coins, papers, anything that transmits viruses. They will be more conscious of hygiene, price, and social distancing than ever before.”
While kiosks reduce staffing costs and human touch points, Embed offers another product that goes further: virtual game cards. The company’s mobile wallet solution enables patrons to purchase game tokens or game time with their smartphones. The software works with both Apple Wallet and Google Pay, so no additional app download is required. Embed has also launched a new line of hygiene-defense cleaning products that the company says are “stronger than industrial cleaners without the toxic health risks.”
Back at Fun City north of Islamabad, cleaning expenses have doubled. Ali has a contract with a vendor that used to provide one team during the day. Since reopening, a second team implements an after-hours deep clean. During the day, rides are cleaned after every use, and games are cleaned whenever they are not in use.
“It’s constant,” Ali says. “I think it gives reassurance to the customers as well when they see the clean team on the floor, present all the time.”
Areas like ball pits and soft play areas for young children that have multiple touch points pose another hygienic challenge. Cleaning teams disinfect major touch points, including the entrance and exit to the soft play area, every couple of hours, and at night, a machine cleans the balls. Fun City has cut the number of people allowed into the area at any one time in half. To compensate for the lower revenue, Fun City has cut the one-hour playtime to 30 minutes.
Confronted with new costs and lower capacities due to social distancing restrictions, FECs are confronted with a financial dilemma. What’s the best way to balance the books and make a profit?
“We are tightening our belts and cutting costs where we can, but cutting costs can also jeopardize operations,” Ali warns. “If I cut down on staff or the cleaning team, the customer experience will suffer. I have to carefully cut costs without affecting the operations of our centers.”
Ali’s management team encouraged him to raise prices to make up for lost revenue, but he has resisted this change as well.
“People are earning less through this pandemic, and their budgets are lower than normal,” he says. “Right now, I don’t really worry about profit. It’s just about getting open, keeping our customers coming back, retaining staff, and making sure our kids have some entertainment because they’ve been stuck at home for six months, and entertainment is important for everyone’s mental well-being.”
Ali is focusing on Fun City’s existing FECs and has postponed plans to expand to other cities. Purchases of new assets or games are on hold for the moment as well. Instead, funds that would have gone for capital investment are subsidizing smooth daily operations. For Ali, that is the best way to invest for the future.
|COVID-19 ERA STRATEGY|
Challenge: Managing change
Context: New rules and procedures can be challenging for front-line staff, particularly when faced with a disgruntled patron
Challenge: Regaining the trust and patronage of consumers
Context: People might venture out once, but if they don’t feel safe, they won’t come back.
Challenge: Cash flow
Context: Rent and wages are often the biggest variable costs.
Michael Switow is a Singapore-based writer who covers the Asia-Pacific attractions industry for Funworld.