Reviving an FEC Birthday Party Program in 5 Steps
Except for a few weekends in the fall, FunStuf Party Place couldn’t open its doors for 370 days due to the pandemic. Staff kept the public up to date and engaged on Facebook throughout the yearlong hiatus. However, management didn’t truly know what the interest level would be for small gatherings when the lights finally went back on in March 2021.
“As soon people found out we were reopening, we started getting calls—many of them for birthday parties,” says Fran Dower, owner of the family entertainment center (FEC) in Fitchburg, Massachusetts. “We’re not disappointed at all.”
DiDonato Family Fun Center in Hammonton, New Jersey, also experienced the burst in anticipation after being closed for so long.
“We’re excited to help them plan safe, healthy, fun events,” says Christina DiDonato, the FEC’s vice president and director of marketing. “It’s been a year since they’ve been able to celebrate some big milestones.”
Despite the pandemic, birthdays should continue to be big business for FECs. Owners and operators, though, will still have their work cut out for them in the months ahead.
Here’s how two facilities have taken steps to qualm guests’ concerns about parties and revived their dormant birthday programs.
1. Caps on Party Size
FunStuf Party Place will continue to follow state guidelines on limits of gathering size (a moving target, of course). Currently, the FEC can hold two parties simultaneously with a max of 35 people each, Dower say. The facility remains open to the public during parties, but the parties stay in a dedicated area.
FunStuf Party Place could hold 10 to 12 three-hour parties a day in the pre-pandemic world. Now, it stands at four daily. “Even half of usual is better than nothing at all,” Dower says.
2. Managing Expectations
In the 127 days DiDonato Family Fun Center stayed closed in 2020, the team spent a lot of that time developing new safety protocols and procedures.
“We wanted to have everything in place for when we reopened,” DiDonato says. “We’re very mindful of going above and beyond the guidelines from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention and New Jersey.”
That often means managing guest expectations, especially when guests hope to have a larger party than allowed, she says. On many of its social posts, the FEC notes the capacity limits and spells out safety and social distancing guidelines.
“We don’t want to disappoint anybody,” DiDonato explains. “There was a time when a group could just walk into someplace without a reservation. You can’t do that anymore. We’re trying to keep our guests and our staff safe. We have to balance that all out.”
3. Revamping Spaces
The extended downtime allowed both FECs to reconfigure their facilities for greater guest value. FunStuf Party Place recently added a 25-game arcade to include in the birthday package, and DiDonato Family Fun Center built two new outdoor areas (one heated) to increase capacity and give birthday guests more options.
4. Heightened Cleanliness
Besides adding new attractions and facility upgrades, the pandemic has forced venues to place a heavier-than-usual emphasis on cleanliness—along with a dash of creativity. For example, at DiDonato Family Fun Center, guests can opt for “bowling buddies” shoe covers instead of rentable bowling shoes. When someone prefers the bowling shoe, the FEC offers fresh, out-of-the-package socks.
They also feature a bowling ball “valet service.” Here, all balls stay behind a closed-off area near the front desk. A staffer helps guests to pick out the perfect one, so they don’t touch a bunch of them. The employee can quickly sanitize the ball if someone has second thoughts about their selection.
In addition, DiDonato sets up each party in a socially distanced private area. A dedicated server handles all the food and drinks needs, which avoids a communal environment and eases guest concerns.
“We’ve been in business for almost 70 years, and we’ve been obsessively clean for 70 years,” she says. “This just took it to a whole new level.”
5. Go Above and Beyond for Guests.
Not only must FECs contend with reduced capacity, but they also likely incur greater costs. For DiDonato, that necessitates spending more than usual on items like cleaning supplies, disposable menus, and staff personal protective equipment, as well as labor because each party needs a dedicated host.
However, she just considers this the cost of doing business in times of uncertainty.
“Your reputation means a lot, especially during the pandemic,” DiDonato says. “We put the extra love into what we do with cleanliness and safety procedures and let the guests know about it. A family wants to hear that their kids will be safe, but still have a lot, a lot of fun. That’s our No. 1 priority.”