Thought Before Action:
Crafting a Total Experience at Mini-Golf and Go-Kart Centers

August 1, 2011 No Comments

Almost all centers contain multiple elements that make up the total theme, image, or look of the operation.  Whether it’s jungle, pirates, or something else, these include everything from a central theme to less obvious factors such as sound, lighting and the type of food offered.  No matter if you are adding something or enhancing existing attractions, putting it all together in a coherent and integrated fashion can be daunting.  Here’s how some go-kart and mini-golf operations are handling the challenge.  It starts with the vision or image you want to create and factors in the type of experience you want to provide to customers.  
Fundamental to developing or improving an operation are considering the parts that make up the whole.  “I look at everything from a component standpoint,” said Ken Swader, director of operations for Swaders Sports Park, which was developed by him and his brother Glenn, in central Virginia. “For us we have mini-golf, go-karts, driving range, laser tag, an arcade, a kids’ soft play zone, corporate and group functions, food and parties.  All of these combined is how I view our business.  This enables me to focus on the individual parts and to also see how they all fit together to form our overall operation.”
Breaking your operation down also facilitates performing the classic strengths, weaknesses, opportunities and threats (SWOT) analysis.  As Swader noted, “If someone was going to develop  something or add to an existing location, they can evaluate their components and categorize them by strengths and weaknesses; for example, we are good at this, not very good at this, and we don’t have that.”  
Using SWOT can also help you to identify competitive or economic threats so you can respond accordingly.  But any approach to creating a total experience also requires a close look at your target customers.  “The concept is to give people an environment that they can immerse themselves into, and that’s what we have tried to do,” said Woody Fitzhugh, the owner of Woody’s Golf Range in Herndon, Va.  “In order to do that you need to create layers of realism and try to do that as best you can and your budget will afford.”
In business for 30 years, his award-winning, jungle-themed operation attracts approximately 100 thousand visitors a year.  Said Fitzhugh, “We started out with an image and went from there.  We wanted something that would attract people more than just putting on carpet with some rocks and trees.”
Others have built on what they had.  “We bought a rundown operation about four years ago,” said Tom Erwin, at Kentucky Shores Family Fun Center near Kentucky Dam in the state of Kentucky.  Erwin, along with George Rexroad, owns the center, which features go-karts, mini-golf and more.  Erwin noted, “Our position was to create a destination that included a tropical atmosphere in Western Kentucky.  Each year we invested in improvements even when the economy went south.”  
This commitment is paying off.  According to Erwin, they average 400-500 on weekdays and 800-1,000 on weekends.  To help create the look they wanted, they collected things like old lobster cages and buoys and netting after tropical storms in the Florida Keys.  “This is just trash to the locals when it gets entangled in mangroves, but each year we bring it back and use it as decoration for the track area and golf course.  In addition, we have brought art to the masses by commissioning several stainless and copper sculptures that are located throughout the park – all done by world renowned artist George Banderra.”
Some pursue what at first glance might not seem a focused theme, but nonetheless, it reflects the vision of the designer.  “Our place is unique.” said Carol Wolfe, manager of Rocky Gorge Mini Golf in Laurel, Md.  She explained, “My dad designed it and opened it back in 1964.  He had many interests and was a jack of all trades – an architect, drafting engineer and school teacher.  What we have are different things, like waterfalls, a train, a hotel, jail, wishing wells and the Washington Monument.  It is a collection of things that he found interesting and liked.  So perhaps our theme is that there is no theme.”
Their uniqueness even encompasses the fact that their batting cages are not really caged.  Said Wolfe, “Batters hit the ball towards an open field, giving them a more realistic experience.  My father designed that.  He also was one of the very first to build a two-tier driving range.  So, he created a total experience his own way.”
“Our focus is go-karts, although we have other things,” said Greg Slaton, the general manager of indoor Pole Position Raceway in Oklahoma City, Okla.  “The median age of our customers is probably around 35 years old.”  Understanding what that demographic wants in terms of realism and excitement they have responded accordingly.  As Slaton said, “We factor in all types of racing.”
Some operations have chosen to reflect the history that surrounds them.  “We are in a community that is over 100 years old,” said Lorrie Nadau, the owner of Magic City Mini Golf located in Millinocket, Maine.  “We have a collection of old things.  Our indoor facility has a lot of beams and we had to custom design our course.  What I have tried to do is create a nostalgic look; for example, I have replicas of a bunch of old posters from businesses and an old movie theater back in the 1940s.  We also have an old cash register from years ago that came from one of the local stores.  We have a Coca Cola section, including a rusty old vintage cooler.  Things like that.”
Yet capturing the historical flavor of the town and maintaining this look has not been without challenges.  As Wolfe noted, “We opened nine years ago and six months after we opened the main employer, the paper mill, went bankrupt with the loss of a lot of jobs.  The mill has closed again, but we are hopeful that there will be new owners.  In fact, despite the economy, we have been considering changing it up a little and doing glow in the dark golf.  We haven’t taken the plunge yet and are still sitting on our hands.”
Beyond just the challenging economic times, all of these innovative operators share common factors.  They have, for example, all used their vision to try and create and sustain an experience that has strong appeal to their customer base.  In addition, they continually seek and consider ways to enhance that experience. -

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