Finding the Best of the Best
February 10, 2013
Vendors that Keep Laser Tag Operations Humming
The laser tag industry has some of the most political and confusing sales strategies in the entertainment world. I mentioned last year that there were some ways of dealing with the hype and pushing through to find what works best for your business. This year we’re going to spend some time dissecting what is really important when selecting your vendors, both on the equipment side and the arena side.
We could start with looking at the vendors with the largest number of clients, which is important and worth investigating, or I could just rattle off all the top vendors in the industry and let you do your own homework. That won’t really help you with your selection though, because the marketing in the laser tag industry can be very confusing and full of pretty bold claims. So let’s look at some of those claims and see what we’re left with to choose from.
The Biggest and Best Selling
This is the most common claim by every company. “We’re the best/biggest company, and (our competitor) is going out of business.” Or “We were voted the best-selling product (‘x’ number) of years in a row!” The sales representatives you’re going to be dealing with are going to undercut each other every chance they get. Some don’t talk trash as much as others, but they are all competing for your business and you have about six strong choices from which to pick.
The truth is that all six are probably going to be in business for a long time and the best way to find out who is the largest is to ask to see the list of their locations. Many provide them on their website, but some do not but still claim to be the biggest company in the industry. Who are you likely to believe? If they were voted “best selling product,” who gave them that award? If there is no answer, then perhaps there’s a bit of embellishing going on.
Our Product Is the Most Durable
Unless the equipment just came out last week, there have been plenty of durability tests done on the equipment from the big companies out there and are all pretty durable. The truth is this: You will have to make repairs on your packs and equipment no matter who you choose to buy from. How difficult is it to make those repairs, or take apart the equipment, or how sturdy those replacement parts are: these are the questions to ask their existing clients. Every sales representative will tell you their packs are easy to fix or never break, but their operators, who have to make money on those packs, will tell you the hard truth about the product’s durability.
Another great line from suppliers is that their competitor’s equipment is outdated or inferior because of one or two advancements in software or hardware, but is this really true? Taking a step back, our industry offers a simple concept as an attraction: Blast the blinking lights for points. The faster you explain this and rotate customers, the more money you will make. How fun your staff and your equipment make that concept is what will bring back repeat players.
When looking at features, ask yourself “Does this ‘advancement’ make my company any more money than not having it?” If the answer is no, then why pay for the ‘upgrade?’ It’s easy to think that every new add-on will make you more revenue, but unless it changes the complete experience for your customer, they probably won’t notice the change or be encouraged to come back again and again because of one modification.
Members and Special Game Formats
This is a big one and we’re going to need a minute. For this we need to take another step back to look at the industry and where it came from. Membership sales were huge in the 1980s and early 1990s because many of the franchises would host tournaments and leagues while having their locations compete on a national or even world-wide levels. Many players wanted to prove they were the best in their store, city, state or country or in the world. So most operators came to rely on these, usually a handful of players, to play consistently to pay for their operations. What happened ended up being a nightmare to our industry.
Locations would sell memberships and secure that revenue, however those players would then play against groups and birthday parties being held and it would ruin the experience for the masses, and walk-in customers wouldn’t come back because of the bad experience. Many of the members would also be very competitive, aggressive and foul-mouthed (and sometimes un-hygenic). Just as an example, watch YouTube videos about online first-person shooters and voice-chat and just listen to what is being said – that kind of chat was going on in the arenas.
Then, as the members started getting older or getting beaten more regularly by their competition, they would stop playing, or grow up and move on with their lives, leaving the store with hurt customers, retired members and no real source of income after that, other than walk-in traffic which accounts for about 10 percent of revenue for operators today. When their facility’s laser tag supplier went out of business and no direction could be given, that was just the icing on the failure cake.
Once membership-focused stores started closing, it looked like our industry might fade for good, until something amazing happened – we left the members behind and focused on group and birthday marketing and sales, almost exclusively. And for several years our industry grew, started seeing million-dollar grossing locations, and we never looked back – until the past couple of years.
Understand, membership games are still big (relatively) – in other countries. The truth is that in Australia, New Zealand and Europe, member game formats are still very active, so the companies from Australia, New Zealand and Europe that make equipment focus heavily on those aspects in their global marketing. The main problem is that this business concept in America is mostly gone. Member-based locations in other countries don’t pull in the kind of revenue that most highly successful locations do here in America, even if they are financially successful. And honestly, the rest of the world is behind us a few years in concept.
Is there any way to be successful running memberships? Maybe. I reserve the right to underestimate, but businesses that have learned to incorporate members into their business have done so keeping those customers away from their weekend birthday and group crowd. Once you mix the two, your members will bleed your company financially dry.
You may be asking “Doesn’t every company sell their equipment based on some form of special game features?” Absolutely. You have to understand though, that special game formats and memberships are two very different things. Many successful locations run special game nights where they encourage repeat and often more competitive players to try the games that you wouldn’t normally run during your peak hours. This keeps the more aggressive players away from your birthday kids.
What’s great about special game formats is that they are often marketed during your weekend games to encourage players to come in on normally slow weekdays. Many customers will come week after week and will bring friends because they feel they are getting something special from the rest of the masses on your weekends. You can run these types of days whenever you like, but it is on your schedule, not the player’s.
That is the main difference between memberships and special game formats. Membership holders feel they are entitled to thump their chest and rise above your average customer. Many memberships are even designed to encourage your members to try. Special game formats level that playing field because it’s up to you and your staff to make sure everyone is having fun. If you try a game format and it stinks, you don’t have to do it again. If you are obligated to give a member his/her games, then your other patrons will pay for it and so will you if it’s during your peak hours.
Telling a non-member that they can’t play and annihilating your birthday crowd can go over a lot better than trying to explain that same scenario to someone who has paid to be a member of your store.
The better question to ask your supplier is this: “Can we incorporate your special games and features during slow times without creating a membership category?” Listen to what they have to say. You may have to get creative to incorporate special games into your business model, but do not forget the mistakes of the past or you will probably repeat them.
Arenas and What to Look for
Your equipment is only half of your laser tag experience. Your arena is also vital to your attraction. Even long-standing arena providers still get it wrong sometimes. Bad layouts, poor theming, and throughput barriers can hurt you far worse than your choice between infrared or ILDT technology for your gear.
When having your arena designed and your attractions laid out, you should ask to see some of the designer’s past designs and layouts. Speaking with their recent client list can help you find out if their customers discovered challenges with their current layout and ask what they’d do differently if they could start again. Would they buy a second time from the company they chose? Is the theme they chose working for their market? Does their layout maximize their potential throughput or does it hinder it? Did the theming company work with their architect and inspectors from the beginning to avoid future problems? Are the materials the company used shoddy or damaging to your equipment? These are some good starter questions to ask when speaking to the company’s previous clients.
You’d be surprised at even recently opened locations that have poor field design or terrible throughput layouts. The more eyes you have on your project, the better, as this can help avoid many issues or hassles in the long run.
Other questions you have to ask yourself are:
- How much do you want to spend per square foot? This can vary from $4 to nearly $30 per square foot depending on the company at which you are looking.
- How much theming do you need in your arena? Can painted walls and a few props be enough to start with?
- How much theming do you need for the rest of your facility?
- Are you able to install your own arena if you choose? Some companies offer that option now as a way to save money to their customers.
- Is the material the company using to theme your arena going to scratch or damage your laser tag equipment when players run into it?
- Are your ceilings high enough to do multiple levels? Multi-level arenas outlast and outperform single level attractions nearly 2 to 1. If not, can you incorporate half-levels to create that illusion of height for your guests?
- Did this company recommend combining your vesting and briefing room to save space and money? This is a huge industry no-no when it comes to damaging your potential throughput. If you don’t have the room for two separate areas for this, then you may be looking at the wrong location or you need to free up some space somewhere.
In the end, you will have to make your decision based on what you want to accomplish with your business, but don’t get sucked into the hype or assume that everything you are told is the complete truth. Ask questions, dig deep, talk to existing operators, consult with industry experts, take road trips and play the gear and arenas of your potential suppliers. Then and only then will you get on the right track to finding your partners for success. –Back