By Sara Hodon
Next to the physical structure housing the operation, equipment is the biggest investment a business owner makes in their enterprise. Laser tag arena owners are no exception. When weighing the options of purchasing new equipment, operators have a few common traits they look for in both hardware and software.
“[Look at] durability, reliability, and the availability of replacement parts. You should have all of this in your contract,” suggested Dale Wilcox, owner of Lazer Kraze in Lewis Center, Ohio, as well as three other locations in Ohio. “It’s a major investment. The longer you can be with a system and not have to replace it, the more successful you’ll be.”
Dhalas Robbins, owner of Skatetown Hysteria in Bloomsburg, Pa., added that durability and reliability also applies to the vendor you ultimately choose. “From our company’s standpoint, the company [vendor] should be easy to work with,” he said.
Tony Wohlgemuth, president, Kersey Valley Inc., the parent company of Kersey Valley Laser Tag in Archdale, N.C., said he looks for “ease of use, features, and overall customer satisfaction.”
Randall Briggs, owner of ShadowLand Laser Adventures based in Columbia, Md., has five locations and said he’s stayed with the same manufacturer because they are on the cutting edge of the latest technology and simply have the capabilities to meet his venues’ needs.
“I’ve been in the industry since 1996, and I’ve always used DarkLight Systems, based out of the UK. They are the industry leader but don’t market much in the U.S.” Briggs said he upgrades his software every four to five years. “Twenty years ago I started all my sites on DarkLight’s v7 system on version 3. Back in 1997 this was the only system with real-time information. Now we’re up to version 7.”
Purchasing equipment is a big commitment and investment of time and money, so it’s important to weigh your options and do your homework before deciding. Operators suggest talking with your vendors, attending trade shows, and testing out different hardware and software to determine the best fit for your facility. Or follow Robbins’ lead. He asked some tough critics to help with the research—his kids. “We had our children go out and research different companies. We tested it out to see what the experience was. At the end of the day, our children were the ones who chose what we purchased based on what they liked,” he said. Robbins said he and some of his staff attend industry trade shows, like IAAPA, frequently to learn more about upcoming trends and get ideas.
Wilcox said if the equipment is durable enough, you shouldn’t have to buy anything new for some time. “We replaced two of our systems in 14 years,” he said. “We swapped out one of our systems after less than one year in business—our supplier ended up going out of business. Then we upgraded our first store in Mainville [Ohio] from Zone Infusion to Zone Nexus after eight or ten years in business. We built a new building and relocated in 2014.”
Robbins’ venue is less than five years old, and he said they bought their equipment brand new when they added laser tag in 2014. “Every few years, we purchase some new things. Two years ago we did an upgrade and added kiosks for the laser tag that are part of the sign up. Right now we’re working with our company to do some upgrades in the arena,” he said.
If you are planning to buy equipment, whether a single item to give your attraction a boost or as an addition or upgrade to your venue, have a budget in mind before buying. There are several ways to finance your purchase, so once again, look at the options before choosing the best payment method for your business’ bottom line. Paying up front is usually the best option. “We paid for the equipment outright,” Robbins said. “We took out a mortgage; our bank did a refinance on the whole building, and the equipment was built into the refinance on the mortgage.”
Wilcox worked with his manufacturer. “We leveraged the financing through the manufacturer of the laser tag equipment. We leveraged the financing through Firestone for our arcade games. We got short-term loans for our arcade games and big loans for our buildings. All of our buildings are original build-outs; we received SBA [Small Business Administration] loans for them,” he explained.
Maintenance is key to keeping all equipment in top shape, whether you buy brand-new or previously owned. Most venues have a regular maintenance schedule that all employees follow. “We have a sensor checklist. There are about seven sensors on a suit. Once a week our techs will do a complete check—they pull the triggers to make sure they work, make sure the phasers act like they should, and make repairs as necessary,” Briggs said. “There is always a technician on hand. If we have 1,000 games in a day, there are always suits that die. We keep a small collection of spare parts on hand which a player can use until the tech gets the suit back online.”
Wilcox has daily inspections of each vest; his staff does a full inspection every Thursday night. “We’ll clean things, re-glue things that come loose. Whenever I open up a phaser, there are four or five things that I check—sensor, glue, connections, then I clean the connections [ribbon cable that provides power] because people touch it,” Wilcox explained.
Robbins’ team is trained to look over the equipment throughout the day. “If there are problems, they are fixed right then, or the vest is put aside to be checked at the end of the day,” he said. “If there’s something major and the problem is beyond our capabilities, we’ll send it back to Lasertron [their vendor] and they take care of it. They have a quick turnaround and are a good company to work with.”
Wohlgemuth said the team at Kersey Valley also does daily and weekly inspections, with sight equipment and field tests every three months.
And operators are always looking for new ways to keep their visitors engaged so first-time players become regular customers. This could be anything from upgrading the game software to adding a theme to rearranging the arena.
Wilcox said Lazer Kraze just added a virtual reality attraction in 2018 so there are no large-scale additions planned at any of their venues for 2019 or 2020. Briggs said ShadowLand just expanded their Columbia [Md.] center, and with a 20,000-square-foot facility at their Alexandria location, he said they made “more efficient use of the space.”
Wohlgemuth said to look for some new elements at Kersey Valley in 2019, namely “new game play and design, the addition of DMX lighting for night play, a membership program, tournament and league play.”
Like most operators, Robbins keeps an eye out for what’s next. “We’re always looking for something new. For 2019 we’re looking at different ways to change our arena. At the IAAPA show they showed us the new sectors, so we’re looking at 2019 or 2020 for that.”