Stories from the Street
Amusement Games During a Pandemic

By Genie Davis

What earns best for game and amusement operators in today’s pandemic-affected world? The response varies from state to state, with some games still strong earners while others simply can’t operate due to closed venues. For this article, five amusement operators told their stories.
In Laramie, Wyo., a location with many bars and other venues still open, Gary Hopkins, owner of Sagebrush Amusements, primarily has his games and juke boxes located in bars and restaurants. Under normal business circumstances, he finds the top places to place his attractions are “Not so much in arcades. A location that’s a combination of bar and dining, such as a sports bar, have just proven themselves over time to be better locations. You see what is working best over time.”
Today, Hopkins finds that his pool tables and darts are doing strong business; the juke boxes he operates are also doing business, but he described them as “not doing as well as they were before the pandemic, but all right.” In Wyoming, bars and restaurants are open. “The pool tables I have at locations such as Milligans, which is like an over-21 FEC, and several other restaurant/bars are doing fine.” These are the same amusements that he did well with prior to the pandemic. As to the future, he related, “I don’t foresee anything new right now, but there is always something coming out.” He remains optimistic in regard to the future of his business. “At this point we are operating at about 50% of our revenue. Wyoming hasn’t closed the bars because there is not a lot of the virus going around in our area, but for now, we are down.”

At Action Vending & Amusements in Tucson, Ariz., Owner Jim Hall is doing well with redemption games, which are currently his top-earners. “Different states have different restrictions that affects what games do well. Our pizza places are open and I have games there that are doing very well. Cranes and stackers, those types of things are doing very, very well,” he reported. “The video games on our route are mostly restricted to Pac Man, Ms. Pac Man, and the Galaga ship game. They are most popular with adults, and do well in most situations, but now, they are doing almost nothing.” Hall has noticed another new trend. “All our equipment takes bills now, we don’t take coins. So, what we are seeing when we count those bills in redemption games are $5 dollar bills as well as lots of $1s.” With most kids at home rather than in school, he notes “What this says to me is that mom and dad said ‘here kids, here’s $5 for each of you, just go play the games and give us some space.’ We are seeing the $5 bills really accentuated in redemption.”
For the future, he suggested, “I think redemption will continue to be strong. I also think some locations will shift as to which do better. For example, a pizza chain here that was big for parties, now you can’t have those large parties with kids with no masks on, so those locations don’t do as well for that reason.” Hall asserted, “I think games at locations that appeal to families will continue to be strong. When you go out as a family, the games give kids entertainment in their area, and adults can talk and enjoy themselves while the kids are having fun. The games serve those two purposes.”
At G & D Amusements, in San Mateo, Calif., Owner Dennis Callahan phased games out two years prior to the pandemic. “We mostly do juke boxes, and they were doing very well, but we have not been able to do anything since March, basically. The games that did well for us in venues like pizza parlors were too expensive, and there was no real return in investment on them, which is why we dropped them. Redemption games are what mostly does well now, and when you are buying prizes, it can get to be just too much.” Looking to the future, he said, “We are keeping our fingers crossed that our juke boxes will come back. They were doing very well for us. We would not consider adding games again, although I am always looking for new options.”
Also in California, Rene Chavez, owner of Rene Chavez Enterprises, Inc., operates juke boxes as well as the shooting game Buck Hunter, pool tables, Merit counter-top games, and punching machines. All were successful pre-pandemic. He found bars and restaurants to offer a greater rate of return than FECs, and his selection of games and juke boxes reflects that knowledge. “The punching machines were the most popular attractions, and were mostly located in bars. Ninety percent of those bars are closed, and you can’t take the machines in and out of the venues every day to operate them outdoors,” he explained. “The only bars that are open are in a few restaurants here and there.” He said it’s “too hard to predict what will do well in the future. Most bars and restaurants will have patios now, and while juke boxes can communicate through the internet, so you don’t have to bring those outside, placing games outside could be difficult, and you can’t operate those online on your phone.” At present “The only thing that is doing well for us are ATMs. People are still using those at different locations.”
On the east coast, in Stamford, Conn., Rick Preli of Amusements Unlimited normally does well with his games at an arcade located in a family sports center, but like many other amusement companies, he said overall bars and restaurants do best for his company. “Right now, it is different: the arcade is doing the best because it is the only location that’s open. We have only been open even there for a month.” Also like other companies, his top tip for finding a good game location is to see what spots earn most and adjust placement from there.
Even at the arcade, currently, business is down. “We have to have every other machine closed at the sports center to allow for distancing. I had purchased three new machines that are in there, and they should’ve been doing well, but they are not doing anywhere near what they are supposed to be.”
Along with the new games, Preli also converted his machines to card swipe operation from cash operation. Currently he said his business is only at about 20-25% of the revenue that he should be accruing. “And that business is all from that one single arcade location. We can’t touch the amusement games in the bars, where darts was very strong for me. The bars can’t even plug them in.” Preli has been running his business for 40 years, and believes that while it is too early to predict what will be popular in the future, “I think once there is no threat of COVID, the arcades will come back, the people will come back.”
In short, people still love to play games at a variety of locations, and amusement operators across the United States hope they will be able to play more of them, soon.

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