What is Your Business Plan for 2022?
“In this industry, you either buy or die” is the motto of Bob Thomas, owner of Liberty Coin Inc. and Minnesota Pastime in Virginia, Minn. “You’re forced to stay up with the times,” Thomas explained. “We’re always purchasing new equipment. You look at your spreadsheets and you allocate a budget for it, and hopefully you can find product to fill that budget.”
This year, as effects of the pandemic receded and business picked up, Thomas’ new orders include darts, music installations, and redemption games. “As crazy as it sounds, I ordered some claw machines back in April and I still don’t have them,” reflected Thomas in October. “If they show up, I’ll be very happy.”
With labor shortages and supply chain disruptions, the amusements and vending business has weathered its shares of bumps over the past year. But in this moment of transition, many operators sense opportunity. “We’re always looking to expand,” said Michael Patel, owner of Ultimate Amusements in Norcross, Ga. “In Georgia, we’re hoping to get another form of redemption, and if we get that, it could open up the market considerably.”
At Fred’s Travel Centers of Louisiana, Vice President and Operations Manager Scott Delatte is hoping to increase the business’s competitive edge. “In the short term, we want to learn more about our primary competition and figure out what we can offer that they may not be able to,” he explained. “And then, to advertise and capitalize on those unique points about our business that make us stand out.”
Longer term, Delatte has a strategic plan to increase earnings and improve profit margins, reducing overhead costs by three to four percent and migrating to a better technology platform. It sounds challenging — but Delatte said the pandemic has spurred Fred’s Travel Centers to greater efficiency. “For the first time, behavior was changing faster than technology,” he explained. “And that’s forced companies and executives to work with laser focus, and to make major decisions rapidly.”
In Harper Woods, Mich., Union Music Company Owner John Kalyvas also sees opportunity amid the turmoil of 2020-2021. “I want to take advantage of my competition dwindling a little bit,” he said. “To actively solicit new business by showing the value that we have — because I think we’re the best in town.”
Once the pandemic labor shortage has eased, Kalyvas envisions opening an entertainment center of his own, drawing on his wife’s experience in the hospitality business. “I’m a former hockey coach, so I know the team needs somewhere to go after practice every week,” Kalyvas added.
Whatever happens, Kalyvas expects his business to thrive because of Union Music’s longtime commitment to clients. “We’ve spoiled them for decades, and they expect it from us,” he noted. “Even with a skeleton staff during the pandemic, I’ve kept the best people.” Kalyvas’s immediate goal is to hire an additional technician to ease the burden on Union’s trusted staff.
In good times or bad, “you’ve got to put the best accounts at the top of your list and keep them as happy as possible,” Kalyvas explained. “It’s not easy when calls come in one after another, and if they’re from opposite ends of town, two businesses that both need your attention…You’ve just got to communicate as best as possible. Let them know you’re coming.”
Industry veterans have experienced many a previous downturn, and operators like Terry Meier take the long view. “I can’t say that 2021 has been all that bad,” reflected the owner of Michigan Dolphin Coin in Mount Pleasant, Mich. “We’ve been in business for over 50 years, and we’ve experienced worse in the past.” Two thousand and ten, when Michigan banned smoking in bars and restaurants, took a far greater toll on Michigan Dolphin Coin’s revenue; that year, about 40 percent of the businesses Meier worked with closed their doors.
But over recent decades, Meier has seen demand dwindle in his rural corner of Michigan. “The amusement industry is gone,” was his doleful conclusion in an October interview. Dolphin Coin’s pinball machines are no more; from 100 video games, four remain. “And pool table revenue is declining because the number of locations we do business with has declined,” Meier noted. On the bright side, he added, dart leagues returned to activity during 2021.
Prudent financial management has seen the company through many a stormy year, and at 78, Meyer can’t envision changing course. He entrusts the future to his son, the third generation in the business, whom Meyer has taught to steer the ship with the same cautious, steady hand. “It’s about the basics: Provide excellent service. Good working machines,” the owner elaborated. “And knowing your customers — the location owners that you do business with, and who their customers are.”
Like Michigan Dolphin Coin, many amusement outfits are longtime family businesses. Bob Thomas, another 50-year veteran, said that’s partly because entering the industry poses greater challenges today than a few generations back. “The cost of product has just soared,” he reflected. “There’s all the debt you have to take on nowadays. And it’s a tough business. When most people are going home, our people are just going out.”
Fortunately, Thomas is well established in Minnesota, where fresh equipment and responsive service have kept things humming along. “You always have to be watching for new product and new ideas,” Thomas reflected. “I’ve always got our ear to the ground to look for something that’s sensational. And when you find it, you make an investment into it.”