Zone's own Erik Guthrie talks to Tivia from Tiviachick loves Laser tag.
Tivia has played probably more laser tag than anyone else on the planet, with her own website and blog, detailing her experiences and love of the game. But now during a time when social distancing has become so important, the laser tag industry is just starting to re-emerge with operators preparing for and beginning to re-open their businesses that were shut down through the COVID-19 pandemic. This makes the new innovation announced this week by Zone Laser Tag all the more timely and relevant.
Tivia took some time to talk to Erik, on how these features work as well as how the Laser tag industry as whole is fairing.
Zone's own Erik Guthrie talks to Tivia from Tiviachick loves Laser tag.
An operator should have a belief system in place when it comes to running laser tag, an attraction that’s unique among others in the amusement industry. Consider this: Laser tag is the one attraction that can house many people and in which they all interact with each other. Since this interaction actually determines the enjoyment value of each game played, an operator should protect the sanctity of the game, meaning that nothing should interfere with the game once it starts.
Avoiding game interference seems straightforward enough, and yet I see it all the time. This interference comes in many forms. It might be that an arena device or target isn’t working right…or that a player’s vest or phaser isn’t performing as it should and has to be swapped out…or it might be that a guest is late to the laser tag party and gets to enter the game once it’s already started.
Let’s start with this last, late arrival problem. I can’t think of a single attraction in the amusement industry that would hold up the rest of the guests’ enjoyment for the sake of one late arriver. For example, have you ever seen a go-kart track operator start the cars racing and then stop them and make them all come back in while they add another kid to a cart? I’m sure not. Have you ever seen attendees stop a roller coaster so someone can get on halfway through? Of course not.
What sets high-earning laser tags apart from all the others and why are some bowling centers doing $800,000 or $1,000,000 in laser tag sales while others are only doing $150,000?
There are a lot of variables, but higher-earning centers all have some form of dedicated staff member –– even as far as full-fledged managers –– for their laser tag. These are people whose only job is to work the laser tag and oversee its operation. As an example, Dave Haness of Country Club Lanes in Sacramento, Calif., has a wonderful employee named Rhoda Tabaka who’s been the laser tag manager there for some time and the result is that his bowling center does nearly $1,000,000 in laser tag sales annually!
Think about this: If there are a bunch of other laser tag centers in your market –– and there pretty much is today –– they’re typically all suffering the same pains. The guy who comes along and starts to promote laser tag as an experience –– and makes his center special –– is going to win. The key to making more money lies in how you market and run your laser tag experience.
Remember, laser tag is different from any other attraction you have in your location. A customer isn’t going to know everything about what your laser tag center offers. It’s up to the staff to educate them. But, the key question you need to ask is whether your staff even knows all they should. For example, in my Q-Zar location in Toledo, we offer 54 different game formats! How can customers know about them if the person running the attraction doesn’t?
When was the last time you played laser tag in your arena? How often do you play? When did you hold your own team-building event in your center? Also, do you stand outside and listen to customers as they come out? Do you have a friend “secret shop” your laser tag experience? Have you considered why someone would hold an event there and if they’d come away satisfied? What are you doing to make the birthday kid feel special? I’m barraging you with all of these questions to get you thinking.
If you want to maximize the success and profits of your laser tag arena, you need to be your own customer. It’s not rocket science. If you play your own attraction and get closer to your customers, you’re going to know if you’re offering the best laser tag experience: one that brings them and their friends back.
What We Don’t Want to Hear I hate to be negative, but lately and more and more often, I’ve heard from fun center operators –– bowling center operators, trampoline parks and so on –– that their laser tag sales aren’t what they hoped (or should) be. In fact, because I’ve been hearing this for a while, I decided to address it directly in my presentation at this year’s Bowl Expo. My message was that laser tag has been marketed, particularly by the arena-building companies and consultants, as a “set it and forget it” attraction. And, the problem is that people are forgetting! This has everything to do with game experience. The laser tag experience is not memorable because it’s not set up, run or managed right
In the June issue of RePlay, I covered some key areas in which fine-tuning laser tag operations could result in better earnings, increased player loyalty and repeat visits. From enhancing the briefing room experience to selfie walls to using and maintaining atmospheric smoke or fog equipment, operational tweaks can –– and do –– make a significant difference in your bottom line. Another key area where laser tag operators are leaving money on the table is in the scoring, something I think is grossly underrated.
The industry standard today is to have one scoreboard mounted on the wall showing the game stats and another next to it showing a feed from the low-light cameras in the arena. From a deliverable point of view, this is easy. When you’re building out your arena, you tell the electrician he needs to mount two monitors, the laser tag manufacturer runs the cables, the camera guy installs the equipment and, bam, it’s done. One more item off the checklist. But, in going with this cookie cutter approach, we’re missing out on golden opportunities to market to the consumer within the scoring process.
For example, most laser tag manufacturers’ systems have the ability to run advertisements using the built-in scoring software. So, while the consumer is standing there looking at the score, they could also be seeing upcoming special events or deals. I don’t see this done in other laser tag centers and it’s a golden marketing opportunity that is ignored.
At my own Q-ZAR location in Toledo, Ohio, we bring it all together and have incorporated rotational banner ads along the lower portion of our scoreboard. Each is displayed for a certain period of time before it switches to the next image and so on. Panels promote everything from our “All You Can Play” deals to church nights, from fundraising to lock-ins. Even our concession stand gets a plug.
Throughout the Southern U.S. older laser tag arenas languish. Visitation has dropped off, with patrons defecting to newer FECs. Facilities are showing their age; longtime owners may be ready to retire. That’s where Zone Laser Tag USA comes in. Over the past four years, the Indiana-based entertainment group has bought nine aging properties and restored them to profitability. “There’s a business plan for starting, but when owners lose their zest, there often isn’t a planned exit strategy,” said Erik Guthrie, who is one third of the Zone team, along with Simon Willetts and Jeremy Gabby. “We look at underutilized properties. We’re looking to acquire rebounding locations, where the owners want to retire or otherwise move on.”
Since launching in 2015, the trio has acquired 10 locations: one each in Indiana, South Carolina, Ohio, and Florida, two in Maryland and four in Virginia. The men will only consider locations within six to eight hours’ drive for one of them; Guthrie is based in Indianapolis; Willetts in Delaware; and Gabby in Florida). “We’re not looking to overextend our credit capabilities,” noted Guthrie. “We’re concentrating along the I-95 corridor, and between I-55 and I-75.” One location has since closed due to underperformance, but the rest have thrived. Recently, the group acquired a pair of trampoline parks — the first acquisition outside laser tag.
I travel extensively and just got back from a tour of 26 locations in four days, most of them bowling centers, but also some theaters and standalone laser tag centers. What’s interesting from these visits is that the standalone laser tag operators always do better than those running multiple attractions. The question is why? What is it about the standalone operators? I think it’s because, for them, laser tag is their bread and butter.
They need to wake up every day and say, “What can we do to make laser tag better today?” For FEC operators, there are a lot of things conflicting and demanding their attention, so from their point of view, as long as the laser equipment works and they can run games on time, that’s good enough. But it’s not. They’re leaving money on the table. Here are some things FEC –– and standalone laser tag –– operators can and should do to get more out of their systems.
The Golden Opportunity of Briefing One thing I’ve noticed is a lack of energy from the staff members. In laser tag today, it’s too easy for the employee to enter the briefing room and simply push a button to start the video. There’s no real need for that employee to be personable. I think all FEC operators with laser tag are missing a golden marketing opportunity –– a chance to create a memorable experience ––right off the bat in the briefing room. Operators can make more money in this one area alone just by having staff members who have a strong, dynamic personality or at minimum, a sincere, caring attitude.
Honestly, your employees really don’t even need to be that outgoing. They just need to engage with your customers, saying things like, “Oh, be sure to come back on All You Can Play Night” or to let them know about the late-night adult laser tag special or deals for church groups. Don’t miss the chance to connect, upsell or cross-sell during that briefing room experience.
What sets high-earning laser tags apart from all the others and why are some bowling centers doing $800,000 or $1 million in laser tag sales while others are only doing $150,000? After 35 years, it’s clear that the laser tag industry has hit a maturation stage. It’s become synonymous with FECs. There are a variety of arenabuilding/theming companies, as well as a good number of laser tag manufacturers. In fact, at the European Amusement Show last year in Amsterdam, I personally visited at least a dozen laser tag equipment makers; at IAAPA last November, there were at least 10, both indoor and outdoor.
Competition We’re definitely in a mature, crowded market. In most cities now, you’re going to have a bowling center that’s adding laser tag competing with a trampoline facility two miles away that’s going to add it and two or three miles away from that, will be a roller skating rink that’s putting in laser tag as well. I’m really not exaggerating.
When I attended the Houston, Texas, Foundations Education University in October, I spent another three days visiting 26 laser tag locations. In Katy, Texas, there are four within six miles of each other The number of locations that are out there are pretty shocking as far as I’m concerned. Here on the north side of Indianapolis, we’ve got Laser Flash and then, less than two or three miles from that, you’ve got Woodland Bowl. Less than a mile and a half from that you have Main Event. Less than a mile and a half from that, you have X-Site, and probably two miles away from that you have Bowl Three-Two-Fun! That’s five on the north side of Indianapolis alone.
There’s a lot of buzz in the industry today about VR and what it offers, where the future might be and, among some, whether VR could unseat laser tag in popularity. VR is really cool and exciting, but I will flat out state that VR will not replace laser tag. It’s just not going to happen that way, certainly not within the next 7-10 years. Before you dismiss what I’m saying, let me prove my point by talking about the money involved, the type of play and other factors (such as augmented reality) that affect the profit reality in today’s amusement business. For those who don’t know us that well,
Zone is relatively different from most laser tag manufacturers in that we own multiple locations. I personally operate a laser tag arena, too. So we’re nose-to-the-grindstone kind of folks because we’re making money day-byday on customers coming in and enjoying a great laser tag experience. We want to pay attention to anything that’s a threat to that business model. Our interest in the future is multiplied two or threefold because we manufacture equipment. We must pay attention to anything that affects that side of the business…which leads us to VR.