SOUTH BARRINGTON, IL — The Amusement and Music Operators Association is putting the final touches on its 18th annual meeting of its Council of Affiliated States here at the Hoffman Estates near AMOA headquarters. The meeting is being held from February 14 to 16.
As VT goes to press, some two-dozen presidents and executive directors from nearly 20 state associations are expected to attend the conference, which focuses on issues confronting operators at both state and local levels. The mechanics of state association management also will be discussed, including dues, fundraising, state tournaments, association newsletters and communications, membership recruitment and benefits.
New this year is a daylong tour of area facilities, which kicks off the Council meeting on Thursday, February 14. The agenda includes visits to Stern Pinball’s factory and the Enchanted Castle FEC.
Another highlight will be a visit to the headquarters of A.H. Entertainers, the well-known amusement and vending operation in Rolling Meadows, IL. This firm has produced two AMOA past-presidents: Wayne Hesch in 1979, and Don Hesch in 1998. The company’s Chris Hesch, a third-generation operator, currently serves as president of the Illinois Coin Machine Operators Association.
Following the tour, participants and their guests will enjoy a cocktail reception at the host hotel, the Chicago Marriott Northwest.
On Friday, February 15, a group breakfast will feature opening remarks by AMOA president Lloyd Williamson of Williamson Sugarloaf Inc. (Winona, MN). Next, a panel of manufacturing executives will discuss the industry’s current trends and future prospects. AMOA state associations committee chairman Bobby Hogin of Hogin Amusement (Dickson, TN) will moderate the discussion.
Mid-morning and afternoon sessions will feature individual reports on local conditions by several state association executives.
Friday evening, there will be a reception in downtown Chicago at the Sears Tower offices of Sonnenschein Nath & Rosenthal, AMOA’s legal counsel. Attorneys will present an update on legislation of concern to the industry, plus a preview of the 2008 elections. Dinner follows at Harry Caray’s Restaurant.
Saturday’s breakfast will feature an update on smoking ban issues from Nick Halliwell of Strategic Partners, an R.J. Reynolds tobacco company associate. The event will conclude with the final batch of presentations by state association executives.
AMOA said numerous sponsors contributed generously to help offset the meeting’s cost. Among them are Arachnid; JVL; the Jukebox License Office/AMOA Jukebox Promotion Committee; Minnesota Operators of Music and Amusements; Ohio Coin Machine Association; Oregon Amusement and Music Operators Association; South Dakota State Association; Super Auctions; Tennessee Coin Machine Association; TouchTunes; and the Wisconsin Amusement and Music Operators Association.
The issues confronted by state operator associations vary little from year to year, but approaches to handling them do, as political, regulatory and technological conditions evolve. At the very first meeting of the AMOA Council of Affiliated States in 1991, gray-area games were a central focus among the state executives, and remained so for many years. A decade ago, at the 1998 meeting, the hot topic was statewide smoking bans – an issue that has only grown timelier since.
AMOA’s most recent member directory lists 41 state associations from 39 states. Two states – West Virginia and Wyoming – have more than one organization.
In addition, states such as Florida, North Carolina and Ohio have multiple – and sometimes competing – associations, some of which aren’t affiliated with AMOA. In several cases, these associations advocate conflicting policies on the legalization of gray games.
As the 2008 AMOA states meeting approached, VT performed a spot check of three state operator associations to determine the “state of the states.” Remarks by local leaders indicated that these associations continue to serve a vital function, especially as legislative watchdogs and voices for the operator. At the same time, as executives have commented through the years, most state associations continue to find it difficult to rally steady, strong support from operators unless a crisis is brewing.
STRENGTH IN ILLINOIS
A notable exception is the Illinois Coin Machine Operators Association. “Our membership and board are certainly strong,” said ICMOA executive director Richard Mitchell. “We have a strong mix of people; they look at issues from many perspectives, then come together on an agreed policy. Some operators have left the organization in the last year, but as I see it, when we send out dues they are paid quickly. Our membership committee is calling to find out why the dropouts left ICMOA and if we can bring them back.”
In addition to Mitchell and his staff in the city of Morris, ICMOA retains longtime associate Adonna Jerman as director of legislative affairs in Springfield, the state capital. ICMOA retained four lobbyists last year, in an unsuccessful attempt to stave off or moderate the statewide smoking ban that passed despite its efforts. “We are assuming the smoking ban will hit us as hard as other states, but we’re waiting to see what happens,” Mitchell said.
ICMOA’s current membership includes 87 operators, and 20 to 30 of them regularly attend quarterly board meetings. These are usually held in Peoria or Springfield – the southern part of state where the association is strongest.
During the Illinois association’s most recent board meeting on January 17, members discussed the upcoming state pool and dart tournaments, scheduled for April. The events will also incorporate tournaments on other coin-op equipment, such as pinball and videogames.
Hailed as ICMOA’s major annual fundraiser, the tournaments have been held in Springfield for the past five years. But with earnings slightly down in the last two, the event will shift to Decatur in 2009. “We want to see if moving the venue perks up interest among players,” Mitchell explained.
The Midwest association’s next annual meeting is scheduled for June; meanwhile, ICMOA leaders will focus on long-range planning.
“We are trying to get a monetary policy for ICMOA to ensure that reserves and funds are invested in the most beneficial fashion,” said Mitchell. “Board members are volunteers, of course, so understandably they don’t have an unlimited amount of time to oversee and manage these issues.”
The association also plans to keep an eye on Illinois state government. “There are a lot of concerns regarding public debt,” said Mitchell. “Our consultants say the current state budget shortfall is just the tip of the iceberg, so we are wondering if lawmakers will reach into the industry’s pockets to try to pay for public needs. Right now nothing huge is hitting us, but you never know what the future will bring.”
Operators in the state also are concerned about the legalities of games of skill versus games of chance. Neighboring states such as Ohio and Indiana began cracking down on gray games in 2007. ICMOA’s legislative allies passed an industry-friendly bill last year, but Governor Rod Blagojevich promptly vetoed it. “Our governor is tough to work with,” Mitchell said.
But following the governor’s veto, administration officials did issue a “letter of understanding” that affirms the legality of tournaments on videogames such as golf-themed units and typical touchscreen countertops.
ICMOA’s newsletter, Coin Drop, has been issued in print for years . Although the group’s sister association for the vending industry now uses email for its newsletters, amusement operators seem content with the traditional format. “There is no talk of change,” Mitchell noted.
The Illinois association is representative of the best state operator groups. Other notably strong and continually active associations include those in Florida, Georgia, Indiana, Minnesota, Missouri, New York, North Carolina, North Dakota, Ohio, Pennsylvania, Tennessee, Texas, Wisconsin and West Virginia.
Some states have operator associations on paper, but ones that have lapsed into less active or even quasi-dormant statuses. Examples include Alabama, California, Nevada and Virginia. And other states maintain a loose network of operators that remains ready to come together if legislative challenges arise.
The president of the Amusement and Music Operators of Virginia is Charles Rowland of Games People Play (Richmond, VA). “We really don’t have anything going on at the present time that would spur association activism,” Rowland told VT. “There is some talk about adding sales tax on game income. That is the only concern we face. The legislature is in session, but we haven’t heard about any specific proposals that would affect us.”
Rowland said “other major players” in Virginia “have contracted for their own major legislative tracking services” to monitor state lawmakers.
“If an issue did arise, I think the major operators in most of the state would be in contact with each other,” Rowland said. “Most of us talk to each other and are on a friendly basis. So if something was going to hit the fan, I think we’d move on it pretty quickly.”
Other state associations, such as Nevada’s, almost appear to be more memory than reality. The Amusement and Vending Operators of Nevada was founded and headed for many years by Doug Minter of Tip Top Amusements (Carson City). Now mostly retired, Minter points with pride to AVON’s achievements in securing tax equity for operators some years ago. At the same time, he has expressed continual frustration that so many operators in the state voice an attitude of “What’s in it for me?” or “What have you done for me lately?”
“You have to create an atmosphere of perpetual emergency in order to keep operators interested in supporting their association,” Minter said. That sentiment finds support among leaders of many state associations.
NEW KIDS ON THE BLOCK
The newest state operator association was founded in December 2006. The Machine Operators of Arizona is led by president Kris Gilmore of Troy Vending (Phoenix) and vice-president Tim Inman of Garrisson Vending (Phoenix).
“We’d been talking for some time about how we needed to get the entire operator community together, rather than just one or two of us, to work on issues of common concern,” said Gilmore. “Business is business on the street, but when we get together, we work for the good of the industry as a whole. We had a great turnout, better than anticipated, for our first meeting.”
Approximately 40 operators serve the Arizona market, Gilmore estimates. Of these, 15 are MOA members. The association also has five manufacturer and distributor members.
Gilmore credits AMOA past-president Jim Stansfield of Stansfield Vending (La Crosse, WI) with providing indispensable aid in getting MOA started and keeping it on the right path. Now a part-time Scottsdale, AZ, resident, Stansfield consulted with the state’s interested operators in 2006 and has remained a source of guidance.
“Jim Stansfield was and still is a tremendous help to us,” Gilmore said. “He was honest about the fact that you need to get everyone together, but that not everyone will make a full commitment to the association. He said it’s hard work to found a state association, but he also said it will pay off – and he’s been right on both counts.”
(Author’s note: Stansfield has compiled a long and impressive record of involvement with state associations. In 1991, he chaired AMOA’s state associations committee and led the very first Council of Affiliated States meeting.)
AMOA’s then-president Howard Cole of Cole Vending (Weaverville, NC) also attended that crucial first meeting when MOA was founded. Gilmore credits Cole’s contribution and moral support as another significant reason for the Arizona association’s successful launch.
MOA is off to a promising start, Gilmore said. During its first full year of existence, the group held three general membership meetings in Phoenix.
A priority of MOA is to find ways to cope with Arizona’s ban on cash prize tournaments for skill-based videogames. Under this ban, the state has long prohibited the kinds of profitable tournaments that operators in other states enjoy on golf games and countertops.
“We are working to get that changed,” Gilmore said.
A proposed interim solution involves hosting qualifying events in Arizona without involving prizes. Then, finals with cash awards would take place across the border in Laughlin, NV, where such activities are legal.
MOA is also planning a state pool tournament, following up on Stansfield’s advice to tackle projects that “everyone is interested in.” Arizona’s inaugural tournament is on the drawing board for later this year.
Gilmore will join Mark Meenan of Betson West (Phoenix), an MOA board member, at the AMOA States Council meeting this month. It is their third consecutive year attending the event.
“We get a lot of information and help from the meeting,” said Gilmore. “We learn a lot of things and hear good ideas about how to make our association better. The other state executives know that we’re just getting started; they’ve been through it and can give us advice on what to do and what not to do.”
Speaking with the enthusiasm of a relative newcomer, yet also with the realism of a 23-year street operator, Gilmore said MOA has required considerable time and effort, but that the investment has been rewarding.
“A state association is definitely a great tool for the betterment of the amusements industry,” she said. “The way business is, operators really have to stick together and work together to address the issues that we all deal with. I’m looking forward to attending this year’s AMOA States Council meeting, and then to bringing some of that energy and enthusiasm to our association back home.”