U.S.A. - Every year, the International Association for the Leisure and Entertainment Industry conducts a survey of family entertainment centers. And every year, FEC owners and managers report that their most effective promotional tool is birthday parties. As VENDING TIMES reported in April, birthday parties remained the country's top FEC earner according to the latest IALEI survey, taken at Fun Expo in Las Vegas last fall.
Birthday parties are considered crucial promotions by operators from coast to coast, whether the facility is a classic Jersey Shore operation or a newer-style indoor-outdoor FEC with miniature golf and batting cages. One advocate of this view is Anthony Catanoso of Atlantic Amusements (Erma, NJ). He operates the venerable Steel Pier, a classic outdoor amusement park on the Atlantic City boardwalk. Founded some 100 years ago, the facility offers roller coasters, a Ferris wheel, helicopter tours, 30 rides, arcade games and attractions, and free circus acts.
Catanoso, who has operated the Steel Pier park for 14 years, said he lives or dies by weather. "Around 37 million people visit the boardwalk each year, but weather is everything. When the weather is great we get the crowds; when it's cold and rainy, as it has been much of this spring, we don't."
But according to Catanoso, parties , including birthday parties, corporate parties and more , can compensate for the worst of weather. The reason is simple and obvious: when a group or family schedules an event, in most cases they show up rain or shine. One day in April, Catanoso reported, he hosted a single event with 500 guests.
The ability of parties to compensate for inclement weather is why Hunt Fitzgerald of the Palace Pointe FEC (Roxboro, NC), said he believes parties become most important to his family fun center when the weather is worst. In fact, Palace Pointe gets its heaviest birthday party business from January through March. "Parties account for as much as 15% of our total income," Fitzgerald declared.
The 120,000-sq.ft. center offers a skating rink, bowling, billiards, a game arcade and more , but the dedicated party business rates its own "Party Central" division within the Palace Pointe operation. A variety of packages, some with cakes and food included, others with no cake or with a la carte menu items, are offered at a range of prices to fit every consumer; and the Party Central division also rates its own section on the Palace Pointe website at http://palacepointe.com/party/index.htm.
Acknowledged as the amusement industry's top birthday party specialist is Frank Price, founder and CEO of Birthday University, a sector of F.L. Price & Associates, a training, operations and concept development firm located in Raleigh, NC. In 2000, Price founded Birthday University to meet the need for year-round quality education to help FEC operators produce a higher quality and more profitable commercial birthday party program.
"Prior to BU there was no resource to learn how to do this, except the school of hard knocks," Price recalled. "New owners put their programs together by going to similar facilities and figuring, 'They've been doing this for a while, they look busy, they must know what they're doing so I'll copy them.' Copycat concepts worked, until the newness of their attractions faded. Their programs then blended together with others like them and if lucky, become mediocre at best. The unlucky ones didn't survive."
SERIOUS BUSINESS APPROACH
The party business, Price insisted, is not simply a matter of painting kids' faces and tossing some noise-makers and plates filled with cake at a bunch of screaming 12-year-olds. Given the importance of birthday parties to the FEC bottom line, Price preaches a philosophy that takes the party business with utmost seriousness. He calls upon fun centers to train their staffs to become "guest service heroes" and Party Coaches.
The industry has increasingly caught on to the need to treat the party business as a real science, even though the final result , a party , is dedicated to fun. "I taught many of the same concepts at Fun Expo and IAAPA in the early 1990s," Price recalled. "The only difference is, back then audiences looked at me like I had two heads. Now there is a realization: 'I have to be different to be profitable.'"
In his seminars and training manuals, Price outlines a detailed, how-to program for birthday party design, installation and operation with original research, training programs and manuals, detailed party marketing programs, and an emphasis on cutting-edge concepts to keep parties fresh. Nothing is left to chance as Price-inspired FECs create customized birthday party systems and scripts for a consistent quality presentation. According to Price, new wrinkles in the birthday business include experiential/transformation concepts, interactive formats and theme parties.
To help FECs get up to speed on the Birthday University approach to the party business, Price sometimes communicates his worldview by setting forth commonly held misconceptions about parties, then filling in the facts as his market research and experience indicate.
Myth Number One, he says, is that consumers are as price-driven as the average operator. Too many operators instinctively believe that "My birthday party price must be the same or below my competition," said Price. He strongly disagrees. "If one out of every four potential party bookings does not complain that your price is too high, then it's too low," he declared. Citing a respected research study about the retail economy overall, Price teaches FECs that 17% of consumers will buy without regard to price, while only 27% of consumers will buy only on the basis of price. "That means they will buy from you as the lower price option this year, and jump to your competitor's lower price next year," Price pointed out. But, he continues, the vast majority , 56% of consumers , will swing either way, depending on whether they perceive your service is worth it. FECs that provide an obvious value can consistently command prices on the higher end of the spectrum.
Another common myth among FEC operators, said Price, is that the quality of parties depends mostly on the quality and quantity of machines, games and attractions that are available. This is wrong, according to Price. Birthday parties are, above all, a people-centered business. Caring, warm, personal interaction and personalized touches win the hearts (and wallets) of consumers. A vast yet impersonal FEC can struggle on the verge of bankruptcy without a well-trained, customer-pleasing staff.
"Just take a look back at some of the recent family entertainment center failures," Price pointed out. "Millions were invested in the tangible attractions, but management failed to remember that it's the people side of the business that builds long-term success. Some of those places have been sold and others are still struggling. It's the intangible emotional feelings that surround your play attractions that make the party truly memorable."
Play attractions are the initial draw to a birthday party program, Price readily conceded, but he reminds his students "It's no secret that the 'wow effect' of even the most unique attractions loses appeal after multiple uses or after a period of about 18 months. Physical change or the perception of change is one of the keys to building strong repeat business for FECs. Great designs, layout and attraction mix, guarantee a successful birthday party program."
Another frequently heard myth about parties in the FEC market, said Price, is that the party room or party table must be reserved for the entire party time. On the contrary, he remarked, "Reserving a room or table for the entire party is a non-productive use of the space or an expensive place to store coats and presents." FECs can double the number of parties they offer by turning over party rooms/tables every hour.
"It should take only 45 minutes to eat, have cake and open presents," Price instructs his students. "Great party offerings will include interaction, games, entertainment and special 'wow' moments in the party room. This time segment should be as much fun as your main play attractions. Sure, you'll need to find a space to store coats and presents, and also encourage adult guests to venture out into your facility, but it'll be worth it."
Planned entertainment is a crucial tool to move guests from the party room to the facility's games and attractions, Price explained. "Creating a show for adults by facilitating and interacting with the kids throughout the entire party gets them out of the party room and doing something they enjoy: watching their kids have fun."
This leads to another of Price's fundamental lessons: FECs must design their environments with adults in mind as well as children. But that doesn't mean dedicating a "quiet room" for parents that is segregated from the rest of the site , a component that is frequently both expensive and under-utilized. Instead, designing the FEC with adults in mind means "creating an environment and ambiance that's enjoyable to grownups" within the game and attractions area itself, Price said. If FECs do this, he promised, operators will find that mom and dad will reach into their pockets and spend more.
One more common myth that mars the unenlightened birthday party, said Price, is the belief that rapid turnover means taking a fast-food approach. "'Herd 'em in, turn 'em and herd 'em out' is not the best way to maximize facility use and profit," he continued. "Birthday parties are far too emotional an occasion to treat them like a high-volume dining experience."
At quick-serve restaurants, managers are trained to maximize revenues by "turning" tables. The more tables available, and the greater amount of customers eating, the more profitable the night will be. "Unfortunately, this does not hold true for important family or relationship celebrations," Price explained. "A savvy restaurateur would not treat a 25th anniversary, honeymoon or retirement dinner in the same manner as a casual Friday night dinner. If they did, their reputation would surely lessen the number of return visits and folks talking about their memorable experience."
At Birthday University, a different philosophy is taught. "Smart partiers recognize it's the positive emotions surrounding important occasions that make them memorable," Price reiterated. "Party facilities that personalize their parties and assure the birthday child is the center of attention, while taking care of all of mom's needs, are the ones that leave operators smiling all the way to the bank."
These few lessons are just the icing on the Birthday University cake. FEC operators who wish to learn more can obtain manuals or book training sessions, consulting opportunities, or seats at the next Birthday University seminar by contacting Frank Price (F.L. Price & Associates, 5128 Salinas Court, Holly Springs, NC 27540; tel. (919) 567-3873; http://www.birthdayuniversity.com.)