LAS VEGAS - "You can feel it , there is excitement on the exhibit floor. This industry is coming back!" It so happens this comment was made by Namco America's executive vice-president and COO Kenji Hisatsune. But his optimistic, upbeat tone was almost universally echoed by attendees and exhibitors at the co-located 2002 AMOA International Expo and Fun Expo (Las Vegas Convention Center, Sept. 19-21).
"I think it's been a very good show; people are walking around and smiling," noted Rich Babich of Automated Amusement (Denver, CO). "Outstanding! One of the most successful shows of the past several years," judged Al Kress, president of the American Amusement Machine Association. "Phenomenal!" exclaimed Jack Cohen, the newly installed president of the International Association for the Leisure and Entertainment Industry.
The positive mood was supported by solid numbers, according to show organizers William T. Glasgow & Co. AMOA Expo offered 164 exhibitors in 519 booths, drawing 4,501 attendees of which 2,282 were in the all-important "buyer" category. Fun Expo's 175 exhibitors took 175 booths, drawing 2,824 attendees of which 1,623 were buyers.
Visitors uniformly praised the exhibit hall layout. Entry into the hall revealed a long room with Fun Expo booths on the left and AMOA booths on the right, connected by a wide central aisle that made crossover easy and inviting. Exhibitors in the rear of the hall (such as Namco) said they got plenty of traffic, for once! The new North Hall venue was a full half-mile from the host Hilton hotel, but showgoers praised smooth shuttle bus service and enjoyed pleasant weather.
Mike Leonard, president of the Amusement and Music Operators Association, said the event's success grew from product innovation and from a long-awaited uptick in the industry's business cycle. "I think what drove people here is that our industry is cyclical," he assessed. "We are just in that part of the cycle where we have lots of new people who see entrepreneurial opportunities in this segment of coin-op. I think that is driving our success."
That "cyclical rebound" theory was strongly endorsed by Harold Skripsky, chairman of the board of Leisure Entertainment Trade Shows, and by Carole Sjolander, executive director of IALEI. "I believe the industry is beginning to show some modest improvements and will probably continue to improve," said Skripsky. "There are still more than a few new operators who want to get into the business."
Sjolander confirmed: "We started hearing several months ago that a wave of new entrants want to become amusement operators."
Both AMOA and IALEI achieved all-time membership enrollment peaks at the twin shows. AMOA signed up 56 new members, topping 1,780 member firms for the first time. IALEI followed last year's enrollment hike of more than 50% with signing up almost 40 additional members in Las Vegas. Both groups installed new officers and board members at their respective conventions.
Another factor in a rebounding business cycle, according to some observers, is the basic dynamic of supply and demand. In other words, operators have coasted along on old equipment for so long that many routes and fun centers are finally experiencing a need to refresh their inventories. "Operators have not bought very much product in the last three years," noted one leading manufacturer. "You can't keep that up forever. A growing number of operators are now beginning to step up to the plate and buy , at long last!"
Exhibitors across the board confirmed that orders were written. "This has been a great show for us, we're very pleased with the business we've done," said Sega vice-president of sales and marketing Barbara Joyiens. And Rock-Ola CEO Glenn Streeter enthused: "We're having a strong show and getting very strong response to our products."
More evidence of a business cycle turnaround came from Dave Myers of Merit, who is stepping back from fulltime manufacturer duties to concentrate more on running his own New England street route. "I think this is the best time in 27 years to be in the coin-op amusements business as an operator," Myers declared. "Any equipment that an operator needs to purchase represents long-term value. Many locations are underserved. The fact that many operators still want to exit the business means routes are for sale. And online connectivity is opening a whole new level of opportunity."
As AMOA's Leonard noted, operators who wanted to buy new equipment found plenty of innovative machines on display in Vegas. Strong new product displayed at the AMOA show included new ideas in countertops, video game systems, cranes and redemption, pinball, jukeboxes, and even digital photo developers. The trend toward online tournament promotion continued to grow as half a dozen companies debuted or expanded this concept. In all, the expos appeared to showcase technology that was carefully calibrated to generate fuller cashboxes while avoiding the sin of "technology for its own sake." Meanwhile Fun Expo highlighted "action sports" attractions such as paintball, skateboarding, and the like.
"I see a lot of good machines at this show, including some pieces that could actually open the doors for new locations," said Gary Spencer of California Coin (Paso Robles, CA). "I'm very impressed," agreed Bob Young of Condor Videotronics (Wharton, TX).
AMOA honored Merit's "Vibe" with one of three Innovator Awards given this year. The flatscreen touch monitor product generated a lot of buzz on the show floor because the guts of its computer can be hidden away under a counter or booth, enabling operators to install countertops with minimal space requirements , and possibly opening many fast food places, diners, etc., to machine installation. (Merit also rolled out its annual cornucopia of new hardware and software; see separate story in this issue.)
Jumping on the countertop bandwagon were Incredible Technologies with "Touch-IT" (see separate story) and Ecast with "GemStar." Both were previewed last spring but did not began shipping until this fall. JVL upgraded its touchscreen offerings with the "Orion" upright in a sleek, modernistic cabinet and the new "iTouch5" software menu.
Tournament promotions and/or online connectivity were featured by several manufacturers. In addition to the countertops listed above, these included video games from Namco America ("Play Pool"), Sammy USA ("AtomisWave," see separate story in this issue), Global VR and Arcade Planet/Lazer Tron (see last month's VT for full stories on both companies). An in-house tournament system for pinball games , requiring no online connection , was unveiled by Stern Pinball (see separate story on the Tournament Pinball System in this issue).
News on the jukebox front included a projected November release date for NSM America's "RJB" downloading jukebox with an interchangeable front art panel; executives said the price of the machine would include prepaid music licenses and that its menu would offer music from at least four of the five major labels. Rowe/AMi debuted its "StarGlo" CD-100 jukebox, a large floor model with translucent, color-shifting top and side pilasters and a multi-colored strobe light effect in the CD jacket display case (see separate story in this issue).
Rock-Ola unveiled "Get Connected," a low-cost software program for the operator's home computer; when employed with a simple modem plug-in for each jukebox on location, the program allows a "Windows"-based PC to remotely perform many programming and monitoring functions for each onsite "SyberSonics" jukebox. Rock-Ola also showed a new digital sound amplification system that is now used with its "Intrigue" floor model CD jukebox. TouchTunes unveiled TuneCentral, a portable 6-in. x 5-in. x 12-in. black box containing four hard drives with up to 120,000 song capacity for installation in each "Genesis" location. Basically, the unit duplicates TouchTunes' central server onsite, permitting instant download of selections from a huge music base without requiring DSL or telephone connectivity.
A long list of new cranes, rotary merchandisers, and pushers were displayed by over a dozen leading redemption gamesmiths as well as some new entrants (see individual stories in the September, October, and November issues of VT). Highlights included Coastal Amusements' "Elvis" pusher, featuring music by the King, and Benchmark's first crane, "Acme Crane Co." Notably missing from the redemption lineup was Rainbow Crane, now in liquidation. But Smart Industries executives said they would manufacture new parts to support existing Rainbow units in the field. Meanwhile industry scuttlebutts claimed the nationwide operator Sugarloaf had purchased Rainbow's inventory, manufacturing rights and equipment (see separate story in this issue).
TABLE GAME ACTIVITY
New table games were previewed by startup Shelti Inc. (see separate story in this issue), as well as by Great American Recreation ("Counter Attack" is a novel blend of hockey and soccer). Valley-Dynamo LP offered new DBA capacity on its coin-op tables while showing home models for those operators active in this market; Global Billiards advised that new models previewed last spring are now in production.
Video simulators stood tall with a series of motion-capture products including Sega's "Initial D" twin sitdown driver, Namco's sword-fighting "Mazan," and a series of sports simulators from Konami (the latter's fate in the U.S. market remains uncertain, said executives). Motion simulation was represented by Tsunami which boasted two new software titles and promised new platforms in future months (see separate story in this issue). More traditional video was seen in Sega's "House of the Dead III" (coming in 50-in. and 29-in. monitor versions), Sega's "Virtua Fighter 4: Evolution" (a low-cost kit), and Betson's spread of "Cruis'n" games licensed from Midway Games (see separate story in this issue).
BEHIND THE SCENE
The 2002 AMOA/Fun Expo was notably light on political controversy. Two or three controversial issues did rumble quietly in the background. These included the fate of AMOA's efforts to obtain a group license for certain downloading music rights; possible fallout from AAMA's decision to permit tavern owners to attend next spring's Amusement Showcase International; and Incredible Technologies' decision that it would not exhibit at ASI 2003.
But leaders of all four associations , AMOA, AAMA, Fun Expo, and umbrella group LETS , took pains to deny rumors of any rift among them. An entertaining concert at the AMOA president's party kicked off the show with musical harmonies by incoming AMOA leader Rich Holley, AAMA president Mike Rudowicz, and a host of association leaders and rank and file from all industry segments. Billing themselves as the Coin Drops, the group's members closed with a rousing rendition of "United We Stand, Divided We Fall."