The third annual F2FEC [Face to Face Family Entertainment Center] conference, held in February at the elegant Chateau Elan winery resort near Atlanta, lived up to its growing reputation as the place where top family entertainment center operators and vendors can reach new levels of creativity by engaging with their peers. This year's theme was "Differentiate," and event founders Rick Iceberg, Ben Jones and George Smith -- collectively known as "The Three Amigos" -- encouraged participants to challenge each other, share proven moneymaking ideas and build valuable connections.
The formal part of the conference (if you can call anything at F2FEC "formal") takes place in one big room and features a lively format consisting of 20-minute presentations followed by question-and-answer sessions moderated by the Amigos. This year's event offered two full days of fast-paced presentations by speakers on subjects that might be described as a combination of TED talks and speed dating. It's a radical and refreshing change from the typical trade show panel discussion that's long on self-promotion, short on content and watered down for a broad audience.
One hot topic was the increasing value of arcade games to the FEC mix. Amigo Rick Iceberg revealed that his C.J. Barrymore's FEC is projecting arcade earnings of more than $3 million in 2017. He believes this growth will continue, and thinks it's feasible to reach $4 million in the near future.
Amigo George Smith, a keen analyst of the arcade business, presented his annual top 100 and top 50 lists of the most popular arcade games. A hefty percentage of his rankings offer redemption points or merchandise, and Smith urged proprietors to start thinking of themselves as retailers, especially where instant win games are concerned.
Kevin Bachus, one of the creators of the Microsoft Xbox game console and now senior vice-president of entertainment and games strategy for Dave & Buster's, spoke excitedly about a "new golden age" of the arcade, powered by games that deliver a social and interactive experience to casual players. Bachus defined a great game as offering good looks, simple and familiar gameplay and elements of current pop culture. He has found "marquee" games based on such popular franchises as "Star Wars" to be a powerful draw for customers. He said that "Dave and Buster's" has featured such games in its TV commercials, which demonstrates their ability to grab the attention of viewers even in a short ad.
You Gotta Believe
Craig Wescott gave an enthralling case history of differentiation that took a cue from the movie "Field of Dreams" and its catchphrase "if you build it, they will come." He recounted how he purchased Chicago's famous Navy Pier Ferris wheel and moved it to his FEC in Branson, MO. The eight-month project was a test of faith and fortitude that became the most positive news story in the history of Branson. It also generated heavy national press coverage that drew new and old customers to Wescott's Track Family Fun Park.
F2FEC also offered enlightening presentations from experts hailing from outside the industry. Keynote speaker Peter Shankman, an author and consultant who focuses on customer service, urged the audience to pay attention to the details of their operations and "own" their mistakes. He said the consumer's demand in an era of inconsistent service and lowered expectations is: "I don't need you to be awesome, just suck a little less." It was perhaps the most startling statement of the conference and one of the most widely discussed.
Michelle Adams, a former PepsiCo marketing executive and founder of the Marketing Brainology agency, spoke on the use of neuroscience to engage customers and increase sales. Her take on the theme "Differentiate" touched on the different ways in which the brains of men and women respond to marketing messages. In one case, her agency tested a recent Pepsi commercial in their neurolab, using electroencephalogram monitoring and eye tracking to see whether men and women responded differently to the same advertisement.
The ad in question was a recent remake of a classic 1992 Pepsi ad that featured supermodel Cindy Crawford. It used some of the original footage, and testing documented that the image of a younger Crawford resonated strongly with adult males who had first seen it as young boys. Even allowing for the high engagement factor of nostalgic content, women in the same age group did not find the ad as remarkable. Adams says that understanding these differences can help marketers reach different demographic groups more effectively.
When not learning from each other "in the room," F2FEC participants made new friendships and strengthened established ones while socializing at wine tastings, communal gourmet dinners and late-night sessions at the resort's Irish pub.
While there was none of the hard sell of a trade show, there was abundant low-key wheeling and dealing between peers. That ranged from the casual horse-trading of used arcade games at one dinner table to at least one prospective multimillion-dollar deal between the franchisor of an FEC concept and two other proprietors.
This year's conference drew more than 200 registrants who represented over 2,600 FECs around the country, up from 700 centers represented at the 2016 conference. That's a strong indication that an increasing number of savvy FEC operators are finding great insights at F2FEC.
It's all made possible by what the Amigos call a bond among participants that is "based on trust, a deep commitment to our industry and a willingness to help others succeed." If you are looking for an industry event that offers a lot more than new products and free candy, you may want to add F2FEC to your list.
» Robert Sax is a writer and public relations consultant in Los Angeles. He grew up in Toronto, the home of five-pin bowling.