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Surprise! AMOA International Expo And Fun Expo Draw Enthusiastic Crowds

Posted On: 10/25/2001

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LAS VEGAS - In the biggest trade show surprise in recent memory, the co-located AMOA International Expo and Fun Expo drew reasonably healthy attendance to the Las Vegas Convention Center. Show organizers reported a combined attendance of approximately 8,000. Of this, some 4,200 were believed to be buyers.

Timing of the co-located expos was fortuitous on both ends. AMOA and Fun Expo were tightly sandwiched between the terrorist attacks on the U.S. and the allied military response. The twin shows began on October 4, some 21 days after the September 11 attacks , just when confidence was rebounding among U.S. citizens and businesses.

The shows ended at 4:00 PM on Saturday, Oct. 6 , exactly 18 hours before U.S. and British forces began bombing military targets in Afghanistan. News of the counterattack prompted cancellation of television's Emmy Awards that evening. If the bombing had begun, say, just 24 hours earlier, it conceivably could have further reduced attendance on the AMOA and Fun Expo exhibit floor, as well.

Prior to showtime, expo owners and sponsors, the Amusement and Music Operators Association (AMOA) and the International Association for the Leisure and Entertainment Industry (Fun Expo), had good reason to fear empty aisles and booths , and they did. The depressed state of the industry, as well as the nation's wartime travel fears and economic uncertainty, only bolstered that unease.

"We debated amongst all of us, how many people were going to show," said Lee Wesson, outgoing president of the Amusement and Music Operators Association. "Would it be 10% less, 20% less, 50% less? What was going to happen? The show made a very powerful statement. We had a choice [of whether to cancel the event or go forward with it] and we supported our industry. We have only heard great things on the show floor."

"I was scared about what was going to happen in Vegas [with our trade shows]," agreed George Smith, outgoing president of the International Association for the Leisure and Entertainment Industry, majority owner of Fun Expo.

"But I was relieved to see that traffic was heavy on Las Vegas Boulevard," Smith continued, "and the same was true on the floor of AMOA and Fun Expo. The show layout is beautiful with the two shows looking contiguous. We had very little fallout [among pre-registered attendees]. Everybody hung in there, which was tough to do during uncertain times with concerns about travel and so on. It's commendable."

AMOA hosted 192 exhibitors, including 31 new companies, who took 563 booths. Pre-registration through Friday, Oct. 5, the second day of the AMOA Expo, stood at 4,772 according to show organizer Bill Glasgow of William T. Glasgow & Co.

"We've done fairly well for what I consider a bad economy," Glasgow commented. "The [terrorist attack] incident in New York [on Sept. 11] didn't cost us that much [in terms of exhibitor or attendee support] except for on-site registration'I think everybody was surprised. AMOA and the industry are to be commended."

"This show was much better than expected," agreed AMOA executive director Jack Kelleher. "It was a really solid show given the circumstances. We're grateful to our exhibitors and attendees. We heard lots of rumors and concerns before the show [about possible lack of attendance]. This was a catharsis for us. If there is any doubt about the resolve and resiliency of our industry, this has dispelled it."

Fun Expo didn't fare quite as well, but sponsors found reasons to be upbeat nevertheless. The show hosted 173 exhibitors, including 52 new companies, in 336 booths. Pre-registration through Friday, Oct. 5 was 3,459. As usual, Fun Expo's superb seminar program drew many students; more than 1,100 industry members signed up for educational sessions this year.

"Fun Expo booth sales were off significantly [compared with last year]," admitted IALEI's Smith. "The bad economy and fallout from the Sept. 11 attacks were against us. We've always had a lot of new exhibitors at past Fun Expos. This year we had fewer new companies than normal, and the number of large booths, such as inflatables, shrank." On the other hand, Smith said, "We had [additional] exhibitors come in [and sign up for booth space] just before the show started."

Equally surprising as the solid attendance, a mood of optimism and confidence prevailed among operators, distributors, and manufacturers at the co-located shows. Opinions about the quality and quantity of new products were generally positive at a show that was heavy on countertop videos and redemption. Quite a few U.S. operators pronounced themselves pleased with the available equipment. Distributors and factory exhibitors, for their part, said they were pleased with the orders they wrote. A frequently heard comment: "The people who are here, came to buy."

"We were apprehensive but it has been a good show with steady traffic and a noticeably positive attitude," said Jim Belt of Konami of America. "Every operator who came to our booth wanted to buy something. Maybe they didn't know exactly what they wanted to buy, but they wanted to buy something!"

"This is a phenomenal show," agreed Rock-Ola president Glenn Streeter. "It's not a lot of people but it's the right people. And they're placing orders."

"The best operators know they should be here because it's where they can find the best equipment, the best minds, and the best networking to take our business where it needs to go," declared Michael Leonard of Coin-Op Specialists (Adrian, MI), who assumed the post of AMOA president at the conclusion of the show.

"We heard again and again that the quality buyers were here," confirmed George Smith, who also serves as vice- president of business development for Namco America's operations division.

"It was a strong show with lots of seriously interested customers and no complaints from exhibitors," said one AMOA past president.

As noted, the twin trade expositions featured an emphasis on countertop videos and redemption games. Exhibitors also showed quite a few video games that were new to American operators, although not new to the world market. A notable contingent of Korean products from a variety of factories was among the video games seen in Las Vegas. New jukeboxes, a new pinball title, Internet kiosks, and new novelty pieces rounded out the equipment on display.

Strikingly absent from Las Vegas were around a dozen additional new, major Japanese video titles that were displayed at the near-contemporaneous JAMMA (Japanese Amusement Machine Manufacturers Association) Show in Tokyo and the London Preview in Great Britain. However, American operators did not seem to miss them. (A poll of AMOA directors revealed that U.S. operators expect video game earnings to continue to slide sharply over the next six months, more so than any other equipment category.)

Depending on whose spin is believed, this trend could mean either that overseas video factories are increasingly giving up on the U.S. market, or that the American trade shows are increasingly succeeding in focusing on the unique needs of the American market.

Touchscreen video games have been rated among the top three earners by many American street operators, which explains why a growing number of manufacturers are entering this market. Market leader Merit Industries debuted updated hardware and its largest-ever software package, along with upgrades for older models and conversion kits for Midway "Infinity" countertops.

Brand new countertops debuted from Incredible Technologies (the factory's "Touch-IT" ships in 2002) and from Tekbilt ("Touch Town USA" features family-friendly content and a sweepstakes prize format). Ecast announced that it had secured the rights to use Midway Games' "Infinity" countertop games and content, along with the "Midway Tournament Network" technology for online score comparison (see V/T Sept.).

Rowe International unveiled its licensed touchscreen video, "Who Wants to Be a Millionare?"; the product has obvious countertop possibilities. Adding these games to the four or five touchscreen products already on the market, the category will soon boast as many as 10 choices of manufacturer.

Redemption games comprised a busy category at AMOA and Fun Expo. Debut products included Bay-Tek's arctic-themed coin shooter "Deep Freeze" along with its basketball toss cage "Shoot-N-Hoops"; Namco's "Bee Panic"; Bromley's eight-player pusher "Pac-Man"; Benchmark's six-player version of its "Wheel Deal" coin shooter; LazerTron's "Gold Rush" skill stop fast action game and its "VRS II" video redemption game system, now offering 40 games in its library , and growing.

A variety of redemption products from Korean companies were represented by GC Tech, including the "Dream Shoot" basketball toss cage.

Prize merchandisers are among the fastest-growing categories in the U.S. amusements industry, both in terms of equipment sales and per-unit earnings. New machines shown in this category at AMOA Expo included "Sonic Beat" from Arcade Planet, an upgraded version of the original Australian design from partner company Leisure & Allied Industries. Also based on an earlier LAI design was LazerTron's "Sweet Shoppe" candy merchandiser.

Innovative Concepts in Entertainment (ICE) spotlighted its popular "Wheel of Fortune" redemption game, introduced in the second quarter of this year. ICE also featured its growing line of skill cranes, which includes "Plush Palace," "Plush Bus," "Carnival Crane," Bowling "Zone" and the new "Pinnacle Junior." Coastal Amusements exhibited the new "Coastal's Chocolate Crane," a pusher-style candy bar merchandiser that received much attention at the show.

Andamiro USA's "Out Break" offers prize merchandiser action in a lowboy cabinet with "laser ray" theme, while the same company's "Musical Chairs" is an entertainment capsule vender. Andamiro, which also offers a full line of video games and dance simulators, is addressing the growing U.S. demand for innovative, low-cost coin-in and prize-out amusement machines.

Additional Korean manufacturers also weighed into the prize merchandiser category with "Push Pang Pang" and "Air Catch," both represented by GC Tech. The former is a skill-reaction game while the latter features a ring with sensors that the player controls to interact with air-blown ping pong balls.

Arcade-type video games that made their U.S. national trade show debut included Konami's "Silent Scope EX" dedicated sniper-style shooting upright. Konami also previewed a one-player upright called "Blade of Honor" , it features a cable-attached sword hilt interface and motion-sensor technology, but the factory has not decided whether to release the game in the U.S.

Sega brought to Vegas many of the games that were previewed to U.S. distributors last August in San Francisco, with "Virtua Fighter 4" taking the spotlight. The only surprise in the Sega booth was "Virtua Tennis 2," a tennis-themed video game which had not previously been slated for U.S. release. Sega also showed "Capcom vs. SNK 2," which it is marketing on behalf of Capcom USA.

Namco's "Tekken 4" made its first U.S. national trade show appearance at AMOA Expo.

Sammy USA debuted a two-player hunting themed upright called "Wing Shooting" (available dedicated now with a kit to come 60 days after the show). Andamiro Company Limited showed its own JAMMA-compatible kit, "Martial Masters," a fighting game.

Skee-Ball entered the arcade video arena with "Rascal to the Rescue," an upright featuring paraglider theme and twin risers as player controls. It was designed by Illusion Inc.

Korea's GC Tech joined the upright motion-novelty video game niche with "Bounty Hunter," featuring boxing action. Players try to hit, knee, or kick whichever one of eight pads corresponds to the onscreen target.

A very rare entry in the low-cost sitdown video simulator category came from Team Play; the two-player shooting game is based on a license for "Star Trek Voyager."

Nostalgia-based video games included a three-in-one unit marketed by Team Play: the software lets players choose from among the classics "Centipede," "Millipede" and "Missile Command." Hyperware debuted its new Midway package of arcade game classics for its "Ultracade" video game upright system.

Korean manufacturer Em-Teck showed "BugBuster!", an award-winning video upright back in the homeland that features aerosol cans (attached by cables) as player controls.

The sole new pinball at AMOA Expo was "Monopoly" from Stern Pinball Inc. Operators and distributors widely praised this licensed product, designed by Pat Lawlor Design.

Internet kiosks and Internet-connected products included the "Hollywood Photos Internet Photo Booth Movie Edition," built under license and marketed by Smart Industries; and "Touch 'N Surf" from the company of the same name, represented in the U.S. by Betson Enterprises. Arcade Planet's "iBox" featuring Internet access as well as redemption-style video games from Lazer Tron made its second U.S. show appearance; it's now shipping and won an Innovation Award from AMOA.

New jukeboxes included Rowe/Ecast's "StarLink" downloading wall box and TouchTunes' "Maestro" downloading wall box. NSM Music continued to show its "RJB" digital downloading prototype; company executives promised a major announcement about this product soon (possibly a new partner and third party music source).

Rock-Ola had production models of its "Wallette" remote selector and "R-91" nostalgic countertop jukebox, along with a new "Lyric" graphics panel for its "Rock" wall jukebox. Rounding out the music category, brand new at this show, were new floor and wall models of the "Regatta" CD jukebox from P&P Marketing, now represented by Team Play.

Among the new novelties were Andamiro's new 29-in. monitor version of its "Pump It Up!" dance machine and "Hidden Catch" photo-comparison video game; Apple Industries' "Dr. Face" digital imaging booth superimposes the customer's face on a choice of bodies. Global VR's "Redzone Offense" revived the football toss game and added a video monitor and motion-sensor technology. The same factory's "Split the Uprights" is an update kit for existing units of "Kick-It" that remain in the field, originally built by the now-defunct Interactive Light.

Standing alone in the virtual reality category was Global VR, which showed "Incoming," a new combat-themed title for its "Vortek VR Theater."

Industry politics at the 2001 shows were kept carefully behind the scenes. In public, all was sweetness and light as leaders of AMOA, IALEI and the American Amusement Machine Association stressed their cooperation on a range of fronts. Among them: political and legal issues (such as video content), trade show marketing and the quest for possible AMOA-AAMA committee mergers.

Behind the scenes, however, some participants reported that initiatives to blend elements of the shows, and of the associations themselves, ran into opposition from the respective boards of AMOA, AAMA and IALEI. The idea of creating a "Fun Expo section" at next spring's Amusement Showcase International, owned by AAMA, was reportedly vetoed. Rumblings of discontent on the part of operators were also registered over ASI's policy of allowing bar owners from the Night Club & Bar Show to enter the 2002 ASI exhibits.

If reports of hardening "go it alone" attitudes among association leaders is accurate, it may reflect the relative success of the latest editions of ASI and AMOA Expo. When attendance is down, show owners feel pressure to merge and seek marketing support from sister associations and expos. When attendence is (relatively) strong, that pressure quickly evaporates.

Show mergers or additional cross-marketing may or may not be in the works for ASI, AMOA and Fun Expo. But AMOA and IALEI leaders did say they are continuing to seek additional shows for co-location.

"We are not standing still during this," declared IALEI's Smith. "We are very encouraged by the trends of what's going on at this show and for the future. We are making alliances with other associations, to bring in other product mixes [to Fun Expo]. I see cross-pollenization across the board, whether it's restaurants, casinos, water parks, theaters, theme parks or what have you. Leisure sites are asking, how can I use my real estate most effectively? How can I come up with new and innovative ideas to drive business? If you go down on the Fun Expo show floor, I think the answers are there."