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Terrorist Attacks, Aftermath Turn Public Away From Leisure Pursuits; Coin-Op Industry Rallies To Rebound

Posted On: 9/25/2001

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NEW YORK CITY - As a cloud of dust and ash smoldered from what used to be the World Trade Center, amusements didn't seem terribly important during much of September. The American people considered themselves at war. President Bush and members of Congress said the country was at war. Flags flew at half-staff. Airports, tall buildings, the stock market, and courtrooms were shut down , in some cases, for days.

Public leisure and entertainment were less available immediately after the attacks. And, there was noticeably less demand for them. After all, when terrorism threatens, being in a crowd of people might make one an attractive target. More important: to many, it didn't feel right to be having fun, however innocent, while rescue workers were still digging bodies out of the rubble in New York and Washington.

One sign of how strongly this sadness was felt could be seen at the nation's deserted ballparks. For the first time since D-Day (1944), Major League Baseball games were cancelled. "I wish they'd play," one sportswriter complained on Sept. 13. "By Saturday, people will have been grieving for several days. Maybe they will need some relief."

But his was clearly a minority opinion that week. With more than 5,000 innocent people dead, 72 hours wasn't enough time to finish mourning. It was barely enough time to begin mourning. Even six or seven days certainly wasn't enough time to absorb the full magnitude of what had happened to the nation, and indeed the world.

One college football coach, told that people needed "diversion" from the grim round of news that week, snapped: "If people need diversion they should go to church." Many did.

For security reasons, large numbers of American malls , as well as the major theme parks in Florida and Southern California , closed on Sept. 11. Naturally, that meant many mall-based arcades were also closed.

"Most of our malls closed Tuesday and we lost revenue," said the president of one leading U.S. arcade chain. "It hurts, of course. The same thing happened to another major arcade chain whose president I spoke to two days after the attack. This is tough situation. The last time we had an equivalent experience, during the Gulf War in 1991, people stayed glued to the TV day after day, night after night. That may not be the case here for the immediate term, but we don't have a good sense of how long this situation will last."

The tavern business, to be sure, carried on in the aftermath of the terrorist attack. People wanted a place to congregate, to talk, to share a drink and an opinion. But pool and jukeboxes didn't receive their normal amount of play for several days. Eyes and ears were attuned to breaking news on TV sets. Information, not distraction, was the commodity people most required.

The International Association of Amusement Parks and Attractions released a statement expressing sympathy for victims of the attacks and assuring the public that parks had addressed safety concerns. "As the United States approaches its first weekend following the attacks, the nation's amusement and theme parks have verified their security systems and most are operating as scheduled," said IAAPA. "The parks, which closed in the immediate aftermath of the horrific attacks on Tuesday, were primarily the year-round facilities located in California and Florida. These actions were taken out of respect for the victims and as a precautionary measure for guests. After a thorough review and evaluation of operational areas, as well as consulting with the appropriate law enforcement and government authorities, all were re-opened on Wednesday [Sept. 12]."

On the streets, citizens were looking for ways to show their patriotism , giving blood, donating food and clothing, buying American flags and red-white-and-blue bunting in record numbers. Oriental Trading, a huge prize merchandise supplier to the redemption industry and other markets, ran out of flags just days after the attacks.

Beyond that, the feeling was often expressed that "This is a time to stay home, hug your kids, and be with your family." Having fun in public venues moved way down on the list. In some cases, it didn't make the list.

The VENDING TIMES offices, located less than two miles from Ground Zero of the World Trade Center, did no business the day of the attack. Only a few staff members made it into the office on Sept. 11. They soon returned to their homes. Most of the staff returned to work on Sept. 12, desiring some semblance of normal life, as did so many New Yorkers.

Some work got done that week, but the atmosphere was far from normal at the magazine, as indeed was the case industrywide and even nationwide. Some V/T personnel knew people who died in the attacks. The smell of burned metal filled the air of midtown Manhattan for several days. Phone and Internet cable service in the city was severely disrupted for a day or two; and when service resumed, it was fitful and subject to interruptions for at least a week.

Industry members on the road in the days immediately following the attack found themselves stranded on the wrong side of the country , or in the wrong country altogether. One national sales director for one U.S. factory waited several days for a flight from Europe. When he finally got one, the plane flew as far as Greenland before having to turn back and land at its launch point. It took more waiting and another flight before the executive finally made it home, several days after the attack. That story or variations thereon was repeated dozens of times industrywide.

On Sept. 14, as memorial services took place at the National Cathedral in Washington, DC, much of the country , including a coin-op factory or two , stopped what it was doing so that everyone from the company president to the sales staff, design engineers, assembly line workers, warehouse personnel, and custodial staff could watch, listen, and pray along.

Almost immediately in the wake of the attacks, the entertainment industry, the media, and the public grappled with several nagging questions about the impact of the terror war on the leisure market. When would it be appropriate to return to pre-attack entertainment and amusements? What kind of entertainment would be desired? What would be appropriate? What themes would customers tolerate or not tolerate? How sharply had the public mood changed, and how long would it last?

"In this country we are super-entertained; we are over-entertained," commented David Remnick, editor of The New Yorker magazine, in a Sept. 13 interview aired on National Public Radio. "The time will come when we can and should get back to normal. I hope it will be soon."

The first week or two after the attack, though, it was clear that this time had not yet come. Hollywood postponed the release of terrorist-themed movies. Radio stations circulated lists of songs that disc jockeys should avoid playing, from "Great Balls of Fire" to "Leaving on a Jet Plane."

On the consumer video game front, Microsoft removed the World Trade Center from the cover of its flight simulator software. The Associated Press reported that "Video game makers have decided to purge images of destruction involving New York from new releases following the terrorist attacks at the World Trade Center. They also say they will postpone the debut of terrorism-themed adventures."

Manufacturers of coin operated video games have prior experience with sudden public sensitivity to violent entertainment, following a real life tragedy. After the Columbine high school shootings in 1999, factory executives were asked if they planned to tone down violent themes. One company president simply said, "No." Another pointed out that with a two-year lead time for game development, the ability of manufacturers to alter game themes was "extremely limited."

Some non-video manufacturing businesses found it challenging to return to normal at first. "It's been crazy," one factory president said three days after the attacks. "Mail service has been disrupted, of course, so we can't get samples, prototype parts, or components. Of course we don't ship product by air, so that aspect at least is still pretty much business as usual."

Trade shows registered the changed atmosphere worldwide. Flights to Japan for the JAMMA Show (Sept. 20-22) became harder to plan. Some industry members cancelled their trips. "I don't have to go; they don't need me, so I'm not going," one executive declared.

U.S. citizens also asked pointedly how safe flying really was. As the AMOA Expo and Fun Expo approached (Las Vegas, Oct. 4-6), industry members wondered who would attend , beyond the usual exhibitors, association leaders, and trade press.

But by Monday, Sept. 17, no less than the President of the United States had urged everyone to go back to work and asked citizens to try to keep normal routines in place. As many observed, allowing the attacks to change American lifestyles would effectively grant a victory to the terrorists. And so, gingerly at first, baseball games resumed and the late-night talk shows came back on the air'albeit the first broadcasts were notably lacking Leno's and Letterman's usual ribbing of public officials and other lighthearted talk.

Leisure industry trade association executives likewise fell back on the oldest tradition in show business , "the show must go on." Jack Kelleher, executive director of the Amusement and Music Operators Association (Elk Grove Village, IL), spoke to V/T two weeks prior to showtime. He said association leaders felt hopeful of having a decent turnout but, like the rest of the country, they also felt that any return to normal conditions would be a challenge.

"We're still poised for a good show," Kelleher declared. "But we're struggling with how to conduct business when there is no 'business as usual' anymore. There's no doubt there is a lot of concern and uncertainty about travel security and the overall economic forecast. But we've put the word out through our contacts to state associations that the co-located AMOA International Expo and Fun Expo will take place as scheduled. "No doubt there will be heightened security at hotels, the airport and the exhibit hall."

As of Sept. 18, only one exhibitor had cancelled space reservations at AMOA Expo, Kelleher said. Attendee reservations were also holding solid in most cases. "The feedback we get is from our host hotel, the Las Vegas Hilton, and are told that very few cancellations have been received," he advised.

It could have been worse, Kelleher pointed out. "Our show is typically held the first or second week of September," he said. "It's sheer happenstance , 'luck' is the appropriate word , due to space unavailability during that slot, that our shows are where they are on the calendar."

In direct response to the terror attacks, AMOA is making a donation of $1,076 to the American Red Cross. The figure represents a dollar for every member of record on Sept. 11. Kelleher said kiosks on the AMOA and Fun Expo exhibit floor would accept additional donations for disaster relief. This effort was to be sponsored by AMOA and by its partners in Fun Expo, the International Association for the Leisure and Entertainment Industry and the American Amusement Machine Association.

"The amusements industry has historically been generous community supporters and we intend to continue that tradition," said Kelleher.