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COVID-19 and the evolution of the family entertainment centre

Pandemic allows FECs to reflect and reinvest in new forms of entertainment

nick salfity Creative Works
Nick Salfity

Creative Works is an award-winning, full-service partner that designs, fabricates, and installs immersive amusement experiences for theme parks, FECs, restaurants and resorts. Nick Salfity, a creative consultant at Creative Works, talks to blooloop about the company and its ethos. He also outlines the importance of reinvesting in FEC businesses at this point, using the example of Sun Valley Lanes in Nebraska.

Salfity began in the FEC business very young.

“I worked at a standalone Family Entertainment Centre when I was 16,” he says. “So I grew up in the industry and have first-hand experience with birthday parties, customer service, and employee training. The person that hired me at that FEC is now one of the owners of Creative Works. So that’s how I got the opportunity to be a consultant at Creative Works, which I’ve been doing for over four years now.”

Listening to clients

Describing his current role, Salfity says:

“My goal is essentially to listen, in order to better understand what my clients want from a creativity perspective. Based on those goals and objectives, I help make that come to fruition.”

The pandemic has been challenging, but also a time for reflecting on new forms of engagement, and for reinvestment in preparation for the post-COVID period when families will be hungry for active entertainment.

“Our main focus here at Creative Works is around what’s going to get the kids off the couch and into your facility. Rather than remaining stagnant at this point, investing strategically in your business and advertising widely now is the best way to ensure families feel confident and comfortable visiting.”

He illustrates this, referencing an FEC in Nebraska:

“John [Losito] at Sun Valley Lanes has, for example, put in a unique custom laser tag arena. This has a Call of Duty-style atmosphere, which gamifies the Laser Tag approach.”

Pandemic leads to pent-up demand

“While COVID has been the main concern, a lot of operators are using this period, not necessarily to reinvent the wheel, but to update their business imaginatively to make sure that they’re appealing, in terms of getting people to go and try them.”

Laser Tag Sun Valley Lanes Creative Works
Laser Tag, Sun Valley Lanes

There will be a great social need for entertainment in the pandemic’s aftermath. People have become accustomed to inactivity over the last year:

“People are going to be desperate to go out and do fun things. What better way could there be of doing that than sharing an immersive attraction with your family?”

Creative Works and Sun Valley Lanes

As well as the Laser Tag, Creative Works has done many projects at Sun Valley Lanes:

“Another was our latest innovation, a product called Lucky Putt. It’s essentially a digital approach towards golf.”

A modern take on a classic favourite, Lucky Putt uses proprietary software, sensors and triggers to streamline the fun of mini-golf. Scores are automatically calculated and updated throughout the game. This means that players can focus on the fun.

Lucky Putt-Sun-Valley-Lanes
Lucky Putt, Sun Valley Lanes

“It creates that upscale, boutique atmosphere that creates the ‘wow’ factor for typical millennials with disposable income,” Salfity says.

The decline of retail creates opportunities for new startups, he feels:

“While the retail landscape looks bleak, it does open doors for others, in terms of finding new businesses to attract footfall in those spaces. You’re getting cheap land, in many cases, to do something unique.”

The FEC model slots perfectly into the spaces where retail needs supplementing or energising. And Creative Works’ innovative products elevate that offering.

Gamification and immersive experiences

Salfity predicts that the gamification trend will continue to grow and evolve in the FEC space into the immediate future.

“It’s powerful and impactful,” he says. “The esports industry is very big business, and I think it’s something that is on the precipice of blowing up for location-based entertainment businesses.”

Cosmic Golf Creative Works johns-incredible-pizza
Cosmic Golf, John’s Incredible Pizza

“Mini golf will always be popular; we have different versions. VR is one to watch, and there is a lot of tech with augmented reality. We will be seeing much more of that over the next three to five years.”

The popularity of immersive experiences will continue to grow, he adds:

“It’s all about creating powerful emotional memories through our attractions. There are so many experiences to immerse yourself in. Things that you just can’t get from home.”

A creative vision

Creative Works, Salfity explains, began in 1997:

“The initial vision of our founder, Jeff Schilling, who passed away this past year, was focused exclusively on the tag arena. Designing those was our bread and butter for a long time. Then we switched to mixed attractions, by adding things like mini-golf, Laser Maze games, and escape rooms. Then there is all the stuff we do now, as well: Lucky Putt, and esports.

“We have quite the repertoire of offerings to give our customers a range of choice, according to the demographic they want to target.”

Cell Block E Escape Room Creative Works
Cell Block E Escape Room

Sun Valley Lanes’ engaging Call of Duty-style tactical reinterpretation of Laser Tag exemplifies the company’s innovation, says Salfity:

“Even the entrance is awesome. There is a huge army dog tag hanging up from the ceiling. Before you even step into the arena, it’s the first thing that you see, and it makes customers excited to play laser tag.

“The entrance theming sets the scene so people know it’s tailored towards adults.”

Sun Valley Lanes

John Losito Sun Valley Lanes
John Losito

John Losito, the proprietor at Sun Valley Lanes, has used the lockdown period to diversify the offering at his attraction, using Creative Works products.

A professional bowler, he bowled for the University of Nebraska.

“Sun Valley Lanes was the place I happened to be working at while I was in college,” he says. “The gentleman who was my former business partner had said, ‘If you ever want to come back, just pick up the phone.’”

Losito bowled and taught overseas for a while, and was the Philippines national coach.

“When I was done with that, I came back here in 1994. I bought into Sun Valley Lanes in 1998, and bought out my partners in 2011.”

Investing in the business

Explaining his decision to invest in the business during the COVID-19 lockdown, he says:

“The plan was in place before the pandemic. Bowling is a great activity. It’s a great draw for families, and it crosses about every demographic. But traditional bowling centres are going the way of the dinosaur, and this was originally a traditional bowling centre. We knew that long term, we would have to start making some changes.”

Sun-Valley-Lanes-Lucky Putt Creative Works
Lucky Putt, Sun Valley Lanes

The priority was to look at income for the summer months:

“Nebraska is in the middle of the country. We get cold in the winter, hot in the summer. People bowl all winter long, but in the summer everybody wants to be outside.

“We considered building some volleyball courts, at first. Then it occurred to me that if I took out some of the parking, and could get a parking agreement with the company across the street, which I did, I could expand the building and do some more stuff.

“This was when we got the idea for the laser tag, the arcade, the bigger bar.”

Expanding to engage a wider audience

At this point, he had the opportunity to buy further land:

“The gentleman that owned the building to the south, a taxi cab dispatch facility, came to me and asked if I’d like to buy his building and land. I said, ‘Absolutely!’

“I could then use this space to build the volleyball courts, and have the indoor space for mini-golf. Bowling is still a great draw, but the facility needs to have other things for people to do. That’s how the FEC started.”

Sun Valley Lanes Laser Tag Creative Works
Laser Tag, Sun Valley Lanes

Losito decided, based on the attraction’s location, to orient the offering towards adults:

“I have a big laser tag arena and an arcade for kids, but I also wanted that more adult vibe.”

People coming out of lockdown will, he envisages, crave social human contact:

“We’ve been living in seclusion for so long. I decided we needed to be ready, so I continued with the plan, and pulled the trigger to get it done.”

Sun Valley Lanes and Creative Works

Losito first came across Creative Works at IAAPA.

“You could buy a snow cone machine; you can buy a rollercoaster at IAAPA. Bowling is a part of that and is the reason I started going to the trade show, six or seven years ago. When I knew that this was the direction I wanted to take the company in, I did some research there. There are several manufacturers of laser tag arenas at IAAPA, which is what I was originally looking for.”

showcasing esports at IAAPA Expo 2019
Showcasing esports at IAAPA Expo 2019

Creative Works was one of them.

“When I looked a bit deeper, I realised that Creative Works also does escape rooms and mini-golf. I knew I’d prefer to deal with one company and to do a one-stop-shop, if possible.”

He did some site surveys, looking at several manufacturers’ facilities:

“Creative Works was the one that I liked the best, so I committed to them. At this point, I decided to investigate Lucky Putt as a further option.”

The need for memorable experiences

In general terms, Losito says:

“Mall-type facilities are going to need something to draw people. Everyone has been ordering stuff online over the last year, because of COVID-19.”

Sun Valley Lucky Putt
Lucky Putt, Sun Valley Lanes

“The space will exist, and people are going to be looking for this type of thing to do. I also think people will want to stay closer to home, at first. Travelling to far-away places is going to be a little bit shaky for a year, I think. There will be a focus on seeing what’s close to home.”

People will emerge from lockdown, he foresees, tired of amassing stuff, and looking forward to being able to build memories.

The evolution of Sun Valley Lanes

From being a simple bowling venue, Sun Valley Lanes is now, having worked with Creative Works, a varied FEC with a large arcade comprising 30 games; a 3600 square foot laser tag arena and Lucky Putt, its 10 hole mini-golf attraction.

“It’s in our lounge space, which has an island bar that serves the customers indoors, and, as it has a roll-up door, the customers, outside, too, and our three sand volleyball courts.”

Outside, a covered lounge area with fire-pits is adjoined by an extended sports bar. It also overlooks a pet-friendly green space that will be the location, in summer, for lawn games.

Lucky Putt Creative Works Sun Valley Lanes
Lucky Putt, Sun Valley Lanes

“We have a handwashing station and dog-watering dish outside there,” Losito adds.

“It’s geared a little bit more towards the young adult; people in their 20s and 30s, who just want to come and have a good time, hang out, have someplace to eat and drink. We’ve upgraded our food offerings, and also have craft beers on tap.”

The pandemic, Losito says, will soon come to an end, and people will be looking for entertainment:

“They survived the Spanish Flu in 1919 without any of the resources that we have today,” he points out.

“And it was followed by the Roaring Twenties.”

Top image, John’s Incredible Pizza

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Lalla Merlin

Lead Features Writer Lalla studied English at St. Hugh’s College, Oxford University. A writer and film-maker, she lives in rural Devon with husband, children, and an assortment of badly-behaved animals, including an enormous but friendly wolf.

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