David Snook finds that there is more to good venue design than just location.
What’s the old saying? The three principal rules in any commercial venture – the success of which is based upon footfall – are location, location and location.
Undoubtedly true but a close second to the importance of exposing the venture to the passing public must be keeping them once they are tempted in. And that depends upon several factors: the décor, the climate control, the comfortable environment, the equipment, the food and beverage, the management, the staff. Of them all, arguably, the basic design must be of paramount importance.
So who actually designs family entertainment centres, arcades, casinos, games rooms, indeed, anywhere that uses ambience as part of its offer? Who actually takes the empty plot and makes it into something that folk will want to remain inside?
I confess it is something that, even after nearly 50 years in the industry, I know absolutely nothing about. Like many punters, I regard location design as something to disregard – I take it for granted. I know, without thinking about it, that if an arcade, adult gaming centre, FEC, is dark, dingy, too hot/cold and the machines are out of order, I am not going to have a successful venture.
“Designing quality and operationally efficient leisure destinations require thorough knowledge of design, equipment and operations coupled with a strong understanding of the market and its demographic factors.” That comes from Hussain Zamindar, simply known in the industry as Zammy, managing partner at ASI Design Solutions in Dubai. He is probably responsible for some of the most ambitious of the Middle East’s temples of exotic imagination that have led the global expansion in FECs in recent years.
“The design, as well as build quality, needs to sustain the demands of an entertainment operation over periods of time,” he said. “The tenet of any successful location design company has to be to achieve the functionality for each aspect before giving the design its form.”
He is one of a number of specialists working in the unsung background of the industry for which creativity is the ultimate ambition.
Another is Frank Seninsky, otherwise known as Frank “the Crank,” president of the Alpha-Omega Group and its consulting agency Amusement Entertainment Management, based in New Jersey, US. He has 47 years in the industry and specialises in talking about, writing about operating and designing family entertainment centres.
He has a 100-item checklist that he applies to any new location. “I start by driving around the area and approaching the location from different directions. Then, beginning with the entrance doors – their position, height, width, proximity to the car park, etc. These are vital factors that comprise first guest impressions and will be made before they even enter.
“I walk in and stop, which is what everyone does. I look around and absorb what I see and visualise where the games and attractions might go and the check-in area. In other words: where I would spend my money that’s burning a hole in my pocket.”
The factors that are high on his 100-item list include ceiling height, lines of sight, glare, noise and many others. They are all included in a two-dimensional floor plan and an elevation drawing.
“Sometimes the layout is drawn for me by the operator, often on a napkin over lunch, and then I may have to dissuade him from some of his ideas that I think may not work. People will walk around a facility counter-clockwise (in the US); sometimes an FEC is laid out incorrectly and folk are forced to go clockwise. There is a price to be paid for laying it out wrongly.”
The majority of existing potential sites are not easy to layout perfectly. Rarely does the designer have a clean sheet with which to work, a point made by Armando Lanuti, vice president of operations at Creative Works. His company has been responsible for hundreds of facilities over 20 years in the industry, from small family-owned FECs to large chains and theme parks. It is based in the US, but has worked in Europe, Australia and the Middle East. Lanuti initially looks at attraction mix, customer flow and operational efficiency as some of the broad strokes to consider. “Then there is the minutiae of details that go beyond just the surface and have to be considered: safety, fire code, local authority requirements.”
He added: “Ceiling height is more important for trampolines, laser tag and rope courses than it is for go-karts, mini golf or bowling. It may sound silly, but a big factor when looking at a space is where the water line is located and the level of pressure coming into the building. Adjusting either of these can be costly.”
Darius Kaskells at BANDAI NAMCO Amusement Europe reckons that even if the initial state of the location is an empty shell there are still plenty of options. “An exciting ambience can be created within these shells. This is where experience plays a key role, as it can be even more challenging to form a great interior from a shell and it requires more effort and skill to get it right.”
Taking care of the delicate problem of advising a client against what he has in mind, is a common thread among the views of the designers we talked to. P&P Projects of Asten, Netherlands, put it simply: “We always express our sincere opinion and advice because we want to create the best possible product and experience for the client and his guests.”
This 100-project, 30-year-old company actually doesn’t believe that location design is a ‘science’. “Experience and emotion are key and at the heart of any good design, whether it is a theme park, FEC or casino,” the company said. “Factors such as ceiling height are just boundaries of the sandpit we can play in and should never be leading, but should be taken into account.
“Location design is not a science… nor is it a template with percentages, but rather a substantiated feeling, mindset or understanding that is shared by some operator/owners.”
They love the bizarre, the “weird” as they call it; happy to think outside of the box and use unusual aides for effects, “motor-cycles, golf karts, aeroplanes, giant pandas, dragons and Smurfs… we’ve used them all!” That flexibility has added some impressive names to the company’s customer list, including Walt Disney Imagineering, Merlin Entertainments and Dubai Parks and Resorts.
The latter company is in the Middle East, of course, one of the hotbeds of global FEC development, where often cost is secondary to effect. While ASI is the big name in location design in that region, there are other companies, including operators, who insist on incorporating their own design departments. One of those is Beirut-based Lebanese operator Robert’s Group. CEO Georges Elias and his father have between them over 75 years’ experience of building their own FECs.
“Most new locations aren’t,” said Elias. “They are usually shells into which arcades, games rooms or FECs are installed, so most of the parameters are already there. We don’t often have the luxury of a ‘clean sheet.’ It becomes much easier when a new mall takes into account its entertainment facilities at planning stages, but nevertheless, the most common problem we have are height restrictions and distance between pillars. Sometimes floor-load is an issue when we want to put in rides and multi-level rope courses.”
Not surprisingly, Elias does not subscribe to the view that location design is too specialist and should be left to those who do nothing else. “If an operator has good experience and knowledge of the business, and if he has a good interior architect from outside of the business, he can do wonders. Usually, architects have no knowledge of the safety zones and flow circulation in FECs but also the operator doesn’t have an expert team. But on the other hand, a location designer cannot pretend to design an FEC to be operations optimal without the detailed feedback of an experienced operator.
“We see this all of the time with newcomer operators going to an expert design house that doesn’t have hands-on experience in operations. You then get a wonderful space but one that is not operationally efficient. It is therefore, teamwork: the operator’s experience and the architect’s skills.”
Like Frank Seninsky in the US, Elias looks first at the parameters, accessibility, height, floor load, age groups being targeted, budget and a whole welter of factors. But time and again, the specialists come back to the experience of being between a rock and a hard place and having to tell the client that his dream is unworkable – at least it is unworkable as the client envisages it.
Said Seninsky: “I would never work according to anyone’s specification that I believe is doomed to fail. I simply would state my case, await his/her response, and if the answer was ‘do it my way or the highway,’ you can count on the fact that I will simply stand up and walk away or hang up the phone.”
Would they all? In fairness, a fair number of the respondents indicated that they would do just that, probably because they are acutely aware of the fact that whatever is eventually opened, will have their stamp on it and their reputation riding along with it.
“Owner-operators should consult an expert,” insisted Darius Kaskelis at BNAE. “Location design is definitely a science and it can take decades of experience to fully comprehend the variety of factors that are key to success.” Initially, his company, which has decades of experience at indoor FECs, with over 1,000 locations to its credit, would view the empty shell and assess the local demographics, the culture, values and habits of the people. “Then we look to create a synergy between the interior theme and the entertainment equipment planned for it. If there is a way to improve the location, we propose it.”
And what of the specialist FEC, the location designed for a specific age group or a Dave and Buster’s style adult environment with bars? Are they a separate proposition?
Seninsky: “Family is the first and the key word in ‘family entertainment centre’ but even adult-oriented locations like D and B also permit children during non-late night hours. CECs (children’s entertainment centres) cater to young children, usually aged two to eight, such as Chuck E Cheese. With this said, I have always found it sound to just make the assumption that teenagers are not a part of the family. They like to go their separate ways and make a strong effort not to be a part of their family. Yes, there are exceptions, such as when mum and dad ask them to accompany the family on a cruise, a ski vacation, a trip to a waterpark, an amusement park… all special trips. However, the local FEC is usually not included; they can go there with their friends. One of the basic rules is that if you attract too many teens and become a teen hangout, that will drive mum and dad and their younger children away and you will be left with a bunch of teens that have no money to spend!”
A slightly differing view comes from Georges Elias: “Depending on your location, you need to do a market study on the population by age groups and the competition per age group. In most situations, you will see a weakness on the teenager age group. Teenagers have a higher purchasing power than younger age groups plus at that age, they can have more repeat visits than younger age groups as they choose a big part of how to spend their free time. Plus, don’t forget that the more specialised you are the easier you can excel.
“The cons are that you are targeting a smaller audience and that this audience is more sophisticated, so you need to invest more in quality. The pros are that your business is less driven by large flows, so can get a smaller footprint and competition is less fierce.”
Armando Lanuti at Creative Works: “The location alone does not dictate the target audience and neither does attraction mix. It is a balance between what attractions you want, what your space will allow and the demographics of the area, which should be gathering into an unbiased feasibility study.”
But his company will attempt to design for the demographics the client wishes to target, even if it is a specific age group. “Even when a location is family friendly, it will still generally be open late on a Friday or Saturday for the teenage and adult crowd… and many facilities want to cater to corporate groups for team building, so family friendly facilities still need to keep these other groups in mind.”
Darius Kaskelis at BNAE: “A specialist target audience? Teenagers? There is a small conflict there. We are trying to achieve something that we think of as a ‘kids’ club’ rather than an arcade. This is a fun place with a great ambience where teenagers can get the same levels of excitement as the kids and their parents. We want to create a magical place where kids of all ages hang out longer than is usual in an FEC. We try to avoid creating a standard FEC, unless there is a cultural requirement.”
But he does believe in branding, which is not surprising considering the licences held by BNAE. “Licensing always has a value. If you consider some of the strongest video games, Star Wars: Battle Pod, Pac Man, Jurassic Park, they are all well-recognised names and can drive outstanding revenues. Licensed toys are much more desirable to kids as well. Our Pac Man prizes or DC Comics licensed prizes have an incredible impact on the performance of redemption machines.”
According to Seninsky – and not disputed by any of the other contributors – is that current thinking puts redemption as 65 per cent of the total game revenue, merchandise dispensing 20 per cent, video games 10 per cent, and the remaining 5 per cent to include air hockey, kiddie rides, pinball and anything that is not prize-related or video. That does not apply everywhere, it seems, in the Middle East, kiddie rides are a much stronger contributor, but his views would certainly apply in North America.
Seninsky has designed 650-plus locations in the past 25 years, which is perhaps an unassailable record, but there are plenty of location design experts out there also with enviable records of success.
The breakdown of attractions, said Creative Works’ Lanuti, can work with whatever percentages for each category as long as there is synergy between them. “It is uncommon for game rooms to stand on their own. At the same time, you don’t often see high grossing centres without a game room, regardless of their anchor attraction. The game room provides an essential avenue for your guests to spend their time and money while waiting to play anchor attractions such as bowling and laser tag. This is especially important on weekends during the busy season. Most facilities have a game mix with a much higher percentage of redemption than video, especially when paired with a great prize counter.”
The one thing everyone seems to agree upon is that video games are minority contributors to the bottom line these days, but remain a good “flash” at the entrance to a location.
Georges Elias: “Video games won’t be your most profitable pieces as a return on investment. However, you cannot omit them, like water bottles in restaurants. Ticket redemption and merchandisers have a much nicer ROI.”
There are other things that our correspondents agree upon, the geographical location is paramount; adequate professional planning and design are essential; good content; good management and a conscious and permanent attention to detail – customer service bordering on the obsessional, leads to long-term success. In essence, it could be described as common sense, but there are plenty of examples out there of locations that did not subscribe to the basic parameters and as a consequence did not survive.
…and in a gaming arcade
THERE is a difference between creating a design for a family entertainment centre and another for a casino. It isn’t rocket science to work that one out, but are any of the parameters the same?
For casino in this context, we mean what in some countries is called a gaming arcade, in another it is an adult gaming centre, but essentially it means an entertainment centre in which most if not all of the machines are for modest levels of gambling.
The European tendency is to call these locations casinos, particularly in the Netherlands and in Germany, where the “legitimate” casino industry – with high jackpot machines and live table games – bitterly resent the use of the casino name in what is essentially an arcade with payout machines.
But make no mistake, the European profile is at a very, very high level. An arcade in the Netherlands and in Germany is extremely luxurious, with the Dutch model readily recognised as the premier standard internationally.
They must, however, be designed differently from the colour ambience and fun décor of the family entertainment centre. Classy colours, plush seating, subdued lighting, light background music and thick carpets will all combine to create an essentially different animal.
So we went to an exponent of the art of the classic street location, operator Gauselmann Group in Germany, with around 500 casinos or family entertainment centres dotted around Europe, and asked what its parameters were.
Susanne Rasspe is a graduate engineer in architecture and interior design. At Gauselmann, she is director of creative and design development. “Half of our locations are in Germany (spielotheks) and the other half in other countries,” said Rasspe, who has been 13 years with the group and has been personally involved in the creation of about half of the group’s holdings.
We presume that she works with a “clean sheet”. News that a new location is to be opened in, say, the Netherlands and that it is an existing building on the outskirts of a large town – so what are the steps taken from there?
“With so many years’ experience in the gaming field, we would put together a first draft of the floorplan very quickly. I will produce a rough draft and from there, my team prepares the CAD-based plans (computer-aided design) that will form the base for the coordination of the various departments involved. These might be product management, customer service, sales, marketing, construction – we have many specialised departments in such a large company.”
It does not, apparently, work from a standard design for all Merkur Casino (the division of the group which operates) locations. Germany, for example, has a history of combining arcades under one roof, because of a multi-licensing culture that has grown up, so arcades could even be clusters of up to 10 rooms – each with a dozen machines – around a central reception point. That does not apply in other countries, so how do Rasspe and her team work around that?
“We have different templates we can use, apart from the obvious jurisdictional requirements. We take into account taste and fashion, which are always changing, so these particular guidelines have evolved over a period. We also consider the logistics and culture of the destination. For example, a Chinese community location would have separate templates with kitschy colours, notably red and yellow, but for a Mexican location we would use a more sumptuous design with a great deal of gold.”
The golden rules for location design – at least for the Gauselmann operating division – are (1) catering to the needs of guests and to the needs of the staff; (2) the positioning of the games on the floor having regard for building codes, and; (3) the design, material, colours, furniture and décor.
“There are many facets to consider, but it is no different from driving a car; with experience, you do many things unconsciously because you become well practised.”
Most mistakes, said Rasspe, are made with lighting. “For the atmosphere in our arcades where we often don’t have natural light, it is important to choose the right levels and combination of lighting effects. Light can have a profound influence on atmosphere and therefore the comfort and well-being of customers and staff. There are also mistakes made by the use of overwhelming decoration or of no decoration at all, but lighting is the most critical.”
With 250 spielotheks and another 250 arcades, gaming halls, adult gaming centres or games rooms spread across Europe, there are few operators with an equivalent level of experience at making the most of a location’s surroundings.
The do’s and don’ts of location design
Frank Seninsky, Amusement Entertainment Management, US:
- Your homework. Survey lots of people at your competitors’ FECs.
- Read everything you can in the trade magazines; go to many trade shows and seminars.
- A feasibility study – if the project budget is more than US$500,000 – from a qualified independent third party.
- Include some of the core proven revenue generating attractions to at least cover break-even costs.
- Attend Foundations Entertainment University
- Subscribe to The Redemption & FEC Report
- Negotiate a rent that is higher than 15 per cent of projected gross revenues.
- Accept a free rent period instead of real landlord tenant improvements that will really save you money.
- Let your labour costs exceed 25 per cent of your gross revenue.
- Make your facility either too large or too small for your current peak day attendance projections.
- Wing it. What you like is not necessarily what your customers will like.
- Write your own business plan.
Georges Elias Robert’s Group, Lebanon:
- Master your architectural plans before your design plans.
- Consider if decorative elements have value in the experience you are creating.
- Give due relevance to the master plan, architectural and electro-mechanical plans.
- Be advised by industry experts.
- Have all your data prior to starting phase one.
- Cut corners when it comes to the flow of the floor(s).
- Try making economies when it comes to HVAC (heating, ventilation, air conditioning).
Darius Kaskelis, BANDAI NAMCO Amusements Europe
- Distribute the lighting correctly.
- Balance the space in the right proportions, have space to move but enough equipment to
- Leave more room to incorporate the theme and location ambience.
- Use the best quality games, rather than loading the location with more of lesser quality games.
- Consider permanent and “easy swap” interior elements. It can be easier than you would think
- Try to save money on professional concept design. This is actually an affordable part of the project.
- Overlook your most desirable equipment. Add some theming to make it really outstanding.
- Use unsuitable materials. Some can wear out too fast, get stained or damaged easily.
- Forget the adults and consider a zone where teenagers would feel comfortable.
- Forget to incorporate the “science” necessary to create a successful venue. Consult an expert for more details!
Scott Forbes, CEO at iPlayCo, US.
- Evaluate demographics within a 20/40/60/90-minute drive to know how many visitors and visits may be possible.
- Ensure adequate parking nearby. Base this on your busiest days and not the average.
- Location, location, location! Ensure website directions and local signage.
- Ensure adequate seating and walkway areas. Guests don’t like having nowhere to sit. Wider walkways will have a better open feel.
- Use good design. Set your budgets to allow for actual costs for construction, attractions, staff training, services, etc., and have a minimum of three to six months of funding in the bank.
- Ignore any of the above!