A comprehensive look at today’s virtual reality attractions and their revenue-generating potential for the future.
By Frank ‘The Crank’ Seninsky
THE BUZZ AT International Bowl Expo 2018 was about ways to increase the bottom line through a combination of reducing product and labor costs, enhancing the quality of offerings and experiences, lengthening the stays of guests, attracting new customers, and increasing the visitation frequency of established customers.
Is there a single strategy or attraction that can check off all of those entertainment boxes? One might be virtual reality (VR), an attraction with which guests can have a vivid social experience while playing and enjoying a world of alternative realities.
There were several virtual reality companies exhibiting their new-technology VR concepts, complete with the latest VR headsets, glasses, goggles, helmets, gear, VR apps, avatars, simulators, augmented reality applications, virtual life game technology controllers, head phones, and even motion platforms.
Virtual reality attractions have an elaborate menu of adventures and experiences in which one might want to participate. These include an interactive film experience, racing games, and fighting zombies. One can go as far as examining virtual tumors inside brains with medical virtual reality equipment, or take part in a flight simulation. The possibilities are endless.
After spending the last three years traveling the world to study VR hardware and available content, to evaluate various systems, and to look at the important parts of the puzzle – cost, space, player throughput, reliability – here are the reasons I strongly believe virtual reality is good for bowling entertainment centers:
- VR is a booming out-of-home industry, currently in its infancy, and those BECs that get in at the beginning may not get rich but can make some money and improve their overall business. (Analysts expect VR to be an $800 million industry within four years, and I believe, worldwide, VR is going to go as high as $50 billion in 15 years, once augmented reality is added.) As reported in In the April 2018 Redemption & FEC Report newsletter.
- Bowling entertainment centers already have a built-in base of customers that would feel very comfortable watching and playing a virtual reality attraction — and spending more money per person per visit.
- Every BEC has enough space for at least one of the new VR models. The No. 1-ranked video game currently is “Virtual Rabbids,” which is a two-player, non-attended game that has a footprint of only 52.5 square feet. Yes, it costs $50,000, but it can annually gross double that with 20,000 plays at $5 per play. A four-player VR attraction like “Hologate” takes up 300-400 square feet, costs approximately $90,000, and is averaging $2,000 per week (a projected $100,000 per year) in dozens of FECs. The players’ headsets are connected by cables that run overhead. Note that this type of attraction requires an attendant.
- The big boys are putting a lot of money into VR. Facebook just purchased VR headset maker Oculus for $2 billion, as one example.
- VR is new, and new attractions with new technologies attract new customers.
- People love to watch people play VR, and that means longer stays, which means more food-and-beverage sales and perhaps a repeat visit to play the VR attraction when the lines are shorter — and, of course, to bowl, eat and drink during that repeat visit.
- VR attractions offer a reasonably priced way for players to enjoy the experience. It is not likely that many will be able to afford to purchase a quality VR unit for home use. Currently, a three-unit (computer-headset/headphones-controllers) costs as much as $2,500. And just the thought of replacing equipment as technology advances will not encourage sales.
- The level of immersion — the ultimate advantage of virtual reality over other entertainment technologies. People try virtual reality because they want a new experience such as diving into another world, having a superpower(s), or feeling themselves in the real world (example: flying a small airplane). The home virtual reality experience simply would not provide such a deep immersion experience as that of an out-of-home attraction.
Other space options for VR models include: a) using a birthday party room to house up to 10 players sitting in chairs (pretty safe); b) having six or more 10′ x 10′ spaces (one per player); c) using a stationary donut ring for each player; d) a motion platform multi-seat format; e) large square or rectangle area; or f) large free-roam arena for free roaming of multiple players.
BECs can package their VR attraction with bowling and food. As far as pricing goes, many of the VR attractions currently out there started off with a basic price of $1 per minute, thinking that it would then make sense to offer discounts for certain multiples. Note that there is most often an average of three 15-minute sessions or four 10-minute sessions during a busy hour.
When you look at normal BEC per-capita spending, which averages $15-$20 for a two-and-a-half-hour visit, $1 per minute really appears way too high. With a standalone VR center, the spend of $1 per minute is viewed differently because the customers are typically not buying food or doing any other activity besides hanging out with their friends and trying VR.
The bowling industry can always stay ahead of the technology curve in VR until VR gets traction and goes viral everywhere. Over time, the bowling industry has performed better when it’s taking advantage of a new technology while that technology is still very expensive.
I think the other area at which the bowling industry excels is in the very nature of the entrepreneurial men and women within its specific sector. They seem to be more willing to take that big leap of faith, seeing something exciting and going for it in order to be “the first.”
The bowling industry is multi-tiered. So, if the multi unit players – the Main Events and some of the new folks who are all in – go first and it doesn’t work, there’s a good exit strategy in place. The other tiers – the B, C, and D centers of smaller size, budget, and revenues – may be able to pick up these VR systems or attractions as the larger ones exit, and at a reduced cost. That reduces their risk, and it just filters down until everybody’s ready to take the next risk.
It’s a good repeating cycle – one that has worked well for more than 100 years. With a history like that, bowling centers and BECs are born ready for virtual reality, and really do not need the VR glasses to clearly “see” it.