This article was published in the March/April 1998 issue of LBE/FEC Management magazine.

Prepare for the next Millenium

by Randy White

Yogi Berra said it best, "The future ain't what it used to be."

Today, we live in a world where the future gets here faster then ever and change is the only constant. Companies in today's consumer marketplace must constantly evolve their products and services to better meet the needs and desires of customers. As consumers are exposed to new and improved offerings and concepts, customer expectations are constantly rising. To stay competitive, maintain or gain market share and prosper in a marketplace where supply often exceeds demand and the consumer has multiple choices, companies today must stay on the cutting edge of their industries and create the future before they become a part of the past.

The location-based leisure and FEC industry is no exception to the rapidly changing world. The hybridization of many different types of entertainment, recreation, retail, dining and learning into completely new location-based leisure concepts is blurring the distinction between many former types of venues. Additionally, many entertainment and recreation venues such as bowling centers are now aggressively chasing after the same market as FECs. New multiple-tenant retail/dining/entertainment centers such as urban entertainment centers and lifestyle-entertainment malls are also being developed to lure the consumer and families out of their home for leisure experiences. Themed restaurants have evolved as eater-tainment. Even fast food restaurants and retailers are now adding entertainment to their offerings. Family entertainment centers (FECs) no longer hold the dominance they once did on the community-based entertainment market.

Our company, the White Hutchinson Leisure & Learning Group, is involved in all aspects of the development, design and operation of FECs throughout the world. Following are a baker's dozen trends we have identified from our research and work that have recently surfaced in the FEC industry and will probably strongly influence its future.

Changing Nature of Leisure and Entertainment. The very nature of location-based leisure and entertainment is undergoing fundamental shifts in our society. As work becomes more and more knowledge-based and people become more and more educated, consumers are increasingly demanding a greater learning and self-enrichment content to the leisure and entertainment activities they frequent outside their homes.

Lifelong education has become an important priority for many adults, especially those who are college educated. The 1995 National Household Education Survey conducted by the National Center for Education Statistics found that 40 percent, or 76 million adults, participated in one or more adult-education activities during 1994 at an academic institution. Adults are most likely to take work-related or personal development courses. The two were almost equal in the number of adults taking courses - 40 million for work related versus 38 million for personal enrichment.

In other words, 20% of adults take one or more personal enrichment college courses. College graduates signed up for adult education at nearly twice the rate of those who never went to college and more than triple the rate of high school dropouts. Nearly half of 35-54 year olds, the age of most baby boomer parents, took adult education courses.

People today want to improve themselves in their leisure time. Pure mindless relaxation and entertainment is no longer adequate. This trend of learning-based leisure is evident with the attendance increases at cultural institutions, children's museums, aquariums, botanical gardens and zoos; and the growth of eco-tourism and similar self-enrichment type vacations. In 1996, more than 120 million people visited North American zoos and aquariums - more than attended professional football, basketball and baseball games combined. Disney, perhaps the king of location-based entertainment, opened The Disney Institute at Disney World in 1996. It is a vacation village with a wide selection of classes, recreation and self-enrichment classes and programs. Since shortly after opening, it has continually held the highest customer satisfaction rating of all the Disney resorts. It's not surprising. Guests leave with more than just memories of entertainment and fun. They leave with new knowledge, including self-awareness of capabilities many never believed they had.

Combining leisure and learning is now considered a for-profit business. Ripley's Believe It Or Not is now building multi-million dollar, for-profit aquariums. The rapid expansion of themed restaurants, such as the Rainforest Cafe and the American Wilderness Experience, is just another example of how the American public is seeking leisure destinations where entertainment is combined with learning.

Family entertainment centers are no exception to this trend. Less leisure time and a trend away from long vacations makes community-based facilities, such as FECs that can offer enriching fun and learning experiences for families and children, even more appealing.

To succeed and survive into the Third Millennium, FEC and other leisure destinations will need to incorporate learning and self-enrichment as an integral part of their mix. This means offering learning experiences that consumers cannot get in their homes and that are not perceived as formal education and work. Hands-on informal learning will be essential, whether it is in the form of learning through play for children at 'edutainment' centers or empowering cultural, art and self-directed discovery experiences for adults.

Category-Killer FECs. Indoor FECs are growing in size. Sports Plus in Long Island, New York, which includes ice skating, bowling, a special events center and a traditional FEC area, contains 170,000 square feet of indoor space plus an outdoor driving range and golf course. Our company recently completed a market feasibility study and strategic development recommendations for several other category killer indoor FECs including a 240,000 square foot indoor center to be developed in a former aircraft manufacturing facility and a 120,000 square foot indoor and 60 acre outdoor FEC.

New FEC Anchors. A number of years ago, many existing bowling centers expanded into FECs. Then roller rinks did the same. Now new FECs are being developed with not only bowling and roller skating as anchor attractions, but also ice rinks, sports facilities and large motion simulator theaters. The Foam Factory, a new interactive event by SCS Interactive, is already anchoring three indoor FECs.

Multi-screen Cinema/FEC Complexes. Regal Cinemas currently incorporated FunScape FECs in four of their cinema complexes. The newest in Wilmington, Delaware has a 90,000 square foot FEC. Carmike Cinemas has formed a joint venture with Wal-Mart to develop and operate cinema/FEC complexes in vacant Wal-Mart stores. United Artist Theaters has incorporated Starport FECs in some of their locations.

Niche Market FECs. Many FECs now target narrow age ranges and socio-economic groups and are based on very specific types of leisure integrated into a unified experience through storyline and theme. These centers are in dramatic contrast to the early FECs that tried to be all things to all people and were very piecemeal in design. Examples of themed, niche market FECs are Bamboola, which targets educated, white collar families with edutainment for children 2 to 10 years old, and Malibu SpeedZone, which targets young adults with motor sport theming and events. The granddaddy of niche FECs, Dave & Busters, which targets upscale young adults, is still going strong after 12 years. Never underestimate the power of a niche market.

Socialization. Socialization, having fun with family and friends, is the primary motivator for most out-of-home leisure and dining experiences. As people are becoming increasingly isolated by technology and working at home, the need for human interaction and socialization will increase in importance as a motivator to leave the home.

Nature-based Outdoors. The importance of nature-based, outdoor environments as added-value for location-based facilities is just beginning to be recognized. Given a choice, both adults and children prefer an outdoor naturalized environment in good weather. Children prefer it no matter what the weather. Outdoor cafes always overflow in good weather. New research in the fields of horticulture and evolutionary psychology is revealing the power that natural outdoor environments have to produce positive physiological and psychological responses in humans, including reduced stress, a general feeling of well-being and enhanced learning. Outdoor areas also extend the season for otherwise indoor FECs. Some indoor FECs are now including outdoor areas for adults and children, both for dining, entertainment and play.

Natural daylight and views of the outdoor landscapes are also important ingredients for creating family-friendly indoor areas. Natural outdoor areas and bringing the outdoors inside with daylight and outdoor views will become more essential in the future for the creation of destination leisure environments such as FECs that must attract guests on a frequent repeat basis to succeed.

Storyline and Theme. The glue that brings all aspects of concept, mix, atmosphere and design together into a cohesive, memorable and repeatable guest experience is the storyline and its design theme. This aspect of design is just starting to be explored by the FEC industry, but it will be essential to long-term success in a leisure marketplace of rising expectations. Unlike theme parks and tourist destinations, the storyline and theme for an FEC needs to have a cultural- and value-based relevancy to its unique niche market and be subtle to avoid theme burnout.

Multiple Target Markets. Leisure-based destinations are generally busy on Friday evenings, weekends and many holidays. Profitability is created by generating non-peak time business. Newer FECs are being specially designed to also cater to and meet the needs of the non-peak markets of homemakers; preschool, home school and grade school field trips; holiday camps; camp field trips, workshops and scheduled learning experiences; fund raisers and organizational and corporate gatherings.

Food and Beverage. For years, most FECs treated food and beverage as a necessary evil, offering guests only vending machines or 'snack bars.' Americans are eating an increasing share of their meals out and dining is becoming an even more important component of out-of-home leisure experiences. Some newer FECs have been built with pleasant cafes and restaurant areas offering more upscale and nationally branded foods including healthy selections and coffee bars.

Intellectual Property. Along with the storyline and theming trend, some FECs are being based upon nationally accepted brand identities. Club Disney is the new children's entertainment center owned and operated by Disney. Our company is currently designing a new prototype children's edutainment center that will be based upon the popular PBS children's television show, The Puzzle Place.

High Touch and High Tech. For years many FECs chased after the latest electronic and mechanical technology, including games, virtual reality, laser tag, animatronics and rides, as their attractions. The problem with technology for FECs is that it is expensive and often quickly becomes out-dated. A return to tried-and-true low-tech, high-touch forms of highly interactive entertainment is proving to be a successful formula for a number of FECs. These include bowling, ice skating, children's free spontaneous play, billiards, bumper cars and nature-based miniature golf, all of which interestingly continue to work as they are predominately socially interactive in nature.

Mazes. Mazes are almost as old as recorded history. They have always been popular in Europe and especially the U.K. Mazes are slowly gaining in popularity in the U.S. The Norton Museum of Art in West Palm Beach, Florida, recently presented an exhibition of the contemporary mazes of Adrian Fisher. Mazes of all sizes, from 1,200 square feet and larger, are starting to appear in both indoor and outdoor FECs.

Today will become the past and tomorrow will become the future sooner than ever before. The long term successful FECs will be those that adapt and stay on the cutting edge of these and future yet unidentified trends. Those that do not may not survive to see the Third Millennium.