This article is scheduled for publication in LBE/FEC Management magazine
I am a guy. And, as your average male, I can do a great job designing the kind of entertainment center that I and my guy friends would go for. It'll be noisy, competitive, and nobody will try to make us talk about our feelings - in short, heaven. Problem is, when the family goes out for a good time, it's the females who decide where we go and what we do. Toss in a few kids, and us guys are hopelessly outvoted. Yet the people, mainly men, who own and design location-based leisure centers create them from the man's perspective, which makes it an uphill battle to delight the women and kids who control the leisure dollar.
I may be a guy, but I'm no dummy. I've found some smart researchers, mostly women, who have identified some of the differences between women and men that are pertinent to the location-based leisure [LBL] industry. While most of us have figured out that women and men differ in important ways, few of the men who own LBLs take those differences into account when designing and operating their businesses. It's an oversight that comes with a big price tag.
LBLs that succeed go beyond customer satisfaction. Consider that the community-based segment of the LBL industry depends on high repeat business rather than a market of tourists who constantly change, or on annual or less frequent visits by local residents. Community market, location-based leisure facilities include family entertainment centers, children's entertainment and edutainment centers, bowling centers, roller and ice rinks, and many eatertainment-oriented restaurants; most of which capture about 80 percent of their business from residents living within a 20-minute drive time who visit anywhere from four to 30 times a year.
Just about everyone knows that it costs five to seven times as much to get a new customer as to keep an existing one, and that a dissatisfied customer will tell 20 other people about the bad experience. Research also has found a five-to-one net revenue advantage to retaining loyal customers; the impact of increasing customer retention by 2 percent is equivalent to cutting operating costs by 10 percent. What most LBL owners DON'T know relates to customer loyalty and defections; our company's studies show that if they did, they would be shocked to learn how many of their customers never return. In fact, 20 to 40 percent of LBL customers defect each year, EVEN WHEN THOSE CUSTOMERS SAY THEY ARE SATISFIED.
What's going on? If you can't count on satisfied customers, can you really count on anything? Well, no, you can't. It's the LBL version of grade inflation. Like an A doesn't always mean what it used to, neither does "satisfied." People EXPECT to be satisfied. They expect to be treated courteously, they expect the person they're talking to be able and willing to solve their problems and meet their expectations. Since satisfaction now represents an acceptable minimum, a satisfied customer is as likely to defect as one that is dissatisfied.
Those who stick around are the customers who say they are completely satisfied or delighted. In one company's study, customers who rated the business as outstanding were four times less likely to defect than those who rated it satisfactory, neutral, or unsatisfactory. Other studies have shown that completely satisfied customers are 50 percent to six times as likely to repurchase/return as are just satisfied customers.
To win in today's competitive environment means moving beyond customer satisfaction toward customer loyalty. Think about it in terms of credibility. What would make an LBL so outstanding that a customer would be willing to risk his or her credibility by serving as an unpaid apostle for it? Figure that out, and you have loyal guests who provide repeat business, higher profits, and new customers gained through positive word-of-mouth marketing.
Delighting the right guests is what matters. Most community LBLs want to attract families. Sounds easy enough. We're guys, right, so we think in terms of attracting guys with wives and kids. But if we're honest, we'll agree with research that shows that about 80 percent of most family decisions of where and when to spend disposable leisure time and money is made by women. And children, well, they may not decide where the family goes, but they definitely have a voice in where the family does NOT go for entertainment. Then there are the men. In a family that includes a married couple and two children, the man can be outvoted three to one. The math isn't hard on this one - the people to delight, the ones you want as apostles for your business, are women and children.
You do this by understanding the unique wants and needs of women and children. This is difficult for most LBL owners and managers. Like I said, most are guys, and it is standard operating procedure for human beings to see the world from our own point of view. We don't think about needing a shelf in the bathroom so our purse doesn't get wet when we wash our hands. We don't imagine what it's like to try to find our way when we're lost, and all the signs are in a language we haven't yet learned to read. It's a different world to us.
The male bias in design and operations is not limited to LBL owners and managers. It extends to most of the professionals involved in the design of LBLs, including architects and landscape architects, as well as game, ride and event designers, all male- dominated industries. The majority of built environments, including most LBLs, are androcentric, and discriminate against both female and child users by design. More bad news - the same is true of how LBLs are managed and operated.
Women and children think, feel, process their senses, act and perceive the world and their experiences differently than each other and much differently than men. Their brains are wired differently, both by nature and nurture, and they have different skills. These differences are only starting to be understood and explained as genetically evolutionary in nature by evolutionary psychologists and biologists.
Trust us, women won't go for the Buckets O' Blood video game. To turn women into loyal repeat guests requires targeting their needs, wants and preferences. It requires creating a female-friendly facility design and operations that delights women and turns them into apostles for your business. And guys, it often requires forgetting what YOU want in order to lure a customer who is distinctly different from yourself.
Women, for example, are socially oriented. They are attracted to events and activities that promote social interaction. Women seek enjoyable and intrinsically motivating activities that include emotional involvement. Women have more developed sense of taste, smell, hearing, sight and touch than men, and they process the sensory input differently than men.
Let's look at how some of those differences play out inside an LBL.
You can't escape competition at most LBLs. Competitive video games, laser tag or motor sport activities like go-karts and ride simulators dominate LBL events. Males are motivated by a goal, with deadlines and punishment (up to and including virtual death), while women prefer rewards and the chance to share a moment with others. Men live for competition; women avoid it.
Female play tends to be orderly and not bound by rules. It is likely to focus on caregiving and nurturing and avoid aggressive physical contact or domination. Women don't like the time limits of competitive games, preferring to explore at their leisure, and they prefer nurturance instead of control and mastery. Women like collaborative activities and opportunities for social interaction; they prefer Win/Win scenarios while men prefer I Win scenarios. And pity the poor adolescent girl - if she loses a game to her boyfriend, she feels like a fool; if she wins, she fears losing the boyfriend by damaging his fragile ego.
Women are social animals. (They even go to the restroom in groups, something that wouldn't even occur to most guys.) While men like individual entertainment experiences, like standing alone in front of a video game, women don't like being isolated. They prefer cooperative activities, shared experiences, and communication - including gossip, which is one way of building a sense of community.
Women are extremely turned off by two elements that are found in most LBLs - violence and stereotyping. Most video and virtual reality games and laser tag deal with destruction and killing. While men find the threat of death to be highly motivating, women find it discouraging. Women and girls are nurturing and don't resolve conflict through violence, and mothers don't want to expose their children to games that promote violence as a means of problem-solving. In contrast to destructive activities, females prefer creative activities that result in the production of a material object. Women likewise find gender stereotyping and the exploitation of women, cultures, races and other ethnic groups extremely distasteful. If you have any doubts that these exist in most LBLs, just examine the video and pinball games to see how women and racial and ethnic minority groups are treated.
A ride or game that a male will find pleasantly harrowing will make a woman sick, literally. Females have wider peripheral vision than men, which may explain why females often feel ill and generally don't enjoy many rides, motion simulators and virtual reality games that males love.
Atmospherics deals with the psychological impact of the design environment on humans. Atmospherics can be very subtle, and most guests are not even consciously aware of the impact the physical environment has on their experience and feelings. Atmospherics, however, has a significant effect, and LBLs should be designed to create a space where guests want to stay and return.
The atmospherics of most LBLs appeal to men. They're cavernous, have hard and flashy interiors with high ceilings, are dark with no natural daylight and lack views of the outdoors and vegetation. Guys like this stuff. Males prefer hard, shiny, smooth surfaces, high contrasts and high-tech slick. They like 90-degree corners and boxy designs. Women, on the other hand, prefer textured and soft tactile surfaces and intimate, well-lighted spaces with natural daylight and outdoor views. They prefer curvilinear soft designs and shapes.
LBLs are noisy. Most FECs and game rooms have constant sound levels over 85 dB - equivalent to a jackhammer. The two genders vary greatly in their sensitivity to environmental noise. Males find loud sounds stimulating, or at least tolerate high decibel thresholds and can ignore such distractions when playing a game. Males prefer higher frequencies, while women prefer lower frequencies. Females are more sensitive to loud and repetitive noises, and are agitated and stressed by the overpowering racket of most LBLs. Furthermore, noisy environments are not conducive to conversation, a favorite activity of women.
Mothers are oriented towards caring for their children. As a result, family leisure may be experienced by women as work rather than leisure (a characteristic that is becoming increasingly true for fathers, too). Women's efforts at providing leisure for their children is often at the expense of their own leisure, and can be experienced as work- like and stressful.
LBLs rarely make this any easier for mothers. They lack changing tables with adjoining sinks, child-sized bathroom fixtures, family restrooms, areas for nursing, or spots where they can sit and monitor their children, ramps for strollers, parking lots that can be safely traversed, and places for the vast amounts of paraphernalia like car seats, strollers and diaper bags that parents must haul around with younger children. Without these things, women perceive a trip to the LBL as work, and therefore undesirable.
It doesn't have to be like this. It is possible to combine the work-related tasks of mothers with an environment where children can play while the mother can socialize with friends. This requires a different layout approach than most LBLs, where the parents have to walk around with the children while the children go from one event to another. And rarely is there even a place at each event for the parents to sit.
Does this approach work? Check out a Chuck E. Cheese mid-day during the work week and find out. A national independent consumer survey found that 20 percent of Chuck E. Cheese customers return more than 20 times a year. One reason is that groups of women can sit and socialize in booths while watching their children play.
Fear is a way of life for women. Females are extremely sensitive to and concerned about safety and security, not only for themselves but also for their children, who they fear may be kidnapped in public places. Men are generally not sensitive to such concerns, so do not consider them much when designing LBL facilities.
Well-lighted facilities and parking areas, open visibility, single monitored entrances and a high presence of staff are factors that make women more comfortable, but which are not often present in LBLs. Security guards dressed like police with guns alarm women. Rather than make them feel safe, the guards make them feel the LBL is unsafe. In addition, the typical target market of many LBLs, groups of teenagers, make women very nervous and uncomfortable.
Women and girls also evaluate risks differently than boys and men. Males generally don't consider an activity a risk unless they think an injury would be serious. Females tend to avoid a risk if they think there is any potential for injury.
Women are concerned about the cleanliness and sanitation of restrooms, food preparation and eating areas, and the play areas and equipment for their children. Sanitation is especially important to mothers of infant and toddlers, as those age children put just about everything they come in contact with in their mouths.
Men prefer to dominate nature, while women consider themselves to be a part of nature. Thus, women perceive the outdoors through their rhythms and styles, including the elements of nurturing, caring, community and sustenance. These differences probably explain why so many LBLs designed by men have no outdoor landscaped areas or views of the outdoors. In rare occasions where they do, the outdoor LBL areas are usually concrete deserts rather than lush natural areas.
It's not just how you design an LBL that matters to women, it's also in many of the details of how your staff and business interacts with them. And, again, there are major differences between males and females.
Men usually just want to get the transaction over with while women want to have a relationship with you. Women's desire to form a relationship is not limited to individual transactions. It extends as well to the marketing of the LBL, whether it is the advertising copy or developing a newsletter to strengthen the relationship.
So, to all you other guys, the moral should be clear. If you create an LBL that pleases you, you've missed the point. If, however, you create an LBL that surprises and delights women, you're well on your way to profitability.
Part two of this article, in a future issue, will discuss how LBLs can delight children.