Outdoor attractions are solid FEC profit centers

by Peter F. Olesen, P.E.

Outdoor family entertainment centers (FECs) as stand-alone operations or as part of combined outdoor/indoor facilities continue to be highly successful ventures. They address that strong desire for participatory entertainment not provided by conventional park district and municipal programs. They provide a variety of attractions not offered in the community programs, which are only serving a maximum of 15 to 20 percent of the community.

The desire to enjoy outdoor activities is undeniable. The wide ranging tourism market and the large number of people taking advantage of local outdoor entertainment attractions form a large and dynamic target market that can be well served by outdoor FEC attractions.

We are seeing an increasing number of established indoor facilities realizing they are missing the large warm weather outdoor market if they ignore that obvious segment of the family and adult market. For those located on a parcel large enough to add the outside attractions; or are fortunate enough to be located next to available open real estate adjacent to their property; many are proceeding, or planning to add the outdoor attractions to complement their present operations. Unfortunately not all have those options.

We strongly suggest that anyone considering entering the market give careful consideration to the options they have available prior to proceeding. Selecting a site with no space to expand, be it initial indoor or outdoor operations, eliminates the ability to do so later. The only time it will be of benefit to consider expansion is prior to final commitment on the project site. This may require changing a proposed site, an additional investment in a “right of first refusal” for future space or purchase of a site that has the capacity for future expansion. Excess real estate will always have a potential for future sale.

Most successful outdoor facilities will have go-karts and miniature golf, coupled with a variety of other attractions. It is this writer's professional opinion based on years of study, planning and design experience, that the attraction with the “longest arms” in terms of attracting guests from a wider area (twice the acceptable driving time or distance of any other FEC attraction) is concession go-karts. Because of this there are countless stand-alone go-kart tracks that have very solid guest bases. While not having nearly as long reaching an arm for attracting guests, there are also many successful stand-alone miniature golf courses.

The most popular outdoor participatory attractions include go-karts, miniature golf, bumper boats and cars, ropes courses, zip lines, rock climbing walls, WaterWars and a number of other attractions that do not experience as wide a distribution. Other than go-karts and miniature golf, which are primary or magnet attractions, all the rest are successful impulse attractions that could not stand-alone and be successful.

Almost all outdoor attractions are complemented by indoor facilities including point of sales and varied levels of food service ranging from vending machines to snack bars. A lesser number have mini-restaurant facilities, larger game rooms and restroom facilities. Many have expanded indoor facilities with laser tag, soft play, full game rooms with redemption counters, bumper cars and related attractions.

Tunnel vision often clouds initial project concepts, when people look at the indoor market and its year-round operation. That the successes of more adult-oriented operations are centered on food and beverage sales, socialization and some indoor participatory attractions is obvious. These facilities serve the urge for socialization and the attractions are almost secondary. Their increasing competition occurs in a wide range of other similar facilities, plus non-participatory entertainment venues, such as modern, upscale movie facilities that have adapted various elements of the indoor attractions market, creating creature friendly environments that include food and beverage service, VIP boxes and other elements.

Not all FEC ventures are successful. Their owners did not heed the old adage that “Failing to Plan is planning to Fail.” This occurs in a number of forms, including selecting the wrong market, the wrong site, employing local architects and designers with no FEC industry experience, design-build firms with single attraction expertise and experience, failure to recognize they are not their customer in selecting concepts, purchasing stock plans and failing to follow through after construction.

“Build it and they will come” worked in the movie because it was part of the script. Failure to follow through with selection and training of good employees and always working to have a clean well run, entertaining facility generating guests desires to return, all contribute to guaranteed failure.

Go-karts and miniature golf, being familiar to most guests can easily draw guests for the first visit. Whether or not they will have ongoing appeal that generates guest desire to come back again and again will depend on the entertainment value they experience. The ability to create attractions that have a high potential for ongoing return visits and word of mouth recommendations is not a given, based on examples around the country.

Too many tracks are being designed with 30 year old or older geometrics and technology, which is a blueprint for ultimate failure in terms of declining attendance and increased maintenance costs.

Most miniature golf courses rely on creating superior visuals, often at the expense of the playing experience, which is the ultimate incentive generator. The concentration on visual appeal greatly increases the cost, through wide (never utilized) fairways, expensive theming, exotic water features and simplistic and highly repetitive play while not creating a desire on the part of the guest to come back for the entertainment value.

Modern creative design will result in greater guest entertainment and excitement experiences, lower initial cost, increased and ongoing attendance growth and lower operating and maintenance costs that assure long term success. Cheap for cheap's sake is almost certainly more expensive.

The two most important keys to success are selection of an experienced industry concept and design consultant with a demonstrated track record of creative designs and successful projects, and an owner that has the insight and commitment to first develop a successful concept and then follow through to be the best they can be.

Failing to plan is a certain plan for failure. Doing it right the first time is important, because few can afford the cost in financing or lost time to be able to do it over. Hindsight can be a beast.

May all your decisions be based on sound judgment and result in success.

© 2017 Entertainment Concepts, Inc.

Peter is president of Entertainment Concepts, Inc. (formerly Peter F. Olesen and Associates, Inc.). He is a licensed professional engineer in several states. He founded the firm in 1984 and in the ensuing years has been responsible for the development of more than 500 separate family entertainment industry projects Peter's projects have spanned initial concepts, feasibility studies, assistance in developing business plans, final design and preparation of contract plans and specifications, construction layout and related services for both new projects and existing facility renovations and modifications. Peter can be reached via his <website, at peteolesen@yahoo.com or 847.561-7013.