This article was published in the Spring 1996 issue of The Themed Entertainment Association's Network magazine

Four Myths Keep FEC Industry from Success in a Downshifting Society

by Randy White

In the 1980s, the dominant theme was getting and spending. We kept track of the "right" brands of everything from kitchen appliances to tennis shoes to clothes, and judged our worth by how much of the right stuff we had. As it turns out, the 1980s may have been the last gasp of materialism, as a quiet revolution transforms our priorities and puts increasing emphasis on the quality of our relationships and experiences.

The Trends Research Institute of Rhinebeck, NY., has found that a top trend of the 1990s is people choosing to earn and buy less, called "voluntary simplicity" or "downshifting." A nationwide survey of Americans found that 28 percent had voluntarily cut back on their income in some way over the last five years. Why? We'll look to Americans who have not yet downshifted for the reason. When asked what they feel guilty about neglecting, the largest number (80 percent) in a recent survey answered "my children." Leisure hours -- traditionally the domain of the family -- have been shrinking. Most Americans say they do not have enough leisure time, and a Roper Starch Worldwide survey found that 65 percent of Americans say that being with family is a very important aspect of leisure time.

As more Americans downshift, consumer demand for leisure experiences, both in and out of the home, will drive a steadily increasing percentage of consumer spending of all kinds. What is not clear is whether the family entertainment center [FEC] industry will be able to overcome four myths, incredibly well-entrenched for such a young industry, that could cripple FECs at a time when societal trends have them positioned for growth.

The FEC boom began five years ago, and since then FECs have been one of the fastest growing segments of the leisure industry. They already account for 30 percent of all amusement facility business (including amusement, theme and water parks). Their growth has been fueled by downshifting along with other basic shifts in American society, such as the echo baby boom and a perceived lack of safety in neighborhoods and parks.

Many early FECs ignored proven principles of consumer marketing, facility design and environmental psychology. Unfortunately, there were enough of these FECs, and they enjoyed large enough opening crowds and survived long enough (Discovery Zone included) to give later developers the impression that theirs was the successful formula. In most cases, however, these FECs did not survive long enough to pay back their capital. The paradigm that guided the early FECs is still, to a large extent, the one used today, at great cost to operators and the industry.

The four greatest myths that continue to plague the FEC industry are:

  1. An FEC should appeal to people of all ages.
  2. Teenagers will be the largest market segment.
  3. FECs should promote family interaction.
  4. FECs should feature technologically driven events and experiences.

An FEC should appeal to people of all ages

Because they're called "family" entertainment centers, some believe that FECs should have a little bit of something for people of every age. This is not the definition of "family" in terms of FEC visitation, where family means children accompanied by their parents.

It is difficult, if not impossible, to please any market segment without focus. Our company has identified a minimum of twelve distinct "ages of play": toddler; early pre-schooler; late pre-schooler; middle childhood; early adolescence; adolescence; college age; young adult; young parent; middle-aged adult; older adult; and senior citizen. Without an FEC the size of the Kremlin, it is impossible to offer each age of play enough events to generate a sufficient length of stay. Nor can you focus on and please so many groups at once, most with divergent needs, wants, and tastes. Furthermore, many of these groups just don't mix, particularly indoors. Families, especially mothers, are incompatible with teens, and teens don't want to be mixed with adults and younger children.

Delighting guests and inspiring loyalty requires focus through a mix of attractions and services and programs tailored to the defined market niche. This is called "focused assortment," and is like shooting with a rifle rather than a shotgun. Focus not only targets a narrow age range, but also a specific socio-economic/lifestyle target market.

Teenagers will be the largest market segment

Teens, especially boys, love arcades and the thrills of amusement parks. In FECs, though, they are not big spenders and mostly enjoy just hanging around with friends. Teens also are finicky and will abandon an FEC as soon as some new destination gets popular.

In fact, the biggest spending potential is in the market segment that brings its own personal bankers -- children eight and under accompanied by parents. To attract and satisfy this market niche requires a mix of attractions for toddlers through middle childhood. As an industry, we have focused sometimes exclusively on soft modular play to the exclusion of other kinds of play, like classic hands-on and imaginative play, that are also necessary to keep these young guests coming back.

FECs should promote family interaction

Most parents and children do not want FECs that promote parent-child interaction. Our company's extensive focus group research repeatedly has found that the vast majority of parents are delighted when their children are happy being entertained and playing, and the parents have a comfortable place from which to monitor them.

And children are happiest playing with other children because most parents have forgotten how to play like a child. For example, younger children are process-oriented, while adults are product-oriented. The father wants to build a sand castle; the child just wants to play with the sand.

A recent study of interactions between parents and children was conducted at the Fort Worth Museum of Science and History. The study identified seven categories of interactions:

Parents as players

  1. Co-players
  2. Parallel players
  3. Solitary players

Parents as non-players:

  1. Stiflers
  2. On-lookers
  3. Teachers
  4. Disrupters

In most situations, the parents' interactions were intimidating, destructive or developmentally inappropriate to the children's experiences. It's no wonder that young children quickly learn to seek out play environments away from the supervision of parents.

FECs should feature technologically driven events and experiences

Most FEC customers are children and women. Most FEC owners, equipment designers and suppliers are middle-aged men. Middle-aged men get into high-tech toys; most children and women do not. What they want is actual, not virtual, reality.

Just look at the most popular, time-tested attractions. Indoors, we have bowling, bumper cars, and skeeball; outdoors, miniature golf, go-karts, and water. People crave simple, high touch experiences. Younger children don't need any technology to have fun -- their minds are virtual reality machines. All they need is to impose their imaginations on the environment, and they crave open-ended, tactile, physical, pretend and construction play.

Besides not meeting consumers' needs, another problem with technology is its cost and rapid obsolescence. Long-term, successful FECs are built on basics, not on chasing after the latest gizmo.

FECs can be significant players in the Third Millennium, but not if they repeat these four disastrous myths. The surviving FECs will be those whose operators truly understand what a community-based FEC catering to a "family" market is all about.