Only You Can Stamp Out Roadkill: Build 3 Critical Success Factors Into Your Leisure Facility

by Randy White

  • "Hey, Chuck!"
  • "Yeah, Bob. What?"
  • "See that big patch of grass? I bet there's lots of good stuff in there."
  • "Are you nuts, Bob? There's three lanes of speeding SUVs between us and it. My momma didn't raise no hood ornament."
  • "Aw, c'mon, we can make it, Chuck. We're young. We're strong."
  • "So were Jimmy and Steve and Tom, and you know what happened to them. Giblets scattered from here to Tulsa."
  • "We'll be different, Chuck, I know we will. In fact.Look! A break in the traffic! I gotta run, man, I gotta run like the wi."

Poor Bob. Poor, foolish Bob. He thought he'd be the exception, but instead he proved the rule. But before you dismiss Bob as just another sad pile of feathers, consider this: In their unwillingness to learn from others' mistakes, many owners of community-based family leisure projects have shown about as much wisdom as our late feathered friend, and with equally predictable results. Does it have to be this way? Of course not. It just takes learning from the past, and making sure you build in three critical success factors that are essential to guaranteeing longevity.

Our company, the White Hutchinson Leisure & Learning Group, began work on our first project in the location-based family leisure industry in 1989, and I'm proud of the fact that it's still strong and profitable. This makes it an exception in the field. You see, in the 13 years since then, I've visited some 200+ community-based family leisure projects. They all opened with much fanfare and big dreams, but 75% of them failed and of the remaining 25%, a good number are barely profitable.

I can picture those centers just like I'm looking at a photo album, and the breadth of my experience in the field has shown me what those failed centers have in common. Each of them lacked at least one of three often-overlooked Critical Success Factors [CSF]: ambiance, brand identity, and relevance. And, honestly, there's just no excuse for it.

To succeed long term, any project needs to include all the CSFs. Every time a project lacks even one, it not only decreases its attendance and revenues, but greatly increases its probability of failure. And the more CSFs that are lacking, the more dramatic the decrease and the higher the odds of failure.

You don't really notice the missing CFSs during the first year or so of a project's life. Usually, almost everyone in the market will check out the new place once, and those visits will initially support revenues. It's after the honeymoon when the missing CFSs begin to take their toll, as the repeat visits required for long-term success within a community market don't occur, or don't occur often enough.

Avoiding Road-kill Amnesia

Remember poor, doomed Bob? He had all the information he needed to make a wise decision. He knew what happened to Jimmy and Steve and Tom, but did he learn from their example? He did not. Amazingly, the same dynamic plays out in the location-based leisure industry day after day after day.

In my travels, I continue to see new entertainment projects imitating ones that have already failed. We call this phenomenon "road kill amnesia." I am amazed that at least once a month, we are contacted by someone who wants to open a soft-contained-play children's center similar to a Discovery Zone. Doesn't it tell you something that Discovery Zone went into bankruptcy - twice? Or they'll want to open a center with a mix that's already been inscribed on the tombstones of multiple failed projects.

How do you account for this? Perhaps these new developers are naïve or they haven't done their research or, like Bob, they think they'll be the exception. Or maybe it's something else. Our experience shows that there's another factor that encourages industry roadkill, and it's the market feasibility conclusion that since "there's nothing for families to do in our community," almost anything will be good enough. Strangest thing, though - when a facility underestimates the market like this, the market sure has no problem staying away. And this can spell disaster when you need return visits to pay the expenses and loan payments and create a return on invested capital.

They're Not as Desperate as You Think They Are

It's not like the city council's going to pass a law that requires people to come to your center, just because "there's nothing for families to do in our community." And how desperate are they, really? They can always stay home and rent a video or video game, visit the mall, go camping, or attend a festival. Any entertainment destination has to fight for a slice of their leisure-time pie, and today that isn't all that large of a pie. But just as important, since leisure time is considered so precious to most consumers today, you have to offer great value, both for the use of their time and the use of their money.

Value to the consumer is a very complex equation, far too complex to address in this article. However, one part of the value equation is expectations. This is where all the roadkill centers got it wrong. They assumed that since they would be the only game in town, they didn't have to offer much in order to meet consumers' expectations. Just throw in some rides, events, games and a snack bar-in other words, all that matters is the mix-and boom, you were off to the riches. Just the opposite; that approach sent them off to the poorhouse. Yes, the mix is one CSF, but it alone won't create a successful project.

Today the level of consumers' expectations is very high and getting higher every day, even if you have the only family entertainment destination in town. How can this be? It's pretty simple. Expectations are not set by only other entertainment centers, but rather by every consumer destination out there, whether it's retail stores, restaurants, malls, or tourist destinations. The consumer brings expectations to your entertainment center that have been shaped by everywhere else they have visited. Look around and you'll see that today, the bar is set darned high, and getting higher.

Look at some of the retailers out there such as Old Navy, Eddie Bauer, and Barnes & Noble. Look at some of the fast-food restaurants, many of whose new locations have very high levels of finish. Quick service purveyors like Boston Market are upgrading their restaurants with upscale décor such as maple wood flooring, porcelain tile, designer booth seating and upscale lighting. Look at the extremely popular fast-casual chains like Panera Bread Co. that now include warm colors and woods, sofa and lounge-chair seating, and fireplaces, or the quick-casual restaurants like Chile's or On the Border. Quick-service restaurants are upscaling their décor also. Subway is introducing a new Tuscany décor with hanging lamps and natural building materials like brick, clay and stone. In New York City, a new 42nd Street McDonald's will boast columns covered in Prussian blue glass tile. Or take a look at entertainment centers that just about everyone in North America has visited, whether it is a Chuck E. Cheese's, a Dave & Buster's, a Jillian's, an ESPN Zone, or a new GameWorks, all of which take great care with their design.

If you're industry roadkill, the answer to "What have they got that I ain't got?" is. ambiance.

You Know It When You See It

Ambiance, according to the Encarta World English Dictionary, means "the typical atmosphere or mood of a place [a restaurant with a welcoming ambiance]." Atmosphere, in the sense used in that definition, is defined as: "an interesting or exciting mood existing in a particular place. [a jazz club with lots of atmosphere]." It's a somewhat vague concept, yet people can tell you which places have great ambiance. They're the kind of places people go to celebrate special occasions, but they're also the kind of places they visit over and over, just because they feel right.

Ambiance equates to both great interior design and great exterior design. It means that everything is deliberately designed and coordinated, down to the smallest detail, to create a predetermined look and feel. Ambiance deals with the quality of the materials used. Wood contributes to ambiance; concrete block does not. Ambiance deals with colors and color coordination, textures, space planning and layout, comfort, scale of the space, lighting (including natural light), acoustics (too frequently ignored), territorial spacing of seating, circulation, sign design, etc.

Ambiance is defined by the user. One group of users, defined by age, socio-economics and culture, will prefer one quality and type of ambiance, whereas a different group will require a different ambiance. What will attract one group can actually repel another.

Theming is often confused with ambiance. Many people think that giving a facility a theme creates ambiance. When design is properly executed, theme and ambiance blend together. However, just theming a facility does not necessarily create ambiance. There is a paradigm in the industry that good theming equates to good design. Nothing could be further from the truth for community-based facilities that rely on repeat business from local residents. There, theming that is too heavy-handed or literal works against creating repeat appeal. Heavy theming leads to theme-burnout-the facility is quickly dated. For community-based projects, more-subtle themed ambiance is appropriate, more like an On the Border or Chile's restaurant than a Rain Forest Café.

What is also typically overlooked in the design of facilities that target families is that the guests include adults as well as children. To fulfill its profitability potential, the design must also appeal to parents or adults, like Disney movies include in-jokes for the grown-ups. And when it comes to family facilities, the mother is the decision maker who wields the most power, so the ambiance better appeal to her as well.

Of the hundreds of failed entertainment centers I've visited, almost all lacked ambiance. There were a bunch of rides, events, games and a snack bar all thrown in a 'plain Jane' cube with little finish or design, like a factory with a fresh coat of paint and a mural or two. When there was outdoor space, it looked like a concrete desert. How long do you think Barnes & Noble or Chile's would last if that's all the harder they tried to please their customers?

Branding: Not Just for Cattle Anymore

Hard to believe, but it used to be that when people went to the grocery store, everything was generic. There were no Saltines, there were just crackers. There were no Vlasic dills, there were just pickles scooped out of a big barrel. Then producers discovered what a brand could do. Let's take Arm & Hammer as an example. Beginning with baking soda, the company built a positive brand identity. It wasn't just distinctive packaging, it was also the product's high quality, purity, value and consistency. The brand identity was strong enough and positive enough to allow the company to branch out, so today you can buy Arm & Hammer toothpaste, laundry soap, etc. People who trust Arm & Hammer are loyal to the brand, whatever the specific product might be.

It's kind of like that with a location-based facility. The brand identity encompasses an array of elements that give the guest an impression of the facility, and, from that impression, a feeling about the facility. The storyline, theme and name are all important components of creating a brand, but without ambiance, the facility does not connect with the guest-there is no lasting positive image and memory. Brand identity only exists as it exists in the minds of the consumer. For a location-based facility, to create a brand identity, all the elements must come together to create a positive guest experience. It is the guest's emotional connection with the experience and the facility that creates the brand identity, not the physical facility or the logo or the advertising.

Relevance Connects You to What Matters to Guests

Would you buy somebody you love a present that was so impersonal that it said, "I don't think much of you, and I know you'll accept this because you have no choice"? Please, please say that you wouldn't. There's a world of difference between a gift like that - whether costly or cheap - and one that expresses what you love about the person, that touches her or his heart. And there's a world of difference between the recipient's reaction to that first gift and to the second. This leads us to our third CSF - relevance.

Relevance is interrelated with ambience and brand identity, because without relevance, there is no lasting brand identity and repeat business. Relevance is business language for a very human concept - soul. Is there a personal emotional connection between what the center offers, what it stands for, and the guests' personal lives and values? Relevance is the emotional part of brand identity, a quality any successful entertainment destination must have, as it is what creates a lasting relationship with the guest. And it's this relevance, or soul, that very few centers manage to include, even though it takes more heart and integrity than money.

"The fundamental reason someone becomes loyal to something-beyond mindless habit-is because the brand contains meanings that resonate in a person's life."

Susan Fournier
Harvard Business School

The storyline typically becomes the foundation for creating relevance. For children, it gives the mascot and facility meaning. But just as important as the story itself, the values it reflects are even more important to creating the meanings that connect to both children and parents and create relevance.

The best way to illustrate this is to use an example of a project our company produced in Dubai in the Middle East, LouLou Al Dugong's. The storyline was developed based on research into the values of children and parents in the area. We found that there was a high concern for preservation of indigenous species. The storyline for the project centers around a dugong named LouLou. Dugongs are an endangered sea mammal in the Arabian Gulf related to the manatee. LouLou in Arabic means pearl. Dubai is known as the Pearl City after its early history of pearl diving. The storyline has an environmental lesson about how humans are causing the destruction of the habitats of many sea creatures including the dugong's that threatens their extinction. There are several murals in the center that depict the storyline. LouLou is the mascot. The storyline is read to children as well as the basis for a puppet show presented regularly in the performance area, and a portion of admissions is donated to a conservation group active in preserving endangered species in the Gulf region.

So rather than just being a meaningless center full of entertainment and edutainment, the project has an emotional connection with guests' values and community. This, along with the mix and ambiance, creates the center's strong brand identity.

It's too late for Bob, may he rest in peace. But for Chuck and all the rest of the poultry just itchin' to cross the road, longevity lies in learning from the past and doing it better, smarter, and with way more soul in the future.