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Coinman
Interview:
Michael Getlan

by
Valerie Cogenevich

Amusement Consultants is a national amusement conceptual company. It provides services and games for its own facilities and co-vends accounts in 11 states. The company has over 6,000 pieces of equipment in 50 sites. But it didn't start out that way, says this month's coinman Michael Getlan.

In the early 1950's, Michael's grandparents, Beatrice and Isidore Getlan, started Amusement Consultants. Michael's father, Mel Getlan, came on board counting the receipts (in pennies) when he was 10. Michael's uncle, Ron, began giving out Skee-Ball tickets while standing on a milk box when he was eight.

Michael kept up the family tradition of starting early when at six he started working in an arcade. He swept the floor and made up newspapers, which they sold. He had one kiddie ride that was "officially" his. He vividly recalls that horse with the real leather straps.

Michael Getlan Amusement Consultants is truly a family business. All of the Getlans started out at an early age learning all they could about the business from the ground up. Mel and Ron still head the company, having taken over from their parents in 1966. In addition, Mel's kids - Michael, Rita, and Linda - and Ron's kids - Wayne and Ilyssa - play vital roles. Wayne also started young; he was eight when he began cleaning games in the arcade.

Michael believes in starting the children early and has already made sure his son Isaac is exposed to the business. Michael tells us that Isaac is an expert on kiddie rides and is a pretty good pinball player. Impressive for a three-year-old!

What have been some of the most significant changes you've witnessed since you got into the business?

When I started working the industry was pre-electronic. I remember when Periscope was introduced. When games went to solid-state it was a significant change.

Another trend that greatly influenced the industry was multi-player games, which happened right after I started working full-time. Although I was in a lower level management position, concerned about one arcade, I could see the effect multi-player games were having.

Game rooms then ran at full capacity so space was important. However, I felt it was vital to place multi-player games so that players could stand comfortably around them. I thought multi-player games were significant then and they still are. To this day, though, I see operations (not mine) that don't understand the concept of multi-player games-that four people can play at the same time and need enough space to do so. They jam the games up, not allowing these games to be used as they were designed. The introduction of multi-player games even affected the design of game rooms.

How about other significant trends?

Obviously, many trends have been in technology. One of the most exciting things about this industry is that we are on the cutting edge of technology. Every new technological advance shows up in our equipment in one way or another. I look at it from marketing and engineering angles.

For example, kits and cartridge games were significant trends technologically, but from a marketing standpoint they didn't really affect the player. But the changes now, like texture mapping, change the marketing. The changes we're seeing are tremendous. Look at what's going into pinball design; I just love it.

Are FECs a trend? Have you noticed an unusually large number of people from outside the industry looking to get in?

It's not a trend for us. We've been in that business well over 10 years and have specialized in arcades with over 75 games.

But I have seen an influx of people from outside coming in. There's an image that these entertainment centers are immensely popular, which they are. But it's like during the early '80s when many outsiders thought all they had to do was put a game out and collect the money every week-what could be easier? The majority didn't have the technical expertise, rotation was a foreign word, and they just didn't have the dedication necessary for success. There was a shakeout then; another will happen with family entertainment centers-soon.

In fact, it's happening already. I've seen people get together with a great idea, but there was a lack of experience and cooperation between the partners. They didn't have the information they needed to succeed.

How important is it for someone in a group to understand the business?

Very important! Isn't it the same as with any business? You are investing a great deal of money, yours as well as others', which is certainly important. In fact, it's an obligation. Research is more than visiting a family entertainment center, talking to a few people who work there, and figuring you have a basic idea of what is going on.

I find that many go ahead with their plans without the expertise of a consultant or an experienced partner. It is usually a costly mistake.

If you had to make a mini-list of mistakes people make when planning a family entertainment center, what would you include?

The biggest mistake is undercapitalization; not being prepared for the extra funds needed to complete the project properly. They simply aren't prepared for the needs of a business to change and grow.

Many figure what they need to open and very little more. They are counting on opening the doors and having people flock in. When that doesn't happen, they panic because there's not enough money. Then they'll start to skimp on services, turning off the most important people of all-those first customers willing to try something new.

There's always one group of adventurous people, the ones who try a restaurant when it opens, go to movies the first day, visit a new FEC, etc. If they enjoy themselves they can't wait to tell their friends. If they have a horrible experience, they'll talk about that too, maybe even more.

Others rely on these adventurous spirits to determine where they will go. When these first people walk through the door you have to make them absolutely gape at your facility, your service, your attitude, or your idea. If you don't, they will not spread the word. You practically have to give stuff away when you first open. It's not possible for someone who is undercapitalized.

When we look at a proposal as a consultant, the first thing we gauge is the money available. We want to know the margin for error or, as we say, the margin of safety. We're doing a project right now that is about to open in Memphis. These people went in with their eyes open and knew what they wanted to do. We worked with them on everything from layouts and architects to equipment selection and consulting. We are operating the coin-op equipment in the location.

Would you advise newcomers to work with a consultant who is knowledgeable in the industry?

I'd say yes if they were looking at the long-term picture. If you are looking at it short-term, a location opens with brand new games and makes money. But the majority of these places deal with local, not transient, crowds; the two are very different. For local customers, equipment must be rotated constantly. You're not going to be able to do that if you're not working with an operator.

If you have one location you have one place to put the equipment. When it's run its course, you have to trade it, sell it, or whatever because you have nowhere else to put it. Even if you have two or three sites, it's still a problem with rotation because the games have a lifetime. Time marches on and what is popular now will not be popular again by the very nature of video games. They are designed to make players work harder and harder as they get to know a game. Eventually, players get to a point where it's not worth fighting through 17 levels to get to where they were last time. If the store doesn't have the ability to change games it's a problem for their marketing.

A distributor said that the obsolescence of video games isn't found with redemption. What's your opinion?

Redemption is designed the opposite way. As you get better; the rewards are higher. It's an incentive to play more. However, every class of amusement game has a life span and a need for rotation. Having redemption games does not relieve the need for rotation, although it may not be as often.

Is the longer life span of redemption games the reason they are so popular in family entertainment centers?

We have been operating redemption continuously for over 30 years. We include it whenever we can. Have small arcades with redemption is not unusual for us. When you correctly operate redemption equipment, which means putting in the work it takes to run the prize center, you can have a very profitable niche in your operation. It just takes time and lots of attention. The profit potential is there and I think that is why it's popular.

The difference between an arcade and a family entertainment center is the variety of equipment, which directly affects the amount of time the customer will spend on the activities.

The question arises: When does it become a family entertainment center and not a children's' entertainment center? Many people are opening children's entertainment centers. And then there's a little blurring of target markets. A children's room concentrates on children up to nine or a bit older.

In a family entertainment center you have a children's center within the confines of the center. We believe in trying to get the entire family; it's much harder in a children's center. While you may not get a family with younger kids and teens to come together at the same time, your facility should market to both because the teens may come at a different time than their parents and younger siblings.

"I've seen people get together with a great idea, but there was a lack of experience and cooperation between the partners."

How would a game room differ in an arcade and in a family entertainment center?

In the actual physical room devoted to games. I believe in offering the greatest selection of games. There are older games that have proven themselves with the customers. In a game room within a family entertainment center, the selection of games should not be as limited as in a regular game room where you only concentrate on the hit games. The diverse clientele that is going to the FECs has to be served with a diverse assortment of equipment, both amusement and redemption, along with novelty machines and other entertainment attractions. These other attractions in an FEC can be both indoor and outdoor.

What are some questions you get asked during your seminars?

I'm never surprised at any question because I recognize that people are at very different levels. I can remember wanting to know more about the business; that's one reason I do so many seminars. When I first started, I could get information on formal business in general from books and articles but there were few avenues to pursue for information on the coin-op business. It was frustrating. This year I am serving on the family entertainment center committee of IAAPA. It's giving me a chance to offer much-needed information to others - the kind of information I searched for years ago.

Do you believe that education is vital to opening and operating a successful family entertainment center?

I think education is vital to running any business. In a world changing more rapidly than ever before, if you don't keep being involved and educating yourself, you will soon be left behind. It's nearly impossible to catch up. One of my personal areas of interest, which bleeds over to my professional life, is virtual reality. Reading everything coming out every month on virtual reality would be hard even if I didn't have to worry about the amusement business too!

It is so important to keep up with what's going on. Look at this example of something we should know: networking and downloading games. Blockbuster recently announced that they would be working with Sega to be able to produce video games on reusable cartridges. When you go to rent a game it can't be "out of stock." They simply make a copy for you on a disc. When you bring it back, they can make a copy of whatever else you want. And this is only one thing! There is so much to learn. I've been doing this every day for 18 years and I learn something every day.

Do you think people skimp when it comes to hiring good help in their family entertainment centers?

We operate in a paradox. There's a natural inclination to save money, but you want the best. You know we're in a cash business with security loopholes (no matter what you do!), but you must trust your people-another paradox. And still another paradox is that you want your employees to do the right thing, but you want control. The more control you have, the less they'll do without asking you first.

  I believe that people are the most important asset in your company. We have an incredible staff. My main management team has been here for years. Some of them have been working together for over 20 years straight!

What advice would you give people on hiring help for their family entertainment centers?

The best piece of advice is to take time with the hiring process. Hiring costs you a lot of money, make it count. I look for business experience, ask about hobbies, and depend on a personal interview. I want to be able to look someone in the eye for a gut feeling about how they get along with people. I have had my share of people who were functional but didn't mesh. They eventually leave.

I believe that you can't change a person's nature, but you can teach them anything. If they're honest, they're honest; if they're not, they're not. You can teach people to fix anything but you can't teach them the traits that are inherent. These basic traits are what you have to be concerned with.

I'm sure you're like most of us and can't resist visiting arcades in every city you're in. What are your impressions of employees you've seen in those arcades?

I have a problem with any employee who doesn't learn the basic rule: the customer is always right. And the key is not whether he's really right or wrong, it's that he is dissatisfied. There's not a distinct way to say it. We say that the customer is always right but what we mean is that the customer is telling you he's unhappy. Your objective is not to prove him right or wrong, it's to satisfy him in any way, shape, or form. That's the key. The best companies give their managers leeway in doing that. My managers, for example, are authorized to give free games, refunds, passes, etc. Even the change attendants can give refunds and can get the managers to do whatever else needs to be done.

  There is only a small percentage of your clientele who will abuse it. Most have legitimate beefs. One of the things that modern marketers know is that one person will tell 12 others about a bad experience. The snowball of bad news grows much faster than the snowball of good news. Inertia going in the wrong direction can be a disaster. It's always an uphill fight to do the right thing.

This brings up another point. It's not always enough to do what's right, sometimes it is just as important to do it quickly. For example, if you're in a restaurant and you order soup and it's cold. You have a dissatisfied look on your face, you want to send it back, and you certainly don’t want to pay for it. The waiter should take advantage of the opportunity of making you feel incredibly important.

At a seminar it was summed up like this: the basic issue is that people want to be loved. The way to love people is to make them happy. You'd be so happy if that waiter was back at your table in 30 seconds with a fresh bowl of steaming hot soup. If he didn't come back for 15 minutes you've had time to get angry again. You don't feel loved and you're certainly not happy.

The opportunity is gone. If you didn't want the soup, what if the waiter said, "Ok, pick any appetizer on the menu," and he brought it to you right away. You'd be talking about that to all your friends.

The bottom line is that every time a customer is upset it's an opportunity to do something incredibly good. If you go overboard they'll tell everyone. If you do a mediocre job of making that customer happy, it's almost as bad as doing nothing.

It's not an original quote but someone once said that most people stop working as soon as they get a job. And that's management's fault. Management's job is to get the job done through people. Motivating your people is part of the job. The key is that you have to combat the inertia. I go into a store and I'm fired up. I want everyone to have fun. I want to see people smiling. In fact, we have a company slogan: little smiles are big business for us.

Little things are what makes the difference in a company, even the way you view yourself. Say you have only one location. You don't have to say you are a small company. You can be a big company, you just happen to have only one store. It's your attitude about your business.

I believe that every customer is entitled to a great game, a great time, and great service. I want my place to be the place they want to go when they go out. One thing is that it's constantly changing. The coin-op business is no different. A family entertainment center must constantly change and add new attractions. We have stores that have been operating over 35 years. We are constantly updating, adding new attractions, and adding more space. The customers we started with are now bringing their own families and are still expecting it to be fresh.

You mentioned the early '80s when everyone wanted to get into the industry. An investment in an FEC surely is more than it was to operate games, but do you think that people are unrealistic about return on investment?

Yes, I think they seriously underestimate problems and underestimate the market. I've seen tremendous competition, overbuilding, and oversaturation. The business is so complicated that many simply have no idea of what they are getting into. You can't go into B. Dalton and buy a book on how to get into the coin-op business.

If someone was sitting in front of you, what advice would you give that person?

I'd first ask them why they want to get into the business. While I'd expect them to say it's for the money, I am a firm believer that you shouldn't do something just for the money. I'd advise them that they must be willing to go through some tough times for something they believe in.

"Little Smiles are Big Business to Us." ®

I'd also advise them to get a consultant and be sure the consultant can cover all the bases, based on his experience. You should expect a consultant to give you advice on everything, including location, negotiation, zoning, layout, and demographics.

Why are FECs so popular right now?

When I was a kid we just biked around and no one was overly concerned about where we were. It's not an easy time we live in now. Parents simply can't let their kids roam the streets. They need places where they are safe. Today, there are a lot of distractions and parents don't spend as much time with their kids. The values that are needed to make most parents comfortable with children's activities aren't present in many families. A family entertainment center provides a place for them to get together.

It's not like an arcade where children can be dropped off and the parents go about their own business. You can have a family entertainment center with a children's entertainment center in it, but you can't have a children's entertainment center with a family entertainment center in it.

I divide customers into categories: three- to six-year-olds who don't play video games but hang out in play ports; six- to nine-year-olds who play some video and redemption (nothing major); and kids above nine or ten who play serious video.

We believe in providing something for everyone. Some believe doing target marketing should segment it even further. It's certainly a viable marketing philosophy, but not for us. Our company does many different types of amusement facilities, from a two-game pizzeria to the largest family entertainment center in Connecticut.

How hard is it to build a facility that has something for everyone?

Your whole family would be happy at our facility in Connecticut. We have miniature golf, batting cages, and laser tag geared for adults. Kids love those things. Plus there's bumper boats and cars, tons of redemption equipment, video games, and even more for the little ones like rides and a soft modular play area with a unique interactive play section.

We're talking about many age groups and you must strike a balance of offering something for all of them, remembering that all members of a family do not need to be using your facility at the same time. The teens can be there on Friday night, while it's parents and younger children on Wednesday afternoon.

Believe me, it's not easy. But if it were easy, everyone would be doing it. There would be no need for experts.

Reprinted with the permission of  Play Meter August 1994
© 1997 Amusement Consultants, Ltd.  All Rights Reserved.

   

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