Nightclub and bar patrons love electronic games and entertainment, no doubt. But knowing which systems they’ll love most and which will work best within the context of an establishment can seem to an operator like a lights-flashing, bells-clanging test of skill and daring.

Between the latest games, old favorites, cutting-edge technologies, shifting consumer attitudes, increased competition, better home entertainment and prosaic considerations like footprint, customer demographics and foot traffic, choosing just the right system seems today to be more art than science. What’s more, with the economy in its current state and competition for patrons’ attention and dollars increasingly fierce, the stakes are only getting higher.

Perennial favorites like Big Buck Hunter, Golden Tee Golf and Silver Strike Bowling show no signs of losing popularity; nor do NTN Buzztime’s interactive sports and trivia games. But even with the draw of such leaders, the decision of whether to clear precious floor space for games that may or may not contribute to the bottom line isn’t quite so simple. Plus, the factors to be considered are multiplying, such as opportunities for advergaming — the viral marketing technique of creating brand awareness and promoting drink specials and other offerings via the screens on game systems, digital jukeboxes, television screens, tickers and other devices. Even third-party advertisements can be shown on some system screens, adding yet another revenue stream for operators. Another factor is the growing demand for digital music and the imperative for the operator to manage and monitor the offering.

And of course, there’s the profitability factor. As the best games continue to increase in cost, the revenue split with amusement vendors tends to slide from 50/50 closer to 60/40, notes Bill Schoener, division director of operations for the Minneapolis-based chain Buffalo Wild Wings Grill & Bar. To make sure you get the most for your money, it’s vital to figure out what games will provide the most excitement and revenue, something Schoener is constantly evaluating. The chain’s 543 units each stock four to six games, with two or three at the bar; Schoener reports that crane and stacker games have become popular enough with kids to morph into the chain’s leading revenue generator.

Cranes and stackers may be all the rage with the younger set, but “the hottest, newest item right now” at Buffalo Wild Wings is TouchTunes’ PlayPorTT, reports Schoener. The wireless, interactive multiplayer game-play units feature 15.4-inch laptop screens, more than six hours of remote-use battery life and as many as 40 games, as well as a link to the restaurant’s TouchTunes jukebox. The system comes with a remote credit card payment system (cash also is accepted), and the units can be taken to dining tables to play and/or listen.

PlayPorTT was introduced at Buffalo Wild Wings in the spring; 75 percent of locations offer the system, with expansion continuing. At press time, Schoener was evaluating the impact of the systems on guest traffic and satisfaction at the restaurants, noting that as with anything new, there is a learning curve.

“It’s so new the guest still doesn’t know what it is,” he quips, adding, “It’s been very positive because it is something new and different. As the technology advances it catches everyone’s interest.”

Reaping Returns
“The operator will want to evaluate the potential ROI the machines will generate,” explains John Mankopf, president of hospitality and gaming consulting firm Mankopf and Associates in Las Vegas. “At the end of the day, the machines should be generating a positive cash flow. The entertainment value of the machines also needs to be considered.”

Competition on the entertainment value front is fierce. Because of the high-quality gaming potential patrons can get at home from systems like PlayStation 3 and Xbox, consumers may not be as drawn to video games in bars. Leo Lesh, owner of six-year-old Leo’s All-Star Sports Bar & Grill in La Crescenta, Calif., says the market has been affected by the at-home systems, but notes that his bar still benefits from bar games. Leo’s offers NTN, Big Buck Hunter, Golden Tee Golf, Silver Strike Bowling and a pool table, and Lesh says a single game at his bar can generate as much as $1,000 a month just from the vendor revenue share.

In fact, operators can recoup the cost of some games almost immediately. “Revenues have been known to average $300 per day,” says consultant John Andrews-Anagnostaras, FCSI, managing principal of Institutional Design Associates Worldwide Inc., based in Las Vegas. “Even if a machine costs $9,000, it can be paid off in less than 40 to 60 days.”

Operators today are certainly examining the investment more carefully. “Cost is so important now for bars and clubs,” states Gary Colabuono, marketing director for game maker Incredible Technologies in Arlington Heights, Ill., whose stable includes Golden Tee Golf, Silver Strike Bowling, Target Toss Pro Lawn Darts and Power Putt. “Price is the first thing they look at.”

But display and footprint are not far behind. Incredible’s Showpiece Cabinet connects the control pedestal to the large screens already found in bars, so additional screens are not necessary. “What you have now is a high-tech, hi-def image, and playing our games on a 42- to 50-inch hi-def TV is unlike anything done before,” states Colabuono.

Joe Orellana, franchise consultant – procurement for Laguna Hills, Calif.-based NSPC Inc.’s 18 restaurants in 12 Southeastern states, with two more to come this year, finds old favorites like Golden Tee, Buck Hunter and NTN “hugely popular” with patrons. And in its 175-seat Indigo Joe’s location, footprint is not a problem because games are tucked away inside media cabinets located in the host area.

Playing Our Song
As gaming has evolved, so has “how customers consume music,” according to Dan McAllister, senior vice president of sales for TouchTunes Corp. “Ten years ago it was all about Napster, but what was really happening was that people had begun consuming music differently. They didn’t want to buy it on a CD or an album anymore; they wanted access to as much as possible.”

That evolved into a demand to access their favorite music in their favorite bars and restaurants. TouchTunes’ digital music systems now entertain the masses at more than 38,000 venues nationwide, drawing on a library of more than 2 million licensed tracks. The introduction of PlayPorTT last fall combined digital music and gaming in one portable system; the Barfly interactive entertainment system was recently added to the TouchTunes’ portfolio.

While guests might want to select their own songs, operators may still need to control the overall atmosphere of their venue. AMI’s digital music system allows the operator to select the playlists or genres patrons will see when accessing the library, thus guaranteeing the selections complement the concept and satisfy the crowd. And to ensure the look of the unit coordinates with the venue’s design motif, ECast offers systems that replicate the look of a Wurlitzer jukebox as well as its ECast EQ unit, which sports a contemporary design complete with interactive screens and live Internet feeds of sports and weather information.

Make the Connection
Many gaming systems today ride the Web, meaning operators need to examine their Internet connection choices carefully to ensure the gaming system performs at peak levels, thereby driving the most dollars to the venue’s bottom line. To that end, TouchTunes introduced its Wireless Broadband Solution earlier this year. Priced at $10.45 per month with a two-year contract, the service is available nationally. “Broadband is important because we know that TouchTunes digital jukeboxes with high-speed connections offer a great entertainment experience and generate more revenue,” says McAllister.

It’s also important to recognize potential replacement costs, which could add up if you have to update a product every couple of years to keep pace with the latest technology. “Typically, machines are replaced about every five years, depending on the release of new technologies, etc.,” notes Carlton Geer, managing partner of Global Gaming & Hospitality in Las Vegas. “That keeps the typical floor fresh and new for the customer. During difficult economic times, cap ex replacement decisions are often delayed … creating a ‘catch up’ phenomenon later.” 

Energy is another key consideration for operators looking to install a new gaming or entertainment system. In fact, it’s wise to look at the current electrical system in light of the gaming system’s requirements. John Margold, senior vice president of sales and marketing for AMI Entertainment explains, “Just a few months ago a situation came up [at a tavern] where the machines were constantly going down.” It turned out the venue had an old 100-amp service. “The operator of the tavern had about eight flat-screen TVs and he bought four more to put a big bank on the wall. It was just enough to stress the system too badly. It turned out to be purely because there wasn’t enough amperage.”

If only the solution to all such issues was as clear. Determining which games and entertainment systems will delight and fascinate your guests — thereby drawing them to your venue and keeping them there — is no easy task; what’s hot today is passé tomorrow.

System developers and marketers are constantly churning out enhancements and features to existing systems, thus keeping old favorites feeling fresh, all the while introducing new products to their portfolios (see sidebar). For today’s operator, that means appreciating the art of the game while practicing the science of determining what’s right for your guest, your venue and your bottom line. NCB

Electronic Gaming & Entertainment News

Advances in electronic gaming and entertainment systems continue unabated. Here are some recent releases and announcements:
Merit Entertainment and Rowe International have merged and expanded their reach with the formation of AMI Entertainment Network Inc. The new suburban Philadelphia-based company offers complete entertainment solutions for any venue through its Rowe, Rock-Ola and Almotech jukeboxes, Megatouch game systems, Games Warehouse skill-with-prize games and video entertainment.
NTN Buzztime Inc. announced in early May upgrades to its existing entertainment network, strengthening its leadership position in “narrowcast” network advertising, also known as digital signage. Buzztime will instantly enable current and future subscribers to surround Buzztime’s interactive trivia and sports games with their own branding, advertising and promotional messages. In addition, Buzztime’s online interface offers restaurant operators the ability to update the screen in minutes without assistance from IT specialists.
Tickercom now offers indoor and outdoor tickers, which receive information wirelessly from the Ticker Communications newsroom. Sports, news, entertainment, finance, weather or custom feeds are available for display on any size ticker.
— In late March, AMI Entertainment Inc. and View Interactive Entertainment announced the Vision digital jukebox line was being put back into production and re-branded as an AMI-powered jukebox. Vision is a wall model featuring changeable cosmetic skins that allow operators to affordably change the look and feel of the cabinet art. Its modular assembly enables easy, one-man installations while a swappable payment plate allows multiple configurations for coin, banknote and credit card acceptance.
Incredible Technologies has introduced Target Toss Pro: Lawn Darts, the newest game in the TTP series. An interesting feature is its uncensored “Raw Talk” option, which spews adult-oriented epithets with every shot. Raw Talk is an operator-adjustable feature, and players have the option of disabling it before the game.
Brunswick Virtual Bowling delivers the experience of a real bowling alley in half the space without physical pin-setting machines or bumpers. Featuring a shortened lane, small balls or standard bowling balls, virtual bumpers and minimum ball speed settings, Virtual Bowling is available in a number of themes, from Classic to Space Bowling.
TouchTunes Corp. showcased its leading in-bar interactive entertainment system in March at the 2009 Nightclub & Bar Convention and Trade Show. The integrated system of music, games, interactive media and portability provides a “360-degree experience” for bar patrons, who can view or select digital music, games and other content wherever they happen to be within a bar or restaurant with the TouchTunes PlayPorTT or Barfly solutions.
Arachnid Inc. offers several gaming options that can encourage repeat visits by guests. The company’s Galaxy II is a soft-tip dart system featuring a 15-inch color monitor that also can be used for Fantasee Football and Fantasee Speedway competitions.

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