Mike Abecassis, owner of GameTime and General Vending, will deliver the opening keynote at the Self-Service Innovation Summit at the Loews Coral Gables on Dec. 4.

The family entertainment business took a hit during COVID-19, but the industry is back on a growth track as consumers are shifting from playing videos games at home and seeking more social experiences.

According to Technavio, a market research firm, the family entertainment market is expected to expand at a combined annual growth rate of 12.29% through 2026.

For GameTime — a Fort Lauderdale, Florida-based family entertainment center chain offering interactive games, full service dining and sports bars — self service has played an important role in putting the company on a post-COVID growth track, according to founder and owner Mike Abecassis. The company operates family entertainment centers in Miami, Daytona, Fort Myers, Ocoee, Tampa and Kissimmee.

Abecassis will deliver the opening keynote for the Self-Service Innovation Summit at 5:10 p.m., Monday, Dec. 4 at the Loews Coral Gables. The session is titled, “Migration to Self-Service: A Roadmap For Success.” The summit is run by Networld Media Group. (To register, click here.)

His self service journey, which began as a snack and beverage vending operation in 1990, makes for an enticing start for this year’s summit being held Dec. 4 to 6.

After expanding from snack and beverage vending into amusement machines, Abecassis launched a small arcade chain in 2005 called “Token Café.” That same year, he acquired General Vending, an existing amusement route operation he merged into his own route operation.

In 2010, he acquired two GameWorks locations that eventually became GameTime.

Abecassis offered insights of his journey in his multi-faceted gaming operation during an email interview. Following are excerpts of the interview.

Q. Florida is one of the most competitive entertainment markets in the U.S. The challenges of being in a competitive market are obvious — but are there any benefits to operating in such a competitive market?

A. We have found that markets with less amusement offering are actually more challenging to become relevant to new guests. Florida, on the other hand, offers many competitive venues, and the guest mindset is to utilize out-of-home entertainment. This offers us a significantly large audience.

Q. What do you think distinguishes GameTime from other South Florida family entertainment centers?

A. Our venues are designed and built to be competitive with most any other adult driven entertainment venue, but our core audience is a family. By offering a clean and sophisticated venue that engages families we see more annual visits from the same guests and allows us to operate in an environment more focused on locals.

Q. Game manufacturers introduce a lot of games, requiring you to be on top of new games. How are you able to do this?

A. We are very data driven in how we operate our games department. Our guests provide clear feedback with their play activity. We invest regularly in evaluating the guest play and other impacts of the guest experience. Our games department is operated by a very strong administrative team with hundreds of years’ combined experience. New game tests and acquisitions are managed by me personally. I travel the world visiting venues and trade shows each year. The process is not formal but, before rolling out a new title, we complete extensive review of results in other venues.

Q. Has inflation affected customers’ spending habits for amusements?

A. Dividing our operating up by department provides a better view of what impact this is having. Our food and beverage departments have kept up with price increases customary with others in the space. Guests seem to adapt to this increase without much concern. Our parties and banquets are similar to food and beverage in that guests adapt to or accept the increase without concern. In the game/entertainment department, we see a different response. As we increase the per-game cost at the game level, the guests are far more aware and vocal as to “how expensive” it is to play. The public has a large and regular sample set to consider when dining out, but games they feel are the same and should all be priced the same. The challenge is to overcome inflationary pressures that directly impact our games without passing along too large of an increase. This balance has not yet been accomplished and may just take time for guests to adjust.

Q. One of the biggest changes for amusements in recent years has been the introduction of cashless payment. Are you still accepting cash, and if so, why?

A. Cashless payments are an important opportunity for growth. Capitalizing on this opportunity has been and will continue to be an area of investment. Our GameTime venues currently accept cash in all areas of the venue. However, we have deployed a new self-service gift card kiosk as the only way of paying for a product in a newly acquired venue, Dezerland Action Park in Miami. By leveraging state-of-the-art management software, the segmented systems around the park integrated into a unified platform, streamlining operations and maximizing efficiency. Meanwhile, the transition to auto gratuity is under way and will be fully implemented by the close of this calendar year. The next step in limiting cash should be complete by the first quarter of 2024 in all of our venues.

Q. How did GameTime weather the COVID-19 challenge?

A. GameTime, like many others in our space, faced countless challenges, many of which were overcome internally. GameTime was faced with two landlord challenges we were unable to overcome due to external factors. One landlord had turned their property over to their bank and the bank was defaulting on $1.9 million owed to us to complete the project. The other was a landlord that sold to a developer. This new developer wanted to kick us out to redevelop the project. We filled Chapter 11 bankruptcy protection and resolved both of these issues. No other long lasting effects came from the six-month process.

Q. Has the business on a per-location basis reached its 2019 sales?

A. Two-Thousand-Twenty-Two was artificially inflated by free money for most of the U.S. population and was the highest year for any single venue. Two-Thousand-Twenty-Three has seen an expected slowdown but not more than anticipated.

Q. Has 2023 surpassed the 2019 level?

A. Yes.

Q. The labor shortage is one of the biggest challenges facing all businesses today. Are you able to find qualified help, and if so, what methods do you use?

A. The application of self-service aspects of our venues have downsized our staffing needs. This was primarily a focus of reducing guest interactions for COVID. The net result is our venues operate with fewer team members without impacting the guest experience negatively. In some cases, I feel it has positively impacted how guests perceive their visit. The challenge for skilled positions has been difficult; over the last six months we have seen this reverse course. There was no magic build to staffing; it was a challenge.

Q. More and more restaurants and other retail venues are introducing game machines as a way to keep customers on site. Have these non-traditional gaming venues become a noticeably competitive factor for you?

A. The advent of game machines in food and beverage offerings is not new. This is the third time since I have been in the space we have seen this attempt. Concepts like Beef O’ Brady’s, Buffalo Wind Wings and countless others have offered games, removed games and increased or decreased the size of the space allocated time and time again. The factor to consider is whether or not a guest is visiting with the intent to dedicate time to the games and “a night out” or just playing a few games since they are available. Once the games become an attraction, this changes the dynamics of the guest mindset.

Q. As restaurants and bars have added games. Do you see a future for the traditional stand-alone arcade?

A. Stand alone arcades can still be profitable, but growth is hard to come by. The market for guests looking for a single experience is very small.

Q. Immersive experiences such as virtual reality, augmented reality and mixed reality have become more prevalent in recent years. To what extent will these attractions dominate the family entertainment center?

A. The application of virtual reality in most any form is interesting to the guest, but it has a negative impact on the guest experience we provide. In our environment we find the greatest success when a guest puts down their personal device and engages with their loved ones or friends. Virtual reality offers an experience similar to a guest staying on their personal device from the perspective of engaging their loved ones and friends they are visiting with. When a guest enters a VR experience, they are cut off from the thrill of sharing the game experience with their loved ones and friends. While this experience may be enjoyable, we lose the benefits of connecting our guests together. Guests tend to repeat the experiences that are most unique and engaging. Finding a human connection is the emotion that is lost in VR.

Q. Are there any gaming technologies that you are especially enthusiastic about?

A. The application of technology allows some quicker or smoother guest experiences, but we find the best producing games are still the most physically engaging games, not technology facing.

Q. Is General Vending, your route amusement business, growing?

A. No, we have not grown or focused much on this, and the results are as expected, the business is declining.

Q. Do you see a future for the amusement route business?

A. There is a place for the amusement route business. However, in our case we have found the results in our brick-and-mortar operations have been better for us. The route business has been consolidating and I think this will continue. This will create opportunities for some players in this space.

Q. What is GameTime’s biggest challenge today?

A. GameTime is just getting back to focusing on new venue development since pre-COVID days. Reengaging landlords and restarting the development pipe is a long process.

Q. What are your growth plans, if any?

A. Pre-COVID we had identified our second market to enter and expand in line with what we had done in Florida. This plan has been modified geographically, but there are many exciting things to come for the GameTime brand.

(To register for the Self-Service Innovation Summit, click here.)

About Networld Media Group

Founded in 2000, Networld Media Group is a leading media communications company specializing in digital media, events and associations in the technology, restaurant, banking, and retail industries. It’s media brands include ATMmarketplace.com, DigitalSignageToday.com, FastCasual.com, KioskMarketplace.com, QSRweb.com, RetailCustomerExperience.com and RewardsThatMatter.com. Events under the Networld umbrella include the Fast Casual Executive Summit, the Restaurant Franchising & Innovation Summit and the Self-Service Innovation Summit.

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