When you step into a modern family entertainment center, you're often greeted with an array of dazzling high-tech video games employing the latest audio, video, and special effects. But the recent 11th Annual Classic Video Games Tournament at Funspot in Weirs, New Hampshire, showed there's quite a following for the older games as well.
The tournament attracted 160 players from around the world and demonstrated that the marketing instincts of Funspot's 78-year-old founder, Bob Lawton, are as keen as they were 57 years ago.
In 1952, at the age of only 21, Lawton borrowed a few hundred dollars from his grandmother to start a miniature golf course and arcade named Weirs Sports Center. Fifty-seven years later, that start-up is now Funspot, a 70,000-square-foot family entertainment center that was officially recognized in June 2008 by the Guinness Book of World Records as the largest arcade (number of games) in the world.
Lawton is still at the helm, working every day of the week at his pride and joy. Over the years, he's seen booms and busts in the FEC business, and he's learned the secrets to surviving and thriving. “You always have to be innovating,” he contended. “That's absolutely one of the things that's kept us in business. We just know how to generate maximum income.”
For instance, Funspot's miniature golf course has no attendant – it is completely self-service. Also, he decided early on against having attendants walking around with cash, so he installed numerous “bill breakers” for guests to use. In 1971, he opened an antique arcade with about three dozen machines dating back to the early 1920s, all restored. Then in the late 1970s, he began to change his old pinball machines over to video games. “From 1978 to 1990, video games were huge – it was and amazing time,” he said.
Lawton noted that when the arcade video game industry hit tough times in 1990, FECs were fortunate to have another innovation: “Winning tickets for prizes. My guess is if that hadn't developed after what happened in 1990, we wouldn't be here – that's what saved this industry.”
In addition to the arcade games and mini-golf, Funspot's other offerings include a bowling center, golf simulator, bingo hall, tavern, and classic arcade game museum. The classic games arcade may not be the biggest money maker, but that's not the whole story. “It's a wonderful thing because we have about 200 pre-1987 games,” Lawton said, “and people come from all over the world for it. It's not a big profit center for us, but it's a lot of fun!”