On March 17, Main Event made the tough, but inevitable call to close all 44 of its locations. Like fellow eatertainment peers, such as Dave & Buster’s, which shuttered 137 restaurants three days later, there was no true to-go and takeout lifeline to chase. You can’t bowl curbside.
The Texas-based chain did pilot “eatertainment delivery” in early April via Uber Eats at its Plano center. Customers could order food and add things like at-home laser tag, Velcro darts, and “Frozen 2” bowling. Items sold individually or in a bundle. Additionally, guests received two 30-minute game cards to activate as soon as Main Event reopened.
Yet the real pivot centered on the oft-labeled “new normal” in an anything but common environment. While reopening remains high-stakes industry-wide, it’s something altogether different in eatertainment. Pre-COVID, these concepts inspired visits through experience, not food and beverage, with engagement, connection, and social gathering leading the charge. The number of touchpoints dwarf a typical restaurant. And, in many ways, their customer promise ran right through the center of what officials told people to avoid.
“It has been a challenge,” Main Event CEO Chris Morris says. “There’s no playbook for this. Nobody has ever experienced anything like this.”
Morris says coronavirus actually galvanized Main Event, however, as it spent several months redefining every aspect of its four-wall setup.
“And what we’ve leaned on,” he says, “is just the same guiding principles that we used to govern our business before this, our core values and commitment to our guests to keep everyone safe. And, ultimately, our commitment that we want every guest to walk out the center with a big smile on their face.”
“It’s really that simple,” adds Morris, a former president at California Pizza Kitchen and CFO at On The Border and Chuck E. Cheese parent CEC Entertainment. “So yes, our business can be complicated, but in the end it’s not that complicated, because we have a team of people completely committed to a service model that delivers an unforgettable experience.”
As of June 17, Main Event had 28 of its 44 centers reopened, with nine on deck for the following day.
It’s been a peculiar balancing act thus far—trying to satisfy safety concerns so customers can forget about the crisis for a bit and just enjoy themselves, yet also display clearly how much was done to get there.
Main Event is calling the effort “Play Smart. Play Safe,” and it runs the operational gamut.
Here are some changes:
To start, employees receive temperature checks before each shift and wear masks and gloves.
There are now dedicated cleaning teams to roam and clean all surfaces throughout the day as guests play.
Main Event added 6-foot markers to ensure social distancing. On average, each center features more than 100 signs, and the brand limits capacity per official guidelines.
Laser tag implemented a new socially distant experience with “safety zones.”
In the arcade, Main Event turned off select games and is offering gloves to anybody who wants them.
The brand’s most recognizable offering might be bowling. Morris says Main Event had to completely reengineer the option. It’s now a valet service model where Main Event takes care of everything. Employees bring balls and shoes to customers. Once guests are done, they walk away.
Every other billiards and shuffleboard table were closed.
The gravity ropes course requires masks and has cut down capacity.
Mini golf is keeping one hole in between parties, and asking guests to sanitize hands prior to putting.
In the dining areas, Main Event is seating guests at every other table and handing out disposable menus.
The rock climbing area is making sure every other route is open and requiring face coverings as well.
Main Event put sanitation stations throughout each store, including the entryway so guests can sanitize as they transition from game to game.
Lastly, the chain introduced contactless payment for activities, food, and game cards, and installed Plexiglas safety shields at registers.
Although a small sample to date, Morris says the top-to-bottom changes have been met with “overwhelming favorable response.”
“We are getting incredible response from our guests just on how serious we’ve taken this,” he says.
On the employee front, Main Event tried to stay connected from the onset of COVID-19. Morris says they contacted all 5,000 team members each week, sharing business updates and asking whether or not employees planned to return—a significant concern for operators amid expanded unemployment benefits.
“We’ve had well over a 95 percent affirmative rate throughout that entire process,” he says.
“Once we started to reopen our markets we were already in a very good position just because of the level of engagement we had with our team members, and that is something that cannot be understated,” Morris adds. “It’s center and absolute core to what we do.”
In recent days, Main Event’s communication shifted to educating employees on what the brand is doing to keep them safe in addition to customers. And if they don’t pass the health screen, they’re sent home immediately.
Main Event created social distancing markers in the back of the house. So high-traffic employee areas practice social distancing just like dining rooms and gaming areas.
“Our team members—one, they felt great about the level of engagement we’ve maintained throughout all of this,” Morris says. “And two, I think they really felt great about the fact we started with them first. We made sure that they were going to be safe.”
Morris admits Main Event won’t be able to bring back all employees, at least not until sales volumes climb back. But the key, he adds, is just to stay transparent throughout. Staffing levels will ramp up when business does (the chain was serving 20 million guests annually before).
Moving forward, Morris says Main Event wants to play a role in the COVID-19 recovery that, like its challenges, can be unique to the eatertainment sector, too.
“And we want to be that solution in all of our communities for our guests to be able to get out of their house, have some fun, enjoy some nice food, have some nice entertainment, but still be able to stay connected to their family and friends and loved ones,” he says. “That’s what we’re doing and we’re going to continue to do it.