Passport to Leadership
The family entertainment center business has matured into a global industry, with an established presence in Asia, Europe, the Middle East, Africa, and the Americas. Funworld spoke with FEC operators from around the globe to share how they got to the top, the challenges they face, their approaches to FEC ownership/management, and their advice to those who aspire to join them as FEC owners in an international community.
Getting to the Top
Luciana Periales is president and CEO of Neverland, which operates 34 FECs in Argentina and four FECs in Spain. Neverland’s FECs offer indoor roller coasters, bowling, and more than 2,300 games, including redemption, midways, kiddie games, and virtual reality.
Neverland was founded in 1976 by Periales’ uncle Marcelo Periales. “I started working in the family business when I was 18 years old; first as a birthday cheerleader, and later I carried out promotions,” says Luciana Periales. Going on to study marketing and then working elsewhere for six years, she rejoined the family FEC business.
“After 14 years of close work with Marcelo, I became the CEO of Neverland,” Periales says. “I truly believe I inherited my uncle’s passion for this industry.”
Daisy Wang is chair of the Hainan Carnival Entertainment Management Co., which owns 20 Wonderland FECs across China. She started the company in 1992, after working with FEC industry expert Jack Campbell to open a small FEC in the former 1990 Asian Games Village in Beijing.
“With the help of family members’ investment, I started my personal entrepreneurship journey,” Wang says. “Aided by partners and investors who later joined the company, we have created six brands: Wonderland, DuLu Island, DuLu Town, Dululu Growing Academy, POCOCO Golf, and Jolly Jungle.”
Sharon Farrell is owner/managing director of Fun Galaxy with three locations in Ireland, all of which she developed and opened. Collectively, Fun Galaxy FECs include features such as toddler areas, soft play, sports areas, climbing walls of varying sizes, trampolines, inflatables, role-playing activities, gourmet cafes, and pre-school/after-school care areas.
“I became involved in FECs by complete accident!” says Farrell. “I was on a career break after the birth of my second son, when I visited an FEC in our local area along with a friend. Following a period of intensive research, I saw clearly that there was space in our community for another FEC. We opened at the start of what was a summer of torrential rain and were packed out from day one!”
Christine Buhr is owner/CEO of Shakers Fun Centre in Calgary, Alberta, Canada. Her 7-acre FEC was originally designed as an outdoor go-kart park with two tracks built on rural land. But soon after the design was completed, Shakers Fun Centre added an 18-hole mini-golf course, bumper cars, water wars, and 20,000 square feet in building structures that house an indoor playground, laser tag arena, 22-foot-tall climbing wall, mini-bowling, birthday party rooms, kitchen, and a concession area with a full redemption arcade.
“We recognized that there wasn’t enough for kids and families to do together in the city of Calgary,” says Buhr. “We saw an opportunity to develop a go-kart operation, which quickly evolved into the FEC we have today.”
Running the Operation
Effective, insightful management is central to the success of these FEC owners.
At Neverland, this translates into “targeting the whole family, creating spaces and services related to each age and moment,” says Periales. To keep them coming back, “we are constantly offering diverse promotions with gifts for our customers; we motivate them to visit us over and over again,” she notes. “We are also strongly committed to digital communication, to e-commerce. Neverland is one of the first companies in Argentina to sell credit online.”
Periales’ rise through the ranks prepared her to be CEO of Neverland and to delegate responsibilities to others within the company.
In contrast, newbie Farrell says she started her first FEC thinking, “I was superhuman and could do everything myself!” But now that Fun Galaxy has three busy locations with more than 130 full- and part-time staff members, Farrell has assembled teams of managers who run each center’s day-to-day operations.
“I am very quick to let teams know what is involved and what I want from them,” Farrell says.
Wonderland does its best to run a lean, efficient operation. “All of our FECs are directly operated projects,” says Wang. “We have not invested too much in advertising and promotion. Instead, our goal is to succeed based on remarkable service, strict budgeting, and persistence.”
Before opening Shakers Fun Centre, Buhr had never worked at an FEC. “I had no idea how to run an FEC; there are so many elements that make this type of business complex, from indoor/outdoor operations, event management, equipment repair to serving alcohol,” she says. “I learned everything by just throwing myself into the job, which required a lot of sweat and tears for the first few years of operation.”
Today, Buhr is often asked for advice—everything from creating a culture to developing employees.
“Our management success lies in building up a family culture of caring and connection among our staff, which has fostered a team of leaders who go above and beyond in delivering great customer service,” she says. “When you care about your staff and they care and support each other, they end up treating your customers the same way. We get great reviews about our staff all the time, and I attribute it to the great culture we have in the organization.”
Overcoming Challenges and Perceptions
Financing can be a real challenge for FEC owners worldwide. In Farrell’s case, the Irish banks “seemed to put every obstacle in my way and have an exclusionary attitude toward FECs, suggesting that as they are only play structures made of steel, they would not be worth anything if the business goes bust—other than for scrap metal,” she says. “I took this uninformed bias on as a campaign, because I knew the system had to change for the good of all developing businesses.”
Buhr faced similar challenges getting financing, which she too overcame. Today, Shakers’ biggest challenge is the oil-based economy in Alberta, which has been depressed by low fuel prices since 2014. The good news is that “children keep growing up and having birthdays, so we’re always seeing new faces in our FEC,” she says.
Argentina’s depressed economy, combined with a 2015 flood that devastated Neverland’s headquarters in Rio Ceballos, made Periales’ tenure difficult since she became President/CEO in 2013. “Nevertheless, we have not had losses because we restructured the company and worked a lot on its costs—and most importantly, we have been focused on growth, opening new locations, remodeling the older ones, and diversifying,” she says.
Being a woman and leading an FEC can also be challenging, according to Farrell.
“When I get potential suppliers in, they often don’t anticipate that I am well aware of what needs to be done and how an issue can or should be fixed,” she said.
“Women in leadership positions all face the same pressures,” says Periales. “The secret is how to deal with them. What keeps me motivated to continue growing is being in the attractions industry at such a high level and being a mother at the same time. Furthermore, I believe we all have to work on prejudices, those that both men and women have regarding each other’s position. I will always support diversity.”
Advice to Entrepreneurs
Having blazed trails as FEC owners, Buhr, Farrell, Periales, and Wang offer some sage advice for any entrepreneurial spirit wanting to achieve the same success.
“Ask yourself, ‘why am I starting a business?’” says Wang. “Ask yourself this question 100 times and write down the answers. Once you choose to start a business, stick with it using persistence and faith.”
“Do your research, know what you want, and go for it,” says Farrell. “Be prepared for any question you may be asked when looking for finance. Have a clear and detailed vision that reads well and is compelling on paper. Don’t elaborate on your cash-flow projections as the finance companies will see past this. Keep it affordable and realistic, and only borrow what you really need. And once you know your business, be confident about what you have to say.”
“Don’t play small because you are a woman,” says Buhr. “You are capable of accomplishing anything you want. Owning an FEC will be a challenging adventure but full of rich and rewarding opportunities!”
“We work hard to provide happiness, entertainment, safe and good experiences, and fun, memorable moments, which are the reasons to start the day in the best way,” concludes Periales. “This is what I would like to highlight for anyone who wants to be part of this beautiful industry: Come, join, and let’s live this passion together!”