What does a company that built its business by hosting birthday parties at its arcade play spaces do when a pandemic shutters its locations? It brings the party to you.
Main Event, the entertainment, gaming and dining brand with 44 locations in 17 states, has pivoted to create new ways of connecting with customers while its party centers are closed.
Right now, those innovations aren’t bringing in revenue, but they are generating a wealth of goodwill, and could prove to be its best advertising play yet to drive future sales.
Dallas-based Main Event closed all of its locations March 17, and a week later on March 23, began hosting virtual birthday parties on Instagram Live. Every day at 2 p.m. CST, Main Event employees, often with the help of a celebrity host for a kid’s party, use Instagram Live to give a shoutout to birthday celebrants.
As states have begun lifting stay-at-home orders, some Main Event locations have begun to reopen. There were five locations open as of May 12, three in Georgia and two in Oklahoma. But with the majority of locations still closed, the virtual parties will continue for the time being and could become a permanent part of the company’s social media outreach.
“Even though our doors are closed, we still believe that our mission is to deliver an experience for people who are celebrating a birthday regardless of whether or not they can be together,” Sarah Beddoe, chief brand officer at Main Event told CO—.
All of our centers are closed right now, but that doesn’t mean we can’t still be our brand.
Sarah Beddoe, chief brand officer, Main Event
‘Delivering a slice of joy’
To get a birthday shoutout, parents, family members or friends send a private Instagram message to Main Event at its Instagram page, @mymainevent, with the name of the person having the birthday and some information about them. Each day the host reads the list of birthday celebrants and delivers each one a personal greeting.
Then, Main Event places a call to a birthday child selected in advance for a special video party. The host sings “Happy Birthday” to the child and the child wins a birthday party at their local Main Event center when it reopens and a toy from the Main Event Winner’s Choice shops, where game players redeem prize points.
For many of the shoutouts, a celebrity host from a popular kids’ show or movie places the call. Celebrity hosts have included J.D. McCrary, voice of Young Simba in 2019 live-action “The Lion King”; Laya DeLeon Hayes, voice of the cartoon character Doc McStuffins; Caitlin Carmichael of TV series, “Dwight in Shining Armor”; and Siena Agudong of the Netflix show, “No Good Nick.”
The celebrity hosts do not get paid to appear, and the special video parties are free.
“This is not a for-profit initiative,” Beddoe said. “This is really just good will.”
“All of our centers are closed right now, but that doesn’t mean we can’t still be our brand. It doesn’t mean we can’t still deliver a slice of joy and smiles and make people feel special,” she said.
During the first month Main Event hosted the birthday calls, it gave shoutouts to 600 birthday celebrants, and had some 12,000 people tune in for the daily videos.
Main Event typically hosts 50,000 birthday parties a year at its centers. Each Main Event center typically draws about 500,000 visitors a year, and the company likes to boast that collectively all of the 44 Main Event locations attract more visitors each year than Yellowstone National Park and Disneyland combined.
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What will be the new normal for ‘eatertainment’?
Main Event now joins Disneyland and other entertainment and experiential venues in one of the business segments expected to be hit hardest by the COVID-19 crisis — one often called “eatertainment.”
An April Coresight Research survey found that 73% of U.S. consumers expect to continue to avoid public places or change travel arrangements even after lockdowns end.
More than half — 56% — anticipate having less physical interaction, and 41.3% expect the severe impact of the pandemic to last more than six months from its start in March.
Another leading entertainment, dining and arcade chain, Dave & Buster’s, which is publicly traded, has had to take on private equity investment to address a cash shortfall after all of its 137 locations closed in March, as analysts have forecast that consumers will be reluctant to visit places like arcades even after restrictions are lifted.
Main Event is preparing for “a new normal” after restrictions lift and is developing policies to ensure that families feel safe returning to their centers when they reopen, Beddoe said.
“We want to make sure that in this new normal we’re able to provide a very safe experience but also allow people to come in and be together and have a great time,” she said.
The company has added sanitation stations throughout its centers, and is looking into other operational changes going forward, she said.
Home deliveries of party games, food
As the COVID-19 crisis intensified, Main Event temporarily tested a party delivery service at its center in Plano, Texas, located near the company’s Dallas headquarters. Customers could pay to have food and games delivered to their homes.
Initial response from consumers to that small pilot test was positive, Beddoe said, but that initiative was suspended as the centers closed. It is an idea that could be revived as centers reopen, to provide customers with a way to have a Main Event party at their homes, she said.
“We learned a lot in a very short amount of time and I think it’s a strategy that could work for us long term if we scale it across our entire business,” she said.
Beddoe also expects that even after the centers reopen, the Instagram Live parties will continue in some form because they have proven to be so popular. “This has taught us that technology can bring us closer together immediately, and you don’t always have to wait for a birthday party to celebrate a birthday,” she said.
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Published May 18, 2020