Virtual reality arcades confront business reality

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VR1, in Eagle, is the oldest of the Treasure Valley’s four virtual reality arcades. Photo by Sharon Fisher

Virtual reality has been the next big thing for a number of years, but, so far, VR arcades haven’t been the moneymaker that some have hoped.

In December, IMAX announced it was shutting down its remaining three VR arcades, after shutting down four already, and a number of other major VR entertainment projects have also shuttered.

The Treasure Valley is no exception. Like any business, people sometimes open a VR arcade thinking they can make a lot of money but without doing basic business planning, said Igor Bjekic, owner of VR Tech Lounge. He said he knows of two or three arcades that have opened in the Treasure Valley and then closed within three months.

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Matthew Lind. Photo by Sharon Fisher

Part of the problem is getting people to try VR games in the first place. Some people are shy about putting on headsets, and the value proposition isn’t always clear.

“If they go to the movies and spend $17, they know what they’re getting,” said Matthew Lind, CEO of Labyrinth Escape Games. “There’s not enough awareness that an hour of VR is worth the cost.”

In fact, several arcades take advantage of their locations next to trendy eateries by offering patrons something to do while they’re waiting for their table.

The VR arcade landscape

At three years old, VR1, in Eagle, is the oldest of the four Treasure Valley virtual reality arcades. (A fourth, located in Boise Towne Square, declined an interview.) CEO Brendan Smythe got into VR through architecture and design.

“Kids started coming in, and we realized there’s a whole entertainment side to this,’” he said.

VR1 has seven stations – six wired and one wireless. Nominally, the price is $25 per hour, but often there are weekday specials, Smythe said.

The arcade is particularly busy during school breaks, he said. Though it’s located in Eagle, the arcade draws from locations as far away as Nampa and East Boise, he said.

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Nampa’s Labyrinth Escape Games is located in a vintage brick building downtown. Photo by Sharon Fisher

Nampa is the home base for Labyrinth Escape Games, which has brand affiliates in about a dozen states, said CEO Matthew Lind. Opened in July, it’s located downtown in an old brick storefront, formerly a used bookstore, with a great look for the company’s line of escape rooms.

“Strip malls don’t normally get 12-foot ceilings,” he said.

Labyrinth has four VR stations. The arcade offers a $10 15-minute introduction, and typically charges about $26 per person per hour for the actual games.

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VR Tech Lounge includes a party room. Photo by Sharon Fisher

Meridian hosts the VR Tech Lounge, which opened in April 2018 and has eight stations, which is also priced at $24.99 per hour. Like the other two, it offers a variety of specials, such as a date night, as well as food, Bjekic said.

In 2016, when the first Treasure Valley arcade opened, there were about 200 pieces of VR content available. Today, there are thousands. In addition, in some arcades, people can log into their own Steam accounts, allowing them to save their content when they play at the arcade.

Going corporate

In addition to gaming, some arcades are looking at the corporate market to both expand their clientele and keep the arcade busy during the day, when business is typically slower. VR1 typically rents out the facility a couple of times a month to clients like AT&T and Dutch Bros. A two-hour party costs about $300, while four hours costs $500. Companies can also bring in their own catering or food trucks.

Lind is looking into offering his facility for training during the day on topics like law enforcement, fire safety and food safety, once he finds some good software.

“It’s a huge potential area,” he said.

VR is a much cheaper way of offering training than requiring a shooting range and role players, he said.

VR Tech Lounge isn’t looking much at corporate, but is working with schools and other student groups to offer STEM education programs. The organization draws from the West Ada school district, and as far away as Nampa and Kuna.

Customer service

Because VR is still new, customer service is a priority.

“There’s a learning curve,” Smythe said.

VR1 has guides to help people put on and take off the headsets, and learn how to play the games. Lack of such customer service is a big reason arcades close, he said.

“If you’re not being coached, if something is pulling on your hair and you have to fix it yourself, it’s not a fun experience,” he said.

At Labyrinth, staff members are with customers the entire time, Lind said.

Labor costs are a big factor for VR arcades in general. VR1 has nine employees. Two are college students with the remainder high-school students, who all work under 20 to 30 hours per week. VR Tech Lounge has seven employees, and Labyrinth has five employees, but it will likely add another when it opens a new escape room, Lind said.

Ultimately, Treasure Valley VR arcades are more cooperative than competitive, Smythe said, because it’s in their best interests for customers to enjoy whatever arcade they visit and keep coming back for more.

“The last thing I want to see is another arcade open up and close,” Smythe said.

Small Business Spotlight: Ola family operates ranch for over 100 years

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Joyce Biggers runs cows on her Ola ranch, just as her great-grandfather did more than a hundred years ago. Photo by Sharon Fisher.

A small business isn’t necessarily “small” geographically. Sometimes it can sprawl over dozens of acres.

That’s the case for the Sherman Glenn Ranch, a 125-acre cattle operation recently designated by the state of Idaho as a Century Ranch after being in continuous operation for more than 100 years. Joyce Biggers can trace the family ranch back to her great-grandfather, John Thomas Glenn, who bought its first 40 acres for $300 in 1902, adding to it over time as land became available.

The ranch is in the unincorporated town of Ola, founded in 1882. It’s located northeast of Emmett; you drive by Gov. Brad Little’s place on the way.

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Ola Elementary School, on the National Register of Historic Places, is on land Biggers’ great-grandfather donated. Photo by Sharon Fisher.

John Thomas – “that’s the way he always referred to himself,” Biggers said – was instrumental in the creation of the town as well, donating land for the schoolhouse, church and cemetery. The current school – the third one constructed on the property – is on the National Register of Historic Places.

The property has always been a cattle ranch, dating back to when ranchers took their cattle to graze in the summer and brought them back home in the winter.

“Back in those days, they had open range,” Biggers said. “It wasn’t so important to have your deeded ground.”

In the summer, ranchers took the beef cattle to Upper Payette Lakes and brought them back to the Lower Squaw Creek area, near Sweet, in the winter.

“He had quality cattle that he ran,” she said. “Ranching and livestock were pretty important to him.”

Like many farmers and ranchers, John Thomas did other things to get by. He was elected to the Idaho Legislature and was in favor of women’s suffrage when it came up for a vote 100 years ago, Biggers said. He served just the one term, by his own wish.

“He was quoted as saying he would rather spend his time working for agriculture than sitting in the Legislature,” she said.

John Thomas’ son Sherman – after whom the ranch is named – was just 3 years old when he was run over by a wagon.

“He had a lot of damage to his spine and ribs,” Biggers said. “In those days, the doctors didn’t know a lot about taking care of things like that. They took him to see quite a few doctors, and none could help him any.”

The upshot was that Sherman didn’t grow much.

“His head and his hands were all normal size, but the trunk didn’t grow,” Biggers said, estimating his height at 4’8”. “But he could do anything a 6-foot-tall person could. In his mind he wasn’t little – he was a big man. He always rode the biggest horse in the country.”

At 14, Sherman was put in charge of running the cows and horses at Upper Payette Lakes.

“That blows my mind,” Biggers said. “If you put a 14-year-old up there now, you’d be in trouble.”

Later, he also added sheep to the ranch’s livestock.

Like his father, Sherman did other work as well. At the time, Emmett and Ola were still part of Boise County; Gem County wasn’t split off from it until 1915. Thanks to all his riding through the countryside, the assessor hired him as deputy assessor.

“Then, when the election came up, he ran as assessor, and the guy who hired him became his deputy,” Biggers said.

Sherman also ran the Ola store.

“He sold it and bought it back and leased it many times,” she said.

Sherman married and had six children – five girls and one boy, Asa, who was Biggers’ father. When her dad was little, he tended the sheep and brought them in at night to protect them from coyotes. Her dad bought the ranch from Sherman around 1945.

“My dad just ran cattle,” Biggers said. “He took a lot of pride in Hereford cattle. He pretty much just stayed here and worked on the ranch all his life.”

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Joyce and Butch Biggers. Photo by Sharon Fisher.

Biggers, one of her dad’s two daughters, and her husband, Butch, bought the ranch from her dad.

“We helped him on it, and we bought it fairly early on in our marriage life,” she said. “We’ve had it most of the time. When we haven’t had it, we’ve been up here helping him. I used to work along beside him – help build fence, and look after the cattle and irrigate and hay a little bit.”

Like her ancestors, Biggers also worked off the ranch, as a secretary for Idaho Power responsible for updating substation blueprints.

Sherman Glenn Ranch no longer makes much of its own hay, and it’s sold much of its cattle. Instead, it takes in cattle from other people during the summer and runs them on its flood-irrigated pastureland.

“We wanted to keep up with haying, but when the equipment got old, it didn’t seem feasible to update it,” Biggers said. “We sold most of our cows, and we buy what hay we need. That way, we didn’t have to buy equipment, and we didn’t have to hay.”

The next generation is already in place to take on management of the ranch. Joyce and Butch have three children – two girls and one boy. Her son, Levi, lives in a trailer on the ranch and helps out quite a bit.

“He hopes to take the place over someday,” she said.

Who knows – in time, Sherman Glenn Ranch could become a double-century ranch.

What is the Century Farm/Ranch program?

The Century Farm/Ranch program began in 1990 as part of the centennial celebration of Idaho’s statehood. The program recognizes a farm or ranch owned and operated in Idaho by the same family for at least 100 years with at least 40 acres of the original parcel of land still maintained as part of the present holding.

Under the program, more than 400 farms and ranches statewide have been designated by the Idaho Department of Agriculture and the Idaho State Historical Society.