By Marcus Webb
Vending Times: Vol. 45 No. 2, Feb 2008
Las Vegas – The amusement rentals business is no longer a low-rent niche of the coin-operated music and games industry. At least, not as practiced by Eric Brashear of Amusement Game Rentals. “At AGR, we are redefining the amusement rentals business,” he said.
Most operators are familiar with the low end of the rentals sector, which typically focuses on backyard birthday parties and high school fundraisers. But relatively few operators realize that the top end of this business caters to some of the swankiest private parties and brand-name corporate events in America – with levels of presentation and ROI that far exceed anything most operators ever imagined.
Case in point: Brashear’s team recently loaded up a couple of deluxe trailers and drove them to Phoenix to provide entertainment for a glitzy GoDaddy corporate party. GoDaddy is a high-profile Internet domain registrar and Web hosting company that also sells e-business-related software and services. The marketing-savvy firm has one of the coolest corporate images this side of Apple, bolstered by its Gen-Y attitude, creative online marketing, sexy and attention-getting Super Bowl TV ads and party-hearty ethos.
AGR strives to provide entertainment that is just as cutting-edge – and upscale – as its clients’ businesses. To cite one example, Brashear’s company charges $2,900 for a one-day rental of Global VR’s Nascar Racing game, installed in a real, full-size automobile chassis. Brashear rigged up a mirror-projection system that reflects game images from a monitor hidden under the hood, along with the game’s PCB. From the driver’s point of view, the computer-generated graphics show up on the front windshield, replicating the Nascar experience.
For another $750, AGR will add the client’s corporate logos to the car. This unique, ultra-deluxe presentation is typical of the creative marketing and showmanship practiced by Brashear and his team. Imaginative upgrades of football video-games rent for $1,200 a day. A pool table with customized felt, displaying a client’s choice of image, rents for $1,400 a day – and AGR’s customers happily pay for it.
These are the fees for one game for one night. When a client rents a whole suite of games, the company sometimes earns as much as $65,000 for a single night’s business. A national tour for a world-famous telephone service provider billed at $107,000 in 30 days (the client requested confidentiality). AGR provided rentals for 18 associated events on both coasts simultaneously during the month-long tour.
ROI in this range adds up quickly when you’re servicing 500 events each year. Founded here in 2001, AGR doubled its revenues annually in its first three years. In 2007, revenues grew another 50% beyond 2006 earnings, reaching into seven figures. Bookings for 2008 are already indicating another record-breaking year. “At this point I’m actually hoping things will level off a bit so we can catch our breath,” Brashear said.
Yet AGR is opening a new branch office in Los Angeles, where the showbiz giants are amenable to AGR’s brand of glossy entertainment – and don’t blink at the company’s relatively high prices. After all, a movie studio that spends $500,000 for a wrap party to celebrate the conclusion of shooting a $200 million motion picture won’t blink at spending $50,000 for one night’s game rental fees.
AGR isn’t only raising prices: it’s also raising entertainment standards for the rentals business. Brashear and his team work hard to provide creative, innovative and never-before-seen attractions, often creating specialized equipment for one-of-a-kind clients and events.
For example, Brashear mounted a used snowmobile chassis on a mechanical bull motion base for the debut of extreme show-mobiling at a major sporting event (again, the client’s name is confidential). He charged $14,000 for four days’ rental of this unique attraction. “They were crazy about it,” Brashear said.
For a charity event to benefit the American Heart Association that Brashear co-chaired, AGR designed attractions to appeal to the art-savvy “society” patrons who typically support such philanthropic causes. Pool tables supplied by the vendor featured specialized felts decorated with reproductions of masterpieces by Van Gough and Margritte.
Many rental operators provide photo booths to parties. AGR created its own variation of the concept, with a choice of 16 digital filters that offer hilariously distorted versions of the patron’s faces, plus and Internet component for image sharing and saving.
For Nascar-themed parties, AGR brings not only souped-up video simulators, but also a beat-the-clock, pit crew tire-changing game that Brashear invented. “We’re constantly coming up with cutting-edge ideas and concepts,” he said.
Approximately 80% of AGR’s business currently occurs in its home base of Las Vegas, which remains America’s most popular convention city. Clients include prestigious casinos and resorts such as the Mirage and several other well-known facilities. AGR is always looking for quality companies to refer small events to throughout the U.S.
In addition, the company provides rentals from Orlando, FL to Los Angeles and all points in between. The Las Vegas warehouse stores$1.2 million in inventory, including dozens of drivers of a single brand. Row after row of top-rated video simulators, gaming equipment and other amusement pieces are stored on steel shelving that reaches 25 ft. high.
Equipment is delivered using a fleet of three box van trucks, custom RV’s with full amenities and room for plenty of equipment to handle nationwide tours, and two bright yellow trailers.
To support its busy schedule, the operation draws on the expertise of Brashear’s significant other, Cheryl, who oversees HR and administration. The 16-person staff includes and accounting assistant, a sales assistant, an IT/Web professional, an outside sales rep, Eric’s personal assistant, a producer/director for special events, six warehouse workers and a professional truck driver whose services are contracted as needed.
In Vegas itself, AGR also employs a pool of more than 100 professional casino dealers. These gaming experts cheerfully moon-light to deal blackjack, craps or baccarat at Brashear’s high-roller casino tables, which are offered for private parties right alongside the amusement equipment.
AGR offers a range of themed parties and matching themed equipment. For golf parties, the vendor provides plenty of video-games and ultra-deluxe skill games. “Rat Pack” themed parties feature deluxe blackjack and roulette tables and pool tables of Sinatra, Martin, Davis and their pals. Nascar remains the most popular theme, Brashear noted.
Son of 1980s coin-op basketball game manufacturer Foster Brashear, Eric got involved in the industry with Wedges and Ledges during the Challenger Crane days, and was an operator in Southern California during the 1990s and early 2000s as owner of Spectrum Games. He got started in the rentals business gradually, beginning a decade ago when a client offered him $1,000 to bring a basketball game to Palm Springs for one night.
It didn’t take long for this lifelong industry member to realize that rentals were an untapped goldmine. “Most operators get calls to rent equipment, but they charge far below what the market will bear,” said Brashear. “For Example, they may ask for $150 per game, per day. Their thinking is, ‘Well, that’s a week’s worth of income on location, so that’s a lot of money.”
But in fact, Brashear says his average daily rental is more then two months’ worth of on-location earnings for any given piece. Although the money is good, it’s definitely earned, he adds. “You absolutely must provide clean, attractive, working equipment; show up on time; and do exactly what you say you will do,” he said. “If you fall short on any of those factors, the rentals market is an extremely unforgiving business.”
Today, Brashear puts this philosophy into practice with aggressive fee schedules and exacting service standards. He is proud of having perhaps the highest rate card in the U.S. rentals segment. In fact, he happily provides his rate card to any other operators who rent games – to encourage them to bring their prices up to current standards, he says.
And, while many operators strongly prefer to keep a low profile, Brashear also pens a regular newspaper column in Exhibit City News, a newspaper for the trade show industry. The column serves as one form of promotion for AGR, along with Internet marketing and ongoing phone sales by staff. The vendor also works with well over half of the professional party planners in Las Vegas.
Nationwide, Brashear estimates that few than 50 operators specialize in amusement rentals in this league, with perhaps two or three notable ones in each major city. While the niche is obviously lucrative for those who can compete at this level, it’s also challenging. “The kind of street operator who is more comfortable in a mom-and-pop bar than in a swanky restaurant might not be a good cultural fit for the high-end, high-stress rentals business,” Brashear said.
“At the same time,” he continued, “we occasionally find that we have to remind some of the professional party planners who deal with the wealthy individuals and high-profile corporations that these clients don’t want the cheapest – they want the best. They want to be dazzled. They want to have their socks knocked off. If you can do that, with reliability, integrity and a bit of imagination and innovation, you can be a success in the amusement rentals business.”