WARM GLOW: Hot Wheels Monster Trucks Glow Party arena tour adds a luminous new twist to a traditional attraction. (Courtesy Family Entertainment Holdings)
Live Family Entertainment Is On A Positive Post-Pandemic Trajectory
The post-pandemic period finds the family entertainment segment of the live industry in a robust state with strong demand, soaring merchandise sales and a sense among parents that it’s safe to bring loved ones back to venues, according to several key players operating in the space.
“Most of our business this time of year is outside the U.S.,” said Kenneth Feld, CEO of Feld Entertainment. “We’re in South America, Mexico, Japan, Australia and it’s just been off the charts. The business has been great. That bodes well for everyone. I look at the fall business. We usually can see three months ahead. Everything in life is trends, and the trends are really good now.”
Ken Hudgens is a Feld alumnus and now CEO of Family Entertainment Holdings, producer of Hot Wheels Monster Trucks Live and the Magic of Lights holiday drive-through attractions. He says business has been strong with the company reporting year-over-year growth in the number of domestic and international bookings.
Family Entertainment Holdings was formed in October 2021 by an investment group led by New York-based private equity firm Seaport Capital and publicly traded Gray Television in partnership with Hudgens, Eric Cole, Tim Murray and Grant Reeves. Those four had been producing Hot Wheels Monster Trucks Live and Magic of Lights as two separate companies — Family Entertainment Live and FunGuys Events.
Hudgens said Hot Wheels Monster Trucks Live had to prove itself when it launched but is now an established show that’s in demand with at least 30 dates anticipated domestically for 2023.
The Magic of Lights attractions, of which there will be 21 this year, bring business to facilities, especially in colder climates, at a time of year they would likely be hibernating otherwise, he said.
“For a lot of people, it fills a gap,” Hudgens said. “We’re in seven Live Nation amphitheaters. In those cases, we’re giving them product at a time when the amphitheater would be dark. We’re putting their staff to work, and they are using their assets and resources at a time they otherwise wouldn’t. The same is true at some of the racetracks and other places we play.”
Three of the Magic of Lights locations put through more than 100,000 vehicles in 2021, Hudgens said.
Touring family entertainment attractions are typically easy to load in and out, especially when the engagements are for a single date. Many productions are loaded in, presented and loaded out in a single day.
Hudgens said Hot Wheels Monster Trucks Live takes about 10 hours to set up and four to dismantle.
Magic of Lights, on the other hand, is a fixed mile-and-a-half long affair that takes 21-24 days to set up and 10-14 days to take down, Hudgens said.
Round Room Live, which produces touring family entertainment based on known intellectual property like kids cartoon show Peppa Pig and the ubiquitous preschooler anthem “Baby Shark,” is having its best year ever.
Co-founder Stephen Shaw says during the pandemic, he, fellow partner Jonathan Linden and the rest of the company took a closer look at the business, acquired new IP and mapped out a strategy to grow revenue.
“We were able to come into the post-pandemic period with a lot of great product, content and creative,” he said. “We solidified our relationships with all the promoters and the venues, our IP owners and licensors. We spent a lot of time creating great shows and so when it got to the point where the world felt ready for us to re-enter we were able to do with a lot of great product: Peppa Pig Live and Baby Shark Live both opened in March. We did 120 shows for Blippi Live which sold over 200,000 tickets. We had a lot of business over the first half of 2022 and we’re sort of just getting started. We’ve got Baby Shark and Peppa Pig this fall. We’re launching Blues Clues Live with Viacom Paramount on Sept. 24.”
Shaw said attendance for Round Room content is tracking with where it was before the shutdown.
“There’s a little bit of an increase, but it’s not significant,” he said. “I think what we’re seeing is a trend that is going to stay consistent for awhile.
“The one thing we’re seeing that we wonder if it’s going to come back to reality is merch sales. We’re seeing incredibly strong merch sales, retail, e-commerce. All of that has been higher than it was pre-pandemic and that’s across the board, throughout our kids division and exhibitions and experiences division.”
“The kids are always looking to leave with something and sometimes parents say, ‘You got something last week or at the last show,’” Linden said. “Re-entering the market after not being there a while it’s hard to use that argument. People are excited and invigorated to be back out there and they want to cement it by bringing something home to show they were there.”
On the state of the live family entertainment sector and the possibility of a glut of content and cannibalization of audience, Shaw said with Round Room’s shows, care is taken to strategically route “so that there is not too much crossover or saturation.”
He said the overall participation and interest in the sector of sponsors and brand partners is keen.
“You can see that by the desire of promoters looking to the family entertainment sector to bring in more shows and for venues to include family and theatrical touring within their regular calendars,” Shaw said. “We feel great about the business, and we’re excited about what the future holds.”
When a whole family is in tow, pricing is a key concern, promoters say.
”People want someplace they can go with their entire family that’s affordable and we’ve always had affordable pricing,” Feld said. “It’s important. We want to be inclusive.”
“That’s a core tenet of what we do,” Hudgens said. “I would say Hot Wheels Monster Trucks Live is in the mid-$20s for an average ticket price. We have a kids price available at every show, all kinds of discounts. Magic of Lights is the best value going. The average ticket price per car is between $25 and $30 and you can stuff eight people in a van if you want to. There are lots of ways to build a business. My way is volume. I don’t want to sell 40% of the house at $50. I’d rather sell 100% at $25.
“We also make what I consider fair deals with venues, so they don’t have to ratchet up prices for things like parking,” he said. “We want everybody to be happy at the end of this, including the venues.”
Jonathan Shank is founder and CEO of Terrapin Station Entertainment and producer of Disney Junior Live On Tour: Costume Palooza, among other touring attractions, including last year’s L.O.L. Surprise! hologram concert tour based on the MGA Entertainment property.
He said costs are up, but ticket prices remain the same as in 2019.
“It’s a balance for us to understand these are not single ticket buyers,” Shank said. “When you are coming as a family, you’re coming as three or four people, maybe more if there is extended family or siblings. There’s a balance between understanding the notion that family entertainment is one of the few areas in the economy that hasn’t scaled their prices up.”
Affordability is key, agrees Stephen Grybowski, senior director of the Rock and Roll Playhouse family concert series developed by Brooklyn Bowl and Capitol Theater owner/Dayglo Presents founder Peter Shapiro. The Rock and Roll Playhouse was launched at Brooklyn Bowl in 2014 by Shapiro and educator Amy Striem, with Grateful Dead bassist Phil Lesh performing at the very first one.
The average ticket price for a Rock and Roll Playhouse show is $15, Grybowski said.
“We like to think it’s more affordable for a family to come out to one of our rock shows than going to the movies or a children’s museum,” he said. “It’s important that we’re not pricing anyone out around the country.”
Shank said 2022 has seen a lot of touring product hit the road after the shutdown of 2020 into 2021, “but, generally speaking, it ebbs and flows between not enough family entertainment and just enough.”
“I would say everybody that’s in the lane, we all have a tremendous amount of respect for one another,” said Shank. “We have our own angle and perspective on the business. Everybody has the space to excel based on their strengths and I think all of us know one another and try to communicate and make sure there is enough space for all of this content.”
Grybowski doesn’t see a glut of product, believing that the family entertainment market is an expanding universe.
“The population is only getting bigger. There’s going to be more and more children in all the markets around this great country,” he said. “You see a lot of hyper-local programming — farmer’s markets, fairs, local pop-up performances, kids shows at churches or smaller venues, fall festivals, pumpkin patches, spring flings — and then you see massive major tours around The Wiggles and Baby Shark, but there’s a lot of room in between for programming all over.”
In the short term, a range of market conditions persist for family entertainment, he said.
“We’re in 30 markets around the country and every one is different,” he said. “Some took the pandemic seriously, some didn’t. You see some coming out of it with pent-up demand and certain other markets where people are still wary. It’s definitely a mixed bag, but what we’re seeing overall going into fall and winter is great demand in every market.”
For Rock and Roll Playhouse, the ideal venue is a 350-900 capacity general admission rock club, but larger scale shows are increasingly staged in parks and other settings, like outside Chase Center in San Francisco, Wrigley Field in Chicago and Rockefeller Center in New York — all settings where kids have room to move around, Grybowski said.
Feld has ambitious offerings planned for 2023 with the re-launch of a reimagined Ringling Brothers Barnum and Bailey Circus and a fall Supercross-Motocross championship to debut at Los Angeles Memorial Coliseum in October.
Hudgens said Family Entertainment Holdings won’t be standing pat either.
“We’re not done. These two properties are now up, established and successful and we’re always out looking for what’s next, what’s the next touring property. That’s what I do every day,” Hudgens said.
Round Room is rolling out a Blues Clues-based tour, its first work with Paramount.
Venue operators are eager for new content, Hudgens said.
“Almost to a person they’re all asking about what’s next,” he said.
Shank says the ideal rooms for Disney Jr. Live Costume Palooza, which puts Mickey and Minnie Mouse on the same stage with a pint-sized friendly neighborhood Spider-Man and friends, are anywhere from 2,000-to 6,000-capacity theaters and small arenas.
“We are doing 90-plus shows this fall and what we look for in a good partner is somebody who understands how to reach the family audience in their market,” Shank said. “Most of the venues that we work with have a track record of working with other family entertainment properties and understand how to scale these shows and make sure it’s a positive experience for all the kids and families.”
For Disney Jr., digital and outdoor billboards are the main means of advertising the show and venue marketing teams typically know best when and how to deploy resources in that regard, Shanks said.
Beyond that, the Walt Disney Company’s marketing prowess is formidable, he said.
The company runs television spots in high frequency, sends dedicated emails throughout the tour, creates videos to plug the shows and gets ancillary partners to join in marketing efforts as well, he said.
Powerful properties combined with powerhouse marketing resources make for a potent mix, he said.
“That’s what separates these touring experiences and also elevates and makes it more accessible for families,” Shank said. “All of these tours are driven by a rareness and there is a lot of content that is in each market at this time due to such a crowded marketplace and pipeline of shows, so you really need to have a differentiator.”
There are some essential elements when it comes to bringing iconic brands and characters to life, authenticity being one the most important, he said.
“Authenticity, interactivity and larger-than-life spectacle I would say are the key ingredients,” Shank said. “Trying to always be thinking about things from the perspective of, you’re creating not just a show with iconic characters, but showcasing this potentially to people who are at their first concert, their first live experience. Trying to see it through that lens is really important.”
The family entertainment market was as hard hit by the pandemic as any sector and concerns about safety were predictably acute, but with the pandemic over, demand is strong.
Still, the sector is coping with the same “2022 problems” Shank sees affecting most everyone in live entertainment, such as staff shortages, scarce resource availability and compromised supply timelines.
“I don’t think family entertainment is facing unique problems other than it did take longer to regain consumer confidence in families bringing their children back to facilities,” he said. “Waiting for the right time was the key to that but also all the protocols and procedures put in place to ensure safety.”
Live family entertainment is big business, but it’s about parental love, children’s joy and a sharing of experience from one generation to another, promoters said.
“It really is the payoff of all of this; the amount of joy these shows bring to families across the world,” Shank said. “Connecting with some of these characters will be a memory they take with them for the rest of their lives.
“I remember that Dave Grohl brought his daughter to one of our shows many years ago and after going through the meet and greet with the performers he turned to us and said, ‘That will be like the equivalent of me meeting Jimi Hendrix.’ That always stuck with me.”