Wednesday, April 29, 2009

Comments are welcome

I’m relatively new to this whole blogging thing and I’m not very techy so I have no idea how many people are actually reading this stuff. There’s probably a way to track all kinds of stuff on here, but my limited brainpower hasn’t been able to figure it out yet. Both my sons are computer whizzes (one is taking computer science), but the old man got left behind in the 20th century I think.

I am always amazed when someone comes up to me at the field and tells me they’ve read my stuff. I also get the odd pm and email from people commenting on something I wrote. Why they don’t post a comment on here, I don’t know. Maybe they are even less techy than me and don’t know how, although I doubt that.

Anyway, I’m going to share a couple of excerpts from a couple of pm’s I received lately (mostly cause I can’t think of anything new to write). I’ll keep everyone anonymous since I assume they didn’t want their identity made public in the first place.

The first one is from a fellow field owner that runs a small field in a fairly small city. He stopped running his field for a few years for personal reasons and then got back into it. He says:

“Last summer I started back up again, and seeing how paintball had changed a bit, I bought a 5 man speedball field to try to get the ball rolling again, to get some attention on the field. Well long story short, there are a few players who like the speedball, but they are the same ones crying about paint cost, crying that its FPO, crying about anything, AND pissing off my rec players. The whole speedball idea cost me around 6 grand, and Im basically just using my woods field now... pretty expensive mistake, but the woods field is attracting at least twice the people that the speedball does.”

Since I too went down the speedball road alongside the woodsball road when we first opened TNT Paintball, I can relate. We were fortunate enough not to have gotten to the point of spending the money on an airball field (they were more expensive back then). We learned fairly quickly that the two kinds of players don’t mix well together and it hurt our business when we tried. Since I was into the speedball thing myself then, I played speedball at other fields instead of my own. Some people couldn’t figure out why a field owner that liked speedball didn’t set up a speedball field (we had the space). Sometimes you need to keep your personal life out of your business life.

From an economist who is a confessed high volume shooter:

“Hey, I just started reading your blog and wow, it is great!!!

Is there any explanation why ALL fields aren't FPO? The fields around me that are FPO are always packed while the BYOP ones are almost always empty...

Granted, the ones with FPO have nicer facilities, better staff, etc but is that cause or effect???”

I answered his pm with this: BYOP is just the ultimate step for fields that have over the years lowered their paint prices trying to be competitive to attract more players. I'm going to guess that the reason in your area the better fields are FPO and the not so nice fields are BYOP is because the less nice fields feel that low prices is the only way they are going to attract players, since their facilities can't match the nicer ones.

This of course only attracts those that feel the need to shoot high volumes of paint and don't mind sacrificing the other services and better facilities. Those types of players are only a small segment of the paintball market. Most often, the field owners that do BYOP, are also of that type of player (shoot lots of paint).

It's a downhill spiral for those fields most often because they have fewer customers, with less profit per customer, so they never end up getting enough extra income to upgrade their fields. Eventually they get tired of working for free and either close down or sell to some other unsuspecting sole. In rare cases, if the rent is cheap enough or free, they'll linger on for years with a few customers every once in a while.

Please post up your comments if you’ve stumbled onto this blog. Whether you agree or disagree doesn’t matter. Without conversation, we’re not going to be able to make the paintball world a better place.

Sunday, April 26, 2009

Who is Playing Less?

Who is playing paintball less in these days of economic uncertainty? There is more unemployment these days and many of those employed are not earning as much income as they used to. When the economy is slow, wages are cut back where possible, there is little overtime offered, those that are self employed, although not showing up in the unemployment figures are earning less. In general there is just less expendable income out there. There are also the people who are not directly affected by with loss of income, but fear they might be in the future, so they hold on to their money a little tighter.

As a business owner of a type of business that is certainly not a necessity by any stretch of the imagination, the fact that people in general have less money to spend is obviously in my thoughts. So at our recreational paintball facility, who have we been seeing less of in these tougher times? The answer is regulars. The players that play more often, are coming a little less often. The number of players that only come once or twice a year (mostly renting) has not really changed in the past year or so for us. If anything, the number of those players has gone up slightly.

I was thinking about this trend the other day and trying to analyze why this might be the case. There are probably papers and books written on the subject, but I like to knock things around in my own head and see what makes sense to me. This is the way I see it.

A person that normally spends $50 every two weeks for a hobby is going to save much more money by eliminating or cutting back that activity than a person that spends $60 once or twice a year for the same type of entertainment.

For the regular player, $100/month (I’m just arbitrarily using this figure) is going be a big deal, if their income has been cut back and they have less expendable income. However, a player spending an average of $5 to $10/month, is hardly going to notice that. That’s probably a lot less than they spend on coffee.

That means that paintball fields that cater mostly to regular players are going to be a lot harder hit in these times than fields that cater mostly to players that only play once or twice per year. From my interactions with other field owners, that definitely seems to be the case.

Fields that cater to higher level tournament type players seem to be hit the hardest (they spend the most). It only makes sense. Tournament players, especially ones that strive to be near the top, need to practice regularly and play in tournaments fairly regularly. That’s a big commitment, both of time and of monetary expenditure. Those are the players that we are going to see drop out or cut back on their spending the most. The renter that only plays once or twice a year and spends $60 each time is going to be much les affected. And so will the business that caters to them.

Thursday, April 23, 2009

Chicken or Egg?

My favorite topic, as anyone that has read this Blog knows by now, is the health, or lack thereof, of our paintball industry. I’m a stakeholder in the industry; a very small stakeholder, but a stakeholder, nevertheless.

So in my readings I often come across the reasons why our industry has been declining in numbers these days. There seem to be two ends of the spectrum when it comes to his argument. The tourney guys and other high volume shooters, say it’s too expensive.

I’m not going there in this article other than to remind every one of this; prices of paintballs and equipment have never been lower than they have the past few years. But apparently we’re declining in numbers now because it’s too expensive. Does that mean it was less expensive during all the years when the industry was growing? When fields and manufacturers could barely keep up with the demand? Ponder that. Then give your head a shake and ponder it some more. Enough on the paintball is declining because it is too expensive issue. I’m not buying into it.

At the other end of the spectrum are the guys that feel the high paintball volume (or high ROF) style of the game has lead to the decline in numbers of players. The argument is that the high volume atmosphere is keeping new players away, at least from coming back a second time and taking up the game more seriously. Personally, that’s the side I’m on. It just makes sense if people trying the game out are not having fun they aren’t going to come back and eventually our numbers will dwindle. Any activity that is not fun for most people is not going to grow in popularity too much. Anyone that doesn’t understand that concept needs to do some more head shaking.

Most people blame the high volume (high ROF) problem on technology. They say paintball was more fun when markers weren’t capable of shooting at a rate that ends up changing the atmosphere to the point where the majority of participants aren’t having fun. I think that’s true. But the other component to the high volume style playing is the cost of ammo. Without low cost paintballs, the high volume style of play, doesn’t take place.

Obviously, over the years, there was an ongoing demand for markers that could shoot faster. Markers that could spit out more paintballs would give a player an advantage, or probably of more significance, markers with lower ROF would create a disadvantage (nobody wants to be put in a situation where they are at a disadvantage – if they are serious about winning anyway). As the popularity of these high ROF machines grew, the demand for more paintballs grew as well. Paintball manufacturers were able to produce and sell many more paintballs. New suppliers sprang up as the market for huge volumes of paintballs became apparent. Economies of scale came into affect (it’s cheaper to produce higher volumes of a mass produced consumable). So paintball prices dropped at the wholesale level and fields followed suit and passed those lower prices on to their retail players, mostly through what they thought was necessity, because the field across town had done so and they didn’t want to lose all their customers to them.

As paintball prices dropped, the demand for technology with even higher ROF (markers and loaders) grew even more. If a little higher ROF gave an advantage over the next guy, a lot higher ROF would create a bigger advantage. Only makes sense.

Even higher rates of fire, created even more demand for paintball, further enabling manufacturers to churn out paintballs for even less.

So now to the Chicken or Egg question (you didn’t think the title had anything to do with Easter, did you?). Was it the increase in ROF that created a situation where more paintballs were shot and therefore lowered the price of paintballs, or was it the lower priced paintballs that allowed players to shoot at higher ROF’s, therefore creating a demand for equipment with higher ROF capabilities?

So what came first, the chicken or the egg? Does it really matter? Why am I even asking the question if I, and others don’t really care? We can’t turn back time. We can’t put the genie back in the bottle as I’ve heard many say over the years. All very true, but the fact remains, if the high volume game has indeed been the major cause for the decline in paintball because new participants aren’t having fun, then the only way to reverse that tend is to do something about the high volume game.

High rate of fire markers in combination with low priced paintballs enabling their use, is arguably the biggest reason for the decline in participation in the industry. Chicken or egg? It doesn’t matter. But whether you kill all the chickens, or smash all the eggs, either way you are going to halt the clucking and crowing.

OK, so maybe exterminating chickens isn’t such a good idea, but my point is, and what we have built our field’s business model on, is if you create a situation where the high ROF markers cannot be fed with cheap paintballs anymore, the game will be more appealing to a larger segment of the population. A larger segment of the population will find their first paintball experience fun and will return for a second outing. Having them not have fun and having them not return for a second time is the fundamental issue at hand.

So let’s fix the problem! If you are a field owner and can lower the high volume game another way, go for it. I don’t care. Just create a lower volume playing atmosphere that the first time player will have loads of fun in so they’ll be back next week with all their friends. You’ll do them a favor and you’ll do yourself and the rest of the industry a favor too.

I’ll leave you with that for now. I’ve got to go throw some chicken on the BBQ.

Tuesday, April 21, 2009

Suck it up or GTFO!

This is the kind of thing I read all the time in threads on paintball forums. Apparently players that can’t handle playing at 15 bps (or faster) shouldn’t be playing paintball at all. Players that can’t handle getting shot 5 or 6 times each game shouldn’t be playing paintball. They are being told to suck it up, or Get the F*** Out! And they are listening. They are getting the f*** out and not coming back.

The odd thing is, I’m reading this in threads intended for recreational paintball players, not high level tourney players. Apparently paintball has evolved into a high intensity recreational activity. No longer is it a game of cat and mouse, where players gather to plink paintballs at each other trying to tag one another out. No. Today’s recreational paintball field is fast paced, in your face action, from start to finish. If you’re shot, you better raise your arms up, stand up and start walking. And you better do it within milliseconds, or else you are going to get a barrage frantic screaming and a hell of a lot more paintballs heading your way.

Sounds like fun, right? Well it is, for some. It is for many of those still playing today. Those that don’t find it fun aren’t there to complain about it, or if they do, they won’t be back next week to complain; they’ll just find something else to do.

Of course not all fields are like this. But many are.

Fields could separate the players, keeping the “hardcore” players separate from the new players. Most responsible fields do this. But of course virtually every player is shooting lots of paintballs these days, even first time renters. Why not? They are cheap enough and when you’re up against the ropes, you don’t want to be caught short. If someone is hailing 15 bps at you, it’s nice to be able to counter that with close to the same thing. Being under armed is no fun. Who would want to go into battle with a hickory switch when your opponent is swinging a Saber? You need to adapt to your environment to survive. Right? Only the strong (and the well armed) will survive.

But does everyone want to go into battle with a Saber? Maybe we just want to fight with Nerf swords. Maybe we don’t want to be mortally wounded or get permanent scars. Maybe we want to play paintball more like the game was played when it was first conceived. Maybe we want to sneak around and surprise our foe. Maybe we want to lay that perfect ambush and shoot her once in the goggles, just as she discovers us. Maybe we just want to have fun.

Alas, maybe we should just suck it up and GTFO.

Monday, April 20, 2009

Be Careful What You Wish For

Oops! Too late!

As a member of the paintball industry trying to scrape together enough to pay my bills every month, it is important that we attract as many people to our field as we can, but still make enough money from the average customer, so that at the end of the month, we’re operating in the black. This isn’t just a hobby for us. It’s our livelihood. Therefore, we need to make sure our customers are having fun and that they feel they have received good value for the money they spent.

Our customers will not just compare that value to other paintball fields they have gone to, but also all other goods and services they spend their resources on for entertainment. Many of our customers have never been to another paintball field, so it is of utmost importance that we are competitive with other forms of entertainment.

Value is what is important here. There are two main components that our customers will look at when judging the value of our product/service. First there is the cost. Is $60 spent for a day at our paintball field better value than $20 spent to go see a movie (including some food purchase)? Is $60 spent for a day at our paintball field better value than $100 spent playing 18 holes of golf? There are literally thousands of “other” choices that our potential customers have to choose from.

The second component is the quantitative measurement of entertainment received. The two really go hand in hand. But by quantitative measurement I mean; is the time spent playing paintball more pleasurable than the time spent on the other activities that are competing for our potential customer’s resources?

In the end, we need to create something that enough people will find entertaining enough to willingly spend their money on; enough money to keep us in the black. So we analyze trends. We experiment with ways that we think we might be able to provide our customers with better value, while still staying on the black side of the bottom line.

In the article below, Correlation does not imply Causation, I described what happened to our attendance numbers when we lowered and then raised our paintball prices a few years back. I’m not going to go over it again. Anyone interested (and you should be) can read the article if they haven’t done so. The results showed us that lowering our paintball prices significantly, did not, in the long run, secure us more customers. On the contrary, it resulted in less customers for us. But how could this be? One of the two main components of the entertainment value our customer looks at is cost. We didn’t change anything else, other than the cost of paintballs. Should the value of our product/service not have been increased from the customer’s perspective? We gave them the same thing for less money.

Or did we provide the same thing for less money?

Let’s analyze what happened. First, we lowered our paintball prices by approximately 37.5% (a case of paintballs went from $160 to $100). This initially resulted in an almost immediate influx of more customers. The most noticeable were the regular players as they pay more attention to current pricing at paintball fields, but we also had a slight increase in rental customers. A very noticeable thing happened. We had more customers but they really weren’t spending any less money on average, especially the regular players. Instead, they were buying more paintballs. So the “cost” component of our product/service hadn’t really changed for our customers. They were still spending roughly the same.

On the other hand, our product/service had changed. How? Well at our former paintball prices of $10/100, $45/500, or $160/2,000, our average customer was shooting around 600 paintballs. At the new pricing level of $7/100, $30/500, or $100/2,000, the average number of paintballs shot per customer increased to approximately 900 paintballs. This approximate 50% increase in paintballs shot made a significant and very noticeable change in what our customers were experiencing. We noticed much more “attitude” at the facility; we had more altercations between customers; there were more accusations of overshooting; and our staff was grumpier because of the change in attitudes of our customers.

Basically, it seemed, our product/service had decreased in value for our customers. Apparently, the average person doesn’t like playing paintball as much with the average player shooting 900 paintball compared to the average player shooting 600 paintballs. This started to become apparent when, within a few months, attendance leveled off to what it was before the price drop and then eventually lower to what it was before the price drop. It took us a while to figure this out of course. It didn’t make sense to us at first. Why would our customer base start dropping when we made it more affordable for them after several years of steady increases? We analyzed the situation and decided that we would return our prices to what they were before.

Looking back, we probably would not have noticed and been able to analyze the situation if we had dropped our prices at a slower rate. I think this is what has happened in the paintball industry in most of the rest of North America. Over time, fields have lowered their prices of paintballs very substantially. But of course, not many of them did it overnight. It was more of a trickling in price lowering over a period of several years. Had we only lowered our prices by $10/2,000, we probably would have noticed very little change. If that $10 had undercut our competitor and assuming all else was equal, it would have probably increased our customer traffic a little and may have made up for, or even worked in our favor, the change in mark-up of the paintballs. But we most likely wouldn’t have noticed a huge change in “attitudes”.

If we had lowered our prices in $10 increments only every 4 months or so, we would probably have not clued into the fact that it was actually the drop in paintball pricing that had decreased our attendance when we reached the $100/case pricing level. We probably would have figured that we would have to lower our prices further, to attract higher numbers of customers, especially if our paintball competitors had been following suit. But in reality, it would have been the change in value that our customer was getting that was the reason for the decrease in attendance.

Has anyone else noticed that the numbers of players has decreased in most of North America over the past years as paintball prices have dropped down to the ridiculously low prices charged at most recreational paintball fields? I certainly can’t be the only one that has picked up on this trend. But maybe all we need to do is listen to all the customers on paintball forums telling us they would play a lot more if paintballs were priced $30/case instead of the ridiculous $50 or $60/case charged at fields that are obviously ripping people off.

All I can tell paintball players in general is the same thing I tell our potential customers when they ask why our paintball prices are higher than our competitors; “Be careful what you wish for”.

But is it too late for most of North America? Have paintball fields shot themselves in the foot? Has paintball participation peacked and is now continuing on a downhill slide until it reaches the point where the number of participants matches the value in what is provided at the average paintball field in North America these days? Or are there entrepreneurs out there that have what it takes to reverse the trend? Only time will tell.

Thursday, April 16, 2009

Correlation does not imply Causation

In a recent discussion, I was told that to establish the cause of a trend, market research has to be performed. The writer indicated that correlation does not imply causation. You need to do market research to find out what the real cause of the trend is.

Correlation is the measurement of the relationship between two variables. When A changes, so does B. But that does not mean that A causes B. It’s a common mistake made by many. But the fact remains that it doesn’t exclude the chance that A affected B.

The discussion touched on the ROF (rate of fire) changes that have been implemented in various venues within the paintball industry. The PSP drop in ROF in the past two years is the most talked about and widely known. The Higher Ups in the paintball industry came to the conclusion that the increase in ROF in the past years has been a major contributor for the decrease in the paintball growth rate to the point where it has become a negative growth rate or a decline rate.

But were they right? Is the fact that markers became available and were allowed to be used with higher ROF’s the reason we have seen a decline in paintball? Are the high ROF’s the cause, keeping new players from coming back a second time? Have a high number of first time players actually said, “I would have enjoyed this more and would probably come back again if only everyone were shooting at a slower rate.”?

As a field owner, I ask first time players every day if they are having fun. Most answer with a resounding “Yes!” But every once in a while, I’ll get a player that will just say, “It was OK.” I can tell by the tone in their voice, that it wasn’t their thing and I’m probably not going to see them again after they leave. Very rarely do any of those customers actually give me a reason why they probably won’t be back again, with the single exception being, “It hurts too much.” Fair enough. Some people can’t, or don’t want to, deal with the discomfort of getting shot with a paintball.

Paintball isn’t for everyone. Some know, or at least believe, they are not going to like it before they even try it, so they don’t. Others are skeptical, but are persuaded by their friends to give it a try. They’ll try it, but find out it’s not the kind of activity they like to take part in. I can certainly live with that. All of us have refused to try or maybe have tried something once and found out it wasn’t of interest to us, even though it interests others we know.

But I’m getting off topic. Back to the discussion of whether or not the higher ROF’s are the cause of new players not returning. What about all the other potential causes that have been thrown around in the past? What about things like regular players taking advantage of fresh meat and overshooting them, or regulars making fun of new players, or the cost to play paintball being too high? I’m sure those reasons and others all have some merit.

So what is our market research going to reveal to us? If given a blank page, most of those customers that decide not to come back a second time are probably not going to be able to explain exactly what it is about their experience they didn’t like. They just know they spent money to have a good time, and in the end, the experience they had wasn’t worth the money they spent and they aren’t going to do it again.

We could get more specific and ask them direct questions. We could ask things like, “Do you think if everyone was shooting slower you would have had a better time?” “Do you think if the regular players that were there would have been nicer to you, you would have had a better time?” Do you think if the prices were lower, it would entice you to come back again?”

Do we really need to ask these questions though? Would a customer even know if they would enjoy the experience more if all the players were shooting slower without experiencing it? Would most of the answers we would receive not be predictable? Would we not be putting thoughts in people’s heads just by asking the questions? For instance, I am sure that if I asked my customers if they would come back more often if the prices were lower, I would get an almost 100% “yes” response. So if I listened to my customers (a good businessman should always listen to his customers, right?), if I lowered my prices, I would get more customers (or at least have the same customers come back more often). Whether or not I would make more money is a different matter, but at least it would help solve the player decline rate and I might make up for it in higher attendance volume. Or would it?

Market research (asking our customers) would tell us that a field would get more business (either more customers or the current customers would come more often) if the lowered their prices (I’m making an assumption here that that is indeed what the market research would show us – I haven’t actually asked the question. I make this assumption because thousands of posters on paintball forums are constantly telling us that they would play more often if prices were lower). But we already knew this, didn’t we? Isn’t this one of the basic laws of Supply and Demand? Lower prices and more people will buy and/or individuals will buy more of it. If it’s a law (law of economics, not State, Province or Federal), does that mean in this case correlation does imply causation? One variable affects another, right? Drop prices, sell more, raise prices, sell less.

So tell me then, why it is that a few years ago, during a price war one of our competitors started, when we dropped prices considerably of the main component (paintballs) to play the game, after a few months we started to get a decline in attendance over the same period in previous years? And why, when we raised the prices back to what they were before, that trend reversed and we started to see growth in the attendance rate again after a few months? I say a “a few months” because initially, exactly what we expected to happen, did happen. When we first lowered our prices, attendance did increase for a little while, then leveled off and after a few months started to drop. When we returned our prices back to the original “high” prices, initially attendance dropped (only by “regular” players though), and after a few months, attendance started to increase again.

So in the short term, exactly what the market research predicts did indeed happen. But in the long term, exactly the opposite happened.

I’ll leave you with that conundrum for now and let you ponder why this might be. I will just add that when we dropped the price of our paintballs (by close to 40% by the way, not an insignificant amount), our individual customer spending did not decrease significantly at all. And no, prices other than the price of paintballs were not changed during this time.

Friday, April 3, 2009

Screw the Tournament Players!

A lot of people think that I don’t like tournament players. They think that because we don’t have speedball fields at our facility and because we don’t sell paintballs for $50/case or allow BYOP, they jump to the conclusion that we dislike speedball players and want nothing to do with them.

Well that’s true, and yet it isn’t true. I have friends that play tournament paintball. I myself dabbled in tournament ball for a while and quite liked it. I don’t mind if players that normally play tournaments come to our field. However, what I do not want is players playing tournament style paintball at our recreational paintball field.

There are all sorts of businesses that cater to one type of customer and do not market to other types of customers. For instance, fast food burger joints don’t serve $30 Steak and Lobster meals. Dance studios teaching ballet don’t normally teach ballroom dancing. Hip Hop radio stations don’t play Opera. It’s like that everywhere in the commercial world.

For many years, many in the industry thought paintball was evolving from woodsball (where it all started) into speedball. They thought that eventually almost all paintball would be played on small fields with big balloon bunkers. They were wrong. Paintball didn’t evolve from woodsball into speedball, but rather paintball split into two separate forms of paintballs that are very different from one another.

Yes, there are many similarities, but there are enough differences to make them attractive to two totally different sets of players. Sure there are players that play and enjoy both forms of paintball, just like some people dance ballet and ballroom and eat Steak & Lobster one night and a greasy burger for lunch the next day.

We choose not to pursue the speedball market because we feel it is a completely different market than the recreational (woodsball) paintball market. We concentrate on one type of customer and one type of paintball. This allows us to work at providing the best product possible for that type of customer. It works for us. There are enough people in the relatively small market we are in to keep us busy doing what we do. Sometimes we are too busy. Some will say, “Sure, but you are missing out on a big part of the paintball market.” That may be true, but McDonald’s is missing out on the Steak and Lobster crowd and doesn’t seem to worry about it.

Recently I’ve had discussions with people that feel paintball players should stretch out and try other genres of play. Many players are starting their paintball playing with speedball right away, skipping the traditional start in the woods. I guess they feel these players are not connecting with their woodsball cousins, and when they go play at a recreational facility, they take their speedball style and attitudes with them. These are the players that create problems at recreational fields.

I agree. That is a problem. But it’s only a problem for the field that allows this to happen. A field that has checks and balances in place to deter this kind of behavior can provide a fun environment for their recreational playing customers even if they get visiting tournament players. The fields that can do this haven’t been hurt in the recent years while the industry has seen a downturn (that started before the recent recession – see Doom and Gloom article below). On the contrary, the growth hasn’t stopped for those fields. We’re still growing, even during a world wide recession.

I don’t dislike tournament players. I don’t even mind if tournament players come to play at our recreational paintball facility. But I can guarantee you that they will play much more like recreational paintball players at our facility, or they will be asked to leave. So come play at our facility, but leave your competitive attitudes and your competitive style of play at the speedball facility. Then we will all get along nicely.