Lawton's Laurels



Reprinted from RePlay magazine

Funspot, the venerable, three-level, 60,000 sq. ft. FEC in Wiers, NH, is no stranger to publicity and fanfare after almost 60 years in the business of fun, its still ongoing development — inseparable from the life and career of Bob Lawton, who at 21 borrowed $750 from his grandmother to start his first mini golf course and arcade as the Wiers Sports Center — shows the embrace of the most successful fun center trends and thinking, alongside several unique approaches to the business.

"I've been around 57 years," Lawton, now CEO, told RePlay fresh from mowing some of the 21 acres on which Funspot sits. "I open the building at 8am every day. Life is good."

Thanks to renovations since RePlay last wrote about Lawton almost 10 years ago, Fun spot has remained an exemplar of the fun center model and, more than ever, a living time capsule of out-of-home attractions, as well as of the community and region it serves. For evidence, look no further than Funspot's 600,000 customers per year, many of whom Lawton describes as day-trippers arriving from far and wide.

According to the Guinness Book of World Records, Funspot maintains the largest arcade comprising some 500 games, noted Lawton, including about 200 redemption pieces. Lawton has nothing put praise for the redemption model even though it embodies the biggest change in the amusement consumer's mindset, namely the intent to play videogames for enjoyment versus wanting to leave with a prize souvenir.

"If it wasn't for prize games, I wouldn't be here today," he declared.

"Video died, and all we buy now are prize games and simulators like NASCAR. They are just tremendous, so we have a huge prize counter. As a matter of fact, on our second floor, where we have all of our big, fast ticket games, we have two Benchmark Ticket Stations rigged up with PVC pipe going into the storeroom below, so we never have to change a bag. We're just too busy in the summer to do so. We also have three Deltronic Ticket Eaters next to the prize counter."

With such enthusiasm for the classic ticket-and-token model, it comes as no surprise that Lawton has no interest in converting his numerous games to a debit-card system. He and his team have explored their functionality but have come away thinking that card-based redemption plays against what their customers enjoy most: the tangible economy of fun tender.

"Kids look at tokens like they are gold," Lawton said, adding that Funspot's tokens have turned into collector's items since they have had each year stamped onto them since 1981 ($20 gets 100 tokens; $10, 50; $5, 25; $1, four). "They get a handful of them and are in seventh heaven. And you ought to see people walking around with aims full of tickets, thinking they are going to put me out of business even as they pour money into it. So I looked into card systems, and I decided that they've taken too much of the fun out of playing games. Admittedly, you have some problem with rejectors, but tickets and tokens are central to what we do. It takes more time, but it's worth it."

Five years ago. Lawton decided to throw more weight behind redemption by closing down a birthday party room and turning it into that very space mentioned for big-ticket games, including three Wheel Deals and five Smokin' Tokens peppered with five pinballs and some simulators. Parties, special events and business meetings were overhauled in the process, moved to a centrally-located room with a 100-seat capacity and made free. Groups can bring in outside cake and ice cream: all other edibles must be purchased from the Braggin' Draggon restaurant or the warmly inviting D.A. Long Tavern. Lawton said party groups pay more per head to play games and take the hassle out of Funspot managing their affairs.

Funspot's self-service approach has also been wildly successful for their retro nine-hole mini golf course based on the original course laid out by Lawton in the early '50s. Customers crank dispensers for one of five different colored balls, allowing the attraction to be unsupervised.

Lawton said, "We worked with Chuck White from Triad BillBreakers, who got together with American Changer to redo a bill breaker; so if you put in a $20, you get three fives, two ones and a token for golf, and so on. We are doing $25,000 a year for indoor golf, which only cost $10,000, and no one works there. People love that.

"The public has very little trouble taking care of itself and usually wants to do so," Lawton furthered. "Many times, they don't want to interact with people if they don't have to."

Other notable additions include the $18,000 renovation of their Skee Ball component, which added 17 new alleys. (Lawton is still tickled by his first alley bowler order, when he called Skee Ball and asked a salesperson named Hazel how many he should order. Her reply: "No matter how many you get, you'll always need more.") They have also improved upon their American Classic Arcade Museum — the brain child of Gary Vincent, an almost 30-year staffer, that's home to 275 classic, pre-1987 games with another 100 in storage — making it the site of a world-famous annual competition. In its 11th season, this year's event drew 150 players from 26 states and countries like England, Israel and Australia, among others. There's also an annual triathlon where players compete across darts, pinball, mini golf and bowling on the facility's 20 lanes, with proceeds benefiting the Humane Society.

Special events include their annual Halloween party, Military Appreciation Day when servicemen and women attend with their families and "get a lot of stuff for nothing," and the annual Memorial Day fireworks extravaganza, which may close due to increased pricing.

Bob's staff includes his nephew Randy, chief service tech and son of brother John, Lawton's original business partner who passed away, as well as John's other son, Steve, business manager, and Bob's own daughter Sandra, Lawton's assistant. Bob's son Dave works there while also producing the Weirs Times and Tourists Gazette (www.weirs.com), reportedly the largest free weekly paper in the state with a print run of 30,000.

Not surprisingly, Lawton at 78 isn't about to rest on his laurels but plans to keep growing Funspot as he's always done, one stage at a time. That includes fundraising for a new addition to the American Classic Arcade Museum, now registered as a 501c3, the first and only for coin-op, he noted.

"We're also trying to get a hotel in here," he said. "We have another eight acres of land with a five-acre lot. There's a beautiful pond with a fountain. We're working with several hotel companies, national family chains that could put in 70 or 80 rooms. I want someone else to put it in but would be willing to form an LLC."

In conclusion, Lawton recalled a planning board meeting in Corcord, NH, in the early 1980s when he was still setting up amusement facilities, more than five across New England and Florida. "My reputation was terrific, but you couldn't have an arcade there back then," he said. "When I went before the board, I said, 'I don't run an arcade. I run a family entertainment center.' And they let me put one in. I don't know how long that term's been around, but no one talked that way then."

That may or may not make Bob Lawton the father of the FEC, but such a formal distinction in amusement history doesn't ultimately matter. He's more than earned it.

Discover more about Funspot at www.funspotnh.com; email info@funspotnh.com; phone 603/366-4377.