Thursday, October 04, 2007

My Interview with Cybermedia - 30/9/07

City: Pune
Date of news: 9/30/2007 4:43:16 PM

When IT amuses

What happens when technology touches us even on Sundays – at the roller coaster ride, at the food plazas, at entertainment joints, at bowling alleys and who knows someday in the machine-made curry and basmati on a day not so distant? Indraneel Majumdar, Vice President of Wonder Leisure & Entertainment Pvt. Ltd. (WLEPL) speaks to CyberMedia News and shares how easy or challenging is to inject technology in an entertainment mall and fight with issues like ROI, obsolescence, servicing and scale at Wonder Funkey, a new entertainment zone in Pune that entailed a technology spend of Rs2.2 crore in a total project investment of Rs15 crore. Here, he gives a glimpse of the magic that IT can work for those Disneyland moments

Being quintessentially an entertainment joint with games, ride simulators, bowling alleys and food as your key offerings, where and how did you pump technology inside Wonder Funkey?

To start with, the entire environment at Wonder Funkey is software controlled. A customer gets a smart card of a given value as he enters inside and from there on at every point he gets access to a game etc through the card itself. Every consumption is cashless and as soon as the card exhausts its value, the customer can get it redeemed with a top-up. So the head of the family need not tug along with everyone whenever they hit a point for payment. Cards can be given to every member, specially to kids, of a value as per the discretion of the wallet-holder, thus everyone can be free and on his own to enjoy a game or point of their choice. Every point has readers for these smart cards. The result is an experience that is not purse-controlled, is error free and proven to be completely secure.

What prodded you to experiment with a cashless entertainment zone?

Research and insight tells us that when an entertainment trip is continually encountering moments with the wallet, i.e. money, the whole joy and fun of the outing is brought down when one has to shell out a sum at every point. Instead, one can plan a lump sum amount that can be spent on a trip and enjoy the outing with no sight of unplanned money going out at every half hour. That's why we hit upon the idea of cards.

Was it a customized IT solution or an indigenous deployment?

We worked the logic and our vendors converted and customized it. It took us nine and a half months to do that. The whole project started in December 2005 and completed in October 2006. Aftek helped in areas of basic hardware, customized readers and lines up to the server so as to get the complete flow of the system right. We had to re-convert the machines too from metal coin input to card input. That undertook some in-house re-fixing. Dimakh Consultants came in the area of software. I initially started with the game applications but later expanded it to non-game retail. We opted for two kinds of cards – offer cards that have built-in denominations for corporate and group packages where games are pre-decided in the menu. The other one are non-offer cards for individual customers or families.

Have the footfalls and average spending reflected some impact?

We are getting 432 footfalls on weekdays and 1081 footfalls on weekends on an average basis. From Rs122 per person to Rs252 per person the wallet outgo has increased too. We see an upward swing in the utilization of the place.

Has the idea of toying with technology at such as scale worked?

Technology allowed me to create an organization and getting through the nascent stages. I have seen many others around who have experimented with the idea of bringing technology in an entertainment environment. They could not succeed. They were eking out from one year to another without the sight of good financial rewards. Entrepreneurs in this field haven't yet crossed the technology barrier but the scenario will hopefully change. It is not easy to marry IT with fun and still be in the black. The investment does not always blossom operationally. I am however hopeful that one day the industry will warm up to this idea and make money as well.

So, did you manage to buck the trend? Is the ROI visible?

The entire deployment, including the software and hardware, cost us Rs15 lakh and adding people and training to that makes it Rs20 lakh. But it is cost effective. Savings of one and a half lakh every month are showing up simply on the manpower side already. There's no big pump-in required for the whole life now. I know I will recoup my investment by the half of next year. The system is delivering well on all scores – business objectives, customer efficiency, EQ, happiness etc.

What then, helped you make money in this business while others, as you say, failed?

Entertainment as a business here is still not import free and that makes the ROI difficult. We have learnt to offset risks like these with other things and F&B (Food & Beverage) has a better ROI any day. But managing profitable F&B is not everyone's cup of tea. We focused there and succeeded. In fact, look a little ahead and we will see technology playing a renaissance of sort in this segment. Big scale IT set-ups for instance, would need the magic of machines in kitchen, catering and housekeeping areas. Why have the headache of finding Indian chefs and manage grime-swathed kitchens echoing with hustle-bustle to cater to a huge army of jockeys, when machines can be of assistance? The idea of a machine that churns out basmati or curries at a large scale for the Indian palate in software premises is quite tempting.

Any plans of taking your IT deployment ahead as another revenue stream - for instance, as a standard product for entertainment vertical or as benchmark sharing?

Well, we are getting interests and queries from a lot of peers across the country. People in the industry are curious and keen to know how is it going so far.

Does your penchant for technology also reflect in the menu? Any hi-tech games or rides?

Our features are non-tech but the system is tech-enabled. In other words, the content has been kept different from the interface. The whole experience is simple fun-filled entertainment, which, at the backstage, is powered by technology. In hi-tech options we only have dark ride simulator and 2D film so far. The 2D thriller will be converted to 3D and probably to 4D. Bowling is however software-controlled and has been sourced from China (Via). All the four lanes are controlled by software. From the moment, a customer steps on the aisle, technology takes over in areas like positioning, retrieval and scoring.

What next?

We will see gradual changes but smart card digitization is the way to go. Hardware might get more concise; software will get better in terms of logarithms and version 1.0. Besides these, there would be no radical shift. The set-up is pretty liberalized and on an autopilot now.

What were your major mistakes or lessons, if any?

Tackling obsolescence was one major challenge. When we bring an item from abroad, it is going through the fag ends of its lifecycle there already. Thus, we end up traveling with the baggage as once the item is obsolete, getting it serviced and invoking guarantee clauses etc is not easy. Many others in the field of electronic entertainment have suffered on this aspect and had to give up their machines as junk. We too faced that when we placed orders in 2006 and by May the equipment became passé. There were issues like cost of servicing, lack of understanding of external software and lack of servicing people. We learnt to develop our in-house service efficiency with domestic resources. This is costly and entails huge payment outgo. It's a hard road to take but now that we have taken it we can tread it up to any scale.

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