Family endeavor Scene75 builds up community, maintains heart

AT: John W.C. Robinson

DAYTON, Ohio — After a series of tornados — including one measuring F3 — ravaged Dayton, Ohio, on May 27, 2019, the community was stunned. The National Weather Service described the storms as “large and destructive,” injuring several people, triggering mass power outages across the state and causing extensive damage to homes, businesses and roads. One of the business devastated by the strong storms was the original Scene75 family entertainment center, which called Dayton its home.

The company’s founder, Jonah Sandler, found himself writing a letter to his community and customer base letting them know that the facility would have to be closed for repairs. It began, “On May 27th 2019, fifteen tornadoes tore through Dayton. Scene75 Dayton suffered significant damage. Large portions of our roof blew away. Sprinkler pipes broke, flooding much of the building. Several air conditioning units are no longer on our roof and, frankly, can’t be found. Walls that once stood nearly 36 feet tall crumbled to the ground.

“Yet despite the physical damage, I am forever grateful of the outcome. No one was injured, and my team members still have homes to return to at night. I am afraid that many of our neighbors were not as fortunate, and our hearts go out to all of them. If there is anything we can do as we work tirelessly to clean and rebuild here, my team and I are ready to support. This is our community. This is our home.”

Sandler’s belief in community and the strength in working with and building from the community has been a core value of Scene75 from the very beginning.

“What we do in our industry, I truly believe, impacts so many. And the thing that has inspired me to continue to give it all is the impact that I see in our community just from the brand itself.”

However, the amusement industry and the family entertainment center business was something that Sandler almost had to stumble upon, through his love and connection with his family.

“My father’s [Les Sandler, co-founder of Scene75] background was in real estate and he owned, with his investors, the building that currently houses Scene75 Dayton. At the time, I was in grad school in Chicago finishing my MBA and on the last day of my summer banking internship, in 2008, half my office was fired. And I then really got to thinking, ‘Is this what I really want to do?’ Especially when I see my classmates who worked 100 hours per week with me, who had all the same grades, same experiences the year prior asked to leave with all their belongings. The recession also hit back home in Ohio, and my father and his investment group were challenged to fill some of their vacant parcels. The catalyst for moving back to Ohio was to try and figure out plans for what to do with this large building.”

Les Sandler happened to have some familiarity running arcades, having been part of a chain of arcades that operated across Canadian malls. In addition, the Sandlers had worked with two smaller FECs in the Dayton area known as the Englewood Fun Center and Centerville’s The Chaos Room. Both were smaller concepts, structured to be built as add-ons to a neighboring restaurant.

“I moved back to try to push through on my passion of trying to help my family. The idea of taking a big box and turning it into a family entertainment center was super-inspiring. It was just a mission to try and create something for the community, and the hope of helping my family and building a career for myself … and it was pretty exciting.

“One of the things I learned after dabbling with the Englewood Fun Center and The Chaos Room was that if I was going to be in this industry, I wanted to go big or go home. Wrapping it all up into this big project is what I felt the Dayton market needed to fill a very noticeable void.”

In 2012, when Scene75 Dayton opened, the once amusement park-rich southwestern Ohio market was fairly sparse. Dayton-area residents had a few small FECs in the area, but were nearly an hour drive from Kings Island or Coney Island (Cincinnati). In addition, no TopGolf, Main Event or similar had come to the area yet, with only one Dave & Buster’s location open in the northern Cincinnati-area, again, still an hour drive away for most.

“Entertainment centers of the time were typically pretty small, and there’s a pretty passionate customer base in the Dayton market,” stated Sandler. “The opportunities all aligned with my personal interest and desires.

“We didn’t have the capital to do it all, so we did a number of revenue shares with manufacturers to really get the ball rolling from the beginning. We had separate operating partners. We had a separate partner for the bounce facility, my uncle and our roofer were involved in the go kart track. We pretty much carved out different components. We had a revenue share on our 4D theater, we had a revenue share on our laser tag … all these different things to piece it together.

“I also felt like I had put my prior path on hold, if not aside, … I had spent so much time in schooling trying to pursue a career in finance or investment banking, and I went through the CFA programs, I did all this stuff for it to line up.  And I knew that I had to make Scene75 work, because I was turning my back on all of that. I wasn’t passionate about finance, but Scene75 was my passion. And knowing that if we could make this work, I’d be helping my family and try to help a community and build a career. That was all the inspiration I needed. Every hour, I was fine working through it.”

Sandler and his team’s perseverance succeeded. In July of 2012, when the facility opened its doors, the community had been paying attention to the project all along and were eagerly awaiting its arrival.

“We had built a strong opening on our social media channels prior to opening. This was at a time when there were a lot of articles and commentary wondering if Facebook could truly help businesses. What we found was that before we even opened our doors, we had roughly 25,000 people on our Facebook page. They bought into the idea, they were actually following our story. I shared the personal journey and the struggle throughout. When we finally opened, we had people who came in just to meet me. It was unreal. The way I announced our opening was I essentially held open the door on a Facebook video and said ‘come on in, we’re officially open.’ And people started to come.

“The amazing thing was, when people came for that very first time, they fell in love. They knew the story because of what we broadcast on social media.  The community got to understand how we were doing this and why we were doing it, and they were patient with us from the beginning to grow into the space. When we first opened, we had 120,000 square feet and probably 55 arcade games. Once we reopen after the repairs from the 2019 tornado, that number will be closer to 200 arcade games.”

As the Dayton community welcomed Scene75, and enabled it to expand and grow, Scene75 found unique ways to deepen its involvement with the community around it.

“I love that we’re able to get involved with school programs. We’re involved at Wright State University, doing a summer camp at their business school. There, students complete in a one-week-long business course challenge, where the challenge that they’re trying to solve involves a real-world problem that we’re facing. And, at the end of the week, they present their solutions to our problem to us, a panel of business leader judges, the Dean and their parents. Programs like this extend from elementary school all the way on up. It’s a tremendous feeling when you feel like what you’re doing on a daily basis is far more important than the individual, you can really impact far larger.”

A larger impact for communities, and the Scene75 brand, was what Sandler had in mind as the company expanded over the years. First adding a location in Cincinnati in 2015, Scene 75 quickly added additional locations in Cleveland (2017), Pittsburgh (2018) and, in 2019, opened their largest location yet in Columbus.

“Originally, it was never about trying to grow this into multiple locations,” said Sandler. “What happened, ultimately, is that we were seeing success and, being from Cincinnati, my family identified an opportunity which we felt would be right for an entertainment center. At the time, I explained to my father that I had a ‘grow or go’ philosophy. I’d opened Dayton and operated it for two-plus years, I felt that we could keep our management in place there and I could potentially go do something else, create something else on my own. I knew that it was going to commit my own efforts to this industry, which I enjoyed, then I want to grow it.”

The expansions into other markets have not only been successful, but have opened the door for Scene75 to experiment with it’s business model and explore different attractions and entertainment offerings.  The Columbus location debuted with with Spin-Zone bumper car attraction, an SBF/Visa spinning coaster from Rides 4 U and a Moser drop tower that bounced between the facility’s floors.

“We continue to look at our model and try to identify how we can stay competitive and unique. We felt that rides elevate the status of what we’ve become and what Scene75 represents as an entertainment center. In Columbus, we have not only the only indoor coaster in the market but only the second roller coaster in the area. The experience that our guests have, that families can enjoy these rides together, the smiles that are on people’s faces can’t be replicated in many ways.

“The Drop Tower was our first ride, debuting at the Dayton location about three months prior to the tornado. What I noticed after we installed that was the number of pictures and videos taken and shared by parents increased significantly.” Those pictures will only increase more once the Dayton facility reopens, with an indoor, two-story Chance Rides carousel, as well as an SBF/Visa Spinning Coaster 5.0 from Rides 4 U  set to debut when Scene75 opens its doors again.

The expansion into other markets also offered Scene75 the opportunity to experiment and tinker with its food and beverage offerings.  Originally, at the Dayton location, their food model was based on quick service and no meal over $10.

“We have five locations now, and we’ve tested and toyed with different food models. We’ve tried the traditional sports bar [in Dayton], we’ve tried the themed-outing with our Illusions Restaurant [in Columbus] and we’ve tried the food truck concept,” offered Sandler. “The food trucks, they’re actual food trucks that we cut in half, have them mounted to walls and then built kitchens behind them. It’s essentially a food court, but it takes on the look of food being delivered and served by a food truck.

“The evolution is that we continue to experiment. Even with the five locations we have, I don’t think we’ve identified what model we feel is truly our best to run forward with. I think that’s part of the fun of the industry, that I don’t have to do things exactly as we did them before. We’re an entertainment space. We can continue to experiment.”

One area that Sandler and Scene75 haven’t had to experiment much with is with their Scene75 management and operations team. Starting from that initial Dayton location, as Scene75 has grown and expanded, Sandler has nurtured and promoted from within, letting valuable team member grow and develop the facilities right alongside he and his father. For example, Maggie McCartney started as an employee at the original Scene75, but as the chain expanded so did her duties. Now, as the director of art and design for the entirety of the Scene75 chain, all of the family entertainment center’s designs and graphics are created or overseen in-house by McCartney and her team

“Our general manager in Columbus was a guest service manager in the Cleveland location, and she worked her way up to a further position there,” said Sandler. “When we opened Columbus, she was an Ohio State University graduate, so she was willing to move to Columbus and help us open the Columbus location.

“I would say 70% of our management staff are people who’ve grown through the organization, and then we try to balance it out for diversity and different opinions from people coming from other entertainment centers and others who are brand new to our industry.  Putting people first is our core value.”

The Scene75 team is unmistakable at industry trade shows, often canvassing the IAAPA Expo aisles in matching black Scene75 polos. They travel the show floor aisles together, as a family. Evaluating booths, attractions and whatever they encounter at the expo with one another almost immediately. 

“My dad and I realized early on that this was going to be about the team,” stated Sandler. “Pretty much every year that we go to the IAAPA Expo, we continue to grow the number of people that we take. The first year there were a handful of us, this year we had close to 15 of us.”

With May 2020 rapidly approaching, it’s nearing a full year since Scene75 shuttered it’s doors temporarily as a result of the tornado. Damage to the indoor entertainment center totaled more than $7 million, according to records submitted to the Montgomery County Auditor’s Office.

“While my team suffered in disbelief, there was no time for us to stand still. As many of our team members waded through and inventoried the wreckage, another group of us assembled — in a still wet room inside the building — to plan for the rebuild,” explained Sandler.

“My biggest challenge as an individual is separating personal and business because I enjoy it so much that they all collide. It’s a beautiful thing, but it also poses challenges.  You never turn it off. There’s no ‘off’ button. I make myself accessible to my teams, I make myself accessible to vendors, I make myself accessible to our communities. It can be exhausting, but at the end of the day, typically you can go to bed with a sense of accomplishment and that you’re fulfilled.”

Sandler and the Scene75 team are currently hoping to have the Dayton location reopen sometime in May of 2020. 

As almost a mantra for the community and Scene75 as a whole, Sandler offered: “My team and I will be giving this our best as that is what our community deserves. Scene75. Bigger. Better. Stronger. Dayton Proud.”

This article appears in the MARCH 2020 issue of Amusement Today.
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