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ONE Wednesday evening last month at Sports Plus in Lake Grove, the crowd was thick with a thousand people who worked for the Coca-Cola Bottling Company of New York, in Hauppauge, and their families.
The bottling company effectively had the run of the place, situated on 16 acres on Route 347 across from the Smithaven Mall, for its annual holiday party. The children got free passes for the rides. Upstairs, the adults chatted over party food and (soft) drinks. Downstairs the children fanned out to compete in virtual-reality games, steered old-fashioned bumper cars and chased one another with laser guns.
As the evening went on, the adults headed downstairs, too. They joined the youngsters at the 230 games, electronic and manual, likewise shouting out in delight or groaning in frustration.
Over the years weve rented out restaurants, but this year we decided to make the event more family-friendly, said Michael Casara, a sales manager who helped organize the party. The adults had their party and socialized with other adults, while they also got some family time.
Bill Reitzig, a former bowling company executive who is the president of Sports Plus, said that he was seeking more corporate bookings of this kind, as well as more buttoned-down gatherings where business gets done. He would also like to see more wedding parties and bar and bat mitzvahs there, too.
Still, regular customers seem to think of the place as more suitable for childrens parties than corporate events. Parents book about 150 such functions a week, often 50 or more on Saturday afternoons.
It can be bedlam.
The noise level is intimidating, said Kelly Dowd of Huntington. So loud, in fact, Ms. Dowd said, that it upset her 4-year-old daughter when she attended a birthday party at the complex last year.
You just brace yourself for the crowds and the lines, especially in inclement weather, she said. But you do it for the kids.
Mr. Reitzig has been trying to encourage parents like Ms. Dowd to return more often, and not just with children in tow. The 170,000-square foot complex has a professional-sized ice hockey rink, a 48-lane bowling alley with nightclub lighting that is turned on for younger bowlers, a rock-climbing wall and an 18-hole outdoor golf course. Even moviegoing becomes a physical experience: at the Iwerks theater, a million-dollar installation, the seats shake in sync with the action on the screen.
On the second level, there is an 18,000-square-foot meeting space and a 175-seat pub called Reunions.
Last year, Sports Plus booked 100 business events upstairs and might top that number this year, Mr. Reitzig said. When there are no corporate takers, he rents the space out to people like Armond Cecere, a wrestler who calls himself Kid USA and puts on demonstrations for customers.
Bookings of any kind are welcome these days. A relatively dry summer, followed by the impact of Sept. 11, flattened sales growth for the year, although the winter has been strong, Mr. Reitzig said.
In 1996, when Mr Reitzig opened Sports Plus backed by an investor group, he was introducing a concept fresh to Long Island: the everything-under-one-roof entertainment complex. It had been done before, many times, but not on Long Island, he said. It was really a case of build it and wonder: Will they come?
The crowds came. The venture caught the eye of Dominic Chang, the founder of Family Golf chain of driving ranges, which had its headquarters in Melville. In July 1997, he acquired Sports Plus, and with it the services of Mr. Reitzig, and put him to work creating a second Sports Plus, in New Rochelle.
Meanwhile, Mr. Chang continued buying entertainment companies, but Family Golf grew too fast and filed for Chapter 11 bankruptcy protection in May 2000. Last year, Louis Cappelli, a developer in Valhalla, N.Y., acquired Sports Plus and brought Mr. Reitzig back to Lake Grove.
The market has changed in the meantime. Jillians, an entertainment-oriented restaurant chain based in Louisville, Ky., opened a center in Farmingdale in March 2000. Last November, it opened a second location, in the Mall at the Source, in Westbury, and the company says it plans to add several more Long Island locations.
Another newcomer to the Long Island market is Dave Busters, based in Dallas, a entertainment-and-restaurant company that has focused on the adult market. It is planning to open its first Long Island location, in the Islandia Shopping Center, in the spring. Bryan Spain, the companys vice president for real estate, said that more locations will likely be added. Long Island looks like a good market for us, he said.
Mr. Reitzig contends that both companies operate more adult-oriented businesses than he does, aiming for a different, albeit higher-spending niche. If anything, theyre going to raise awareness for all of us, he said, sounding hopeful.
The average customer spends under $10 at Sports Plus, Mr. Reitzig said. In contrast, Jillians gets $18, said Dan Smith, its president and chief executive.
Whether aiming at parents with children or adults, alone or in groups, the category the industry calls casual restaurant/entertainment has been on the rise for the last 20 years. A carnival midway climatized and digitized for the computer age, entertainment complexes have become a suburban mainstay, offering multiple choices, from rock climbing to rock concerts.
A promotional announcement on Jillians corporate Web site says: Jillians is an entertainment wonderland. It is all things to all people. It is absolutely unbelievable.
In contrast, the Web site for Dave Busters takes a somewhat more modest tack. The companys chain of restaurants, now 20 in number, began with one simple idea, one location and goal in mind: to provide great food and great fun all under one roof.
Around the country, many of the entertainment complexes pull in at least half of their revenues by catering to business clients, taking a bite out of a market long dominated by hotel chains like Marriott and Sheraton, said Jill Adler, a meeting planner and industry recruiter in East Northport.
Companies and associations are more info turning to these alternative venues because they cost maybe half of what hotels do, which is perfect if attendees dont need to stay overnight, said Ms. Adler, the president of Meeting Matters and a past president of the Greater New York Chapter of Meeting Professionals International.
Also, a lot of people find the atmosphere at hotels to be stuffy, she added. At Sports Plus, you can act like a kid again. People feel they get to know their co-workers better playing video games or bowling with them than sitting around a table. Its fun rather than serious, and it can be a great networking opportunity.
Michael Hollander, the president of the Long Island Convention and Visitors Bureau, said that at places like Sports Plus, he saw more adults playing the virtual-reality sextreffen games than children. I think it can be a good thing for business meetings, because people sex kontakte nrw want to relieve the stress, he said. His 10-year-old son, Aaron, said he even liked the noise. Its fun, he said.