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Mobile gaming rolls out in Annapolis area

January 12, 2010 by By ELISHA SAUERS, Annapolis Capital

Paul W. Gillespie — The Capital

Cathy Rogers, a new franchisee of the Games2U company, shows off her arcade on wheels she rents out for parties. Rogers and her son, Loren Willcock, bought the franchise rights for the Annapolis area last year and put their van on the road, billing 300 events in 2009.

Cathy Rogers and Loren Willcock, mother-and-son business partners, are, in some ways, driving by the seat of their pants.

They opted to open a franchise in Annapolis in April during the worst economy in decades, with a business concept totally reliant on disposable income.

After selling their family's lawn-care business, GreenCare Lawn and Landscape Services Inc., which served south county and Calvert County, Rogers and Willcock are trying something completely foreign to their former institutional knowledge.

Of all things, they're investing in kids birthday parties.

"I know," Rogers said, anticipating one's reaction before spoken. "But no matter how parents are hurting, they won't skimp on their kids, I don't care what."

And Rogers may be an example of that herself. After researching business opportunities, Games2U was her son's idea. Willcock, an avid gamer, said after having worked for the family business since the age of 9, he wanted to follow his passion for his next employment and shuddered at the thought of - gulp - a regular, 9-to-5 job.

It wasn't too tough to convince Mom, though.

"I was excited. My biggest reservation was that it was a franchise," Rogers said. "But other than that, most people think owning your own business, especially in a recession, is a risk. But when you are working for someone else, you never know if you're going to get that pink slip. The only threat I face is whether I'm motivated to get up in the morning."

Called Games2U, it's an arcade on wheels, with video game theaters, an inflatable hamster ball for people, foam machines and outdoor laser tag.

In the years of the Transformers movies, Rogers and Willcock's super-stretch van brings the films to life without the blockbuster CG and special effects. Once in "park," a few switches send a canvas awning sailing out from the side of the vehicle, shielding any glare the sun might cast onto the flat screen TVs that are then unveiled, flanking the outsides of the van. Strobes and lasers light the setup while a sound system blasts party music into the air.

Inside of the van, with a bench stretching the length of it, are more flat screens for video-gaming. And a trailer attached to the vehicle contains more surprises for outdoor games.

Even during a simple demonstration, the van becomes quite a spectacle.

"Oh, no matter where we go, we don't stay empty long," Willcock said while taking a Guitar Hero fender out of a storage compartment.

Though they specialize in birthday parties, they also do events for adults, such as tailgates and office get-togethers. In their first year, the family business entertained at 300 events. For a 20-person party for two hours, their prices range from about $200 to $400, Willcock said.

But they also hosted a lot of free events to start a buzz. Willcock said they obtained permission from local establishments Outback Steakhouse in Parole and Coldstone Creamery in Edgewater to allow roving consumers to scope out their offerings.

Financing the new venture was the biggest challenge, he said. They had lived off the money they reaped from the GreenCare sale for about six months, so they needed other sources of cash to help get them going. All starting costs combined, Willcock said it was about $150,000 to "put the rig on the road."

"We did get the vehicle financed, but no one's lending right now, even though we have excellent credit," he said. "So we do have a private backer."

And that has kept the Games2U momentum accelerating, they said. They recently purchased two more franchises - one for the Tyson-McClean, Va., area and another in the Rockville-Potomac-Gaithersburg area - to corner the Washington, D.C., corridor.

They're also adding more products from the Games2U franchiser, including a 4-D movie theater and another game based on dodgeball called "Booger Wars" in just a few months.

Entrepreneurial brothers David and Stu Pikoff of Austin, Texas, created the Games2U concept in October 2007 to fill the need for tween and teen party entertaining. So far they've sold almost 100 franchises nationwide and have recently received accolades in Inc. magazine as one of the Top 10 "hottest" franchises on the market.

David Pikoff said he understands how difficult becoming a franchisee is right now but feels the amount of success they've enjoyed in the past two years is a promising sign.

"Sure, it's been a struggle from Day 1 because small business loans just don't exist today, and unless you have equity in your home or want to convert a 401K, it's really tough," he said. "We would already have sold about 300 to 400 (franchises) by now if we hadn't had the recession."

But the company has an edge right now among hopeful franchisees because it differs from the usual suspects, he said.

"Eighty percent of all franchises have to do with food, and the retail environment is just a dying breed," he said. "Mobile businesses of every kind are thriving right now."