Jonah Sandler is making a Scene in Entertainment
Walk into Scene75 in Milford and you’re struck by the flashing lights, the buzzing and ringing of a host of video games and the vastness of the space (90,000 square feet and growing). Party Zones over here, indoor go-karts over there, laser tag, mini golf, air hockey, snack bar and more. It’s a lot to take in, but for Jonah Sandler, Founder and CEO of Scene75, it’s all in a day’s work—or rather, his passion, rather than work.
When Sandler, a Sycamore High grad, was ready to graduate from the University of Chicago, he thought he’d be an investment banker—until he realized it just might not be his passion. When his father had a large retail space in Dayton that he needed to fill, one idea led to another until Sandler latched onto the concept of creating a mega-entertainment center.
“A lot of people, to be honest, didn’t think it would work when we first started, probably almost as many naysayers as there were those who believed in what we were doing,” he said. “To have a business like this, you rely on discretionary income, so you need an economy that can sustain such an environment. And you need people who are eager to go out and spend their free time with those they care about, which is something I know will not go away.
“You also need to understand the industry in which you are about to enter. For me, it required a steep learning curve. I visited numerous manufacturers, went to several dozen seminars, and visited more than 100 entertainment centers to try to put together my thoughts of what Scene75 could be. Then it requires quite a bit of creativity, an awful lot of luck and even more hard work.”
The name comes from the original Dayton location, just off Interstate 75, but also reflects that it’s the place to be seen, to create a scene, to make a scene.
“And we hope to attract people within a 75-mile radius on a fairly regular basis,” Sandler said.
The success of the Dayton location, now some five years old, made it a natural to expand to the Cincinnati area, inside an old K Mart building just off I-275 in Milford.
“We’ve been open a year and half in this location, and in that time we’ve expanded by adding additional games and by completing our repertoire of special events. In the next few months, we’ll expand to 100,000 square feet with our bowling alley and billiards area.”
Expansion doesn’t stop there, as Scene75 Cleveland is scheduled to open this summer. While Sandler has an apartment in Cleveland, don’t expect to see him there all that often, as all three entertainment sites are moving into their busy school-is-out season.
So how can he be in all three places at once? Well, he can’t, but his team can.
“I find that the key to this business is developing your team,” he said. “In each location the space is pretty significant in size. It’s very difficult to know what’s going on in every point in time. So you have to rely on teammates who can see, who can think, who can feel your values, and who can understand what kind of decisions you would make in a given circumstance.”
“To do that, it requires a lot of team development. How is my team going to react? How can I build them to a point where I feel comfortable in the decisions they are going to make? That’s really a key piece that I found to be surprising in the sense that it’s almost everything.”
“Marketing as a whole is another key piece,” he said, noting that Scene75 primarily uses Facebook to target the moms who, by and large, make the decisions on family entertainment.”
“Once you’re in business, especially as an entrepreneur, marketing is critical. To put an idea together is one thing, but to figure out how to get people to buy into your vision, how to get people to come your establishment. That’s not easy. I spend a lot of my time thinking about how can we do that? How can we make people want Scene75 to be their first choice when it comes to entertainment destinations?”
Speaking of entertainment destinations—this month marks the re-opening of one of the area’s largest entertainment destinations, Kings Island.
Does Jonah see the Warren County facility as competition?
“First, I like being included in the same sentence as Kings Island,” he admitted. “I look at it this way--our facility offers an opportunity for people to plan, regardless of the weather. Whether it’s a group outing or family event, they don’t have to change their schedule based on what is happening outside. We have the opportunity to host as many as 1,200 people in an indoor environment, and that’s not always easy to find.”
The success of Scene75 has been noted by an industry heavyweight, the International Association of Amusement Parks & Attractions (IAAPA), which named it the Top Family Entertainment Center in North America. Heady stuff for a relatively new chain, but Sandler says the 80-100 hour work weeks pay off when customers leave with smiles on their faces.
“This is a fun business,” he said, “but that shouldn’t be mistaken for an easy business. Creating happy, memorable moments, and as we like to say, saving communities from boredom, that’s what we’re all about. And if there’s an opportunity where we can do it through our special events or through our everyday entertainment, there really is no better feeling as a business owner to feel like you’re making an impact or a connection with families or between coworkers at corporate outings. It’s something inexplicable that can only be described when you see the smiles as they’re walking out the door.
“People think that running a business is all about creating your own schedule, that it gives you flexibility. But in truth, it’s almost as far from that outcome as you can think. I don’t get to turn off the clock. I don’t get to shut down my phone. But when you’re following your passion, the work just coincides with life. And I don’t necessarily want to work less, because I love what I do. I love that what I see here is a benefit that we’re creating for our communities.”