LAKE BARRINGTON – After an insurance career spent evaluating risk for Fortune 100 companies, Doug Huckbody took a gamble when he launched a tactical laser tag business last fall.
Huckbody, a 55-year-old Bull Valley resident, and his family opened Battle House LLC in an 11,000-square-foot space inside Lake Barrington’s RecPlex in late October. They’re betting the next generation of laser tag – featuring realistic weapons and tactical team play in video game-style environments – will be big business in the Chicago suburbs.
In the U.S., the laser tag industry generates $246 million in revenue a year and employs nearly 7,000 people, according to market research firm IBIS World. In a November report, it pegged the industry’s annual growth at 2.6 percent from 2009-14. But tactical laser tag is a relatively new development in the U.S. market. And Battle House is nothing like market leader Versent Corp.’s hide-and-seek Laser Quest, which has 53 locations in the U.S. and Canada filled with black lights, fog and music.
Growth in next generation tactical laser tag is “exploding” in the U.S., said Miles Iverson, supreme chancellor of overall fun and enjoyment at CMP Tactical Lazer Tag, which has locations in Milwaukee and Frankfurt, among other places. Iverson, who came from the paintball industry, also is CEO of Texas-based laser tag equipment maker Adventure Sports HQ LLC.
“The gear has been available for 10 or 12 years, but when I started CMP in Milwaukee in 2010, there was one other indoor facility of this kind in the U.S.,” Iverson said. “I was astounded that no one else had done it.”
Iverson described the emerging industry trend as “a mixture of paintball and ‘Call of Duty’ without the negatives of paintball, such as the cost and the pain.”
Battle House’s armory is stocked with metal infrared taggers modeled after popular assault weapons with adjustable stocks and scopes. The weapons, which cost more than $1,000 each, have sound effects that let players know when they need to reload or have been hit. They even emit a simulated muzzle flash when the trigger is pulled.
The facility’s two-story arena features a series of buildings with a variety of obstacles, hiding places and props, such as the body of helicopter that Huckbody bought from a company in North Texas and had shipped to Illinois.
Customers are assigned to teams, and for nearly two hours they play eight or more mission-based games during which they must protect a VIP, rescue a downed pilot, capture the other team’s flag or disable a suitcase bomb. The one-hour-and-45-minute sessions start at $35 and are supervised by field marshals.
“It’s pretty close to a battle simulation,” said Daniel Levinson, a 25-year-old from Algonquin who has visited Battle House twice for events.
Levinson plays paintball in the summer but said laser tag at Battle House is more fun.
“I’d say this is better – by a lot,” he said. “I’ve never experienced anything close to this. And it costs half as much as paintball.”
Police and other law enforcement organizations have used Battle House for training and team-building exercises.
Huckbody, who served in the U.S. Air Force, said one of the ways the business gives back to the community is by renting out the facility to law enforcement groups at reduced rates.
Twenty members of a McHenry County Sheriff’s Office’s corrections unit used it for two days to practice room-clearing techniques and other skills. They also had a lot of fun.
“We were absolutely amazed,” said Sgt. David Wienke, special operations commander for corrections at the McHenry County Sheriff’s Office. “It was a great fit for very tactical-type training. We couldn’t have replicated it for the cost. It was very realistic and very economical.”
With the doors closed to the public, corrections officers went through drills and practiced exercises in full gear, Wienke said.
“For as much fun as they had, we ran them ragged,” he said. “There wasn’t one person who didn’t walk away with more tools or learn something new.”
Battle House recently got a liquor license for a second-floor lounge overlooking the laser tag arena, and it has room for expanding. Huckbody said he would consider expanding when the business has enough revenue to sustain the growth.
Building a family business
Huckbody’s wife, Jane, is co-owner of Battle House, and Huckbody’s 30-year-old son, Aaron, works there. Huckbody’s older son, Darek, 33, serves on Battle House’s board of advisers and is working to open a Battle House location in North Carolina. Huckbody’s sister, Dana Pietsch, a West Point graduate and former Army captain, also serves on the board.
“There’s been lots of family involvement from the start,” Huckbody said.
But it was Carolynn Runzheimer, Huckbody’s daughter, who introduced the family to laser tag before her wedding in 2010. She had initially suggested paintball for the pre-wedding event, but Huckbody didn’t want to walk his daughter down the aisle covered with bruises. That’s when she found CMP Tactical Lazer Tag in Milwaukee.
“All the groomsmen and their sons – about 25 of us – went. We had no idea what was in store,” Huckbody said. “We played for three hours, and we were hooked.”
But it took more than experiences at CMP to convince Huckbody and his family to “bet the farm” on building their own tactical laser tag business.
“We discussed it a lot as a family. We talked at length and decided to start our own business. We wanted something that would allow us to work more closely with each other and not be at the whim of corporate America,” Huckbody said.
One early attempt to get funding for the venture was trying to get on ABC’s “Shark Tank,” a structured reality-TV program where entrepreneurs pitch business and product investment opportunities to wealthy “sharks,” including billionaire Mark Cuban.
The family hasn’t given up on that plan, but it ended up finding help closer to home through the Illinois Small Business Development Center at McHenry County College’s Shah Center for Corporate Training. It got a loan through the U.S. Small Business Administration’s 504 program, which works with private lenders to provide small businesses with financing for fixed assets such as equipment or real estate.
The Huckbody family visited more than 40 sites to find a suitable location for the business, eventually choosing an 11,000-square-foot commercial condo in the RecPlex in Lake Barrington.
“It was just a big shell with gravel floors,” Huckbody said. “It was like it was waiting there for us.”
Terms of the SBA loan program made buying the condo a more attractive option than leasing, Huckbody said.
Despite finding a suitable location, the family ran into cost overruns while building the arena to meet Illinois codes. At CMP, Huckbody estimated the buildout, using 2-by-4s and plywood, cost $80,000. Battle House found it would have to spend several hundreds of thousands of dollars more to buy fire-treated plywood, heavy-duty steel, fire sprinklers and other life-safety equipment to meet the state’s building code requirements.
“Our buildout was almost 10 times that,” Huckbody said.
And there were other speed bumps along the way.
“We had a lot of trials and tribulations,” Huckbody said. “It was a lot more complex than we thought. There was a lot of anxiety and soul searching and serious heart-to-heart discussions. At one point, we asked ourselves, ‘Do we stop before we even start?’ ”
The family pushed on. Battle House opened to the public in October and began bringing in money.
“We started to do birthday parties and corporate events, and we were able to start paying bills after two years of outflows,” Huckbody said.
That was major milestone, but not as fun as the one the business hit in mid-December, when it started to meet or exceed its customer and revenue projections. To celebrate, they invited family and friends – about 40 in all – to Battle House to show off what they had created.
“We closed the doors and played laser tag for three hours,” Huckbody said. “We turned away a lot of business that day – it was sad to see, but it was worth it.”