On June 5th, G-Force Adventure Center & Laser Tag in Brewer reopened its doors for the first time in three months, following a mandatory shutdown due to the COVID-19 Pandemic. The business has been operating in the “new normal” for nearly a month now, and while business isn’t back to pre-COVID levels by any stretch, the small weekly increases in calls, visitors and birthday party reservations bring hope for the future. While the past four months have been a challenge, owner Brian Plavnick considers himself one of the lucky ones.
“It’s a struggle every day, but if things hadn’t happened the way they did, we’d be having a completely different conversation. The road to get us where we are started with CEI and [our Maine Small Business Development Center advisor] Brad Swanson.”
When Brian started the G-Force business back in 2006, he couldn’t get financing for a fixed location, so he focused on building a rental mobile laser tag and event rental business. After the first year in business, he was able to start expanding – changing the look & feel of G-Force’s service and adding more products and offerings over the years. Eventually, demands on the mobile part of the business increased to the point where adding a fixed location became a necessity. Here, G-Force ran into some growing pains – difficulties with a landlord regarding food was one and access to appropriate capital was another.
“I made some mistakes along the way,” Brian admits, “and took out some predatory loans.”
It was at this point that Brian was connected with Brad Swanson, a certified Maine Small Business Development Center advisor hosted by CEI. “Brad helped us straighten things out,” Brian said. After about a year of working closely with Brad, G-Force was ready for new financing, which allowed the company to consolidate and move away from the predatory loans into single FAME-backed loan.
“If Brad didn’t believe in us, we wouldn’t have been able to go to Matt over at FAME, who believed in us as well. FAME approved the consolidation loan. I can honestly say, without Brad, we wouldn’t be here today. I owe a lot to Brad.”
Brian also cited the help of Northern Maine Development Commission (NMDC), which serves as his current lender and deferred payments on his loan during the pandemic closure.
The new funding supported G-Force’s move to a new fixed location in Brewer, in a high traffic location that would pull in both locals and tourists to the Bar Harbor area. G-Force held their grand opening for the Brewer location in September 2019, business was booming and then COVID hit.
“We were going to have a record year,” Brian recalls. “We went from doing really well, to having no work for three months.”
Brian held on to the faith that his company would survive the closure. He and his employees worked on unfinished projects from the move and applied for both federal Payroll Protection Program (PPP) funds and an Economic Injury Disaster Loan (EIDL) from the SBA. They were denied an EIDL loan, but G-Force did receive PPP funds. But the constantly changing nature of that very-new program posed its own difficulties.
“They didn’t have a lot of guidance, even for the banks, when we applied. Then very late in the game, the rules changed so they the funds could be used over 25 weeks instead of being limited to eight. I would have used the fund very differently,” Brian speculates. “We would have more of a cushion now.” The shutdowns and effects of the pandemic are lasting much longer than anyone expected and he feels that another round of PPP funding, that is available to business who received some in earlier rounds, is needed.
He is, however, grateful to another program that he didn’t receive funds from directly, but has been vital to his business’s survival. “My landlord got funds to cover rent from a program. He’s been extremely generous and patient with us.” The relief his landlord received was passed onto G-Force via a deferral of rent while the business has been closed, giving them that much more flexibility in reopening.
As it is, business is coming back, but not in the way Brian expected. “Parents have been too cautious to bring the kids out, but our nighttime business for adults has never been better.”
Brian credits this shift thanks to the diversity of G-Force’s offerings, which includes laser tag, axe throwing, archery tag, paintless paintball, 100 arcade machines, karaoke and a restaurant portion that serves food, beer and wine. The latter has provoked some jealously from bar owners, who face more restrictions than he does as a restaurant, but Brian is confident in the cleanliness and safety of his operation. He’s even worked with a vocational rehabilitation provider to bring in extra cleaners on closed days to help sanitize.
Brian hopes to have a better idea of where his business stands by the end of July, which is historically a strong month, and he’s focused on the positives. “Even though it’s not a lot of business, it’s increasing every week. Which is a good sign.”
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No cost, one-on-one assistance is provided to potential and existing business owners and managers in Maine by the Maine Small Business Development Center (Maine SBDC) at CEI. Maine SBDC Advisors at CEI are qualified business people with diverse educational and business experience. CEI-hosted advisors are available in Augusta, Bangor, Brunswick, Ellsworth, MAchias, Rockland, Waterville and Wiscasset.
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