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Innovation and Potential of Monster Mini Golf Bears Watching as Franchisor Grows Nationally

February 04, 2008 // Franchising.com // (Providence, RI)---It came to a head during a three-week California vacation in 2003. Christina Vitagliano, who had built a large and highly reputable antique auction house from nothing in Danielson, Ct., wanted out after five years. Constant trips to Europe in search of goods were exhausting instead of glamorous. Watching families argue and scream over the possessions of deceased relatives was abominable. The industry's greed was appalling.

Patrick Vitagliano, Christina's husband of six years, ran his own highly successful sound and lighting production company that counted major Broadway productions and large concert tours among its clients. He was used to his wife's whims changing on a dime. After all, she had formerly been director of marketing for a multi-level entertainment complex filled with restaurants and nightclubs in Providence, R.I. Her marketing creativity there had gained her a national reputation until she awoke one day and decided she wanted to be an auctioneer.

Now this. Patrick asked his wife what she had in mind for her latest venture.

"I don't know," she told him. "The only thing I know is that I want to do the exact opposite of what I'm doing now. I want to do something that's fun. I want to see people happy every day."

That Christina chose mini-golf for her next business is only part of the story. The real story is the ingenuity, business savvy, marketing creativity and intriguing potential of Monster Mini Golf - Vitagliano's brainchild - that has sprung from an original location in a Connecticut town of 5,000 people into a franchised concept with 21 locations either open or in development from Florida to California. Twelve more franchises are expected to be granted in 2008.

Monster Mini-Golf is mini-golf with attitude. It's an indoor, black light/glow-in-the-dark 18-hole course built around a fun monster theme with three-dimensional props, animatronics, Broadway-quality special effects and a state-of-the-art sound and lighting system that combine to deliver the world's first and only (begin italics) interactive (end italics) mini-golf experience. It's enjoyable for toddlers and 'tweens, teens and thirty-somethings and everyone else.

The first Monster Mini Golf opened in Danielson, Ct., on Memorial Day weekend in 2004 in the 8,000-square-foot space of an old textile mill that Vitagliano had rented for her auction house. Christina and Patrick spent five months building the course and props themselves, living on peanut butter sandwiches and Domino's Pizza. They did it using their own available cash to lessen the risk.

Christina saw the business as something to keep her busy while Patrick worked nights and weekends with his production company. "If I could have made $500 a week I would have been happy, I didn't even care," Vitagliano said. Within a month, business was impressive, buoyed by Christina's marketing prowess. Within six months, customers were driving more than an hour to play the course.

"You started to hear, 'This place is a gold mine. Why didn't I think of this?'" Vitagliano said. "All of sudden I got worried. We were in this tiny town in the middle of nowhere and somebody was going to steal our idea and profit from it."

By early 2005 the Vitaglianos were meeting with a franchise attorney in Chicago. In December of that year they granted their first franchise in Groton, Ct. It was only the beginning.

"What makes us who we are is so little about mini-golf," Christina says. "We have a cool concept but the reason we have families coming in and people returning is because of the business and how we operate it."

Indeed, when you look behind the ghoulish decorations and larger-than-life monsters, you discover that Monster Mini Golf is built upon a simple, yet highly effective business model fueled by a passion that plays an equally important role.

Vitagliano devised the foundation for Monster Mini Golf while on the road, of course. Six months after their fateful trip to California, the couple was driving home from a weekend in New York City. Christina was brainstorming. She liked the mini-golf idea because it was not only family oriented and popular - her subsequent Internet research proved her hunch correct - but she and Patrick could launch it themselves. Taking golf indoors and going glow-in-dark made it cool, even though Vitagliano said there were plenty of "Debbie Downers" who said she had no chance at success.

Another factor: The concept not only had to be an attention-grabber in the fast-growing family entertainment industry but it had to be affordable for customers - less expensive than what it would cost for a family of four to go to the movies. So those 12 and older pay $7, with a decreasing scale that allows those under four to play for free.

"That all goes into making us who we are," Christina said. "There are a lot of family entertainment options out there and we always have to be a step ahead of everyone else."

Other details were crucial to making Monster Mini Golf a viable business model: operations were simple and largely self-serve, minimal staffing was required, the workweek was reasonable and the concept yielded high profit margins.

While Christina had the imagination and marketing prowess and Patrick added the creativity and technical expertise to get Monster Mini Golf started, it has since been the intangibles that have made Monster Mini Golf stand out from other franchised concepts. There are hundreds of other franchisors in the industry, but spend just a couple of minutes with Christina and you sense a different type of energy, passion and potential. If you ask Christina if she feels a kinship with the popular Mac vs. PC television commercials and how she envisions her concept vs. other franchisors, she enthusiastically answers, "Yes!"

"I would like to be known as the best franchise to own," Vitagliano says. "Not as having the most locations or being the fastest-growing or the highest-grossing. Those are important considerations, but it's our reputation as business owners and as a franchisor that is more important than anything else. I want to be the Universal Studios or Disney World of mini-golf. I always want to stand in a class of our own. I want our brand to become a household name so that people across the country know Monster Mini Golf."

The Vitaglianos look for the same passion in their franchisees. They come from all walks of life: those from the medical fields, middle managers who got caught in a downsizing, many husband-and-wife teams and more. Christina and Patrick had once considered growing the business themselves, opening a second location that would be run by a manager. "If we would have done that, we wouldn't have been practicing what we know is the key to our business: owner operators," Christina said. Thus, Monster Mini Golf franchise owners share the same eagerness and enthusiasm for building the concept's brand as the Vitaglianos.

"We're a creative company and we look for creative people. They have to have enthusiasm for the business and what we do, not just the numbers and the bottom line, because that will all take care of itself," Christina said. "I get e-mails and calls from our franchisees every day with ideas for promotions and other things we can do to keep getting better. It's nice to have all those heads out there eager to contribute, especially as we grow."

Christina wrote the content for Monster Mini's Golf's web site. Other concepts might have a slicker, more polished web presentation but Vitagliano couldn't care less. She knows such elements won't play a role in the longevity and success of Monster Mini Golf. What matters are the web site's words themselves and the message they convey.

"They tell who we are and what we do," Vitagliano said. "When we get good potential franchisees, they are people who have read every word on that web site. When I ask them what made them call us, they say, 'I read your site and you are the kind of people that I want to work with and a business that I want to be a part of.'"



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