Keshav Baljee, an entrepreneur from India, stood in front of a hockey-themed video game at his new Smaaash entertainment center at the Mall of America and made a bold claim in the State of Hockey.
“This is a lot more than a video game,” Baljee said. “Just try making five shots past the goalie and your arms will be hurting.”
Co-founder Shripal Morakhia has spent $12 million to build Smaaash, a 40,000-square-foot attraction opening on Tuesday with a multilevel go-cart track, virtual reality and video games and a restaurant and bar.
The venture represents one of the largest investments ever made by a company inside the mall and means that the mall’s fourth floor — its top and least-visited floor, which has seen many ventures come and go — is fully leased for the first time in years.
Morakhia opened the first Smaaash in Mumbai in 2012 and has since built five more in malls in India. The Mall of America is his first U.S. location for Smaaash and he committed to it by signing a nine-year lease.
“The beauty of the Mall of America is that it is ahead of its time,” Morakhia said. “It is one of the few that woke up to the reality that entertainment will rule the malls.”
Jill Renslow, the mall’s senior vice president of marketing and business development, sees Smaaash as the perfect mash-up of entertainment and dining.
“I’m thrilled about it,” she said. “There’s something for the family outing, date nights and guys’ night out.”
This week represents a prime opportunity for kids and adults on holiday break to check it out, Baljee said. Besides go-carts, Smaaash has designed several one-of-a-kind games. One of them, a virtual-reality experience called Finger Coaster, is expected to be just as popular here as in India.
Morakhia demonstrated it by drawing a series of loops on a screen with his index finger. A computer then processed his scribbles into a 3-D image of a roller coaster. Guests then “ride” the roller coaster they created.
The Mall of America location features eight games not yet available at any other Smaaash. Many are proprietary.
‘Rolls-Royce of go-carts’
The Smaaash executives said they are confident they will recover their investment within a year. Active and virtual reality games will be $5 each. Passes for all arcade games and virtual-reality activities will range from $15 to $35. A six-minute go-cart drive will be $23. And for $50, customers can drive go-carts and get unlimited game playing.
“We pride ourselves in being a premium product,” Baljee said. “We’ve got the Rolls-Royce of go-carts, incredible safety features and a lot of manpower to ensure that.”
The new attraction is being promoted throughout the mall and the Smaaash executives plan to work with local sports teams and celebrities for marketing. “It could lead to a revival of the fourth floor,” Baljee said.
The floor was originally planned for a hub for adult nightlife. While it still is the home of the mall’s movie theater, it has seen the comings and goings of Planet Hollywood, Players Bar & Grill, Jillian’s, America’s Original Sports Bar, Fat Tuesday’s, Knuckleheads Comedy Club and the 400 Bar.
Customer fatigue is one of the biggest challenges for entertainment venues. Paco Underhill, author of “Call of the Mall: Why we Buy,” said he thinks Smaaash has an excellent chance of being successful in the short-term. But he asks, “Will the third, fourth and fifth times be as fun as the first and second?”
Baljee said that’s a common perception, but his staff of 19 R & D gamers design them to allow users to get better with more play. “We also rotate the games across different centers,” he said.
“There’s always something fresh every few months.”
It’s a strategy that has worked for A.C.E.S. Flight Simulation, a virtual reality experience on the mall’s third floor.
“We’ve survived for 12 years because every time you try A.C.E.S. you can make it a different experience,” said Mike Pohl, owner of A.C.E.S. “Fly over South Dakota, fly combat or go to the Nepal airstrip. We get a lot of repeat business and so will Smaaash.”
Since many of the games at Smaaash are designed for two or more people to play, Baljee is hoping that interactive play among friends, family, co-workers and team members will become common. Smaaash will start competitive go-cart leagues that race against the clock for the fastest times. “There will be private parties, team building challenges and timed races to ‘settle a score on the track,’ ” Morakhia said.
Smaaash executives are planning three more international locations next year. They are considering Las Vegas, Miami and “every other large entertainment market in the country,” Baljee said.
Guests making comments on TripAdvisor about Smaaash in Mumbai and Gurgaon, India, give it four stars. Critical reviews tend to focus on its expense.
At the Mall of America, the first challenge for Smaaash is simply to get people up to the fourth floor to slip on virtual-reality goggles and slide into go-carts. In an informal check with 20 young adults shopping at the Mall of America last week, only one had heard of Smaaash. “I’m definitely planning to check it out,” said Imran Walji, 26, of Brooklyn Center as he walked through Nickelodeon Universe.