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Business Spotlight: In the Zone

Nerf gun wars are the focus of The War Zone

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 Over 50 years after the first Nerf ball was invented, projectiles of the foam rubber are frequently flying in a 2-year-old entertainment venue in south Springfield.

The War Zone Springfield LLC, an indoor game concept centered on Nerf gun battles, opened in early 2021 near the intersection of Walnut Lawn Street and Campbell Avenue. The 5,600-square-foot arena, which is filled with stacks of spray-painted cardboard boxes to provide ample cover for participants, offers play for ages 5 and older. First-time business owner Vanessa Grimaldi says the hourly open play is $15 per person, which includes a Nerf gun, ammunition and safety glasses.

The venue also hosts birthday parties and other events, such as corporate team building, home school and church activities. Birthday parties range $270-$625, she says.

“I didn’t know what to expect,” Grimaldi says of her opening The War Zone, which she adds was the only Nerf gun entertainment venture in the state at the start of 2021. Get Nerfed Battle Arena opened later that year in the Kansas City area.

“I just knew that Springfield had a shortage of places to have boys’ birthday parties,” she says. “My son at the time was 6 when he thought of this concept. We celebrated his eighth and ninth birthdays here.”

Pivot point
The War Zone served as a professional pivot amid the COVID-19 pandemic for Grimaldi, who has over 20 years’ experience in sales and marketing, including eight years with Wyndham Vacation Ownership Inc. A New Orleans native who moved to Springfield in 2012, she says her now 10-year-old son, Gabe, was heavily into Nerf a few years ago.

“He made the comment, ‘I just wish there was a place we could go and have Nerf wars.’ I had lost a job during COVID and thought, ‘Well, I need a job, and you want a place for Nerf wars,” she says. “Let’s make a business out of it.”

Grimaldi says after learning that other Nerf arena businesses exist, she put together a business plan. Blast Masters in Twin Falls, Idaho, and On Target BattleZone in Baltimore, Maryland, are two similar businesses.

“I went to the bank and got laughed right out of the bank because I had no previous experience in this kind of space,” she says. “That’s when I realized I had to self-fund and started putting some numbers together.”

Startup costs were $20,000, she says, adding she signed a five-year lease for an undisclosed rate with Sandy Harrel of McLoud & Co. LLC.

Prior to opening The War Zone, Grimaldi waited tables for roughly six months at the now-shuttered Bourbon and Beale LLC and started setting aside money. Some of that went toward building up an arsenal of Nerf guns – most of which she found on Facebook Marketplace. A friend also donated about 60 guns, while she’s purchased others from retailers such as Target.

“I have probably 200 guns,” she says, glancing over at the Nerf arsenal hanging on one of The War Zone walls. “There are probably 70 on this wall alone.”

Replacing guns also is common, she adds.

“We’ve been through probably 100 guns that just had to be thrown away or broke,” she says. “We figured out which ones really work well in this space. Guns with magazines, they do not work well. They jam. So, we like the Rival ones, which have little balls, because they don’t jam very often, and I taught myself how to fix them through YouTube.”

Holding steady
Word of mouth spread soon after opening, Grimaldi says.

“People came out in droves in the beginning,” she says, noting she quickly added the ability to make appointments online.

Grimaldi estimates 90% of business comes from appointments with the remainder as walk-ins. Birthday parties are by far the biggest draw for traffic at 80%, she says, adding corporate events and open-play sessions each make up 10%.

“We’re a good, fun place if you want to get out of the heat in August and to come run off your energy on a snow day,” she says.

Declining to disclose figures, she says there was essentially zero revenue growth in 2022 over the first year. To try and move the needle on customer interest this year, Grimaldi is relying more on geofencing to advertise on people’s mobile devices and promoting the shop on social media.

“There should be a little uptick,” she says of this year’s revenue prospects. “We’re paying the bills and paying the rent. It’s breaking even plus a little extra.”

However, as she’s adjusted The War Zone hours primarily to weekends, Grimaldi also works part time for Vietti Marketing Group and as a substitute teacher.

While companies such as Davis Electric Inc. and Chick-fil-A have held events at The War Zone, the venue also hosts gatherings for networking group Courageous Business Connect LLC. Kat Williams, owner of the 5-year-old membership-based venture, said Grimaldi is among its roughly 120 members. Over a dozen events involving the business networking group, including fundraisers and mixers, have been held there since 2021, Williams says.

“She’s a great person with a great heart who really just wants to help people and have some fun doing it,” Williams says.

Noting interest in eventually downsizing the space of the indoor arena, Grimaldi says she’s still trying to attract more people into her young business. She’s open to ideas that will bring in traffic, adding the venue has hosted reoccurring holiday-themed activities such as zombies vs. humans at Halloween time and a Nerf war with the Easter Bunny in the spring.

“We’re two and a half years in, and not everybody in town has heard of us,” she says. “So, there’s still a lot of room to grow.”

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