Local business finds way to thrive despite pandemic

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By Rachel Madison

When the coronavirus pandemic hit Texas in mid-March, businesses were losing customers and closing their doors, and Liberty Hill-based Game Shows To Go was no exception.

The company, which has been around since 2003 and provides live entertainment game shows to colleges, corporate organizations and more, lost more than $50,000 in bookings in just one day.

“My phone was ringing every 20 minutes with cancellations,” said C.J. Johnson, president and co-owner of Game Shows To Go. “We were in full-on panic mode. By the end of the day on March 14, our next event that was not canceled wasn’t until September. We had a nice full schedule and then literally no income coming in. It was heartbreaking. We started trying to figure out how long we could survive without wiping out our personal savings and still meet payroll. We are a small business—there are six of us—so our employees are family. I knew I could survive on my savings, but I couldn’t make payroll until September. I actually threw up after I hung up the phone from telling my employees, these people I loved, that we weren’t going to make it.”

Before the pandemic hit, Game Shows To Go was on track to have a highly successful April and May. Because the business primarily does game shows for college campuses, the company’s busy season is in the spring when most colleges do big end-of-the-year events.

“We always count on April and May to carry us through the summer until August hits and we go back to working at colleges,” Johnson said. “We always use this season as our build-up to see us through the slow summer season. Had this pandemic hit from June to August, there would be no impact on our business at all.”

Because of the hit Johnson knew his company was taking, he and his wife, Kim Hofstetter-Johnson, decided to unplug for a few days and avoid the news and social media, but not before a friend called him and gave him a pep talk, telling him to use the pandemic to his company’s advantage.

“I texted my crew and told them I’d decided to see what we could do to take the show virtual,” Johnson said. “I didn’t think we’d be able to come up with anything, but I told them we’d talk the following Monday and see what they came up with.”

Johnson’s business partner, Gus Davis, and technical director James Caldwell jumped at the chance to save the company, and immediately got to work. The next Monday, they showed Johnson a pitch for a virtual game show.

“They had figured out all these amazing elements,” Johnson said. “Our crew worked together and used their expertise to make the virtual shows great. Colleges didn’t know what this new virtual show would be like, but they took a chance on us and the feedback was amazing. The first schools that booked with us booked three to four more additional shows because their students responded so well. The only reason this worked is because we had the right team with the right sets of sub skills to pull this off.”

Johnson said Davis, who also hosts the game shows, has an uncanny ability to connect with people virtually.

“He is so amazing at it,” he said. “It still surprises me every night. He’s talking to a camera, with a green screen behind him, and he uses action figures as his audience. He can’t see his real audience because it’s a one-way feed. He sees nothing except what’s going on in the chat room.”

Two days after their first virtual game show was when most of the country was asked to shelter in place, which meant the team of six had to produce the show from their individual homes in four different cities and two different states, but that didn’t stop them.

“Once we were up and running, we started booking shows left and right,” Johnson said. “In the month of April we did 56 shows. By last Thursday night we ended up completing 69 virtual shows. On May 12, we did our 70th and 71st shows.”

He added that he liked the story of his company overcoming a problem a lot more than giving up when times got hard, which is just one reason why they built their virtual game show. The other reason is because Johnson said his company doesn’t just host game shows—it builds community.

“No college needs a game show or a magician or a hypnotist,” he said. “It’s about creating an experience that makes you feel like part of your college community. Students engaged are students retained. We are really in the college student retention business.”

Johnson, who is also a magician and a hypnotist, said if college campuses do reopen in the fall, he thinks it will be a much different landscape than what it’s been in the past, which is why he’s continuing to run with the virtual game show idea.

“We are going to take the experience virtually to the next level and do some really fun things,” he said. “I can’t give details on that now, but it’ll be bigger and better.”

Over the summer, Johnson has a steady group of colleges, apartment communities and corporate groups booking virtual game shows, which he is excited about, because it’s a whole new way to market his company.

Game Shows To Go has done about 2,600 live shows since its beginning and has traveled to nearly every state in the nation as well as places like Fiji and Cancun. There are six different game shows the company does. A couple are homages to popular televised game shows like “Deal or No Deal” and “Family Feud,” while others were grown in house.

For more information, visit www.gameshowstogo.com.

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