Bryan and Kelley Bijonowski’s Gilbert business has seen a lot in nine years.
It started out as an Internet café for gamers, combined with a paintball retail shop; yet today the business is set up quite differently.
“We’ve kind of evolved through the years,” Bryan Bijonowski said. “If you don’t evolve you’re basically done.”
The business evolved into an Airsoft arena — called VIP Airsoft — that’s been growing since it opened about two years ago. It was a move that helped the business stabilize — and begin to thrive.
“Adding this field has evened things out (financially) and we actually feel like we’re making some headway again and doing better as we get more people interested,” Bryan Bijonowski said.
He said the combination of an Airsoft retail store, technical services for Airsoft guns, and a place to play Airsoft have been a successful business model.
Now, he can start paying off some of his loans. For the first time since they’ve owned the business, the couple paid themselves a salary last year.
About five years ago, the Bijonowski’s business was having a tough time. Business at the Internet café and paintball retail, called “The Front” and then “Vanguard” started slowing down. Bryan Bijonowski said he did not want to invest in more technology to advance the Internet café so the business stopped the Internet café. Instead, he started selling branded Airsoft gear, which had been requested by a lot of people.
The couple was able to keep the business running, but it was a struggle.
“There were some rough years there,” Bryan Bijonowski said. “The only real bright spot would be December with Christmas.”
In 2008 and 2009, the Bijonowski’s business was losing money selling paintball and Airsoft retail. They were faced with deciding whether to sell their retail space or reinvent their business.
The Bijonowskis decided to take one last shot, this time on Airsoft.
Customers were always asking the Bijonowskis where they could play Airsoft or paintball, but they never had a good answer. Taking their customer’s needs into consideration, they came up with the idea to build an indoor arena.
“Your customers kind of tell you where your weaknesses are and you try to learn from that and try to improve your product going forward,” Bryan Bijonowski said.
After the couple received permission from the building owner, it took a little over a year to complete paperwork and the construction of the indoor arena.
The facility has about 1,900 square feet that is used in multiple ways. Enter the shop and you can find the retail section where people can purchase Airsoft guns, BBs, gear, and almost anything else a player would need. Just around the checkout counter is a concession stand that sells a variety of snacks and non-alcoholic drinks. Enter through a pair of glass doors across from the concession stand and you’d better have your eye protection ready; you’re about to enter the 1,300-square-foot, air-conditioned playing arena.
The arena consists of walls set up in a maze-like fashion, with stairs to climb, towers, barrels and other objects to hide behind. One section of the field looks like a barn, hay bales included.
Eye and head protection is required when in the VIP arena, and chest and other types of body protection are recommended to prevent injuries. Some have compared being hit by an Airsoft BB to being snapped with a rubber band. It can leave welt-like marks and bruises that can last for an hour to a couple of days.
It may sound intimidating, but Kelley Bijonowski says she sees a variety of players on the field, including moms and their kids. She also says grandpas play with their grandkids.
While anyone is welcome, the couple says they try to cater to families.
“We try to think about family oriented business and try to think about what would we want and what would we look for.”
He said 10-year-olds to 16-year-olds are VIP’s biggest customers. To accommodate families and large groups, they have a party room where birthdays and other celebrations are held. Bryan says birthdays help bring in more business because kids are exposed to the sport and most want to come back again.
“We get a lot of great kids in here, and that’s half the fun,” Kelley Bijonowski said.
VIP Airsoft is a family owned business, with the couple and their own kids are involved. One daughter is in charge of marketing, while the other is in charge of the sales department. Their son worked at VIP Airsoft, but he is now serving in Afghanistan. About 15 employees work at VIP Airsoft.
Although running a business can be tough, Bryan Bijonowski still enjoys it.
“Regardless of what else happens, when you see the kids having a good time, that’s what makes it worthwhile.”
VIP Airsoft is located at 3841 E. Baseline Road, Suite K-133, in Gilbert. For more information, visit vipairsoft.net.
What is Airsoft?
• Airsoft is a sport that simulates military combat by using authentic-looking guns that fire six millimeter round BBs made of hard plastic. To play indoor Airsoft, two teams enter the arena from opposite sides. Then players shoot at opposing members. If a player is hit, he or she raises his or her hands and exit the arena until the next game starts, which typically last seven to 10 minutes at VIP Airsoft in Gilbert.