Few entrepreneurs launch their businesses dressed in a leotard and a crown, but that is exactly what Ron Gordon was wearing when his latest venture, Club Sonoma, made its debut in July. Of course, Club Sonoma is not just any business. Then, too, Gordon is not just any entrepreneur.
He is, in fact, the 43-year-old, well-heeled, former chief executive officer of Atari Inc. He also developed a hand-held computer and an electronic language translator. After 10 years in the world of high technology, however, he felt he needed a change. "Creativity doesn't have to be applied just to the areas of technology," he says. "This is bringing a different thing into my life."
The different thing is real people, as opposed to, say, Space Invaders or Pac Man. Club Sonoma is a kind of real-life video arcade or perhaps a "Fantasy Island "about 100 miles north of San Francisco, where guests play at rounding up cattle, making movies, waging sea battles, and living in historic times (hence, Gordon's medieval attire). They dress up in costumes and generally act like children. Indeed the place resembles nothing so much as a summer camp -- except that the food is decent, and the bar opens before lunch.
The idea for Club Sonoma came to Gordon while he and his friend Nolan Bushnell were trying to figure out what to do with a 500-acre valley left over from another business venture. "One of the games I was involved with at Atari was called Sea Battle," he recalls. "I looked at my lake and said, 'We can have a sea battle right here."
As the planning proceeded, he came up with other mock video games. One, for example, takes place from the gondola of the club's hot-air balloon. Participants drop water bag "bombs" on human targets below -- while disdainfully sipping champagne.
"Often the fantasies seem silly at first," says Gordon, "but people have a good time and leave here laughing. For years, people have watched TV and gotten into fantasizing about heros. Video games were sort of the next step. What we have here is getting one step closer still, physically doing those things -- going to war, sinking a ship. They just eat it up."
As for Gordon, he plans to go national with Club Sonoma. One possibility, he says is to affiliate with a national hotel group "that needs some glamour and excitement. They would have the management expertise; we would provide the show business." According to Gordon, an operation like Club Sonoma yields six times the return on investment of a highrise hotel. All you need is a refurbished summer camp an hour or two from a major city.
Evidently, he is not the only one to recognize the potential. By the time Club Sonoma opened its doors, Gordon already had inquiries from 10 different cities. "I must have gotten 20 calls from Dallas alone," he says.
All of which suggests another fantasy for Club Sonoma guests: being a successful entrepreneur.