Name of the game: evolution of pub entertainment

By Georgina Townshend

- Last updated on GMT

Evolution of entertainment: Pub goers enjoy a game created by Handmade Mysteries
Evolution of entertainment: Pub goers enjoy a game created by Handmade Mysteries

Related tags Pub Public house

Once upon a time, not so long ago, all pubs needed to do to entertain their punters was have a dartboard, a pool table and perhaps a fruit machine tucked away in the corner with some ballads playing in the background.

However, as the younger generations drink less and look for more experience-led days and nights out, pubs need to consider innovative ways of drawing in consumers and keeping them there.

Venues across the country have started to look at their empty spaces, the latest updates in technology and current trends in the market to help boost their entertainment provision and wow the crowds – moving away from more dated entertainment that people often associate with the local boozer.

These days nothing is out of reach, from crazy golf, cinemas and virtual reality to theatre and escape rooms.

Thinking outside the box

In some pubs, a weekly pub quiz and a DJ at the weekend is all that’s needed for regulars to have a good time.

However, this wasn’t enough for the Laine's Pub Company (LPC), a business that has taken entertainment in its London pubs to the highest of levels.

The Four Thieves in Battersea is full of vintage arcade games, crazy golf, pinball, mini-motor racing and is the first pub in England to feature virtual reality gaming. The Aeronaut, in Acton, has a circus inside, and the People’s Park Tavern in Hackney, has a “twisted escape room” – to name just a few attractions in its London portfolio.

“Everything we try to do is outside the box, we try to surprise people with something they didn’t know they wanted,” says Dan Hills, sales and marketing director.

“The younger generation doesn’t drink as much as your average 40-year-old, they are not looking to simply sit around the pub table and have a few beers. Most of our younger customers, who are 20 to 30, are looking for something a bit more interesting and fun, more experience-led than just drink and food.”

The company upped the ante in transforming its entertainment offer around five years ago, and started to think about all the other reasons people might want to go down their local. Hills says this has had a “huge impact” on the businesses.

Laine’s most successful pubs “by far” are the ones that have interesting entertainment, according to Hills.

Each pub works differently and the company does not take the income from the projects, such as the escape rooms, but merely provides the space to the people who run them.

“It is our job to make sure we create something interesting, exciting and fun for our customers,” Hills adds.

“We focus on our bit, providing the food and drink, then we find interesting, fun concepts and people who bring those to us. They then run their business from our business. They attract customers, we find customers for them, and it makes for a really happy relationship – everyone wins.”

Converting dead space

Handmade Mysteries is a company that runs escape games in hidden rooms of pubs, and has worked with both LPC and West Berkshire Brewery.

The experiences the company creates combine immersive theatre with the challenge and clue-solving of escape games.

“Being located in pubs has provided a real win-win for us and the pub partners we work with,” says James Addy, Handmade co-founder.

“We get great spaces to put our games in while attracting new customers who come to play then stay, eat and drink at the pub.”

Addy says he feels as if, up until very recently, pub entertainment has been “stuck in a bit of a time warp”, with darts, a pool table and the odd pub quiz being “pretty much standard wherever you go”.

“With the recent explosion of all types of new and interesting experiences, particularly in larger cities, these sort of activities are looking increasingly dated,” he says.

The size of the space does not need to be a constraint either because Handmade Mysteries has even taken a pub’s cleaning closet and turned it into an experience.

Neil Watson, co-owner of Parched and its eight-strong London pubs portfolio, realised something much more exciting could be made from a large, underused storeroom at the back of the Montpelier in Peckham Rye around seven-years-ago.

“Over a pint we decided we could make it into a little cinema, and that’s what we did,” he says.

“We converted it into a lovely space, but had to look up how to do programming and get people on board, because it’s actually quite tricky to have a

The cinema, which cost around £2,000 to create, cannot afford to show big budget films, so Watson has had to be “clever” and build relationships with independent distributors who are happy for them to show films on a smaller scale.

“It’s been a lovely point of interest for the pub. People are always quite surprised by it,” continues Watson.

“I think it brings different people in who may not have originally come into the pub. They can get a pint and watch a film.

“It’s turned a dead space into something that’s interesting and it has certainly helped business.”

Turn a dead space into something interesting. Image supplied by Handmade Mysteries

All about the technology

Of course, converting your upstairs into a cinema, or your old skittle lane into an escape room, isn’t going to come cheap. And with the constant headwinds facing pubs, this won’t be a reality for many.

There are more simple things pubs can look at to help bring their current entertainment into the 21st century, however.

“If you want to look at engaging customers you have to give them the tools they would expect,” says Andy Hill, CEO of Startle.

Startle is a company that dedicates itself to providing “exceptional digital venue experience for their customer” – including a virtual jukebox and a national pub quiz that customers can access from their phones.

It has helped “several thousand” venues get connected with cloud-based technology, allowing them to provide a variety of events for people who are “technology driven”, with Greene King Managed Estates being one of its customers.

“The whole logic of getting up and walking to a jukebox is beautiful and romantic. But so was walking into a red phone box, and no one does that any more,” Hills says.

Instead, good cloud-based technology is “critical” to any pub that wants to stay ahead of the game and offer innovation, says Hill.

“What I can’t do, and nobody can, is suddenly materialise a nice big garden to put some crazy golf in,” continues Hill. “But if you have connected cloud-based technology and you accept that people will be happily entertained using their phone, you don’t have to change the physical environment to increase the entertainment.

“Getting that technology into the pub is your starter for 10. Once you’ve done that, the world is your oyster – it starts to give you all sorts of options you can do some really clever things with.” 

Take it into the garden

Another space that can be utilised for entertainment is the pub garden, usually only home to a few benches, flowerpots and a couple of old cigarette butts.

For six years, Fuller’s has been introducing its customers to Shakespeare in the Garden, with performances of some of the writer’s most famous work.

This year will see two summer tours of classic Shakespearian comedy performed in 30 different Fuller’s pubs.

“Today’s pubgoer looks for an experience-led visit and entertainment helps deliver this,” says a Fuller’s spokesman.

“Shakespeare in the Garden has given us a fantastic opportunity to bring people to pubs they may not have visited before – or that they haven’t gone to for some time – and provides a low-cost, fantastic piece of entertainment that competes with activities like the cinema or local theatres.

“You need to keep your customers entertained to keep them coming back and that can be through regularly changing menus, theme nights or bespoke activities like this one.”

It’s all about the experience

As the notion of just having a few pints down the pub is seemingly evaporating, entertainment is key to help provide an overall experience for customers.

“As far as we are concerned, pubs have really moved on from the old days of just having football on in the background – it’s about having more of an experience in a pub,” says Hills.

“There’s still plenty of room for more traditional pubs, but I think anything experience-led is worth embracing to an extent.”

Addy agrees, and says updated entertainment, as well as helping attract a young, professional and vibrant crowd, will continue to make pubs “relevant and more of a ‘destination’”, rather than a place where people might go for a couple of drinks before heading on elsewhere.

“Consider what sort of skills and experience you currently have in your team that will be able to manage and promote the event,” advises Addy. “Then think of the type of model you would want – something you would look to develop and run yourself, or bringing in an independent operator on a more pop-up style model. Or somewhere in-between.”

Supporting the community

Pub entertainment need not only be about adding to the bottom line or providing an experience, but about helping the community or charities as well.

This year, Fuller’s Shakespeare in the Garden will be raising money for hospice charity Shooting Star Chase, and Watson’s cinema will be available to local film clubs, students and other groups in need of a space.

“We are always looking to do more with the community and charities,” says Watson. “We very much see it as a community pub, so we like to offer the cinema out to different people to use in interesting and creative ways.

“We don’t generally charge a fee for it, we lend it out to people to put good things on.”

Pub is the Hub has helped many pubs put on additional services and activities, such as community cinemas and theatre nights and, in some cases, can provide small amounts of funding to support such initiatives.

It does not measure success on turnover but if the schemes are “embraced and used by the local community”.

“They don’t set out to generate lots of income, the idea is that they provide additional services that the community has either lost or does not have easy access to,” says its spokesman.

“They will generate additional footfall to the pub – and perhaps from people who wouldn’t have visited the pub regularly before.

“Entertainment is important for pubs, particularly in rural areas, to provide services that support their local community.”

Pub is the Hub said when planning entertainment in pubs, it is always a good idea to survey local residents to see what they might enjoy; to check on any licensing requirements and fire regulations; plan for additional staffing and to see if the pub can appeal to local residents who are less mobile or able to travel further afield.

Pubs will always be the perfect place for people to enjoy a pint and a catch-up but as time and technology evolves, so must a pub’s offerings.

Either from simply being able to pick a song on a digital duke box, a digital pub quiz, or spending an hour in an ex-cleaning closet.           

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