Feature – competitive socialising

FEATURE: Bring your ‘A’ game to command a greater spend per head

By Gary Lloyd

- Last updated on GMT

Game on: gaming in the on-trade can be as simple as a darts board or as complex as an F1 simulator
Game on: gaming in the on-trade can be as simple as a darts board or as complex as an F1 simulator

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The on-trade has always been an escape for the hard-working UK population and it has managed to adapt throughout the years to give people what they want.

In fact, during and post-Covid, pubs and bars were forced to box clever and open up a multitude of channels to access punters’ pockets, which has included becoming a general store for home deliveries or collections through to changing tact entirely and becoming a main food-driven business or wet-led to ensure community ties are forged more strongly, as the case may be.

One thing is for sure, there’s been a marked reluctance for many people to hit pubs and bars as much as they used to but when they do venture out, they want everything and are prepared to pay more to get it.

Competitive socialising is an aspect few drinkers would have considered as a social event when they were nursing a half-pint of light and bitter while smoking a John Player Special at the bar some 40 years ago. Now it is not only a style of venue that is working well, some brands have gone international with it.

“Long gone are the days when it was enough to sit in a pub with your mates for an evening, week in, week out.”

However, Diane Jervis, co-founder and chief operating officer of F1 Arcade – which is a racing car simulator experience combined with food and drinks line-up – argues: “Competitive socialising is not a new development – it has always been with us, from bingo to pool to bowling and beyond. And people have always loved it.

“But, historically, in order to enjoy an activity socially you had to settle for a compromised hospitality experience.”

The venue at St Paul’s in central London offers hi-tech driving simulators and is also a must-visit site to watch live Grand Prix action too.

F1 Arcade is a venue for families to visit and race in over the age of seven but it becomes an 18-plus venue after 6pm.

Jervis (pictured below) continues: “Consumers expect more these days, and rightly so. Generations coming through want to experience something special, not just with a fun activity but with all that can accompany that – whether it be the menus, the cocktails, the service or the environment itself.

“Long gone are the days when it was enough to sit in a pub with your mates for an evening, week in, week out. People are focusing less on alcohol and more on enjoyment. Businesses want to invest in team building and also in team engagement, younger people want to enjoy unique experiences while, increasingly importantly, creating memorable moments.”

resized Diane Jervis co-founder and COO F1 Arcade

Of course F1 Arcade does offer a full alcohol drinks menu with Champagne cocktails being a strong part of the range – and the drinks menu is huge – as may be expected to go with the luxury sport. Non-alcoholic cocktails play an equal starring role with names such as Baby Driver – Seedlip, pink grapefruit, cherry, fresh lemon, foamer, Franklin & Sons cherry soda; and Safety Car – Cucumber, fresh mint, lemon, Franklin & Sons tonic.

When designing the F1 Arcade concept, the business pooled its collective experience and turned the dial up. “We set out to deliver menus that could compete with any stand-alone restaurant in the city and the venue design is over and above anything else you will find in the industry,” Jervis says.

“The gameplay itself had to reach an incredibly high standard to emulate an F1 event and with a lot of work on gamification and introducing carefully curated skill levels, which enable everyone to compete, we have managed to create the most competitively thrilling activity you will find – after all, what better competition is there than a race?!”

Value for money

Red Engine, which operates Flight Club and Electric Shuffle, sees the challenging times we are all living in currently with everyone feeling pinch from the cost-of-living crisis.

Co-founder and CEO Steve Moore (pictured below) says: “When a consumer leaves their house with the intention of spending money, we believe they are looking to get as much value as possible from what they are spending.

“Competitive socialising concepts, such as Flight Club and Electric Shuffle, offer the added entertainment value of gaming, alongside a well-priced and tasty food and drinks menu.

“We are always reinvesting in our sites to give our customers a ‘wow’ moment when they walk in and to ensure we are delivering consistent quality every time.

“Consumer behaviours also changed during the pandemic and people are looking for an experience they can’t get ordered to their front room via an app. It is impossible to recreate the vibe and feeling you get in a Flight Club or Electric shuffle anywhere other than our venues.”

steve moore Red Engine founder CEO resized

After being founded in a garden shed in 2015 with the notion of bringing darts back as a modern, social experience and a night out for friends, the first Flight Club was launched in Shoreditch, east London, and has grown to 10 sites across the UK while shuffleboard concept Electric Shuffle now has venues in London and Leeds.

Success has seen the latter open in Austin and Dallas in the US with Flight Club set to open two more sites in Scotland in autumn 2023 and it also has five in the US (with one on the way) and one in Australia with another imminent.

Putt it there

Rich Beese was a co-founder of Boom Battle Bar, which now operates more than 25 sites across England, Wales and Scotland.

Its drinks offer is vast and has cocktails, beers, low and no options, spirits, shots, sharing jugs, wines, RTDs and soft drinks while the food menu focuses on smaller bites plus burgers. However, its stand-out points are the games available that include augmented reality axe throwing and darts, shuffleboard, beer pong, pool and ‘Crazier golf’.

Beese is also the chief concept officer of We Do Play, which operates Putt Putt Noodle – an Asian-inspired adventure golf bar and restaurant that targets a family market until 7pm when sites become adult-only.

Although three-strong now with sites in Norwich, Poole and Telford, the business has 10 more sites in various stages of development. As a regional brand, its goal is to bring the concept to a wider audience and is actively seeking suitable landlord deals to expand further and are exploring potential partnerships overseas.

“We are introducing Japanese arcade games with a chance to win unique Asian merchandise as prizes.”

Beese explains: “Putt Putt Noodle is designed to be an immersive experience from the moment you step inside. With captivating art installations, themed props and mood lighting, we transport our guests to a world of adventure and fantasy.

“Our venues feature 3 mini golf courses, that take you on a journey through the great wall of China, bamboo forests, streams, Chinese dragons (we have an 18m full scale authentic dancing dragon costume above the bar) and Japanese blossom trees, each course has its own distinct scent pumped around the course.

“We also have tech-infused Japanese-style Karaoke pods, allowing you to record your singing and share it on social media. We offer time slots instead of charging per person, ensuring an enjoyable and hassle-free experience. To add to the excitement, we are introducing Japanese arcade games (which are currently not in the UK) with a chance to win unique Asian merchandise as prizes.

“Every golf player receives a beautifully wrapped fortune cookie containing proverbs, dares, and prizes – an Instagrammable touch that sets us apart from the competition.”

He adds Putt Putt Noodle provides a fun-filled experience for families with its quirky elements, while transforming into an adult-oriented destination in the evening.

It has an extensive selection of drinks and cocktails, DJs, and a no-kids policy after 7pm, with Beese adding: “We create a vibrant atmosphere for adults to unwind. We believe offering this versatility is essential in an ever-growing sector to avoid being one-dimensional.”

Extension of AWP

Another business doing great things on the scene is Publican Awards 2023 winner Urban Village Pubs, which took the coveted title in the Best Community Pub Operator category​ (pictured below).

Co-founder Ian Grundy explains the offer of the business that operates UK eight sites: “It varies from site to site. We have one or two table tennis tables in almost all of our sites – where space allows. In four, soon to be five of our eight sites, we have interactive darts. In four of the eight, we have shuffleboard tables.

“In some respect, it’s an extension of where AWPs (amusement with a prize) used to be we’re not trying to be a Flight Club or Urban Golf or Junkyard Golf. It’s just another facility people have on their doorstep – that’s how we look at this and it gives people another reason to visit.

“It’s very accessibly priced, doesn’t take over the entire pub but it’s a great facility within a market town or a suburban high street.”

urban village pubs

A site needs to make a community stronger​ according to Grundy and being attractive to a wider range of ages is key too.

“The majority of our customers visiting on any day won’t necessarily engage with the interactive darts,” Grundy explains, adding sometimes people won’t use any of the experiential things they could do when visiting, “but a proportion of our customers will visit because of the interactive darts.

“You could say the same for our craft beer offers or our food. It’s an element of what Urban Village Pubs is rather than being, in its own right, the driving force. 

“It’s for all ages. Yes, we will have more 20-somethings and 30-somethings playing than 60 or 70-somethings, however, it attracts different people at different times of the day. At the weekends, it’s something for families to do. They will come in and have something to eat then they’ll play table tennis for a while.

“In the early weekend evenings, after work, in our ‘Village Halls’, where some of them have shuffleboards, interactive darts, table tennis and foosball, we will get a lot of local businesses hiring the room for a social event of their own in one area. When you layer on top of that the stone-baked pizzas and burgers, etc. It’s kind of an office social in one room.

“And on earlier week evenings, you’ll get a lot of couples coming in and picking out the table tennis bats or the shuffleboard pucks for half an hour, just as a break from sitting at the table.”

“There’s a new generation of people who are drinking less and being much more mindful of experiences they enjoy.”

Put your phone down

“Competitive socialising provides guests with a window of time to put their phone down and be fully present in the moment while interacting with others,” says Roxy Leisure managing director Ben Warren. “How many times do we see people sitting on their phones in restaurants and pubs?

“This isn’t something we come across in any of the Roxy venues as our guests are engaging with the games and others, in a meaningful way. We’ve seen first-hand the positive impact swapping a phone for a ping pong bat has had on our guests – and first dates.”

Roxy Leisure is a Leeds-based operator of Roxy Lanes and Roxy Ball Room, which serve food and drinks along with the offer of a multitude of games including ten-pin and duck pin bowling, basketball hoop games, pool, shuffleboard and even a baseball batting cage at its Bristol branch.

Warren (pictured below) adds: “Since the pandemic, the way people are socialising has changed and people’s expectations are now much higher. There’s a new generation of people who are drinking less and being much more mindful of experiences they enjoy, and competitive socialising has been a key driver in enabling the hospitality industry to cater for this change in lifestyle and consumer habits.”

On the subject of whether pubs and bars need to incorporate gaming elements to thrive in future, he says: “When you think about it, competitive socialising in the form of the darts board and the pool table have always been a big part of the typical ‘pub experience’.

“Pubs are also intrinsic in bringing communities together which is one of the reasons that competitive socialising has become so appealing, especially post pandemic. But I do anticipate pubs will introduce more competitive socialising elements in the future.”

ben warren roxy leisure resized

Hitting top gear

F1 Arcade was born when Formula One approached the business via its founder and CEO Adam Breeden (Breeden has been labelled the brains behind popular venues included bowling alleys venue All Star Lanes, table tennis specialist Bounce and Flight Club) in March 2020 to look at the potential of working together on a competitive socialising concept.

The racing cars simulator idea was chosen quickly with Breeden, Jervis and fellow co-founders Jonique Izidoro and Oliver Raison beginning a two-year mission developing, designing and gamifying what is now F1 Arcade.

“We had to create a new game specially for this product because an existing console game would be just too difficult for most of our guests who have never raced like this before,” Jervis says. “It was important to us this would be a joyful experience for everyone, especially those who are not avid fans of motorsport or of gaming.

“We worked very closely with F1 who have been an incredibly supportive partner – the actual F1 Motorsport Design Team collaborated on the design of the simulator, which we created with Vesaro, a British design and manufacturing company who are leaders in the global simulation industry. And here we are, three years later about to open our second UK site in Birmingham (this November), before we break America with Boston Seaport in Spring 2024.”

f1 combined image resized

Arcade machines and consoles

Bar with arcade machines business NQ64 does not see itself as part of the competitive socialising market but try telling that to the customers either battling each other on Street Fighter II​ or the four pedal-to-the-metal drivers taking part on Mario Kart Arcade GP​.

With nine sites in the UK from London to Manchester and Newcastle to Cardiff, NQ64 features neon designs in dark rooms that house dozens of machines from arcade classics such as Bubble Bobble​ and Crazy Taxi​ plus pinball machines and consoles that doubtless most customers would have owned or played in the past 30 years or so such as the Sega Mega Drive and Nintendo 64.

But the business is keen to be a bar first and foremost. Its offer of canned beers and ciders is complemented by a large cocktail range featuring names including Dr Ro Bev Nik – Jack Daniel’s and cherry bourbon blend, Dr Pepper syrup, cherry, which pays homage to Sonic the Hedgehog​ while Phone Home – Beefeater rhubarb and cranberry gin, orange, vanilla, glitter, fizzy space ship is named after E.T. the Extra-Terrestrial​.

The designs and layouts of sites for businesses in the competitive socialising market are always carefully thought about.

Decor and music

Warren of Roxy Leisure, which was founded in 2013 by brothers Matt and Ben Jones, and now operates close to 20 sites mainly in the north of England and the Midlands, says its venues have been designed to ensure guests of all ages feel comfortable and have fun.

He admits: “We’re aware that not all competitive socialising brands will appeal to an older demographic, however, a lot of consideration has gone into the decor and interiors of our venues to ensure Roxy can cater for and appeal to the broadest age range possible. Our nostalgic rock and indie playlist also adds to our timeless appeal.”

Décor and music are key to Warren who says the company’s graffiti artist, EJECT, always features musical artists relevant to each city to celebrate that area’s musical history and to ensure it is embedding itself fully into the community.

F1 Arcade’s Jervis explains: “Venue design is a serious business for us. The environment we provide for our guests is just as carefully and intricately designed as the game or the food menu, if not more.

“We took inspiration from the glamorous world of Formula 1, but were conscious to steer clear of the cliché by focusing on creating an abstract language with elements inspired from F1 heritage and iconography that were then reinterpreted as design elements.

“This included the ‘F’ radius becoming a repeated feature throughout the design from back bar arches, to cocktail seating and washroom doors. These reinterpreted iconography elements were layered over the core design pillars: assault of the senses and glamour to create a unique design strategy.

“The space boasts a feature cocktail bar, several imposing F1-circuit inspired ceiling chandeliers and vibrant race telemetry wall neons. Everything is complemented by high-end finishes and glowing warm lighting to create a really special hospitality setting.”

Red Engine’s Moore agrees décor is crucial to its Electric Shuffle and Flight Club sites. The parent company employs a full in-house interiors, creative and design team, which ensure each venue is “breathtaking” and comfortable.

He says: “When we design a venue, it must have a great atmosphere even when it’s empty so when it fills up with guests, it goes to the next level.

“With every site we take on, we look to retain and celebrate existing architectural details and the buildings history, as well as integrate our brands into the culture of the city it is in.

“The character of the area influences the decor of every site, with many elements bespoke and unique, resulting in authentic design. This translates into guests having an unforgettable time, every visit.”

Always room for traditional pubs

Yes pubs have had to adapt to survive but do they all need to change their ethos entirely to maintain and gain footfall? Jervis thinks not. She says: “I love pubs. There will always be room in my heart for a good old-fashioned pub.

“Bars are having to work harder to keep people interested, for sure, but there is room out there for every type of hospitality experience – as long as guests feel welcome and taken care of. I don’t think simply dropping an activity into an already established venue will improve that type of experience.

“What we create is a carefully curated, end-to-end competitive socialising experience. It’s a different beast and one that with care and innovation can keep evolving to meet and exceed the expectations of our guests.”

“The more brands in the sector offering amazing experiences benefits everyone.”

Moore of Red Engine says the hospitality industry has had a really tough time, facing adversities including a global pandemic, train strikes, staffing issues and a cost-of-living crisis so consumers’ spending habits are always evolving and it seems as though they are currently leaning toward wanting an experience when they leave the house.

“This experience could be a social competitive element, it could be a high-concept themed bar, or niche food offering,” he says. “Our current revenue figures are looking really positive and this is a testament to the resilience and appeal of our product, with offers added value to a standard drinks offering and brings groups friends together across the globe.”

flight club resized
Flight Club

Beese at We Do Play explains a continual enhancement of what its sites offer will help ensure ongoing excitement and customer engagement.

He says: “Variety and high-quality games are at the core of all our concepts. We take pride in introducing activities that may be familiar but with a unique twist, providing our customers with fresh and memorable experiences.

“We believe certain concepts lend themselves to competitive socialising while others offer a different appeal. The more brands in the sector offering amazing experiences benefits everyone involved, competition among operators inspires innovation and contributes to the sector’s growth, ultimately providing customers with better and better offerings.”

Meanwhile, roll-out plans are on top of Roxy Leisure’s list for the next 24 months. A Roxy Ball Room Leicester opening is slated for 23 June, Roxy Lanes Cheltenham in set to launch in August plus six more openings are planned for 2024. The company is also launching a new family brand called King Pins in Manchester that it says “takes all the best things from Roxy and moulds it into a more family-friendly atmosphere”.

Whether a venue uses a traditional form of sporting engagement such as pool, table tennis, darts or shuffleboard or it uses more technical aspects as offered at many of the operators above – or even a combination of both – competition is important to a lot of potential customers and it’s something that is currently thriving and definitely worth thinking about for your site.

As Urban Village Pubs’ Ian Grundy says, sometimes people come for the games, sometimes they don’t. The key for operators is to decide whether it’s worth investing at all and, if so, how far to go with it.

Electric Shuffle Leeds resized
Electric Shuffle in Leeds

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