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Nick Gillett: Competitive socialising – novelty or here to stay?

Published:  17 November, 2023

It might surprise you – but I love an experience venue, or as I’ve learned, its proper name ‘competitive socialising’. Ok, so you won’t find me ping-ponging with a Paloma or playing boules with a Boulevardier every week, but on my occasional visit, usually as part of a team day out, it’s good fun.

And that’s the key behind this trend that’s seeing huge traction in the hospitality sector, worldwide – it’s fun! No matter what age you are, what you like, what you’re good at, there’s a venue out there that will have you giggling while you gulp your gimlet, in no time.

Now, if you’re not part of this niche industry, don’t stop reading just yet. I think there’s plenty that venues and brands from across the hospitality and spirits sectors can interact with. And there are definitely ways for brands to grab a slice of these venues’ success for themselves. Here’s my tuppence-worth on it all.

The evolution of in-venue entertainment

Gone are the days where a pack of cards, a pool table or a dart board were enough to keep you entertained during a night at the pub. Or if you were feeling really wild, karaoke!

These days we’re spoiled for choice. Golf, bingo, fairground games, boules, arcade games, ping pong and football are just some of the options on offer, as well as the wackier life-sized Monopoly, Mamma Mia Dinner Party and axe throwing. The experiences on offer in venues like these are just as important as the food and drink they sell. But how did we get here?

Technology plays an obvious part that I don’t really need to explain, but beyond that there are a few reasons.

Competitive socialising has an incredibly wide appeal. Because it incorporates all sorts of activities and games, caters for different sizes of groups and above all else is entertaining, it’s attracting custom from all demographics.

But alongside this far-reaching appeal, its adoption is being driven by Millennials and Gen Z, with 29% of the former and 41% of the latter having already taken part in competitive socialising. There’s an abundance of research that shows these generations value experiences vastly higher than material things – and in the case of socialising, they’re no different. There’s also the ongoing prioritisation of people’s health and wellbeing, so why shouldn’t we come together to do something that’s active and goes beyond just eating and drinking?

The sector is also receiving an influx of funding. In June, Formula 1 secured an investment of £30 million to fund the international expansion of their arcade concept, off the back of the successful London experience venue that gives customers a full motion simulated racing experience, served alongside a well-crafted food menu and extensive drinks list.

So, what makes a successful experience venue and who’s already doing it well?

The venues who are doing it best are those who are offering exceptional quality across the board – so not just with the activities, but also with the food, the drink and the service on offer. We live in a time where disposable income is tight and ordinary just won’t cut it if you want to compete. So, if you’ve picked an activity that’s relatively unskilled, accessible to all ages, and paired it with good quality food and drink, I reckon you’ve probably nailed it.

The likes of Fairgame in Canary Wharf are doing it incredibly well, as are Red Engine Group – the brains behind Electric Shuffle and Flight Club. But the beauty of this space is that there are probably hundreds of independent one-venue brands doing very cool things and offering very unusual experiences in cities all over the world!

The art of theatre

With the popularity of experience venues quickly gathering pace, the question becomes what can we, in the wider industry, learn from them?

Not every venue has the space, means, or desire to install a golf simulator or ping pong table, and however popular they are, it’s not for everyone. But in a similar way to brand activations creating memorable moments for products, a bit of theatre around what you do could make all the difference.

While singing waiters and dancing bartenders are great, that’s not the point here. Think about how you can up your presentation, give exceptional service, and entertain your customers – even if it’s just with the simple toss of a Boston shaker or some cracking conversation. Memorable moments are key to creating connection, so be a little inventive and find ways to add a bit of drama to your everyday serves.

I think a great example of this is Artesian’s cocktail menu – which is creating a gastro-experience around the simple art of making a drink. Venues can also partner with spirits brands for brand activations to bring something different to customers. Take Portobello Gin’s collaboration with the Royal Opera House – a quintessentially British spirit and pace coming together to please guests. Can you think of anything better than enjoying an alfresco gin tipple to the backdrop of Covent Garden’s market?

I’ll reiterate, this is the key sentiment here: fun. If you focus on entertaining people, even in the smallest ways, you’re already one step ahead.

I do think there’s one challenge that experience venues have to face, and that’s how to stand the test of time once the inevitable boom starts to fade a little. I think it’s about being agile, staying a little ahead of the curve, and just paying attention to what customers want – all while offering that same high-level of value for money. I don’t think experience venues are a novelty, they’re here to stay. And the rest of us in the spirits and hospitality industry can monopolise that opportunity if we’re smart about it.