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16 December 2022

Ping pong bars and tipsy shuffleboard: how pubs became playgrounds

Can the beer-and-peanuts pub survive in the age of gamification?

By Katharine Swindells

The office Christmas do has taken a competitive turn. Partygoers who once made do with a pub and a pool table are increasingly heading to high-tech darts bars, shuffleboard tournaments, bottomless ping pong, boozy bingo, drunk golf and immersive board games. As the pub trade struggles to recover from the pandemic, “experience bars” are becoming more common.

Corporate team building events company Eventurous says its bookings have increased five-fold compared with before the pandemic, with the average company increasing its budget for staff parties by £1,000. Some want a personalised team-building day, others want an evening of drinks and friendly competition.

“With so many offices still doing hybrid working, companies are keen to invest in events that’ll be good for employee engagement,” says Kieron Bowen, the company’s sales director. “Games like these are better for getting everyone to bond, especially if they don’t work together face-to-face much anymore.”

This isn’t just a post-pandemic trend, however; while games have been part of the pub for centuries, a new focus on play has emerged over the last decade. The neon-lit ping pong bar Bounce opened in London, in 2012, while the high-tech darts bar Flight Club opened in 2015. Bounce was set up on the site on which ping pong was (according to some accounts) invented in Farringdon. Its owner, State of Play Hospitality, now also owns Puttshack, a minigolf experience, and Hijingo, which promises “multi-sensory futuristic bingo”. Before the pandemic the company turned over £19m.

Flight Club now has ten UK locations, three locations for its newest venture, Electric Shuffle, and venues in the US and Australia. In 2019 the company turned over £22m, and this year it expects to surpass £50 million, with new venues scheduled in Atlanta, Las Vegas and Sydney. “We honestly didn’t think we would do more than one,” says its founder and CEO Steve Moore, who was in the middle of a two-day “Santa Run” in which he visits every one of his venues, dressed as an elf. “We’ve gone from my garden shed to Vegas in seven years.”

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Lewis Hayes, who owns two bars in London (one of which recently added a shuffleboard) and is head of a hospitality consultancy, says that while board games, live music and pub quizzes have for many years helped to attract customers, the spread of digital technology has given physical play new importance. “Social media and online dating has made it harder for people to interact in the real world, so they’re looking for ways to break the ice,” he says. “Even just putting shuffleboard in my own bar, I noticed it gets people talking and creates a more laid-back atmosphere.”

Hayes says the tough market, in which even before energy bills went up in October 50 pubs were closing every month, makes it all the more important for businesses to differentiate themselves.

Larger businesses such as Brewdog, which despite the pandemic has grown to a £285m turnover business by focusing on independently brewed craft beer, have got in on the trend. Brewdog’s enormous new Waterloo venue features a bowling alley, adult-sized slide and ice cream van alongside £8 pints.

Just around the corner Sean O’Neill, manager of the Pineapple, doesn’t seem too worried. The Pineapple has been run by the O’Neill family since 1984, and they pride themselves on independence and traditionalism. “I’m 27 years old, so I’ve been to all of those – Flight Club, Electric Shuffle – with my mates,” says O’Neill, who took over the pub’s management from his father during the pandemic. “And I don’t think we’re competing directly with the likes of those places, where you go once or twice a year, and they charge £7.50 for a drink, as opposed to your standard pub.”

[See also: Why is the Bank of England raising interest rates when inflation has peaked?]

For O’Neill, drinks prices are the key difference. The Pineapple managed to survive the pandemic without having to increase prices much, in large part because as owners of the property, the family isn’t affected by rising rents. But in the past year, like at all other pubs, the bills from breweries have gone up due to the spiking price of energy, barley, malt and wheat.

Hayes says this makes “experience bars” less vulnerable to market pressures than businesses that focus purely on food and drink. Once they’ve put in the start-up capital to create the game or experience, everything made on that is profit. And once customers arrive, they mostly stay for as long as it takes to finish a tournament – even if food and drinks prices are higher.

“It’s a bit like a music festival or a big arena event,” he says. “Once you’re in, you’re in. Once you’re having fun playing darts or whatever, you’re not going to say ‘let’s go next door’.”

Moore argues that his company has followed a traditional “bar with darts” model, but with more glamorous interior design. In fact, Moore says 60 per cent of an average Flight Club’s revenue comes from drinks, 20 per cent from food, and just 20 per cent from the darts. He’s happy to admit, though, that once people are inside and enjoying themselves, they are more than happy to open their wallets.

“We don’t charge as much for the darts as some of these other experience-led bars, but once you’re in your private area, oh you’ll spend big there, you really will,” he says. “But it’s voluntary spending, and people feel like they’ve got what they paid for.”

Hayes isn’t so sure the experience bar trend will last forever. “People don’t really want to go out and play table tennis, they don’t really want to go putting, they’re just looking for something to do,” he says. “So as soon as they’ve done all of it, and the fun’s gone, there will be something new, and I don’t think that will necessarily be a new game. I think it might be a U-turn.”

O’Neill says the threat to traditional pubs isn’t experience bars but the wider economy; in the wake of the pandemic and amid double-digit inflation, people are staying at home. “If these places can get people out into London,” he says, “then maybe after their boozy crazy golf they’ll come to us for a pint.”

[See also: The biggest myths about this week’s strikes in the UK]

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