Jury’s out on flights of fancy as retailers vacate high streets

Coming to a former BHS near you.

City Darts used to be an unusual venue just off Brick Lane in London’s East End. It was a typical pub in all ways except for it having a large number of dartboards scattered around the room. This unique feature made it worth a visit for any group looking for something different to just sitting in a boozer chatting and drinking.
Nowadays this is pretty tame stuff as we are caught up in a craze of drinking (and eating) venues that include the likes of high-tech crazy golf courses, smart ping-pong tables, and the next generation of darts venues that use the latest technology to improve the game-play and interactivity to a level that City Darts could have only dreamed of.
Even the names of the companies building these venues signal we are in a different world from old-school entertainment: Swingers crazy golf is run by the Institute of Competitive Socialising (ICS) while the Bounce, Flight Club and Puttshack venues are operated by Social Entertainment Ventures (SEV).
The reality is consumers today need something to occupy them when they go out on an evening beyond merely chat and alcohol. But as interesting as these entertainments sound it is still the food and drink – mainly the latter – that are the key drivers of revenues at such establishments. The founders of ICS admit the activity part of their business is “incidental” as the real core of the business is food and drink.
These venues seem focused on a generation that demands full-on Instagram-friendly experiences whenever they venture out. The art of conversation in its traditional – rather pedestrian sense we could say – is not necessarily the crux of the exercise. Is this the early stages of a long-term shift in the dynamic of socialising that suggests establishments without additional features beyond the core food and beverage offer have a finite lifespan? Or are these places something that will prove to be of their time?
Certainly companies such as ICS refute any suggestions that what they are offering is simply part of a fad catering for what are the first of the digital natives. Its Swingers golf has certainly been a roaring success since it initially opened as a pop-up in September 2014 and the talk has been it was to open a 20,000 square foot unit carved out of the former BHS store in London’s Oxford Street.
It’s a similar story with SEV, which has been massively oversubscribed for bookings at its two outlets. This has given the founder of the business the confidence to line up three Puttshack crazy golf venues at a cost of £15m and to announce it will look to an initial public offering in the next five years.
We also have the Jones Bar Group adding two nine-hole courses to its Roxy Ball Room site in Manchester, which suggests this gaming phenomenon is not restricted to a London market looking for the next big thing.
What each of these new ventures has in common is that they are really bold plays by their founders and shareholders. Sites of 20,000 square feet do not come cheap in major cities and certainly one on London’s main thoroughfare would have been unimaginable without the challenges now being faced by major high street retailers who are vacating premises at an accelerating rate.
Personally I have always been a big fan of crazy golf and always take the opportunity to have a round – regardless of whether my children want to or not – when we’re on holiday in the UK. But this has been about the seaside experience – it is a world away from playing a round in a dark basement while guzzling cocktails.
But then I am undoubtedly a world away from the core customer of these venues. I’m more than happy to continue to drink in pubs that don’t have any music or a pub quiz, or even food for that matter. Aside from my own odd, apparently outdated preferences the jury is probably out on the longevity of some of the leisure experience businesses that are hitting the market right now and appealing to what are notoriously fickle customers.
Glynn Davis, editor of Retail Insider
This piece was originally published on Propel Info where Glynn Davis writes a regular Friday opinion piece. Retail Insider would like to thank Propel for allowing the reproduction of this column.