#1155 – The Social Entertainment Explosion – Part 1

The need for the traditional amusement and entertainment operator and manufacturer scene to comprehend the buying needs of their Gen Z and Millennial customers has never been so vital. Looking at the launch of new “Social Entertainment” venues, and the looming growth is now forcing many traditionalists to take notice.  

As reported in our EAG’23 coverage of the amusement trade event, several US execs from leading entertainment venue brands had made the trip to London – not merely to see the new amusement on offer, but also to visit the latest crop of Social Entertainment venues. Defined by some as “Competitive Socializing” sites, or Next-Gen “Eatertainment” venues, it is clear that the UK has become a launchpad for this unique new concept that is popularising Social Entertainment and hospitality with a brand-new mix.

The Stinger Report has covered Social Entertainment’s rise to prominence, but it is obvious that many operations and investment groups are embracing this re-emergence of the eat, drink, play model. That many of these concepts are being originated in the United Kingdom, before being launched onto the US market, has incentivised many operators of more conventional entertainment and amusement sites to come over and see what all the fuss was about.

The Docklands Triangle

In a surprising twist, the EAG’23 convention was held only a stone’s throw from the recent openings in this sector. In the financial heart of London, being Docklands, and only one train stop from the convention center, visitors were able to see the latest Social Entertainment developments.

One of the most recent openings in this area was ‘Clay’s’ – the second venue of this new chain, the facility offers a bar, food, and clay pigeon shooting environment. Private booths are hired by groups of players, offering a social entertainment mix of guns, cocktails, and shared platers. As common with most of these kinds of environments, VIP booths are available, closed off from the main area, but most of the space is open plan, with shared access to bars and a wide selection of excellent poured cocktails. The automated food and drink ordering off touchscreen, along with the simplified shooting game using full size (and weight) shotguns, aim to create a relaxed atmosphere for the after-work crowds. 

Another new entrant in this area is ‘Fairgame’ – the facility is hoping to recreate the atmosphere of the carnival and funfair, but with a whole new vibe. In the first of this new chain, and the flagship site, guests enter an area that has been themed to offer a funfair appeal, with Midway skill games especially developed to accommodate large groups of players. The area is supported by extensive bar service, and seating to try the selection of food stalls on call, along with private booth spaces for larger groups. This is a modern interpretation of the carnival hall, using swipe card payment and score collection. Much of the construction of ‘Fairgame’ would be familiar to the amusement trade, but a lot of thought has gone into the mix of hospitality and fun – and even on a wet Thursday evening, the site was jumping. The venue uses fairground theming in their private hire seating, which is designed to look like Waltzer cars. 

Another of the entertainment offerings within the Docklands area is ‘Electric Shuffle’ – this is one of three locations in the UK, and the operator of the chain has now started their rollout with the first two US sites (Dallas and Atlanta) opening recently. Fundamentally, the chain offers the bar, food, and entertainment mix, based around shuffleboard. But as with all these brands, it is not just the games offered, but the presentation and operation that have singled out Competitive Socializing as the next-generation of “Eatertainment”. Along with frictionless payment and ordering, the game touchscreen terminals that support the playing stations collect scores. It offers game variations and collected player images, to make the experience a truly social one. It is this aspect that is often missed by jaded amusement trade eyes, to the explosion in interest in these new brands that, from some perspective, contain already proven amusement such as shooting galleries, shuffleboard, or Midway games. 

London’s Social Entertainment Mix

The UK capital has proven to be a perfect incubator for the explosion in Social Entertainment – as we have previously charted, the emergence of “Competitive Socializing” looks back to originators such as seen in 2006, with ‘All Star Lanes’, and ‘Roxy Lanes’. While more publicity has been given to ‘Puttshack’, ‘Flightclub’ and ‘Bounce’, the attractiveness of these chains as they roll out, is best illustrated by the $150m investment made by BlackRock group in the ‘Puttshack’ chain, towards supporting their plans for 30 sites to open in the coming years (building on their current six venues in the UK and US).

Regarding the linage of the ‘Puttshack’ brands, one of those influential in the crazy golf installation was Kindred Concepts, who pioneered competitive socializing venues approach along with their ‘Flightclub’, ‘Bounce’ and ‘All Star Lanes’ development. 2022 marked the launch of their latest endeavour in this genre, with ‘F1 Arcade’. Taking a prominent location in a retail space within the ‘One New Change’ retail venue near St. Paul’s Cathedral in London, the venue comprises some 60 motion-simulators developed by Vesaro, and runs the ‘rFactor 2’ racing game experience, developed by Motorsport Games – with the whole experience developed in partnership with the Formula 1 motorsport owners. The venue offers group booking, hoping to attract the city works to socialize, with bar cocktails and full menu options, along with the competitive race simulator experience.

It is much more of a simple social racing experience, compared to F1’s previous involvement with eSports lounges, and the race sims have four levels of difficulty for customers to select in social competition, engendered within the space. Billed as “the world’s first official premium F1 experiential venue”, the focus is obviously on the food and cocktails, with even a VIP room for special party hire – the requisites of any competitive socializing establishment. This first facility in the chain has seem a gradual soft opening process after the November launch event, looking to find the right mix in food and fun. But this has not stopped the operation instigating an aggressive rollout plan for their concept, announcing a second location at a 11,000 sq. ft., unit at ‘Paradise Birmingham’, part of a £1.2bn business, leisure, and residential development in Birmingham.

London plays a pivotal launchpad for many of these concepts, based on the plentiful audience-base looking to be entertained. This has migrated to the development of new immersive entertainment environments. Illustrated by the opening of the latest new tourist and retail landmark – the iconic ‘Battersea Power Station’ location is a 20th Century London landmark, having appeared on album covers, dominating the Southbank of the Thames. The active power station closed in 1983, and the facility has been embroiled in numerous attempts to redevelop the site while retaining the Grad II listed building, incorporating the iconic chimneys of the power station and distinctive brick structure. One of the many abandoned plans was to have turned the site into a theme park. 

Following a £9b redevelopment project led by architects WilkinsonEyre, the new facility reopened in October 2022 having been transformed into a hotel, retail, hospitality, and entertainment location. It features iconic elements such as the new cocktail bar in ‘Control Room B’, and social entertainment attractions are opening on site, first with a ‘Bounce’ chain. One aspect of the power station site is its iconic chimneys, and the chimneys have been incorporated into their own attraction too – ‘Lift 109 – The Chimney Lift Experience’ offers a unique panoramic view of the Capital. The experience includes an immersive presentation area using projection mapped rooms, in the latest immersive Artainment space in the Capital. The designs of the experience have also incorporated QR codes which activate information about the environment, as well as AR technology to point out landmarks during the panoramic section. More details on how this space will evolve, embracing their social entertainment aspirations, will be following soon.

London’s Theme Park Ambitions

Speaking of failed theme park projects for the capital. It was announced near the end of 2022 that the troubled ‘London Resort’ project has seen the departure of its most recent CEO. This news was linked to the announcement that the proposed submission of the updated plans for the entertainment resort would be seeing significant restructuring. This move was forced upon the operation following the redesignation of the planned site for the resort by Natural England – with sources suggesting this move forced a much-reduced scope to be considered going forward. Previously lauded by media as “London’s Disneyland”, having been claimed to be valued as a £2.5b entertainment resort complex, the project has been beset by delays, departures, and internal feuds. All this has seen the project, first revealed in 2012, slip further and further away. It had initially been planned to include partners Paramount Studios, BBC Enterprises, and Aardman Animation (the project having previously being named ‘Paramount London’), but has seen all these IP holders depart, with only ITV still claimed to remain.

In 2017 the project was rebranded The London Resort and promised, first a 2023, and then 2024 opening date. In 2019 the most recent CEO was hired, who came from a Disneyland Paris and troubled Millennium Dome project background. Again, the London resort opening date was changed, and defiant statements were made about the project still planned to be completed. But in 2021, the Swanscombe Peninsula, Kent, the intended location for the planned entertainment venture, was awarded designation as a ‘Site of Special Scientific Interest’ (SSSI). And moves were made by local wildlife groups to block any development on the site. The London Resort team would, in 2022, withdraw the planned presentation, but would confirm they still intended to present a revised plan in 2023. With the departure of the incumbent CEO, it was reported that the remaining team still intended to resubmit, with a redesigned plan that would fit within the scope of SSSI designation – what a press release called a “more realistic” downsized design. The reality of the plans that will be presented, and who will now take the helm as CEO, are still to be revealed. As well as if the grandiose plans for hotels, eSport arena, and e-ticket attractions will survive this downsizing? 

There was an additional impact to the questions regarding plans for the Swanscombe Peninsula site. The lead investors of The London Resort site are the Kuwaiti European Holding Company (KEHC), who’s operation and chairman are also the owners of the local ‘Ebbsfleet United’ soccer team. While the company still has links to the resort project, they have turned their gaze on plans recently revealed to build a vast 800-seat soccer stadium for the team, supported by accompanying luxury housing. Speculation was that this estimated $40m stadium plan had been married to the theme park project, but this was never officially confirmed. Now these KEHC plans, presented separately in October, have fallen foul of Historic England, who are raising objections regarding the impact on wildlife and archaeological sites of importance, on the Peninsula. Again, raising many questions on the viability of the location, and the already invested £100m in the project.

The US Dimension 

In news covering the international social entertainment scene, following recent coverage of the ‘Area15’ venue in Las Vegas, Nevada (reported on in previous coverage in The Stinger Report), new developments were revealed at the beginning of the year. The venue is to see a 20-acre expansion to the Vegas space, and one of the new tenants into this space will be Universal, who will be developing a year-round horror-themed attraction. 

Final details of this first-of-its-kind permanent attraction by Universal, outside of their theme park operation, are limited. The concept has been tentatively named ‘Universal Horror’, occupying a purpose built 111,000-sq.ft., structure, and comprising multiple zones based around movie IP. This marks the expansion of the entertainment district surrounding the 200,000-sq.ft., ‘Area 15’ immersive entertainment space – comprising the 52,000-sq.ft., Meow Wolf ‘Omega Mart’, along with the surrounding ‘Illuminarium’, and ‘Army of the Dead’ (Netflix) venues occupying the space.

This announcement marks the continuation of investment by Universal following their soft opening of the Californian ‘Super Nintendo World’ gate this month, and the announcements of plans to develop in Dallas, Texas, a new standalone resort with hotels and major attractions focused on a family-based experience, including IP from their movie properties such as ‘Minions’ and ‘Shrek’. Likewise, the ‘Area 15’ operation has been constantly growing their market presence since the launch of the first site, with development underway for their second venue in Orlando, Florida. And it is expected that announcements regarding the other tenants to occupy the new 20-acre expansion in Vegas will be made soon. 

Speaking of Californian ‘Super Nintendo World’, and the importance of Universal Studios IP, the Nintendo property was expected to be a major dividend in the coming months of 2023. Along with the rollout of a new style of theme park and attraction, seeing interactive AR-based attractions, interactive guest interaction with the environment, and extensive use of smart apps and guest wristbands, it was also expected that the importance of the Mario IP would be exploding on the scene with the launch of a new movie. ‘The Super Mario Bros. Movie’ will be launched in theaters for April and, along with a star-studded cast, has been developed by Universal Pictures to build on the successful formula seen with the latest two, smash hit ‘Sonic the Hedgehog’ movies. 

This move in themed entertainment also comes for the first time in recent history, so younger generations’ recognition of popular characters could see Disney’s Mickey Mouse pushed from the top slot. At the same time, investment in next-generation attractions by Nintendo and Universal, could also play a part in knocking Walt Disney from that top slot, as the corporation suffers growing internal difficulties, instability, and suggestions of major holes in the liquidity – just as it plans major celebrations for its 100 Anniversary (Disney100). 

This comes just as it was reported that the Japanese videogame and IP powerhouse Nintendo revealed developments in the consumer games scene. Once again, the name of the Saudi Arabia’s Public Investment Fund (PIF) was invoked, with news in January that the fund had increased its stake in the video game and hardware developer Nintendo. This sees the shares in this operation owned by the fund worth $2.9b (calculated as being 6.07-percent). The fund has major holdings across the video game scene, along with controlling stakes in developers such as SNK (96-percent), Koei Tecmo (5-percent), and CAPCOM (5.03-percent). Nintendo has announced, in recent financial reports, their intention to increase their development plans in the Out-of-Home Entertainment scene, following their partnership with Universal Studios (‘Super Nintendo World’), along with their investment in console, portable, and IP usage through entertainment such as with the soon to be released Universal Pictures’ ‘Super Mario Bros. Movie’, as Nintendo plans their own entertainment venue chain.

Social Entertainment, mid-scale amusement resort projects, and new investment in innovative technology, are set to create the next generation of attractions and entertainment – shaping 2023 as a pivotal year for several aspects of the industry.

About the author

Kevin Williams

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The brainchild of two location-based experience enthusiasts, Christine Buhr and Brandon Willey, the LBX Collective aims to inform and educate, create opportunities to connect with industry peers, and to spur collaboration, discourse, and cross-pollination of ideas.

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