#1169 – The Social Entertainment Explosion – Part 4

Continuing the ever-expanding coverage of the Social Entertainment emergence in the out-of-home sector, and we cover the only wholly focused event on the sector, along with charting further industry developments in our exclusive coverage of the scene.

Competitive Socialising 2023: Gathering 

The second Competitive Socialising 2023 (ComSoc’23) event took place in London at the end of May, held in South London’s ‘The Lighthouse’ theater. Under the tagline “the power of play”, the leading lights of the trade came together, sharing observations on this growing market sector. This is a market appearing on many investors’ and operators’ radar and feeding this growing event. 

Competitive Socializing was abbreviated to the term #ComSoc for the event – whether this will catch on as a term is unknown, the same way that the attempt to use the term #Socialtainment as an abbreviation has fallen foul of already being previously grabbed by the social media entertainment developer lobby.

ComSoc’23 revolved around the UK-based conference, gathering the leading lights from the UK social entertainment industry. With directors from All Star Lanes, Disco Bowl, and from PINS Social Club, speaking about their growing business plans, and also reflecting on the impact of social entertainment into the bowling scene. Another presenter was from Clays, with two of their digital clay pigeon shooting venues opened, and with another two planned for the end of the year. 

The aspect of the digital ComSoc approach was also presented from Platform, the console gaming bar with a retro twist – already opening two locations. As well as the developments from Sixes: Cricket Club and their road to expansion. This covers only some of the informative presentations during the event, which was also supported with valuable data, revealing industry trends, supplied during the session from the consultancy KAM, as well as association positioning data from the British Institute of Innkeepers (BII)

In support of the conference, an exhibition floor was laid out at the theater, with some of the key products and services needed to feed the ComSoc monster. The whole event was hosted by Home Leisure Direct, who also had a large array of their product lines for this sector presented. These included their latest foosball, pool, and pinball tables – with latest examples such as STERN’s ‘007’ and ‘Foo Fighters’ tables on display. Other amusement in ComSoc colors included new skee-ball and shuffleboard units, including a mini shuffleboard – a compact 7ft table, compared to the normal 12ft. and 22ft., alternatives. 

Amusement was also represented with unique, upright, video arcade machines – these being recreational cabinets made for rec-room and hospitality, installed with retro games such as ‘Street Fighter II’ and ‘Track & Field’. No coin-mechs, but these systems can accommodate contactless payment. One of the only examples of VR on display at the event was from Raw Thrills, with their ‘MotoGP: VR’.  Meanwhile, regarding AR, and the ComSoc developer 501 Entertainment revealed their brand-new software update to their ‘Smart Darts’ platform, with a licensed game “Bullseye”, based on the popular 1980s UK gameshow – offering a competitive social element aimed at the target demographic. 

501 Entertainment is also represented by SEGA Amusement International (SAI) and, recently, they announced their “Social Entertainment” line of amusement – including ‘Smart Darts’, along with ‘Puck It’ air hockey and ‘Hoop It’ basketball, ‘Super Kixx Pro’, and other lines aimed to target an emerging audience, as the company claims “customer behaviour is changing, resulting in the rise of social entertainment.” The importance of entertainment into this mix is everchanging, but away from the more immersive systems seen in the space, more conventional amusement is also important to the mix. However, finding the right systems is an ongoing mission, and the traditional amusement trade needs to step up to the challenge. 

One of those elements sometimes underestimated when considering ComSoc is the food and beverage (F&B) offering, and the ComSoc’23 event was supported by a gaggle of service and product providers, ranging from Hudson’s supplying delegates with great burgers and hot dogs, while premium drinks and cocktails were in strong supply from the likes of Di Capri, Coca-Cola, Monster Energy and Hi-Spirits – along with other vendors. The nightclub and social drink element of these venues, a strong revenue stream, is seen by some as the “Pub 2.0” of their generation. The one-day ComSoc’23 event ended with an evening mixer, with a great live music set, and an energetic Pub Quiz using the KwizzBit platform, allowing players to connect live via a phone app to play.

In conclusion – ComSoc’23 was an enthusiastic gathering and offered a valuable snapshot of the continued trajectory of this aspect of the social entertainment market. Plans are underway to grow the event for 2024, with this year seeing well over 200 delegates and suppliers, and nearing capacity of the current venue. With hopes to hold next year’s event around the same time, it will reflect the continued growth and investment in this scene, with more speakers, case studies, and exhibitors – The Stinger Report looks forward to reporting on more details.  

Competitive Socializing: Immersion 

The elements of the ComSoc market reflected outside of the ComSoc 2023 event continued to gather pace. With regards to VR’s deployment in this scene, developments continued with news that the ambitious chain Sandbox VR will be part of the vision to diversify the use of the ‘Bullring & Grand Central’ in Birmingham. Scheduled to open a 13,000-sq.ft. VR space with social entertainment at its heart, this will include a robotic bartender called ‘Toni’, who can shake, stir, and serve up-to-80 drinks per-hour.

In an interesting post from the CEO of the company, it was revealed that some one-million tickets had been sold across the Sandbox VR chain since they started some six years ago, but the interesting fact was that it was within the last six months (September’22 to February’23) that saw half of these purchases made. The company’s US subsidiary and original brand (GloStation) had a tough period, falling into Chapter 11 protection, and only re-emerging in December 2020 – based on funds from parent Sandbox VR (including a restructuring of $13m of secured debt).

The constant onward march of Sandbox VR to establish a landgrab has seen a rush to open new venues, recently announcing the schedule for the opening of their second Las Vegas location (since taking over the old failed TheVOID property within the Venetian Casino Resort), with the new addition in the city marking their 36th site (some 12 sites opened in 2023 alone). The operation is looking to open a new venue a month for the rest of the year – all these comprising self-operated and franchises. 

This is a remarkable trajectory for a company that started in 2017 with a single Hong Kong site, under the ‘GloStation’ brand, receiving initial investment from Alibaba Entrepreneurs Fund and other Chinese supporters, and then going on through Series A and B investment to see considerable support (raising some $37m from investors). In continuing to support the growth, the company announced the launch of the new game ‘Seekers of the Shard: Dragonfire’. This six-player adventure sees the players travel through a magical castle, in a game that will feature branching storylines. This experience has been developed by the in-house team at Sandbox VR, seeing direction from ex-triple-A development team members.

Another developer/operator of immersive entertainment spaces announced their continued investment in the UK scene. meetspaceVR revealed their sixth site in Guildford. At the Riverside Business Centre, the company will open a 2,400-sq. ft. arena to feature Zero Latency – the eight-player space, being the sixth Zero Latency installation in the UK, will be the 60th installation internationally. This venue will be joined by the seventh site, planned to open in Bristol later in the year.

One of the first UK-based VR arcade operators also revealed their plans, with DNA VR marking the first venue from the chain outside of London. The Manchester site will include VR booths and free-roaming arenas, including VR escape gaming. Meanwhile, another operation growing the UK business, The Park Playground, announced the scheduled opening of their 13th facility and their second UK location, planned for Birmingham. The franchised VR entertainment venue will be aimed at seven-year-olds and up. This new venue, it was revealed by Blooloop, will include their new ‘NanoClash Focusing’ a competitive sport, immersive VR battle experiences, developed in a collaboration between HTC and Triangle Factory, for between four and eight players wearing the ‘HTC Focus 3’ headsets. This news follows the announcement of plans to open an Australian venue, in Brisbane, this year. 

Competitive Socializing: Energetic

Along with urban entertainment venues, and the latest VR centers in the growing market, we see the explosion in Competitive Socializing (ComSoc) – the mixture of food and beverage, with a secondary competitive game focus. Much of this can trace its roots back to the growth in social bowling back in the late 2010s, and many of the leading lights in this scene have started aggressive rollout plans fuelled by the new popularity.

Lane7 is opening two new venues in London and its first attraction in Europe, and Level X is launching a new site in Middlesbrough. This includes being part of the lineup of leisure operators within the new ‘Bullring & Grand Central’ in Birmingham. Alongside Sandbox VR, TOCA Social, and Treetop Adventure Golf – to name the first entertainment tenants. Lane7 also revealed plans for a new location in Dublin City, announced to open for the end of the year, as well as a new site in London’s Victoria area.

While Lane7 offers a boutique bowling experience, the operation has been working on a more mixed-entertainment brief with their Level X sites – representing a family entertainment concept with futuristic and immersive attractions. The first of this concept is opening in Glasgow, comprising a VR zone called ‘Alt Verse’, and a new-style bowling called ‘Gutterball’. This is supported by a retro amusement zone called ‘Level Up’, along with ‘KPod’ – karaoke, and ‘Big Putt’ – mini golf attractions. This is a concept that the company has called an “Immersive, tech-led gaming and entertainment space”.

The bowling sector was under the microscope as the industry fell under the cycle of mergers and acquisitions, repeated with news that the Lucky Strike chain of US bowling entertainment centers had been acquired by bowling entertainment operator Bowlero. The $90m, all-cash acquisition sees the 14-locations taken over by Bowlero Corporation – being added to their current 325 bowling center operations across North America. Lucky Strike opened its first location in 2003 and has grown its operation, now being acquired by one of the largest global operators. The transaction is expected to be completed by the start of 2024 – another example of the consolidation taking place in the market. 

In what has been reported as the UK’s first live interactive arcade gaming venue, opened in London during May, we see one of the latest examples of “Active Entertainment”. Called ‘Energize Games’ – this represents a physical and mental interactive gaming experience, comprising 11 different game rooms, supporting between two and up-to-five players at a time, using wearables to track their scores. Each game comprises up-to-11 levels of competition. While called arcade style games, these experiences stretch the players’ physical fitness, mental dexterity, and problem-solving skills abilities. Interactive illuminated floors, digital screens, and laser-gun environments are just some of the experiences employed. Active entertainment for an older generation is being seen as a growing genre in the sector.

 Competitive Socializing: Interactive  

Regarding the London scene, and the latest ‘Boom Battle Bar’ chain opened its doors in the heart of London’s Oxford Street crowded retail center. The new venue was one of the first to reflect the new ownership from XP Factory – the owners of the ‘Escape Hunt’ escape room business. And the new location was one of the first Social Entertainment venues to include a dedicated escape room component to the mix. The new site comprises nine distinct entertainment offerings, ranging from hoops, AR axe throwing, AR darts, pool, shuffleboard, beer pong, crazy-golf, and karaoke booths. All this is supported by an extensive hospitality component, appealing to an after-work audience demographic. The company is working on plans for their own wider rollout. 

Regarding the “golf-entertainment” scene, the UK saw the opening of the first Topgolf venue, with ‘Topgolf Glasgow’. The successful gamified golf shooting range and hospitality venue chain had been acquired by Callaway for some $2.6b in stock back in 2021. This physical golfing entertainment experience, married to gamified elements and a strong hospitality offering, has gained traction. This was echoed by another announcement that ‘PopStroke’ had seen a “material investment” by TaylorMade Golf. The Tiger Woods supported golf-entertainment concept has recently opened its second site and looks to use this new investment in a significant rollout plan. 

Meanwhile, one of the originators of the explosion in social entertainment with a mini-golf application, Puttshack (originated by executives involved with the creation of Topgolf), announced the opening of their seventh US store, with the opening in Denver of their 24,000-sq.ft. (single floor) location, in the River North Art District at Denver’s Lot 28. The site was developed in partnership with Lagniappe Capital Partners and Platform Ventures – and reflects the aggressive rollout plans for the chain. It is all part of the operation’s own, aggressive, international rollout plans, following previously reported on new investment.

AI Retailing Evolves in Entertainment

One aspect of the changing landscape, along with the changing global conditions, was needing to adapt to optimization, to address the recessional and cost of living conditions, as well as staff shortages. These are factors which all in the entertainment, hospitality and retail sectors now face. 

It was revealed that one of the most ambitious retail projects had suffered under these conditions. During March, Amazon announced that eight of their twenty-nine ‘Amazon Go’ stores would be closing permanently. The concept of the stores was an advanced frictionless retail concept, launched by the AI and Computer Vision department, of the e-commerce trader (following on from The Stinger Report’s recent coverage on the addition of AGI into the entertainment mix). The system uses computers and special cameras to track the customers, as they moved through the stores. The frictionless facilities do not use cash payment but charge the patron for any items as they walk out the store, via their app – the stores are branded as “Just Walk Out”. The closures were blamed on new optimization policy but claim to still be committed to the cashless store concept.

This commitment was seen with the news that the concept would be coming to the Theme Park sector. It was revealed that Six Flags Entertainment would start, in June, to operate at their Six Flags Magic Mountain site the Amazon’s “Just Walk Out” technology. The cashless shopping experience has been installed in ‘Quick Six’, a branded store on the property, employing the cashless smart payment platform. This partnership is between Six Flags and Amazon, as well as Six Flags’ strategic partner, the Coca-Cola Company – and is hoped to be the start of a rollout across the operation’s properties. 

The concept of a cashless store has even started to be trailed at selected Dave & Buster’s “Eatertainment” locations, as a new pop-in concession element. The concept was developed in partnership with Coca-Cola Company employing their ‘Zippin’ checkout-free platform – the new stores are called ‘Game & Go’, as a frictionless in-restaurant on the property of the entertainment site. No word if the D&B concessions would be still operational since they were fielded in July of last year at selected stores. This approach to checkout-free retailing has also been seen employed at airports, office canteens, and sports stadiums. The Computer Vision (or Image Recognition) retail market had been speculated to top $37b by 2025, from a survey by a software AI consultancy in a 2021. 

Another example of autonomous machine learning (and AGI) in the food and fun space was seen with the opening of ‘Eatrenali’ – what has been called a restaurant world first. Located as part of the Europa Park Resort, this attraction is described as a new dimension in dining. The immersive “Eatertainment” experience offers a multi-sensory dining adventure, mixing multi-media and the finest crafted dishes, taking the guest on a literal culinary journey. This is achieved by the deployment of autonomous people movers – each patron sitting on a special personal ride vehicle that steers them around the space to one of eight different culinary surprises, all supported by immersive theming. The dining experience has been located next to the themed hotel ‘Krønasår’, and next to the MackNeXT ‘YULLBE’ VR experience center – all offering a complete addition to the resort. This is one of the latest immersive dining experiences seen to have opened, marking a growing trend in the sector.

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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