#1109 – Social Entertainment Gets Real!

The explosion in new entertainment facility development continues apace, with moves by some corporations towards a “Digital/Physical” strategy. This report looks at the convergence of the new social entertainment blend, while at the same time charts the appearance of new active entertainment investment and repositioning from the latest leading corporations to embrace the metaverse.

Competitive Entertainment Culture

The rise of Social Entertainment has been personified by the explosion in popularity of the hospitality-centric entertainment venues seen with Puttshack, FlightClub, Topgolf, Swingers, and other brands. However, the descriptor for this new phase of entertainment experience is better described as “Competitive Socializing” – a term first coined in the UK, gaining mainstream popularity as far back as 2015 and initially defining pubs incorporating a circus entertainment vibe, or bowling and F&B brands. Moreover, it is a blending of a hospitality atmosphere married to a re-imagining of conventional competitive entertainment. With the explosion in the social entertainment experience, the creation of a broad term to define the new concepts of entertainment engagement has found a foothold.   

The fundamentals of the concept have not changed – the inclusion of a F&B element towards traditional competitive bar and tavern games (darts, pool, shuffleboard, table-tennis, bowling, and amusement), or more socially inclusive entertainments. But the twist for the current adoption of competitive socializing is the inclusion of guests’ engagement, be it the use of tracked balls and scoring seen in the new generation of crazy golf properties (such as with ‘Lucky Putt’ from Creative Works), or the use of AR projection technology in the ‘SMARTS: Interactive Darts’ platform, from 501 Entertainment. This goes much further than just adding cocktails and food snacks to a traditional bowling or golf experience. Competitive socializing is built to appeal to the new sophisticated target audience, with a repeatable food-and-fun offering, and the ability to embrace the socially connected nature of the modern entertainment business and beyond.

Conference Time

The concept has grown and grown, with the first of the UK-inspired facilities breaking ground in the US market and starting to establish their presence. The post-lockdown audience has renewed its fascination for the reinterpretation of the hospitality and entertainment combination. Thus, The Stinger Report was one of a handful of media present at the one-day Competitive Socialising 2022 (CS’22) trade summit in London, during February. Organized by Inntegra, and leading sponsor Home Leisure Direct, the event marked its second year, having been launched in 2020. The event gathered the leaders in social entertainment, services, and hospitality under the appropriate roof of The Lighthouse Theater, to a sold-out gathering.

The venue’s exhibition floor comprised amusement pieces such as pinball and video, alongside shuffleboard and photobooth systems. Some of the latest AR-based darts systems and ball-tracked screen-based platforms were also rubbing shoulders with a selection of the latest beverage and food services. The audience was treated to presentations from some of the leading lights in the facility brand and entertainment mix, including Puttshack who revealed their ambitious rollout plans with eight new sites a year in their sights. Not just the entertainment, but also the hospitality experience scene was presented – led by a thought-provoking session from the head of the British Institute of Innkeepers (BII). The team at Inception Group, famous for their ‘Mr. Fogg’s’ chain of cocktail bars, revealed the level of detail going into creating the adventurer’s hangout. This approach offers a glimpse into the new investment in “Atmospheric Hospitality”, offering an experience along with the cocktails.

Also included in the CS’22 lineup of speakers was some interesting information on the statistics of the leisure entertainment scene, as revealed by KAM Media and looking at the returning audience after lockdown in the UK. Supplied information included such as 69-percent of GenZ would rather spend money on experiences vs physical things. This was just a smattering of the excellent presentations during a crowded day, that ended with a connected ‘Rock and Roll Bingo – Digital’ party, powered by Startle. The event proved a melting pot of all the leading UK-based developers and operators provided a fascinating chance to see the growth potential in this aspect of the social entertainment mix. Next year’s planned event needs to move to a larger venue to accommodate the interest generated, as this year’s event was sold out.   

Live Experience Explosion

One aspect of the social entertainment explosion that has been incredibly hard to pigeonhole was that of the Escape Room experience. A law unto itself, the closest affiliation had been with the Scare attraction scene, and even LARP’ing (Live Action Role Playing). But under the “Competitive Socializing” definition, a whole subsection addressing ‘Timed Experiences’ has been classified and sees the traditional escape game evolving into a much more social entertainment experience, with the inclusion of a longer dwell time and hospitality elements. This aspect of the business points to the separation from the complete package of venue and entertainment, as well as the separate providers of just the venue platform that can then be added to a single or mixed entertainment facility offering.  

This timed experience, with LARP’ing elements, based on strong brands, is becoming an emerging business focus in the market. As if perfectly timed to coincide with CS’22, Netflix and Fever partnered to bring to London their ‘Money Heist: The Experience’. Rushing hotfoot from the conference, The Stinger Report was invited to try it out. This was an actor-driven, audience participation experience, based on the Netflix Spanish crime drama series. The experience sees the audience taken through an auction and then embroiled in the robbery and eventual gold heist. Actors, escape room skill tests, active puzzles, and even some audience decisions on the fate of all involved took place during the experience, with welcomed hospitality at the end, and a chance to share images on social media. The pop-up experience has visited Mexico City, New York, Los Angeles, and Paris, with the launch of the series following a marketing model that Netflix has employed, as seen with the recent ‘Army of the Dead Immersive Virtual Reality Experience’. Netflix is planning other pop-up and more permanent branded attractions in coming months, with Netflix ‘Secret Cinema with Fever presents Bridgerton’ coming soon.

Other major brands have looked at this Live Experience approach, such as from Hasbro, along with their themed amusement park in the West Edmonton Mall, Canada. The company has deployed its ‘Monopoly Lifesized’ experience in London in partnership with Gamepath. This also sees audiences navigating life-sized segments of the popular boardgame, while interacting with actors and solving puzzles and tests of skill – with a major injection of “Atmospheric Hospitality” with cocktails and dining at the end. Another toy brand entertaining the experience market is Mattel, who revealed (in 2019) their plans to create interactive family entertainment centers based on their popular brands (such as Barbie, Hot Wheels and Mega Construx). The first of these was the flagship ‘Mission: Play!’ 25,000-sq.ft. Toronto, Canada facility, developed in partnership with P2Entertainment. This is to be followed by a 43,000-sq.ft. facility located in the Potsdamer Platz in Berlin, Germany, to open for later this year, and to be operated by Planet Leisure Germany GmbH. Other live experiences based on ‘Tomb Raider’, ‘Judge Dredd’, ‘Doctor Who’ and even ‘The Gunpowder Plot’, are live events all scheduled for launch this year.

Facility Rollouts

The CS’22 event mirrored the developments being seen in the sector, such as consolidation in controlling the ecosystem supported by new developments, including the acquisition of the Boom Battle Bar operation of some six locations by Escape Hunt PLC, for the some £17.4m (raised in cash and shares) that took place in November last year. The consolidation will see the operation changing its name to XP Factory PLC and is part of a wider consolidation of the entertainment facility brand, currently consisting of 40 escape room venues. Boom Battle Bar has been expanding its social entertainment operation (comprising one owned and five franchised sites) and is now looking at leases signed on another 18-venues, with aspirations of some 39 more sites in total.

Another aspect of the social entertainment scene has been the number of new players who have entered the scene running. One of those is TOCA Social, the company associated with the football players’ training operation, which opened their developed flagship social entertainment experience a few months back in The O2 in London. What some have described as “Topgolf for football!”, the facility comprises 17-football simulator booths, using tracking software and a projected screen, with players demonstrating their shooting skills through a variety of minigames, scoring points. The concept is supported by an extensive hospitality and cocktail element, hoping to appeal to players, supporters, and families alike. Since opening in August of 2021, the site has seen some 5m balls kicked in their simulators. And just before CS’22, the team behind the concept announced that TOC Social had signed to open their second site, which will also be their first US facility – scheduled to open in Dallas, Texas, in 2023. The venue will mirror the soccer-themed experience championed in the UK, with plans by the end of next year to have five venues in operation.

The increased investment into the new generation of entertainment facilities has continued apace. It was announced that Gravity was to invest some £2m in their original UK facility, Xscape in Yorkshire. This investment will see the Gravity facility emulate the shift towards a more interactive entertainment experience. Along with the inclusion of a skycoaster and free-fall experience, the venue will be installing the ‘GT e-karting’ track (created by Gravity Active Entertainment), as well as the inclusion of the Electric Gamebox immersive rooms, repeating what was originally installed at the Gravity Wandsworth location. This marks a continuation from the core business of trampoline park to a more rounded entertainment experience for the Gravity brand.

A major announcement regarding the continued perfusion of new openings in this sector was made just weeks before the CS’22 event, with the Mellor Group revealing their ‘Urban Playground’ venue concept. The 1,850-sq.m. flagship facility is opening at Manchester Arndale, and the concept sees a mixture of social entertainment components and hospitality. Leading the draw to the facility is the social entertainment based on the popular television game show, ‘The Cube: Live Experience’, with teams competing in physical challenges in a timed experience based on the ITV licensed show property. The next element is ‘Putters Mini-Golf’, a state-of-the-art “tech-infused” golf experience, for groups with tracked scoring. All of this is supported by hospitality from the award-winning restaurant chain ‘The Butcher’ and its own bar. This is the first of the Mellor Group’s inhouse concept deployments, with plans for a rollout of other facilities, as the operation is known for leisure attraction work throughout the sector. In fact, the operation revealing they had already secured a second (1,077-sq.m.) UK site in development. This represents one of the clearest examples of the draw for the traditional leisure entertainment scene, to this new genre of social entertainment.

The rollout of new social entertainment venues with a mini-golf element also continues apace, with the UK representing a hot bed of innovation. Wales saw the opening of the brand-new concept, ‘Par 59’ – comprising three nine-hole, highly themed, mini-golf series of courses (developed by Wild Creations), and a golf themed bar and restaurant, covering some 23,000-sq.ft. and accommodating some 164 patrons. The concept is expanding, in phase two, to include billiard rooms. This venue is also the latest to be supported by a sports celebrity, professional footballer Gareth Bale, involved with the venture through his company Elevens Group, partnering with Welsh independent entertainment brand Depot.  

Japan Gets Physical

As our long-term readers will be familiar with, The Stinger Report has followed the Fitness and Exercise scene as it pertains to interactive entertainment – what has been dubbed “Exergaming”. The increased investment in what is also referred to as “Active Entertainment”, has grown following the explosion in social entertainment, and with that we have also seen investment in sports entertainment experiences, such as with TOCA Social and Topgolf Swing Suit.

Carrying on from the new investment in entertainment for Japanese amusement factories, we have already covered the development by BANDAI NAMCO Amusement of their ‘VS Park’ facility brand (the “VS” in the name standing for “Variety Sports”). This new entertainment chain saw it fifth facility open recently, with all the sites comprising (usually) 25 entertainments of an active/digital nature, including Gamification – hoping to achieve a two-hour dwell time.

This active entertainment boom has seen other operations jump into this mix for the Japanese market. The CA SEGA JOYPOLIS operation, owned by China Animations (CA), took a majority stake in the previous SEGA Live Creations in 2017, as operator owners of the ‘SEGA JOYPOLIS’ brand. Now it is revealed that the operation plans to roll out an active entertainment facility property based on the retention of the brand. Artist’s renderings were revealed with the announcement of the opening of the flagship ‘JOYPOLIS Sports’ operation, scheduled for a March 2022 opening in Tokyo’s Aeon Sendai Nakayama mall. The new concept offers activities ranging from table-tennis to basketball and trampolines, supported by party games such as darts and billiards, as well as an eSports arena. The concept is attempting to create, as stated in the announcement, a unique sports experience for all ages.

The ‘JOYPOLIS Sports’ concept is conspicuous by the absence of any SEGA branding – and seemed bare of any of the Gamification that has marked out other activity entertainment entrants into this scene. This seems an early toe-in-the water, more led by the Chinese parents, than as a specific amusement factory project. One Japanese entertainment operation that has had a strong investment in the sports, fitness and healthy living sphere, is KONAMI. The operation has invested in this sector through its KONAMI Sports business division – operating the ‘KONAMI Sports Club’ chain of facilities, as well as an online fitness channel, school and gym programs, and a range of home exercise products. The business was, however, hit by the COVID situation in the nation and had to shutter 16 of its locations.

It is interesting to see active entertainment facilities in the West start to pivot to a more FEC style entertainment approach (as seen with Gravity Active Entertainment as mentioned earlier). Meanwhile, in Japan, we see amusement operators pivoting to active entertainment (as seen with ‘JOYPOLIS Sport’). There is obviously going to be a convergence of thinking in these sectors, and we can expect the creation of a hybrid “Exergaming” concept appearing on the market very soon.

More Repositioning in the Market

Confirming the importance of the physical space and brand image, there was additional news from the amusement and videogame giant – in their three-year mid-term plan reporting, BANDAI NAMCO Holdings supplied information of the growth of overall business, but more importantly the focus of the corporation going forwards. First off it was revealed that the brand identity of the corporation would be receiving an update, with the company revealing a new logo and branding since the last change in 2005. This also includes a new tagline, “Fun for All into the Future”. The logo is to be introduced in April. At the same time, BANDAI NAMCO revealed it saw its greatest strength regarding having both a digital and physical entertainment offering and proposed that these entities would receive equal support going forward. 

This support also comes with BANDAI NAMCO Holdings announcing the corporation had allocated an investment of some ¥15b ($130m) towards the development of what was described as their ‘IP Metaverse’. This is the latest corporation to propose their entry into this speculated virtual consumption portal, with the company hoping to create an environment for communities of fans and consumption of company properties. No word was given if this investment was over the three years of the mid-term plans, which is seen to run up to 2024. We await more meat on the bones of what exactly is meant by this move, and what impact it will have on the company’s future.

The company also wants to establish stronger connections with their fanbase and will be expanding the IP to broaden their market reach, also looking to increase their international reach. Strong toy sales based on IP, and a recovering domestic amusement business (up by 44-percent year-on-year) were all strong indicators. Regarding future positioning, and other news was revealed that saw BANDAI NAMCO and SEGA executives taking joint board positions on a new company focused on game specific blockchain development. Called Oasys, the Singapore-based operation is focused on creating a simple and fast platform to support blockchain transactions for gaming, looking at facilitating cryptocurrency transactions and supporting NFT distribution. This is a serious move by Japanese gaming giants to establish a presence in these aspects of the business.

About the author

Kevin Williams

More posts

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.

Join the Podcast Crew

Are you a location-based entertainment or family entertainment center subject matter expert? 

Do you have specific knowledge, ideas, successes or failures that you want to share with the LBX Collective community?

Request to join our LBX Collective Podcast Crew


Login to enjoy full advantages

Please login or subscribe to continue.


Go Premium!

Enjoy the full advantage of the premium access.


Stop following

Unfollow Cancel

Cancel subscription

Are you sure you want to cancel your subscription? You will lose your Premium access and stored playlists.

Go back Confirm cancellation