#1132 – Shopping for the Best Entertainment

The need to understand entertainment’s place in the changing high street and retail landscape comes, as the whole scope of Out-of-Home Entertainment evolves. Beyond the resort, park and tourist business, the inner city and regional aspects of the entertainment offering are experiencing great change. The Stinger Report will be starting a semi-regular series of reports looking at the aspects of this changing landscape, and the opportunities emerging. 

Entertainment Anchor for Retail

There has been an ongoing move to add entertainment as a bolster against the “Retail Apocalypse” experienced in the mall and retail sector.  The term “Entertainment Anchor” had been previously coined by mall operators to refer to cinema and restaurant additions to a mall’s retail offering, thus, to increase dwell time for customers visiting, and so secure more of the possible revenue. However, with the decline in the cinema scene, other entertainment has been broached to fill the needs, and the latest generation of Family Entertainment Centers (FECs) and Urban Entertainment Centers (UECs) have been considered, defined now as “Retailtainment”. 

The consideration to add UEC and FEC to the mix is partly due to the interest in location-based entertainment as a revenue generator, but also to the ability for these scale of entertainment venues to repurpose the current available space from department store closings. Most notably, chain stores such as former Debenhams, Sears, and Toys ‘R’ Us have this availability (along with other recently closed chains). The repurposing of this available space was best illustrated in London, with the opening of ‘Gravity Wandsworth’ in the previously closed Debenhams department store.

This has been followed with the announcement that, in 2023, Gravity Active Entertainment will open a second venue based on their new UEC model, with the new launch in Liverpool One, again part of a former Debenhams complex. This £10m entertainment venue will become the new “flagship” of their UEC brand, due to its larger size and greater, more developed offerings, with the 100,000-sq.ft. facility offering e-karting, AR bowling, VR, and amusement, supported by a F&B layout. This site is to be known as ‘Gravity Liverpool’ and hopes to build on the lessons learned from the first site. There were, at closing, some 41 Debenhams stores in the UK; along with House of Fraser, BHS, and John Lewis stores also falling into availability in varying numbers. The issue of this kind of available real estate is international, such as seen in America.   

At the original ‘Gravity Wandsworth’ location, a constant period of reiteration has been underway, as the concept of their UEC is honed for better operation. Recently, the venue increased its immersive entertainment offering, first with the launch of a dedicated HOLOGATE attraction setup on the ground floor. Previously, the venue’s only VR offering had been from amusement VR platforms, but now, with the dedicated ‘HOLOGATE Arena’ attraction in operation, they can better appeal to their target audience. Also, the venue has increased the number of Immersive Gamebox pods that the facility operates. Increasing the available immersive offering is essential to this kind of approach.

News in the States of this repurposing of a previous department store was seen with news regarding the Sears site in Sacramento, CA. The store, located within the ‘Westfield Galleria’ mall, saw the development of the latest ‘Round 1 Entertainment’ facility. Round 1 Entertainment USA, the American division of the Round 1 Entertainment Corporation located in Japan, has already opened some 50 sites in the States and the operation is being actively expanded, even seeing a Russian mall location recently open. This new Californian site is expected to comprise bowling, pool tables, and Karaoke, along with their signature amusement placement, located in the converted department store.

Other US FEC and UEC chains have also located their developments within available mall locations, such as seen with Dave & Busters. Another operation located within a previous Sears store is ‘ENTERRIUM’ (the partner operation between Round 1 and GENDA). This site was previously the ‘PAC-MAN Entertainment’ facility run by the closed NAMCO USA division. Having redeveloped the Sears Schaumburg, IL, store back in 2015, as the failed ‘Level 257’ store, it transformed to ‘PAC-MAN Entertainment’ in 2017 – and was then finally sold in 2021. GENDA and Round 1 have also worked on a children’s park concept called ‘Kiddleton’ that opened in Fort Worth, TX, again in the Sears Wing of the mall at that location. The Sears Holding operation started to relinquish themselves of some 235 properties in 2015 and continued to divest itself of locations. 

Experimenting with the deployment of immersive technology beyond the usual FEC and UEC approach has continued to gain momentum. The Unibail-Rodamco-Westfield (URW) mall operation has been active in looking at entertainment anchors. The Stinger Report recently charted the placement in both ‘Westfield Scandinavian’ and the soon-to-open ‘Westfield London’, of a new VR experience called ‘DiVR Labs Arena’. Meanwhile, the London site had also previously seen the successful placement of temporary VR installations with both ‘TheVOID’ and the Netflix ‘Army of the Dead’. Major mall chains are now pivoting towards immersive entertainment installations for flagship locations, to captivate a highly sophisticated audience returning to malls.  

But this is only the tip of the URW investment into an entertainment focus on the malls’ futures – internal research which was shared stated that 70-percent of their visitors came to the malls for the diverse entertainment and leisure offering, and larger choice of shops compared to their competition. Based on that, the corporation has employed other entertainment elements across their sites, including VR, as well as Active Entertainment with the ‘City Bouldering’ climbing wall and Escape Room experiences, or Competitive Socializing with ‘Sixes Social Cricket’ (all at ‘Westfield London’). Meanwhile, at the ‘Westfield Chodov’ in Prague, they have opened a licensed ‘Vodafone PLAYzone: Arena’ offering eSports, gaming, and VR. Furthermore, at their ‘Westfield Hamburg’ mall, the corporation has partnered with immersive digital art experience ‘Port des Lumières’.

VR has proven a draw to mall operators looking to compelling entertainment technology that can be configured to their unique needs. A good example is that of SPREE Interactive who, along with their family focused VR arena systems, have also launched their new ‘VR Bumper Car’ attraction. The company has worked on both floor pickup, and a new battery powered platform, and this was recently installed in the ‘La Grande Mela’ shopping center in Verona, Italy. This attraction is proving extremely compelling as a deployment within a shopping mall style venue, as it has been created as a turnkey solution. Another developer looking at deploying their platform in mall pop-up installations is MackNeXT with their ‘YULLBE Go’ platform, who recently announced the installation of their latest area at ‘Q 6 Q 7’ shopping centre in Mannheim, Germany.

The inclusion of greater levels of immersion can also be seen in the updating of existing entertainment chains. The ‘Docks Bruxsel’ (owned by Portus Retail) is a modern mall with a dedicated shopping district in Belgium, and Merlin Entertainment chose this location for the new ‘LEGO Discovery Center’ installation, opened in June. This is the “next-generation” of the interactive indoor family entertainment centers. Updates include enhanced play areas such as “Something for VITs” (Very Important Toddlers), or “Out of This World” incorporating digital experiences, as well as a new 4D cinema. The branding has also been updated towards calling the sites ‘LEGO’ rather than ‘LEGOLAND’ Discovery Centers. The following “next-generation” venue is at Springfield Town Center, in Washington, D.C., marking the first of this new version of the brand to open State-side, with two existing venues in Boston and Atlanta also to be upgraded. 

The need to stay updated and offer the best experience to the constantly changing audience is best illustrated by the news that, returning to the UK, the city of Crew in Cheshire town council has given permission for the redevelopment of a previously failed ‘MFA Bowl’ location at the area’s Phoenix Leisure Park. The site has been closed and abandoned since 2018, with the failure of the old-school bowling location. After several failed attempts, the local council has accepted the redevelopment of the site to the modern Tenpin entertainment brand. This will become the 47th facility in the operation’s chain of UK sites and will offer an upscaled “Competitive Socializing” approach to the leisure entertainment, comprising a modern bowling, amusement, and restaurant bar aesthetic. The failure to stay relevant in a market that is seeing a growth in new facility development is a dangerous situation. 

The international deployment of entertainment into the mall mix was further illustrated with the news that ‘Royal City Mall’ (owned by Al-Babtain Group), located in Sheikh Zayed City, Egypt, would be including a ‘Chuck E. Cheese’ entertainment venue to their mall’s lineup. This will be the first CEC operation in Egypt, though this franchise will be operated by Unique Hospitality Co., who also operate some 18 CEC branches in Saudi Arabia. Following this first Egyptian site, there are plans for another five sites before the end of 2026. The CEC franchise sites in this territory are modified slightly from the more familiar US interpretation of the popular FEC brand, having to offer localized changes to the offering. However, this has proven a very popular entertainment franchise in the Middle Eastern mall business. 

The owners of The Stinger Report are one of those corporations looking at “Retailtainment” as a new and growing aspect of the future “Entertainment Mix” – combining retail, location-based and destination leisure. Spider Entertainment is a new company comprised of a team of specialists in the development, launch, and operations of entertainment venues. Currently focused on the development and launch of its own branded chain of international entertainment facilities, the team also provides operations management services to help others looking to enter this sector and to help grow the new landscape of entertainment.

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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