#1178 – Competing for The Fun! Part 2

We continue the stock take of the incredible influx of new “Competitive Socializing” (abbreviated down to CompSoc) venues and trends that have been emerging over the last few months. This second part of our feature will hope to offer a snapshot of the developments, with more in-depth site visits and reviews planned.

Northern Repurposing 

The ability to drop CompSoc concepts into available and abandoned units has proven one of the endearing aspects of this new trend. One of the purveyors of the mixed-use approach in an urban entertainment placement is Gravity Entertainment, with their new ‘Gravity MAX’ concept. The second venue of this chain is opening in Liverpool and, again, the facility has been installed inside an old 100,000 sq. ft. Debenhams department store, previously abandoned in the city. The company is defining the venue as the biggest city arcade in the Northwest, with the 2,500-capacity venue offering 12 different activities. The offering is underpinned with a multi-level e-karting track and AR bowling, with nine holes of ‘Urban Street Golf’, AR darts, and featuring HOLOGATE VR, Immersive Gamebox, an ‘Esports Arena’, and even new ‘Batting Cages’ experiences. 

The venue is also supported by areas for live performances and bar and dining, employing lessons learned from the first venue that opened in London. This second site was reported to have cost some £10m, targeting over 700,000 visitors annually. One of the new aspects of the chain is the adoption of the Sacoa Cashless System, which powers the unprecedented entertainment experience at the ‘Gravity Max Liverpool’ site. Gravity has been actively promoting the new operation, looking at a massive franchise rollout of this concept, which seeks to try and define the ‘Urban Entertainment’ venue model for a new audience.

The North of England also saw a new concept for this mixed entertainment approach, with the opening, a few years back in Manchester, of ‘Urban Playground’. This is a concept originated by the Mellor Group, coming from a background in leisure and amusement, with their CompSoc brand including ‘THE CUBE live’ (based on a licensed television gameshow experience); the ‘Putters’ (a tech-infused mini-golf space) and their own food franchise called ‘THE BUTCHER’. Also in Manchester, we see the renovation and relaunch of the ‘Printworks Manchester’ location in the city. The venue is being turned into an entertainment destination with a VUE Cinema, with retail, food, and an entertainment hub, including the area’s ‘Boom Battle Bar’, and other hospitality. The space will also include Europe’s largest digital ceiling. A full report from the opening will be coming soon (along with other new venues covered during this series of reports).

Moving around the UK and immersive entertainment is leaving its mark. The Centre VR Enfield is an example of a VR arcade concept being deployed in a retail space – comprising some 16-VR stations and offering over 100 VR experiences and games. This is a mix which is similar in concepts fielded in the States and Asia, and has now been applied to a UK retail unit, located in the Palace Exchange Shopping Centre. Along with VR stations, the space also offers a VR free-roam arena, and party room.

VR being used as an entertainment draw is not new, but the perfusion of new operations has been felt in the market and in the proving ground of the UK. Outside of the capital, and in Kent, VR World is currently being fitted out downstairs at Lockmeadow Maidstone, in the old Burger King unit within the ‘Lockmeadow Entertainment Centre’. Employing imported Chinse VR arcade machines, with seven different offerings, this proves an example of a plug and play operation, depending on the Chinese hardware to draw an audience. 

VR also plays a part in the North of England, with the opening of the first UK franchise from The Park Playground. The concept has seen deployment across the EU and makes its first landfall in the UK – offering teambuilding VR experiences and a social group element (we will report more on the ambitious plans from the operation in our IAAPA EMEA coverage soon).  

Returning to more conventional CompSoc, and another concept spreading its wings outside of the UK capital is the ‘TOCA Social’ brand, operated by TOCA Football – based on their soccer-based social entertainment venue plans, with the second venue opening in Birmingham’s Bullring shopping center. This second venue is an important milestone coming on the back of the first venue opened in 2021 in London’s O2. The company revealed their expansion plans, announcing that the third facility will be placed in an empty Debenhams store at Westfield London – the 35,000-sq.ft. space is set to comprise 25-playing boxes and two bars. This sees the Compsoc company following in the footsteps of other hopefuls. 

London Calling

Returning to the UK capital, and the established proving ground of current social entertainment investment, and The Stinger Report was part of the media launch of the latest social entertainment chain store. Bounce launched their latest social table tennis venue in the newly opened iconic London ‘Battersea Power Station’ – retail, leisure, and hospitality venue. Marking their latest venue, the operation is also running a very popular Shoreditch site and has started to join the aggressive rollout plans seen from concepts in this sector. 

Boom Battle Bar opened their first international venue, following a spate of UK openings (some 27 venues), with a ‘Boom Battle Bar’ in Dubai in the UAE in summer 2023. Part of the ‘Boom Battle Bar’ experience is its own unique mini-golf experience, and this aspect of the Social Entertainment landscape has seen great action over the last few months. One of the first to plant their flag in the socialization and gamification of mini-golf was Puttshack, back in 2018, part of the creative minds behind All Star Lanes, Flightclub, and Topgolf. The concept has launched from its first London sites to a US rollout and celebrated, in October 2022, a $150m raise of growth capital managed by BlackRock. This investment is going towards establishing an international operation and a rapid growth strategy across the US.

The interest in Competitive Socializing which these social mini-golf venues represent saw other investment interest. July ended with the news that Swingers, a crazy golf social entertainment operation, had raised some $52m in new investment. The operation had started in London with a popup location in 2013, offering a bar and food, with DJs, and themed crazy golf emporium, and defined a strong offering. The company is aiming for 15 locations by 2026 – already with two locations in London and three in the US. The company also plans to open a flagship site in Las Vegas for spring of 2024. The new investment will fuel a strong expansion strategy towards competing in a crowded arena, as others look to grow their interpretation of the Competitive Socializing golf experience (we expect to be reporting on a plethora of new CompSoc enabled golf systems revealed during IAAPA EMEA).  

The inroads that VR is making in establishing CompSoc was also seen with in one of the Capitals. One of our Stinger representatives visited iFLY at the ‘o2 Arena’, London, and came back with a glowing report. After two initial flights to acclimatize to the tunnel (with wind speeds of up-to-171mph), we took a VR flight. The experience has upgraded from its previous Samsung Gear headsets and now uses a modified Meta Quest 2, which securely fits into a full-face helmet with a sliding visor with two thin poles at the sides. Our Stinger agent reported that the headset remained securely in place, despite the wind speeds and physical movements, and the visual quality is reported as excellent, with a realism which made jumping out of a plane over the Alps feel as close to the real thing without doing it (there is also a Dubai landscape). There was a selection of media to choose from via touchscreen stands, to capture the experience, along with reasonably priced merchandise, and several different packages and special offers. 

Speaking of VR newcomers to London, and celebrating its first years as a franchise site, Sandbox VR, was promoting a robust rollout plan reaching over 30 international venues – along with a new selection of experiences growing across their library. This included licensed content such as ‘Squid Games’. The company was heavily promoting having generated $23m in ticket sales in its first year (in sales across 30 locations), positioning itself as the world’s fastest growing location-based VR company,

The impact of new entertainment at the price of traditional or legacy installations was felt again, with news regarding the 62-year-old bowling facility ‘Pickwick Bowl and Gardens’, as revealed by Replay. The venue in Burbank, California, was a historic location offering a traditional bowling experience across its 24 lanes, with a bar and family area. However, closing its doors in August, the venue will now be redeveloped into a residential complex, hosting around 100 units (according to newspaper reports). However, the adjacent ice-skating rink had been sold to the local area and will continue to operate. This is the latest example of the traditional legacy bowling facility being upended – while the new generation of boutique bowling and entertainment sites grow in popularity. 

A New Approach

Continuing the constant change being seen in retail entertainment and how traditional amusement factories are pivoting to new levels of social engagement, in a surprise move during July, BANDAI NAMCO Amusement Europe (BNAE), the European division, announced their return to facility business. This comes with the opening in London of the new joint concept, ‘Bandai Namco Cross Store’. Its first interactive retail experience in Camden – one of London’s most popular cultural hubs and popular tourist destinations – is planned to be a flagship for an aggressive rollout. 

This chain of shops will offer a wide selection of high-quality Japanese character products from collectables, card games, figures, and everyday items. This is what some in Japan define as a “Retailtainment” experience – focused more on the merch and the Gasapo vending (factoring into the “Vendertainment” scene). The Western market has become the launchpad for Japan’s attempt to establish a beachhead for their new application. 

‘Kiddleton’ is the US operation of GENDA Group, the Japanese amusement facility business known for its ‘GiG’O facility chain that had previously been part of SEGA Japan’s operation. The US division has actively been rolling out their ‘Kiddleton KIOSK’ chain, offering unique OEMed mini crane machines with “kawaii” – being “cute-style” Japanese prizes you can win. The concept is presented as a revenue installation that can be placed in venues.  Developments of the ‘Kiddleton’ brand in the States included the announcement that GENDA Group had acquired all the shares of the North American joint venture from partner Round1 – and news of this also came with the announcement that GENDA intends to roll out some 142 locations of the chain across the territory. 

Regarding the continued expansion of the GENDA experience across its growing operation, it was revealed that the latest acquisition from the traded corporation was that of AR, VR, MR, and XR entertainment developer Dynamo Amusement. Many of our older readers will be familiar with Dynamo, especially the unique VR projects they have undertaken for the Japanese deployment of attractions, such as for Sky Circus, or for the VR Park Tokyo, as well as for TAITO and CAPCOM venues with unique free-roaming VR experiences like ‘BioHazard Valiant Raid’. We covered the company’s VR motion system during our 2019 JAEPO coverage. Now, acquired by GENDA, we expect to see an influx of VR attractions added to the makeup of the ‘GIGO’ chain of amusement venues. 

Regarding the growing of the social entertainment sphere, and talking of Round1, the company announced its largest Californian venue. It employs the model of repurposing a previously closed department store – in this case an old 50,000-sq.ft. Nordstrom site in a San Francisco mall. In the final part of completion, the project was reported to have cost $4.5m to develop in this latest interpretation for the bowling, amusement, and “eatertainment” chain. 

The inclusion of a dedicated F&B element to the CompSoc experience has become a growing trend across the entertainment offerings. A few months ago, developers of such brands had limited hospitality offerings, but now the latest openings include dedicated elements. This was illustrated by the announcement of the latest Five Irons golf simulator lounge – the latest New York venue, scheduled to open in autumn, will now include a “Breezy Lounge”, all developed in partnership with creator-led golf apparel and events brand Breeze Golf. At this flagship venue, the new lounge concept will include a dedicated bar with cocktails, big screen entertainment, as well as ping-pong and foosball entertainment, all in support of the 14-golf simulator equipped location. The lounge concept is hoped to be rolled out across the chain.

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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