The Plano, Texas-based eatertainment chain is bringing the party to customers.

An understated benefit of event hosting for restaurants is how they can serve as a gateway into the brand. A guest shows up to a birthday party and jots a note to return later. Maybe they’ll host something themselves. Or perhaps the idea crosses their mind this would be even more fun without co-workers. Either way, it’s hardly uncommon for one event to lead to another, or for future visits to be inspired by one they didn’t plan.

Yet all these months after COVID-19’s arrival, it’s clear crowd avoidance is a tangible thing. People are working from home. Celebrations are often put on hold. And so, restaurant event business has been among those COVID casualties that once felt like a given. Large-scale catering is another.

At 44-unit eatertainment chain Main Event, known for its bowling, laser tag, gravity ropes courses, zip lines, and more, group gatherings were among its most popular occasions before the global crisis. Sarah Beddoe, Main Event’s chief brand officer, says the company knew corporate events would lag overall recovery. The chain reimagined nearly every element of its walk-in business, from 100-plus social distance signs in every restaurant to “safety zones” in laser tag—something Main Event called, “Play Smart. Play Safe.” Read more about the effort here.

But Main Event’s hands were tied a bit with corporate events. Widespread behavior and trends were out of its reach. You couldn’t design a playbook for some of these barriers.

So the 1998-founded chain, which brands itself a “progressive innovator” in the category, decided to get creative.

It launched Monday an enterprise-wide series of “Virtual Experiences” designed to “bring the thrill of play and teamwork that is such a part of the brand’s in-person identity to virtual guests nationwide,” the company said.

Labeled “Main Event Virtual Experiences,” it’s targeting groups, companies, social networks, holidays parties, and so forth with a virtual party and team building platform that features live hosts taking participants through trivia, escape rooms problem solving, and other options via the safety of their homes.

“We understand that many companies and guests are still either working from home or generally spending more time at home, which is why the exclusive opportunity to bring the thrill of night outs and team building events to living rooms across the country was an incredible way for us to continue to grow the Main Event brand,” Beddoe said.

Presently, there are four Main Event Virtual Experiences starting at $25 per person: The Main Escape, The Brainy Bunch, WFH Challenge, and So Trivial. Company event coordinators help prospective groups select the best fit. Then each is directed by live hosts from Two Bit Circus and Wildly Different.

Here’s an overview as shown by Main Event in its promo:

The Brainy Bunch: Are you a quiz captain? Are you a board game connoisseur? Are you bored in your house and in your house bored? Then dust off your thinking cap because this is the experience for you. This experience puts you and your team IN a board game. You’ll move forward and earn points by exercising your brain & answering back-to-back trivia questions.

WFH Challenge: Yes, some people have gone back to that mysterious world of working in an office. Yet, most are still working remote and unsure of how to engage in witty banter with colleagues while keeping it professional. Enter, the WFH challenge, a virtual team building experience that will have everyone in their office away from the office much differently while connecting with your colleagues on a level not seen since 2019. Oh, how we miss 2019.

So Trivial: Reunite with your friends and co-workers over a hilarious hour of trivia and game show-type challenges all from the comforts of home. This virtual experience pecks at the competitive spirit in all of us around topics and categories we all know better than we should. Hands down the best way to spend an hour just having fun and reconnecting (safely).

To get the word out, Main Event tapped Brian Baumgartner, perhaps best known for his role as Kevin from “The Office,” to host a series of comedic how-to instructional videos educating consumers on ways to integrates these new experiences into social, family, and corporate get-togethers.

Beddoe chatted with FSR about the platform and how it will help connect guests to the brand, and each other.

Let’s talk about pre-COVID for a moment. How big of a part of the business were events?

Corporate and group events make up a sizable part of our business but more than that, they are a gateway into the brand for a lot of people. These experiences often lead to repeat visits with families or other groups.

How did you initially pivot to bring them into the fold as stores reopened?

We recognized during the shelter-at-home time period that we had a very strong strategy in place to help make our walk in guests comfortable, but the corporate events part of our business would be a slower rate of recovery. So, we got creative. We lowered the size of groups required for an event. We incorporated new “RTEs” (Rent The Event), where groups can rent the entire center for themselves. We incorporated new Happy Hour packages. All of that helped speed up the rate of return on our events.

What inspired the virtual change? Was this something customers were asking for?

Virtual Experiences supports two of our strategies. One, we are constantly looking for innovative ways to expand our business beyond the four walls of our physical buildings. Delivery was one way to do that with our food and fun packages and now Virtual Experiences allows people to enjoy a custom Main Event experience from their couch. Secondly, we recognized a rising need for ways to celebrate together, virtually. When Covid first happened, people experimented with hosting their own happy hours and get togethers online. After time, we heard that hosting a good one was easier said than done. So, we put together our packages centered around that insight and have created the first and only live hosted virtual events in the family entertainment industry.

Walk us through the four different virtual experiences?

The four packages are catered to the occasion. So, if a group of friends is looking to truly reconnect over some laughs, The Brainy Bunch or So Trivial might be perfect for them. These are fun quiz and trivia based games centered on pop culture. If it’s a company trying to find ways to team build while every is working remotely, our custom virtual escape room called The Main Escape and the WFH (work from home) Challenge are incredibly fun.  

What are some unique elements of Main Event’s program you won’t see elsewhere? In other words, how did you give it a “Main Event vibe,” and not just another Zoom event?

What keeps these Virtual Experiences true to the Main Event experience is they are focused on making connections. When guests visit Main Event, they are connecting with each and making memories. We wanted to ensure that same experience virtually, and our events are customized to best enable that.

Explain the logistics. How can a customer set one up?

Set up is simple. Our team of sales experts helps companies select the event that best suits their group, just like we do for an in-center event. Once signed up, every participant receives an invite link just like you would to a meeting. Once in the party, our live hosts take over from there. They make it fun and they answer all the questions. They are true masters of making this the best experience!

What did this require on the backend for Main Event? Was there new staffing involved? Training? Did the company need to make new investments in tech?

We’ve partnered with two distinct entertainment companies to help launch the Virtual Experiences. Two Bit Circus is an LA-based entertainment brand that has built a reputation as world-class entertainers. Our So Trivial experience with them is centered around engagement, humor and is very fast-paced. Our other partner Wildly Different is made up of professional event coordinators. This is their business, and leveraging their network to bring our virtual events to life has us very excited.

Talk specifically to the team building aim. How will Main Event target work places?

This offering is very flexible. Much like going to a Main Event. It’s for everyone from corporate groups to friends and family. The launch includes a robust digital marketing campaign focused in these two areas. Plus, our sales teams have contacts throughout the country and they know the partners who are looking for an experience like this.  

With The Office alum Brian Baumgartner as a starting point, what should people expect from Main Event’s marketing efforts around this? Will it lean into digital media, traditional, or both?

Marketing is centered around the content series featuring Brian, but we have other owned creative assets as well. Our guests can expect to see this across our channels very soon.

Just generally, how is the brand adjusting these days? Have guests embraced the transformation?

The Play Smart, Play Safe plan we designed to reconfigure our centers to allow for the safest experience possible has been very well received by our guests. Our team members are very dedicated to that guest experience, and we are seeing the results. We are very pleased with how the business is doing and very proud of our teams for taking care of our guests at a level that is setting the standard in the industry.

Have you seen a customer hungry for safe interactions again?

What this has shown us is that people need human connections. Our brand exists to make these experiences as memorable as they can be.

Can we expect more innovation moving forward?

With the recent rollout of the Main Event App, the new website, our food and fun delivery service, Virtual Experiences and even the new Birthday Wishing Wands to snuff out the candles on birthday cakes, we are continuously looking to innovate across every part of our business. We have much more planned in 2021, and like everyone, can’t wait for that year to here.

Chain Restaurants, Events, Feature, Main Event