Customers are of two minds.
Many still harbor lingering pandemic fears of big gatherings, dining inside restaurants, and trips to any environment with strangers.
But a large share of consumers are ready to go out and visit anywhere that’s not home. After two years of postponed parties, dates, and nights out, they’re ready to hit the town again.
T.J. Schier, chief operating officer at eatertainment concept BigShots Golf, wants to take full advantage of that opportunity.
“We feel fairly well-positioned,” he says. “The majority of people have that pent-up demand and want to go out. But I think they’re going out only to the places they trust.”
And mostly outdoor venues like BigShots can make a strong case that their environments are distinctly safe compared to crowded indoor destinations. The stalls that host tech-enabled golf games are spread out and guests can spend most of their visit outside if they choose.
Although business boomed amid virus concerns, Schier says the brand aims at expanding beyond just golf to drive more sustaining traffic in the months to come, when, hopefully, the nation finally crawls out of the pandemic.
BigShots is trying to round out its experience, giving more guests more reasons to visit more often. It’s added firepits and outdoor gathering spaces and has played up its bar as a game-night destination. Similarly, BigShots plans to rebrand its in-house restaurant to help it shine as a standalone feature.
While other restaurants pivoted to curbside and third-party delivery early in the pandemic, Schier says eatertainment concepts like his were largely left out. But that won’t be the case in the future, he says.
“We’re proud of the food that we serve; it’s elevated sports bar food, and it travels well,” he says. “We want people to order our food to-go. They don’t even have to come here.”
While the pandemic drastically altered operations for quick-service, casual, and fine-dining concepts, it upturned the world of eatertainment. Stay-at-home orders left those large venues dark with little business in the to-go and delivery space that was critical in keeping other restaurants afloat.
Now, experts believe eatertainment—a category defined by its combination of restaurant dining and games—is uniquely poised for a big rebound in the recovery from the pandemic, whenever that may occur. People are craving social connections and hands-on experiences—particularly ones out of the house. And many yearn to do more than just go out for a meal; after all, consumers kept frequenting restaurants throughout the pandemic, even if they never sat down inside for a meal.
“What they’re missing is the opportunity to go out and have fun,” says Gary Stibel, founder and CEO of the New England Consulting Group. “There’s a lot of pent-up demand, pent-up energy. So, they are better positioned to come out of this at a position of strength.”
Still, Stibel says those brands, whether they specialize in golf, bowling, or arcade games, should go on the offensive with marketing and special promotions. That will help pull consumer attention back to those concepts and allow the venues to communicate the ways they are putting health and safety front and center.
“They’ve got to go out of their way to market to the kid in all of us, whether it’s the 35-year-old who wants to get back in a miniature racing car, the 18-year-old that wants to collect tokens at a Dave & Busters, or a 12-year-old that wants to have a real birthday party at a Chuck E. Cheese,” Stibel says.
Consumers flocked to outdoor venues, particularly in the months before coronavirus vaccines were widely available. Golf may have become more popular than ever, a phenomenon that spilled over into putt-putt courses and technology-driven concepts like Topgolf and BigShots. But Stibel warns these operations shouldn’t take their pandemic surges for granted.
“If they lock in their newfound guests with loyalty programs, promotions, and events, they will be as good as gold,” he says. “Because COVID did what their own marketing failed to do: It put people into their venues. If they aren’t capitalizing on that with loyalty events and follow-up promotions, then shame on them.”
When Your 3rd Spot opens its first location in the second quarter of this year, founder Joshua Rossmeisl is optimistic the pandemic will be more controlled. But whatever the landscape, it will open in an era where operators know how to keep the doors open and ensure guest safety, he says.
This approach allows his brand to make safety changes upfront rather than trying to retrofit existing spaces like many restaurants did over the last two years.
“It’s not as scary as it was about a year to a year and a half ago when there was no information about it,” Rossmeisl says. “We can actually build it that way from scratch to give people that sense of safety, not just from COVID, but safety in general.”
The inaugural location in Atlanta will include an enhanced ventilation system, touchless features in the restrooms, and a 4,000-square-foot patio for outdoor dining, drinking, and playing.
“I never thought to put in a patio that large,” Rossmeisl says. “But it’s so commonplace now. It’s what people are looking for.”
Your 3rd Spot is so named because it aims at becoming a regular destination, just behind a customer’s home and place of work. The restaurant will feature a high-end bar and food menu, bowling lanes, arcade games, and table games. Some 20–30 years ago, Rossmeisl says dining out was experience enough for most customers, but now they want more of the places they spend their time.
“For people to just go to a bar and stare at a bartender and a bottle of alcohol … is not an experience,” he says. “People are really craving experiences. Adults in particular are looking for a place they can go that’s really built for adults.”
The experience will be largely controlled by customer apps, which will make for seamless food and beverage ordering and game reservations. Yet Rossmeisl says the venue will purposefully feature more analog entertainment experiences like bowling or retro games—a welcome reprieve for guests after many worked virtually for months.
“We’re all staring at our screens all weeklong,” he says, “So literally the last thing you want to do is stare at another screen.”
The way Joe Vrankin sees it, people have always flocked to the eatertainment segment. It existed well before the pandemic and will persist well beyond it. But what’s changed, he says, is that people realize more than ever the importance of social connections and gathering together.
“People always valued it, but you kind of took it for granted,” says Vrankin, CEO of Puttshack. “You could kind of do it anytime.”
Puttshack is miniature golf’s answer to Topgolf. In the tech-infused game of putt-putt, each ball features a microchip that automatically calculates players’ scores, allowing guests to ditch paper and pencil scorecards. There are beer pong and roulette holes, and each includes hazards and opportunities for bonus points.
The former CEO of Topgolf International, Vrankin says such differentiation from other entertainment offerings will be key in the space, which he expects to expand in the post-pandemic era. Puttshack, like Topgolf, enjoys patent protection on its technology.
“It reinvents the game of miniature golf in a way that no one’s ever played before,” he says. “You can go bowling at one of a dozen places. You can only play Puttshack at Puttshack.”
In the recovery following the Great Recession, concepts like Dave & Buster’s and Topgolf expanded aggressively as consumer demand skyrocketed. Vrankin expects the category to see a similar boost after the pandemic, particularly as those people who remain cautious of lengthy travel look for entertainment and dining experiences closer to home.
Nearly every American city is already home to a bowling concept, a golfing experience, axe-throwing or some other entertainment destination. But Vrankin expects to see more innovation in the space in the years to come.
To him, the key for newcomers will be finding a differentiated entertainment offering and providing a top-notch service experience and a restaurant-quality food and beverage program. Puttshack’s food options include everything from a Thai octopus dish to Korean bao buns to Persian chicken skewers.
“In our space, I don’t think you can just do one or the other,” Vrankin says. “Some concepts have great food, and they do some activities. Others focus on the activity, and they have bar food. To me, to be sustainable, you have to be best in class at both.”
The quality of food has been a persistent conversation in the eatertainment space.
While many concepts are working to offer a more refined menu, most customers are coming for the fun, not the food, says Matthew Mabel, president of consultancy Surrender Inc.
He points to Chuck E. Cheese’s virtual brand Pasqually’s Pizza & Wings, which rolled out on third-party platforms in the spring of 2020.
“The reason they called it Pasqually’s is because the client would never know it’s Chuck E. Cheese,” Mabel says.
Inside the restaurants, guests are more forgiving of the food, Mabel says, because they are coming to be entertained. Dave & Buster’s, for example, reported relatively flat financials in the third quarter of 2021 compared to the same period in 2019. But its financials showed an increasing share of game-driven revenue. While games accounted for about 59 percent of sales in 2019, that figure had jumped to 66 percent in 2021.
“So that kind of tells me people are going to play,” he says, “and the food component is not as important to them.”
While no one can predict when the pandemic will truly be over, Mabel is confident that day is coming. But even as new variants emerge and the virus spreads wildly, he noted that many consumers and businesses seem to have already moved on. Some chains hardly mention safety protocols on their websites anymore, and many customers are once again crowding into restaurants and entertainment destinations.
“People are going out,” he says. “We can talk all day about whether consumer behavior is rational or not, but it is behavior. People are going out and going back to places.”