Social, social, is it the future of LBEs?

We're seeing the rapid growth of "competitive socializing" at many location-based entertainment (LBE) venues targeting adults. Competitive socializing combines very approachable analog interactive games with high-repeat appeal played by a small group of people who don't have to be experienced players. Unlike many types of entertainment, competitive socializing includes trendy and high-quality food and beverage that is served where games are played in more contemporary and upscale atmospheres. Typically, the food and drink generate around half or more of the revenue. There is light-hearted competition that isn't taken very seriously.

Competitive socializing is a new industry term for these sorts of venues. Many have been called eatertainment in the past, although not all eatertainment venues qualify as competitive socializing. A recent survey by Dataessential found that more than 50% of consumers say they are very interested in revisiting an eatertainment experience. One-third of consumers (32%) say new and better food options would motivate them to visit eatertainment venues more often, showing that the food and beverage is an essential driver of repeatability. After two years of pandemic-related inconveniences like periodic lockdowns, vaccine requirements for entry, and mask mandates, there's a pent-up demand for the more interactive and experiential dining and drinking experiences that most competitive socializing venues offer.

The social games that work for competitive socializing have one person play while the others in the group watch that player, review that person's performance, and socialize while eating and drinking. This creates a bonding dynamic among the group.

The combination of sharing high-quality, even craveable food and drink offerings combined with the competitive entertainment makes competitive socialization a social bonding experience with a far greater appeal (and higher per-capita sales) than other entertainment experiences or just competitive games without the simultaneous food and drink.

Games that fit well with competitive socializing include bowling, especially duckpin bowling, darts, curling, shuffleboard, bocce, billiards, and lawn games such as corn hole and Connect 4. Even ax-throwing can be served up as competitive socializing in the right setting.

Topgolf, and now its imitators, has been very successful with competitive socializing. Topgolf took a solo practice venue, a driving range, and reinvented it as a social game with food and beverage. As you can read in other articles in this issue, mini-golf has also been reinvented as indoor competitive socializing at Holey Moley, Puttshack, and other similar LBEs.

We're seeing more and more LBEs incorporate social in the names. It probably started with Punch Bowl Social. One of the latest is the Ponderosa Social Club that recently opened in Bozeman, Montana, with bowling, shuffleboard, pool tables, and of course, food and a bar.

The growing popularity of these social venues can be partially attributed to the growth of digital technology. Not that many years ago, if you wanted to stay in touch and chat with friends, you had to meet up at some location other than using a land-line telephone. That has changed with all the convenient, instantaneous, and asynchronous digital communication options we now have on our screens, including email, social media, texting messaging apps, and video chat. Routine communication has become very Convenient. You can do it from your home or wherever you are. Our screens travel with us. So, with their social characteristics, these new communication options have become competition for out-of-home socialization.

We humans are social creatures by our very nature. That is how we have survived as a species. We are still hard-wired to have physical, social experiences together in the real world. We still crave visceral experiences. However, since Convenient digital technology allows us to satisfy some of our basic social needs, it now takes a much higher quality, known as a Higher Fidelity experience, to get us to leave home and meet up with our friends in the real world. Of course, meeting up at a restaurant is one way we do this, as we have always socialized around eating. Remember, in our early 'caveman' days, we all gathered around the tribal fire for our meals. That essential social bonding experience is ingrained in human DNA and culture.

Today, people seek great experiential social experiences. What these expanding competitive socializing venues offer more than fits that bill. Nothing raises the quality, the Fidelity of a social experience more than combining eating and drinking with the physicality of rolling a ball or throwing something along with friends, all while socializing together in the real world. We call this added component interactive competitive physical play. There is a great synergy when you combine all three of these socialization facilitators. Eat-drink-play = a High Fidelity social experience at the other end of the experience continuum from Convenient screen-based socialization.

* For more about High Fidelity/Convenience continuum, see "The location-based entertainment experience gap" article in this issue.