The new experience: How experiential venues are adapting during covid-19

Lucy Britner

Lucy Britner

15 April 2020

From virtual events to deliveries, as well as not operating at all, we explore the new experience economy. And, who knows, some new ways may be here to stay

Back in pre-covid-19 times (aka the last issue of Imbibe) Chris Losh explored the burgeoning experience economy. From darts to golf, escape rooms to ping pong, the on-trade was alive with activities.

Now, like the rest of the hospitality world, experiential venues find themselves in darkness. While some have made moves to the virtual world or even branched out into deliveries, others simply can’t carry on during lockdown.

Flight Club
Flight Club

'We’re hopeful that we might return in the summer,' says Juliette​ Keyte, marketing director at Red Engine, which operates both social darts concept Flight Club and shuffleboard venue Electric Shuffle. 'Obviously this will be determined by guidelines, and when we’re certain it’s absolutely safe to do so both for our customers and team.'

The coronavirus crisis has also meant a delay to Flight Club’s Leeds opening and the majority of the team is now on furlough. 'However, we are proud of the fact that we have not lost any team members through lay-offs and redundancies,' says Keyte.

Going virtual

For Flight Club and Electric Shuffle, the whole experience is based around in-venue group activities, making it tricky for Red Engine to pivot to virtual experiences. 'This isn’t something we can easily replicate,' says Keyte, saying instead that lockdown time will be spent fine-tuning tech or adding new games.

But she praises operators who have managed to go online: 'Bongo’s Bingo has done a great job,' she says.

The bingo rave concept, which usually pops up in venues across the UK – and occasionally the world  –  is now live streamed via Twitch and people can register to play using their mobile phones.

Twitch has already seen well over 17m minutes of streamed Bongo’s Bingo

Joshua Burke

'Our live stream has emerged from us wanting to still connect everyone together and have some much-needed escapism during the crisis,' says Bongo’s CEO Joshua Burke. 'Twitch has already seen well over 17m minutes of streamed Bongo’s Bingo which is incredible.'

Burke says they stream every Tuesday and Saturday and all broadcasts aim to raise money for the NHS. 'It’s a creative new way to engage and immerse our audience on a fast-growing platform,' he adds. 'This is all still very much part of the burgeoning experience economy and competitive socialising.'

Bongo’s has partnered with WKD and Southern Comfort as well as hosting collaborations with the likes of Ladbible and Pretty Little Thing.

Take it to them

Of course, some concepts are easier than others to take online and for immersive bar and escape room operator Lollipop, the pivot has instead been to bottled cocktails – though not just your average RTDs.

Lollipop’s venues include The Bletchley – a personalised WW2 cocktail bar in Chelsea – as well as Black Mirror-inspired escape room, The Grid.


Cocktails by Lollipop
Cocktails by Lollipop

Founder Sebastian Lyall says that in order to retain staff and to continue the business post coronavirus, they moved to 'bar-quality cocktails' that arrive with garnishes and a little something to remind consumers that they are from Lollipop.

'With the box of cocktails, we send you a game,' Lyall tells Imbibe.

Explaining why he decided against virtual experiences, he says Lollipop’s mandate is not to create experiences but to explore what a bar or restaurant can be. 'We are trying to innovate around the customer journey. For example, Bletchley is a combination of escape room and bar – the idea behind it is to innovate what a menu means so the bar doesn’t have a menu – we give you a game which helps us to understand your taste profile,' he says.

Granted, bottled cocktails aren’t new but Lollipop has made the experience into 'more of a story'. He says drinkers that solve the game and email the company go on to receive 'a little surprise'. Lollipop sold 250 boxes of cocktails in the first three three days.

Without that kind of loyalty, we would’ve gone bankrupt

Sebastian Lyall

'People know us and they attach a certain emotional value to the brand,' he adds.  

Lollipop takes advanced bookings for the venues, paid upfront. Lyall says that only 5% of bookings have been cancelled, meaning he was able to still pay staff full salaries in March. 'Without that kind of loyalty, we would’ve gone bankrupt,' he says. 

Long game

Lyall also says the cocktails have inspired a longer term opportunity with an e-commerce drinks business.

'We are talking to trade suppliers who don’t have a shop front – smaller wine suppliers who now have zero business because they supply bars. On the other hand, there are consumers who are craving wine but can’t get wine. We become the aggregator. We give them a shopfront so we can engage our community by selling their wines but with a Lollipop twist.'

Bongo's Bingo
Bongo's Bingo

Elsewhere, drinks events company Boozy Events now delivers cocktails to your door, complete with a masterclass via a video call. 

And there is reason to believe some trends will continue post-crisis. According to CGA data, 72% of consumers that had either upped the use of delivery or had used it for the first time in the last two weeks suggested that they were likely to continue this behaviour, regardless of covid-19.

It’s hard to know whether virtual pub quizzes or virtual bingo will still be a 'thing' after lockdown and Burke at Bongo’s Bingo is tight-lipped about the future of live streaming. 'As to what happens after the crisis when we do our normal shows again, there will be more news soon,' he teases. 

Overall, Lollipop’s Lyall says there is hope for the experiential industry because coming out of this, consumers won’t have the same disposable income they had before, meaning they 'will really look for extra value – and that’s what we specialise in'.

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