It was back in January 2016 that I interviewed Steve Moore, co-founder of darts and tech extravaganza Flight Club, a concept that managed to make playing darts in a bar appealing to pretty much every demographic out there. In the Flight Club Shoreditch site, he took me through the intricacies of the technology that was mounted above each dartboard, allowing for a revolutionary gaming experience that scores, engages and entertains customers with the throw of each arrow. It was like Hawk-Eye for darts oches (hoche-eye?) and it was impressive.
At the time, I remember thinking that Flight Club could well be a game-changer when it came to the ‘experience economy’, a phrase that was being lightly flirted with at the end of 2015. Now, in 2019, we’re pretty much married to the idea. Flight Club was a concept that had taken the image of a back-street boozer activity and turned it on its head, hitting the proverbial bullseye with almost every guest that has walked through its doors since. I took my mum and sister to the Victoria site last month – they loved it.
Now, during that interview, Moore was quick to highlight the brains behind the concept, Adam Breeden. You may remember Breeden from such social entertainment concepts as All Star Lanes and Bounce Ping Pong – he is a man who knows how to take a relatively popular activity and turn it into a high street destination model. He’s done it with bowling, table tennis, darts, currently working on bingo and, for the purpose of this profile, is doing it with mini golf via the Puttshack brand. I know what you’re thinking – plenty are working the mini golf model right now, what with Plonk Golf, Swingers and Junk Yard Golf Club seemingly thriving in this part of the sector. However, with Puttshack, as well as appealing through the sophisticated blend of food and drink with sport, it’s really the tech that talks.
A billion-pound business?
While Breeden is ordinarily the name in lights when it comes to these concepts, the truth is there are a number of senior figures behind the idea, development and eventual rollout of Puttshack. The linchpin – or linchpins – are twin brothers Steve and Dave Jolliffe, who founded the scarily successful concept, Topgolf (a driving range with targets where each ball is microchipped, with food and drink to boot). The Jolliffe brothers have had Puttshack in development for seven years, according to the brand CEO Joe Vrankin. I sat down with Vrankin and Roberto Moretti, Puttshack’s UK chief operating officer, at the debut site in Westfield White City last month to talk about the concept, its first year in operation and what the plans are for the future.
“Steve called me late last year to say they’d created a new concept reimagining and reinventing miniature golf and asked if I would come and take a look at it,” explains Vrankin. “As soon as I walked in, it was clear to see what this should be and has the opportunity to be.”
Vrankin was approached by the Jolliffe brothers, as he had helped them take Topgolf from “a £20m enterprise to a £2bn enterprise between 2007 and 2017”. One would assume the plan is to deliver something similar through the Puttshack brand. In fact, one doesn’t have to assume, as Vrankin tells me that is precisely the plan.
“It’s a bold statement,” he admits. “But what I will say is, as bold a statement as that is, I can see the path where it will happen. I know what we’ve done before and how we built it. In many ways, it is easier to build this and manage this, because while Puttshack sites are big – anywhere from 20,000 to 30,000 sq ft – trying to roll out Topgolf requires 15 acres per site! Plus, Puttshack is much more thought out at this early stage than Topgolf was. That’s because this time around, Steve and Dave, who are brilliant inventors, have created a fun and competitive game, but the magic was partnering with Adam Breedan, who has an incredibly creative mind and vision for how to create Puttshack’s entertainment, energy and vibe. His mind is all about how to engage people, how to design, how to combine music with the game, design specific holes for people to engage with. It’s so rare for a concept to be thought out like this.”
As far as experiential economy brands go, there is something special about Puttshack – it conjures the same ‘next level’ feelings as Flight Club did some four years ago. As a customer, the key is to experience each element of the operation during one visit in order to appreciate how symbiotic each one of them is. The food is of a decent quality, with executive chef Richard Edney overseeing the kitchen. There’s a bar offer that would stand up against most pubs and bars in the UK and then, of course, comes the golf… and the tech.
“Within every golf ball, you have a computer processor and a battery, which allows for its GPS system,” says Vrankin. The way the Jolliffes can think about how to do something and make it fun and engaging from a gaming standpoint, other people can’t do that. With other concepts, it often starts with the food and beverage, and then they look to throw some activity in there, so people have something to do. What we strive to do is to create something you can’t get anywhere else and we have intellectual property protection, a concept patent. For the next 20 years, we are the only ones who can bring technology like this into the game of miniature golf and really have the opportunity to totally reinvent how people play a game that has been around for a long time. It’s what Adam did with darts.
“So, you get the game and then integrate it with a strong casual dining offering and really good beverages and add in some corporate events. Families to millennials to corporate outings – you can really tailor the product to cater for all. That’s pretty rare to span that range, as you’re always told you can’t be all things to everybody. Yes, we target the 18- to 34-year-old crowd, but we know we can create an experience for a corporate outing that’s unique and have families in too.”
To test this theory out, when he first joined the team, Moretti brought his family to the White City site, before then meeting a group of friends in the same venue later that night. He had lunch and a round of golf with his family, then drinks and some more golf with his mates. The theory worked – both experiences being catered for by the all-encompassing venue.
“The interesting thing is while the target market of 18 to 34 is what it is, I’ve rarely worked with a business that hasn’t had that target market,” says Moretti. “That’s fine, but you will see a broad demographic here – people who have travelled an hour to be here. It’s destination and in an area where people aren’t thriving like us across a one-mile radius.”
This much is true. Despite the area’s best efforts of development and the gigantic beacon that is Westfield shopping centre being your next-door neighbour, bars and restaurants in White City aren’t always as bustling as the residing operators would have hoped for when they signed up to open there. Over the road, Soho House White City sits next to pizza concept Homeslice and Bluebird from the D&D group, but you can’t help but feel these businesses aren’t pulling in customers from outside the local area or membership groups. It feels like it is still finding its feet. But then there’s Puttshack, which, ironically, seems to be helping draw more customers to Westfield – you’d assume it would be the other way around. The same is happening at the second Puttshack site, which opened in the intu Lakeside development in August this year. If this people-magnet pattern continues, negotiations with potential landlords are looking favourable for the Puttshack team.
There’s a reason why Moretti has been brought into the fold – the COO is no stranger to rolling out branded concepts across the UK. Over a 10-year period, he helped open between 80-100 Zizzi restaurants, before growing the Bill’s estate from four to 74. Quite rightly, he is quick to point out that these are two casual dining brands that aren’t “in a period of review” as he politely puts it, which is testament to the strategy behind their nationwide expansion. But can something like Puttshack really be grown to a similar size? Everyone loves pizza and pasta, but miniature golf with GPS systems? Will that be accepted across the UK?
“I definitely think so,” says Moretti. “There has been massive growth in casual dining over the last four or five years, which has led to saturation. I think there’s a settling down of that now. The best of it will remain, so there will be loads of room for better food and beverage offers and experiences to come to town. Having been a part of Zizzi and Bill’s, I have a good knowledge of how the UK works. I can see Puttshack in most of the major cities and even some of the sub-cities and secondary locations. Who wouldn’t want to come and have an evening out where you can do everything?”
So far there are two Puttshack sites up and running. The third, which will open in the City of London, is due to launch in November. Vrankin tells me a bit about the wealth of the backers behind the concept and let’s just say that finances to facilitate growth aren’t going to be a problem. As you might expect from the founders of the billion-pound Topgolf business, growth will not be limited to the UK. Vrankin also oversees the US team, who are already busy scouting for sites in Chicago, Dallas, Atlanta, Boston, Denver and Miami. Our conversation ends with a discussion about pub and restaurant operators from the US and the UK not necessarily being able to thrive in each other’s backyards. UK businesses in particular seem to return back to the UK with their tails between their legs after a failed attempt of cracking the US hospitality market. Does Vrankin think Puttshack can drive its way into America and deliver the level of growth that its founders aspire to?
“I have no doubt about that,” he concludes. “Adam has taken Flight Club and Bounce to Chicago. Adam has experience with that, as do I. Every member of the senior US team has worked with me in the past in one capacity or another. Our ops director in the US did openings for Topgolf for years. We’ve put a team together that means we aren’t going to be dominated by a UK or US flavour – it’s how we tailor to what we know works in the respective markets – 80% of that could be common, but that 20% difference is huge.”