There’s nothing like a cosy pub on a cold day, fireplace and all, but that sense of the familiar is being successfully challenged by a certain idiosyncrasy or quirkiness in the rendering of bars, restaurants and, well, leisure centres, if we can call them that. Unique design ideas and atmospheric twists have gained traction with a recreation-seeking public. Writing for Secret London, Annabel Usher observes that ‘it seems that every successful bar in London has some sort of USP’.

The players

Bounce launched in 2012 with a table tennis offering. Their PR self-describes their concept as ‘widely regarded by the industry as a game-changer in social entertainment venues, which combines three elements of hospitality: bar, restaurant and entertainment activity – all set against award-winning design and the highest standard of fit-out’. No surprise then that part of the Bounce team was also behind the swanky bowling destination All Star Lanes.

With a name that is rather on the nose, BallieBallerson bills itself as an ‘adult play pen’, its rooms filled with plastic balls – either in nostalgic solid colours or rendered in a translucent material that comes alive with an LED light show – just waiting for you to jump in with childlike abandon. Their ball-cleaning machine is called GobbleMuffin, and colourful cocktails round out the experience.

Flight Club in London’s Shoreditch applies a registered trademark to its Social Darts, which incorporates new gaming technology and innovative multiplayer arrangements to build a whole night out around a pub contest with sharp objects that most of us ignored until now. And, of course, there are cocktails. Something is going right, as their new venue has just opened in Bloomsbury.

Trampoline parks are welcoming big boys and girls across the country. In Glasgow (Ryze), Croydon (Oxygen Freejumping) and Plymouth (Super Tramp), the sight of adult humans springing to heights they are unlikely to have reached before are commonplace. (A line has been drawn here: there are no cocktails.)

While themed offerings are not new anymore, the creativity that underpins recent venues does suggest a change in the leisure landscape. Take a singular idea, invest heavily in the venue and marketing (and cocktails), and bring in urban types with Instagram-ready trigger-fingers. The team at Bounce probably feels they were doing it before it was cool.

Social media’s effect on most aspects of our lives has been thoroughly turned over, of course, but it’s hard not to point to its impact in this sphere. Images of one’s friends having a frenetic amount of fun in the ball pit exerts a pull. The fear of missing out is strong.

When the novelty wears off

If themed leisure venues are exciting enough to tap into the tendency of millennials to gravitate towards fresh and quirky ideas, what is the proposition after one visit? By then, the novelty is already danger.

The question should not serve to discourage innovation, of course, nor dampen the entrepreneurial spirit it takes to come up with the right leisure combinations, but it is worth asking whether we are nearing a saturation point, or if instead this is just the usual cycle of entrepreneurialism in which niches open up and are exploited for as long as people remain interested in them.

Pop-ups in tandem

The ongoing success of pop-ups may be telling here. These temporary stalls, buildings or vehicles purvey everything from street food and vintage clothing to nightclub spaces and the apparent delights of a Heinz beans café. Two years ago, over 49 per cent of Londoners who responded to a survey by the Centre for Economics and Business Research had visited a pop-up store in the twelve months previous, and we might surmise that the number is even higher now.

The Guardian explains part of their success as stemming from cheerleaders with clout; the likes of retail consultant Mary Portas (television’s ‘Queen of Shops’) and ex-communities minister Eric Pickles have both touted the advantages of the pop-up model to the economic landscape. And the practical advantages are rife. The temporary nature of pop-ups allows for much more flexibility in terms of location and of product offering. Traditional businesses are unable to circumvent the litany of legal constraints associated with fixed tenancies and expensive compliance requirements. As non-fixed entities, pop-ups can always offer something new or exclusive to their audience, and this creates a buzz without the need to invest in advertising. Smaller businesses and start-ups can therefore operate at a much lower running cost.

A formula that works

Modern leisure offerings may also rely on novelty, eye-catching design, and social media to spread the word, but pop-ups have a built-in shelf life. Once you have fitted out a crazy golf course over expensive square footage next to the Gherkin, however, as the team at Swingers have done, initial buzz is not enough. The place is kitted out with a rather flashy two-storey clubhouse to pull in the City types, the design of the entire space is thoughtful, and the food kiosks display an eye for bringing in the foodies: Pizza Pilgrims, Bubbledogs and Patty & Bun. The business wisdom of modern urban leisure destinations: launch a one-note concept to bring people in, but kit it out with the style, amenities, food and drinks and atmosphere that bring them back.

For more information on the changing face of the leisure sector, contact Samantha Bucksey by email on or phone 01784 497165.

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