Walk into the former TopShop in Enfield town and it is hard to believe that the space was once a conventional London high street fashion emporium.
Where there were previously racks and shelves displaying Sir Philip Green’s latest offerings there are escape rooms, VR headsets, huge game screens and an air hockey table. The 1980s-style sign that greets you on entry in garish neon pink proclaims “this must be the place”.
The startling transformation of this north London “Centre VR” branch is symbolic of an exploding trend across the capital: experiential interactive leisure sites, many packed to the rafters with tech, are where the action is happening right now.
From a quiet evening of axe throwing to an immersive life-size version of Monopoly, London workers and tourists are seeking new ways to socialise and there are scores of businesses looking to satisfy this growing appetite.
This month, details were unveiled of a Pocket Planet miniature world attraction in Oxford Street featuring model landscapes of British landmarks with audio and visual effects for visitors.
Meanwhile, TOCA Social, an interactive football games brand, revealed it will develop a huge new site in part of the former Debenhams store at the Westfield London mall in White City.
Nothing could more starkly illustrate the changing balance of power on the high street: long established but now obsolete retailer out, whizzy new high tech interactive upstart in.
To give some indication of the popularity of the new industry, at Westfield’s two malls in the capital around 130,000 sq ft of competitive socialising space has been signed for by firms since 2021 alone.
As Nick Weir, joint managing partner at leisure property specialist Shelley Sandzer, puts it: “Competitive socialising is a trend that is seeing exponential growth.”
Weir adds that some concepts are thriving “as augmented reality and technology continue to elevate the consumer experience. This is a key aspect to its appeal — whether you’re ordering a drink, selecting which game to play, or keeping track of the scores, there is a seamless and authentic journey from start to finish.”
Richard Lim, chief executive of Retail Economics, says: “There has been an eruption of competitive socialising across high streets throughout the country, which has introduced new and exciting media formats on a scale not seen before. Now families, hen parties and work team nights out and more are embracing tech on social outings to enhance the experience.”
But what else is fuelling this remarkable growth and is it vulnerable to the cost of living crisis and other economic headwinds? Will the trend — which could help fill some of the gaps on the high street left by a wave of collapses such as the Wilko chain — continue and change the landscape of town centres with the introduction of tech-heavy leisure tenants?
Recent data from market research firm Mintel found there is demand for new activities that provide a sense of adrenaline, but do not necessarily involve heavy boozing, although most venues do offer alcoholic drinks, except, probably wisely, the axe throwing venue Axeperience.
The study showed that almost two thirds (64 per cent) of Gen Zs (typically those born between 1997 and 2012) have played a social entertainment game in 2023 compared to three in five (60 per cent) who have been to the pub for a drink. It added that around seven in 10 of consumers of all ages have taken part in a competitive socialising activity, compared to 58 per cent in 2019, with Gen Z the dominant customers.
At some venues, such as Flight Club (darts) and Electric Shuffle (shuffleboard) customers can choose to be filmed and then sent the “story” of their memories, including the final leader board and team photos.
Juliette Keyte, of Red Engine, which owns the brands, said: “This use of technology enables us to give something more. Our customers are barely on the phone when they join us, because they are so caught up in the games. So with Stories, we provide those pieces of content, as well as memories to look back on.”
While soaring mortgage bills and rising rents are seriously hammering disposable income, many people will still want to go out to play on pay day. A trip to a cool interactive leisure venue won’t come cheap but it is still deemed affordable for a number of customers, according to Matt Grech-Smith.
The co-founder of crazy golf chain Swingers, which has two London sites and two in the US, says: “We have a great drinks list with alcoholic beverages starting from about £7. You can grab some gourmet street food for around £15, and a round of crazy golf will cost you about £13.50. Added together, you can get two to three hours’ entertainment, inclusive of food and drink — an afternoon or evening out — for under £50. There aren’t many other places that offer that.”
Investors clearly think the sector has more growth potential with the parent of Swingers this summer raising $52 million (£41 million) to help national and international expansion.
Several other operators told the Standard they plan to, or would like to, expand their presence in London before the end of 2025. They include Gravity MAX, which offers e-karting and esports, Hijingo Bingo, darts bar Oche, Fairgame — featuring fairground games, teddy bear prizes and prosecco candy floss, as well as TOCA Social.
Confidence to open has been boosted by a host of companies saying trading has been ahead of, or in line with, expectations. That comes even as the industry grapples with headwinds such as high energy costs, rail strikes, and surging inflation affecting how much consumers want to spend.
Mintel analyst Jennie Bryans suggests there could be tougher times ahead, with some 35 per cent of consumers expecting to reduce spending on entertainment as a result of rising prices. But for now the direction of travel for London is clear. Who knows, in the long term it may turn out to be a fad — but for the foreseeable future it is going to an interactive world on the high street.