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Leisure Insight – Breathing New Life and Laughter into City Centres

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In this issue, Rich Beese, Co-Owner of Flip Out, the UK’s biggest indoor adventure park group, and Putt Putt Noodle, the UK’s fastest-growing Asian-inspired adventure golf experience, looks at how competitive socialising can revitalise city centres while reconnecting people.

Mention the term ‘competitive socialising’ to your Gen Z kids. They might look blankly back at you, but chances are they’re doing it – and have been for some time. A Saturday night bowling with mates, a first date playing mini-golf, even a game of pool at the local pub – they are old hands at competitive socialising.

It’s always been an industry sector that’s attracted young people: still child-like enough to like throwing a ball – or themselves – around, but old enough to want a beer while they’re doing it. In a nutshell, it’s a laugh – it’s fun. And the young know how to have fun. But this sector is fast gaining mass appeal.

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According to a recent research report by KAM Media, the intent is certainly there for all age groups: 41 per cent of Gen Z has engaged in competitive socialising before and 47 per cent would like to go in the future. For millennials, these figures are 29 per cent and 60 per cent, and for the 45+ age group, while only 16 per cent of them have, 55 per cent want to go in the future.

Of course, smaller children have always combined social interaction and physical activity. Soft play areas have been around forever – leading to games, which in turn become organised sport. The success of our Flip Out indoor adventure parks across the country is proof enough of the need for children to get together while releasing huge amounts of pent-up energy – preferably while mum and dad have a coffee and unwind for a few minutes.

Millennials had already seen the value of ‘experience’, due in part perhaps to the growth of social media and their subsequent ability to document and broadcast their enjoyment – the bragging rights of living in the moment, if you like. Gen Z also ran with this baton, preferring immersive experience to pointless drinking. Then the pandemic struck, forcing everyone to hit the pause button and re-examine life’s priorities. After months of being denied face-to-face human contact, physical connection and socialising – unsurprisingly – rose to the top of the list. We needed to laugh with each other again.

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Entrepreneurs saw the writing on the wall – usually on the walls of derelict shopping outlets in retail malls and city centres. These spaces were ingeniously repurposed to accommodate new and exciting games and experiences, which can challenge both mind and body. Escape rooms, axe-throwing, ping pong – you name it, you can find a place that does it. Throw in some tasty, good-value food and drink options and brightly coloured Instagrammable interiors and what’s not to love for friendship groups, couples on dates, families?

The explosion of the popularity of this sector is gratifying – and not just to companies like mine, which, as well as having Flip Out, also launched the Asian-inspired adventure golf experience, Putt Putt Noodle, to outlets across the country over the past few years. Consumer demand, and the appetite for new fun and stimulating experiences for all age-groups, is now so high that we are introducing a range of other imaginative activities to our Putt Putt Noodle concept in addition to the golf, as well as opening new Flip Out family entertainment centres in disused retail spaces. These include the Dolphin Centre in Poole and in the main shopping centre in Telford, both opening Flip Outs this summer.

But it’s also good news for cities, councils, retail centre managers, town planners – and ultimately for residents.

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The manager of the Telford Centre, Glynn Morrow, says in the local paper Shropshire Star: “Retail is our core business but people are looking for more than that. They want somewhere to go shopping, but also have a bite and be entertained.”

He goes on: “We see ourselves as not just a shopping centre. We have the former Debenhams here which has been re-let for Flip Out, who are fitting in there, and Putt Putt Noodle. They are taking up 90,000sq ft of space, which is really positive. It gives us a different level in terms of the leisure offer moving forward.”

The emergence of experience outlets next to clothes shops and chemists is revitalising our urban landscapes. There’s nothing more depressing than empty retail outlet spaces – they lead to a vicious cycle of dilapidation and despair, which in turn increases crime rates and affects young people and families in particular.

Our city centres desperately need reinventing, both to boost local economies but also human morale. And competitive socialising re-energises them and us too.