Lights blink along a sinuous race track which swoops past a Japanese-themed bar and food stall into Debenhams Wandsworth’s former beauty hall.
Gravity – which already runs 17 leisure sites around the UK offering trampolining, rock climbing and rope-line activities – will open its biggest venue yet in the south Londra suburb.
The 100,000sq ft former department store building will house not only one of the UK’s first electric go-karting tracks but also bars, crazy golf, e-sports and bowling where menswear and home furnishings once stood. Childrenswear has been replaced by the latest arcade games and an e-gaming suite, which can host up to 1,000 people and will employ 150.
Michael Harrison co-founded Gravity as a trampoline park in 2014 after growing up on a travelling funfair and running carousel rides by the seaside in Bridlington, East Riding of Yorkshire. He says the company has plans to develop 10 more 80,000sq ft-plus sites in former department stores around the UK over the next two years.
Gravity venues are also being built in Germany and Saudi Arabia under franchise deals for the group with plans for 50 in total over the next few years. L'azienda, which is backed by Guinness Asset Management as well as its co-founders, is considering a potential stock market listing next year to raise up to £18m as a way to raise funds to back its rollout plan.
“In 1987 Debenhams was the thing that everyone was wowed by, big spaces with 20 different shops in them. This is a changing of the guard and department stores of fun revolutionising what’s on the high street,” Harrison said.
He said the business had previously only been able to take space up to about 25,000sq ft as it was difficult to get hold of bigger sites, but after more than a year of the Covid pandemic which has led to the collapse of the Debenhams and Beales chains and exit of Topshop, Oasis and others from the high street, there are now plenty of large buildings in central locations available with few potential takers.
After months of closure since the Covid-19 pandemic hit the UK last spring, social entertainment venues such as crazy golf, bowling alleys, escape rooms and bingo halls are re-emerging with hopes they could fill space vacated by department stores and clothing shops.
New ideas, from axe throwing and digital gaming rooms to indoor cricket nets and shuffle board are also vying for space.
Trampoline park operator Flip Out recently opened two multi-activity centres, it is finalising deals on up to nine more sites and negotiating on 21 more. Hollywood Bowl recently raised £30m for UK expansion; while indoor golfing concept Puttshack raised $60m (£44m) in May to help fund expansion in the US and UK.
tuttavia, the tough Covid-19 period, which forced the permanent closure of some smaller operators such as Galactic Golf in Halifax, Atom Trampoline Park in Whiteley and the Handmade Mysteries escape rooms, which operated from several sites in London and Brighton , has put question marks over what kind of social entertainment will bounce back post-pandemic.
Di 56 amusement parks and arcades, including trampoline parks, escape rooms, ping pong and crazy golf centres, closed their doors between last May and this month according to analysts at the Local Data Company, although some of those may yet reopen.
“There’s no doubt that social entertainment is a big part of the solution for town centres and shopping centres but I don’t think anybody knows what works and what doesn’t any more,” said one major landlord. “There are going to be some spectacular successes and crashes and it is impossible to tell whose going down and who’s not. We are a bit in uncharted territory.”
Harrison said the high street lockdowns had been “horrific”, with Gravity’s sites closed for the best part of a year. But the group is confident enough to plough more than £6m into the Wandsworth site. Underpinning that confidence is a 20% per 30% rise in sales on 2019 levels since the group’s venues reopened.
Others are more cautious. Matt Grech Smith, the chief executive of the Swingers crazy golf concept – which recently raised $20m to fund expansion – said the company was currently focusing its efforts on the US after almost a year without trading in the UK, when the group was forced to make some staff redundant.
He said demand had been good since reopening its two London venues in May, but they are still operating only five days a week because of a lack of corporate clients who made up a significant proportion of visitors pre-pandemic.
Ed Wethered, the founder of Dabbers Bingo in central London, said his venue was currently operating just three days a week and did not expect to be back to five days until September at the earliest.
“We’ve been closed for 14 mesi. It’s been tough and we’ve had to let go over half our staff but the government has been unbelievably supportive.” He said plans to expand were currently on hold.
Adam Breeden, the co-founder of Puttshack and State of Play, which operates the Bounce ping pong parlours and Hijingo bingo concepts, said trading was difficult for social venues because of the lack of corporate entertaining.
He said that, in the longer term, there was a “real sense of confidence” in competitive socialising, with corporate clients saying they are likely to do more informal gatherings for workers as the switch to working from home has reduced the opportunity for chats round the water cooler.
“Landlords are, if anything, more willing to take on competitive socialising concepts. This has only just begun. We are seeing more competition for sites with other operators coming into the market. There is a flurry of concepts. There is an enormous opportunity coming out of this. Like with a lot of other things, Covid has accelerated the trend.”