Competitive socialising has been a rapidly growing sub-sector of the UK leisure market for some time now. Be it crazy golf, darts, ping-pong, escape rooms, shuffle-boards or even axe-throwing, this segment is a broad church. The question raised more than most is will it be a sustainable part of the sector in the long term? With the recent fundraising by Flight Club and now Swingers, that conversation has now moved on to who will be the winners and losers. With a multimillion-pound investment from a leading investment firm Swingers seems set to be one the formers, writes Mark Wingett.

A business that started life as a pop-up in Shoreditch - niche, faddish and one for the hipsters - is now finding itself mentioned in the same sentence as the LA Dodgers and James Corden’s Late, Late Show. Swingers, the over-18s crazy golf, cocktails and street food concept, not only sold out the pre-bookable slots for its five-month run in east London’s hipster heartland in three weeks, it has now got two permanent and popular London venues with another slated for New York. That’s before you mention the plans for further expansion in North America and across the UK. Crazy indeed.

Matt Grech-Smith and Jeremy Simmonds, co-founders of Competitive Socialising, the umbrella company behind Swingers, will now hope that they can harness the expertise and capital Cain International is providing to turn the concept from a pair of successful London venues into an international leisure brand. It is thought that, whilst further expansion in the UK is on the radar, the majority of the new investment will be focused on a number of openings targeted for Swingers in North America. Next year’s opening in the basement of the new flagship Virgin Hotel in New York, which will be the largest Swingers to date, at around 22,000sq ft, and feature three nine-hole crazy golf courses instead of the two operating at both the existing London sites, will be a pivotal moment in the new relationship.

Strategically, the link up with Cain, whose parent company, Eldridge Industries, backs the Dodgers, makes perfect sense in terms of its international footprint and its experience with other real estate-backed leisure and hospitality concepts such as The St. James, Mortimer House and AllBright. One question thrown at Swingers and operators of its ilk, is that the big sites they often require come with big fixed overheads. Finding those perfect c20,000sq ft sites should become a little easier now. Cain is tapping into a business, and indeed a segment, that provides a number of key touch points for modern consumers. It provides original content to Instagram-hungry Millennials and Generation Z, where dinner and/or drinks is for no longer interesting enough. It also has big appeal to high spending corporates looking for innovative and experiential venues to host team and client events. At the same time, accessible price points and game playability ensures all demographics can participate both in terms of age and socio-economic status.

The investment is believed to be around c£28m, similar in valuation to that recently attached to that other competitive socialising pioneer, the darts concept, Flight Club, which has already begun its regional expansion and, under license with Adam Breeden’s Social Entertainment Venues (SEV), has made its debut in the US, in Chicago. Breeden’s SEV, the operator of Bounce and Puttshack, recently strengthened its own management team and the man himself has spoke this year of aiming for 75 sites across his Bounce, Flight Club USA and Puttshack brands within the next five years. Hijingo!, a bingo concept developed by Breeden and Rebel Bingo creator James Gordon, is also set to launch in the UK over the next 12 months. All eyes will be on whether Breeden follows through with his mooted plans to eventually float the business. He will be emboldened by the investment now secured by Flight Club and Swingers. I also understand that an established UK-based investor is hoping to soon announce an investment in a virtual reality concept, adding a further bow to the experiential segment.

For now the focus for Swingers will be on translating its successful formula across the pond and outside of the capital. As Grech-Smith states “crazy golf speaks to everyone”. He explains: “The customer demographic is very broad from the young professional market in their 20s, 30s and 40s to 80th birthday parties.”

The concept also has a nostalgic appeal and epitomises the kind of accessible, friendly, fun-style of competition that their take on the food and beverage business is based on - two pergola seating areas and four street food-style kiosks are housed in the Oxford Street site, which are run respectively by Patty & Bun, Made of Dough, Hackney Gelato and Breddos Tacos.

“You don’t have to get changed, you don’t get sweaty and you can do it with a cocktail in one hand,” Simmonds has previously told MCA. Average spend is around £35 per head and dwell time is between two and a half and three hours. Grech-Smith tells me: “Clearly there has been a change in what people look for from a night out – they don’t just want to eat and drink, they want to combine it with an experience. At Swingers we have taken a classic, nostalgic, accessible game and surrounded it with surprisingly premium hospitality. You can enjoy a night out in a unique setting, play a really fun round of crazy golf, drink a great cocktail and enjoy some delicious, best in class street food. What’s not to like?!” The concept has certainly, so far, answered the question of how often are customers willing to return after the initial novelty wears thin. Judging by the annual sales of c£9m at the group’s debut site they are.

Drinks make up around 50% of takings, with the golf responsible for 35% and food makes up the balance. Advance bookings make more than 50% of the business so the firm has very good data on its customers and their changing needs, allowing it to tinker with all parts of the offer.

The business has spoken of a second format for a while and it is thought it might return to Brewskee, the working title given to a concept it was developing 18 months ago. It is based on a modern take of the US arcade game of Skee-Ball, which is played by rolling balls up an inclined lane. All Grech Smith will say is: “Our second concept will be another cool activity you can do with a drink in hand”. A site in Leadenhall had been mooted but is thought that is no longer on the table. It will be interesting to see if they can repeat their so far successful formula with a new concept.

In the lead-up to the new investment, and planned expansion, Swingers has spent the last year ramping up its management team. Its CFO is Jake Emerson, ex FD of Gail’s Bakery and its COO is Adrees Ali, former VP of Operations for Brooklyn Bowl and a highly experienced US operator. In addition, Jonathan Goldstein, CEO of Cain International has just joined its board. Through Cain International and Eldridge it will also have access to some significant advisors, and I imagine the pick of some highly-regarded candidates to chair the growing business

In terms of overall potential for the business, Grech-Smith believes there is plenty of potential for Swingers in the UK and the US. Clearly its incoming investor agrees, although for the time being, all its focus will be on opening its site in New York. The first few years of Swingers’ life cycle have been fast-paced, now’s the time to step back from the tee, compose itself and make sure its swing is robust enough for the next round.