CEO Toby Harris speaks to MCA about the national and international potential for bingo concept Hijingo, an all-new digital gaming platform for Bounce, and why America remains the core strategic focus for the group

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When we speak, Toby Harris is calling from a hotel in Chicago, home of one of the Flight Club venues his State of Play Hospitality platform operates.

It’s just 7am Eastern Standard Time, but having moved with his family to America over the summer, it’s a welcome development to late night calls.

“I’ve moved from a world where the day never ended, to a day which starts quite early,” he explains. “I’d rather this way round, than calls at midnight level o’clock most evenings, which was my world before, or spending too much on transatlantic flights.”

As well as a better work-sleep balance, it’s an indication of the core strategic focus State of Play now has in the US.

The experiential leisure operator, which was also a partner in the launch of Puttshack, is in the midst of a rollout of Flight Club, which it operates on license from brand owner Red Engine.

The platform, which also includes Hijingo and Bounce, currently has 11 venues, with seven of those in the US versus four in the UK, making for around a 70/30 split by revenue on a current run rate basis.

“If you look at our current growth profile, our expectation is for that proportion to increase as we open more Flight Clubs across North America - albeit growth in the UK and Europe is certainly a strategy that we are we still pursuing.”

Pub culture

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While there might not be a culture of playing darts in pubs in the US, Harris sees this as no barrier to the rollout plans.

Like in the UK, most Flight Club customers aren’t typically darts players to begin with.

“It’s funny because Americans do have a perception that all of us Brits spend our days in pubs playing darts in the UK,” he says.

“While darts has a large cultural presence in the UK, the majority of guests have never or rarely thrown a dart.”

He argues that it’s the Flight Club concept that has brought darts to a wider audience – not the niche competitive or pub-based social pursuit.

“Every market we go into, we don’t arrive with that city yearning for a darts concept, because it’s new to them, as it is in a lot of a lot of towns and cities in the UK.

“But having experienced that concept, we have phenomenal repeat customer rates and very high guest satisfaction.

“What that tells us that traction, that retention and those repeat visits gives us confidence to continue the rollout nationally.”

With the original Flight Club taking cues from the aesthetics of a traditional British pub, with contemporary twists, State of Play’s US version follows a similar format – even using Red Engine’s in-house design team.

Red Engine is also an investor in State of Play, strengthening the partnership between the two companies.

“Having them deeply embedded as an investor’s means that they really care and are even more determined to help us make of success of it.”

Ping pong play 

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Closer to home, State of Play launched a new Bounce venue over the summer in Battersea – the first under the ping pong concept since Old Street opened in 2015.

The original Bounce was founded in in 2012 in Farringdon, and Battersea sees significant updates of the aesthetic and experience.

The new look and feel aims to retain Bounce’s core values, of being playful, premium and high quality, while leaning into the ping pong aesthetic, under an evolved colour palette.

“We’ve moved away from the graffiti-led aesthetic to a cleaner fresher, more upscale look, which I think is different to a lot of the other concepts that have been created over the last five or so years.

“I’m not accusing anyone of copycatting the original Bounce, but we definitely wanted a completely clean and new style for the brand.”

The other significant updates, set to be launched soon, is with the technology.

Bounce has had its own digital ping pong platform Wonderball since 2017.

Behind the scenes, the team has been working to develop the technology, invest in a new back end, with a stronger more robust game play, and more digital games to the suite.

This is inspired by learning that guests generally prefer competitive games, and is also influenced by Flight Club’s sophisticated suite of competitive games.

“The challenge of tracking ping pong balls in three dimensions is highly technical, we’ve had to spend a couple of years and significant capital to really hone that product.

“We believe globally it will be the best version of digital ping pong on the planet.”

Despite his confidence in the new tech, Harris keeps an open mind about the extent to which the product will be rolled out to every ping pong table.

“For me, it remains to be seen whether the engagement from the guests is convincingly stronger on the new platform to justify rolling it out to every table in every Bounce, which obviously would add a level of investment to the business model.

“We are very confident that people will prefer to play the new version. The customer will tell us quite quickly whether they see it as something that’s a bit gimmicky, if they play it for 15/20 minutes and then they switch back to playing to playing regular ping pong, or whether they choose to continue playing the digital version for a full hour.”

Harris describes the ambitions for Bounce as opportunistic, with any potential rollout to be determined by the success of Battersea.

He sees large footprint real estate opportunities such as struggling department stores as a potential avenue.

“If us and landlords can find deals which makes sense that, there’s a lower capital profile to Bounce, they’re cheaper to fit out, there’s definitely an aspiration for us to open more Bounces.”

Bingo export 

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That said, with capital focussed in the US and all international development self-funded, State of Play sees a “much bigger opportunity” America for Flight Club.

Alongside Flight Club, bingo concept Hijingo is core to the growth strategy, having proven itself to be a “huge success” after launching in Shoreditch.

“We’re desperately seeking a central London Hijingo site, that’s Plan A for us,” he says.

“We’re also looking at international partnership opportunities with Hijingo, both here in the US and elsewhere in the world.

“We see a massive opportunity both nationally and also internationally - albeit with the gaming and licencing requirements.”

A rollout in the United States with Hjingo is much more complex, with different states having different gaming, gambling, legislation and regulation – but Las Vegas is a big priority.

In the wider experiential leisure space, Harris still sees “tremendous growth”.

“The relative size of our sub sector of hospitality is still tiny compared to the pubs, bars and restaurant sectors,” he adds.

“That said, the trends that we’ve seen in other parts of the industry, casual dining being a good example of that, at some point will apply to our industry,

“There will be winners and losers, there will be different price points and different levels of experience, and ultimately it’ll be a flight to quality and value for money.”

Harris predicts plenty more growth in the space over the next 10 years, but acknowledges the competition with scores of new concepts popping up in every city in the UK.

“We seek to be best in class and like the rest of the industry, if you’re best in class there’s every prospect of profitable long term sustainable growth,” he adds.