Lee Nicolson, the recently appointed managing director of Eclectic Bars, has told MCA the group is already looking at further sites for its ping pong, pizza and craft beer concept, Smash.
Nicolson said the concept, which launched last month at the group’s Reading Sakura site, had been inspired by the craze in London for activity led bars – including Bounce, Flight Club and Swingers.
He said the concept was flexible enough to accommodate activities other than ping pong and represented a valuable opportunity to stretch day parts in principally late-night venues with excess space available.
Nicolson took on the post on the post of managing director in April after the Luke Johnson-backed company’s acquisition of Brighton Pier, which led to it being split into two divisions and renamed Brighton Pier Group. While Anne Martin remains in charge of the pier, under the title managing director, long-time chief executive Reuben Harley announced at the time of the acquisition that he would be leaving the company. Nicolson, who was chief operating officer at the time, was promoted to managing director of the 18-strong bar estate.
On the direction of the bars side of the business, Nicolson said it was “business as usual” and didn’t rule out adding to the estate.
He said the company was starting to see a resurgence in activity within the student market – the decline in which hit the company’s sales last year.
On his vision for the company, he said: “We want to be an industry leader. We were a benchmark for the late-night sector but now we want to be much more than that. Concepts like Smash give us a lot of opportunity to excel in areas that are new to us but late-night is still very much at the core of what we do.”
On the prospects for Smash, he said: “People are looking for more than just good drinks and music when they go out now. They want an experience. Putting an activity at the centre of your offer gives it much more appeal and the great thing about ping pong is that anyone can play it.
“It’s very much centred around craft beer, which is a relatively new area for us. We have traditionally been very cocktail focussed.
“We are looking at other sites where we can add the offer in. We’ll obviously monitor Reading before we make any decisions about Smash’s long-term potential but we’re pleased with how it’s started.”
On the potential for further acquisitions, Nicolson said: “We are a cash generative business and we are alive to opportunities. There’s no pressure to grow for the sake of it but we have the capability if the right deal came along.”
On the student market, he said: “We did a huge amount of research and made changes to our business to better fit the changing needs of students and we’ve seen a lot of uplift from that. Recently we are seeing more activity in the mid-week and it does seem like students are having more than just that one big night out a week. But I don’t see it returning to the way it used to be. University is a very different experience these days – especially since tuition fees came in.”