Concepts such as Swingers and Flight Club have been hailed for redefining nights out – yet Laine Pub Company has been integrating experiential and immersive elements into its pubs for several years now. MCA’s Finn Scott-Delany’s visits the group’s latest venue, Ninth Life, an ambitious festival-themed multi-storey venue in Catford.

The emergence of a new breed of experience-led bar and restaurant concepts has made for one of the talked about trends in recent years – and investors have banked on this being more than a passing fad.

Swingers, the mini golf, and street food concept, last year received c£28m in funding from Cain International to fund US expansion.

Adam Breeden, who helped start the trend by co-founding Bounce and Flight Club, is aiming for 75 sites worldwide under his Social Enterprise Ventures (SEV) company, including the tech-heavy golf concept Putthshack.

Meanwhile Flight Club has secured its own funding of £15m to expand its core brand.

While these concepts use the fixed costs of gameplay as the key attraction to drive food and drink sales, Laine has been integrating experiential elements into its pub estate for years.

Founder and chief executive Gavin George has long talked about pubs being a third place between home and work, with added touches making the group stand apart from its peers. 

And it was around seven years ago while running Brighton’s Spiegeltent, the mini festival in the city centre, which opened up the potential to reimagine what a pub could offer consumers.

“Everything we’ve done has been experience-led one way or another”, explains Dan Hills, Laine’s sales and marketing director, who has overseen the development of the group’s latest venue, Ninth Life, in Catford.

“But in the last 10 years we really started to think about other way to bring people in and surprise people.

“We want people to walk into a building and be faced with something they didn’t expect.”

The Spiegeltent, part of Brighton’s Fringe Festival, opened up for possibilities for circus-inspired performance and festivities, and inspired The Aeronaut in Acton.

The approach gave Laine an opportunity to use large pub spaces in new and innovative ways – which is not without its risks.

“Quite a lot of pubs struggle with big buildings. They are tough to fill. You’ve got to be a bit brave”, Hills says.

Other notable examples include the Four Thieves in Clapham, and The World’s End in Brighton, which both make use of VR headsets, retro arcade games, and remote controlled racing, elements which tend to be operated by a third party to draw consumers in.

Ninth Life moves away from tech, wheeling back towards a performative, festival-inspired style of the Spiegeltent/Aeronaut.

“We looked at the site, which is on the south circular in a part of town that’s a bit unloved”, Hills says.

“We asked, what can we bring here to inspire people? Festivals are something all kinds of people really enjoy. It’s a summer thing, so we thought let’s try and bring the escapism people enjoy about festivals, where you can be somebody completely different.

“Festival culture is about inclusivity, and with parts of London having lots of different communities living side by side, the idea of the festival felt appealing.

“We will do lots of interesting stuff, and it won’t always have to appeal to everyone - you can’t please everyone. Like a real festival we have a programme which has many people in mind.”

As well as live music, DJs, performers and street food, the venue will host live art projects, film screenings, games nights and drag-queen bingo as well as daytime showcases from local youth groups, graffiti festivals, spoken word and art exhibitions.

There is also a nine-room immersive theatre experience upstairs, with plays on residents’ fears the pub company would gentrify the venue by turning it into flats, some rooms decorated like an estate agent in a clever metanarrative.

Of course a site so big, in an untested neighbourhood of London is not without danger.

“It’s a huge risk – it’s really scary,” Hill says. “We haven’t come here to gentrify anything. We spent a lot of time speaking to the community about creating a community pub.

“That makes it scary if no one locally likes it and no one comes. There’s always a risk with big buildings. It’s going to take a lot of people to fill it out and get some atmosphere in here.”

While Laine pubs skew towards the Millennial demographic, Hills said the aim is to be broadly appealing, albeit outside the mainstream of a more traditional pub.

“We’ve never really worked a demographics – it’s more about likeminded people.

“You can be in your 60s and still have that spirit of discovery. It’s not exclusive to millennials.”

The fact each concept is brand-new and developed for the site also adds to the sense of uncertainty.

“Because we don’t ever do a rollout, we can never say we’ve proven something, that it works,

“I’m always confident in what we do, but there is always the possibility it might not be what people are looking for. You have to be a bit brave about, discuss it collectively, and decide if it’s something people will like. If we discover they don’t, it’s our job to adapt – and you have to do that fairly quickly.”

Do Laine feel they were ahead of the curve on the experiential trend?

“I don’t think at the time we realised there was a curve”, Hills says. ”We just wanted to create something interesting, fun, what people want to do in a Friday night.”

One thing Laine is at pains to avoid is faddish elements.

“We try and create is things that have longevity. Anything that feels like it’s going to just a trend, we’re not that interested. With things like VR, there no guarantee it’s going to stick, but sometimes you have to brave.”

While Ninth Life has a traditional management structure, such are the level of extra elements, a creative director was brought in to manage the non food and drink side of the business.

Dr Claire MacNeill is a theatre producer and lecturer with a PhD in immersive interactive theatre who has worked on immersive elements to festivals such as Boom Town and Secret Garden Party.

How will Laine evolve its experiential offer at subsequent sites?

“The thing I’d like to do is develop the interactive theatrical stuff. Taking elements from theme parks; the blend of the theatrical and escape.

“We won’t do another version exactly the same as this, it will inform we approach bigger buildings into something that’s a bit more of in experience.”