Game changer by Martin Wolstencroft

29th March 2019

Game changer by Martin Wolstencroft

Live sport in pubs has come a long way during my time in the sector, particularly in the two decades since I co-founded Arc Inspirations. Before then a sports pub amounted to a community boozer with a sticky carpet and smoke-filled bar full of blokes – probably wearing football tops – that had a dusty television in the corner.

Investment in sports coverage by the major broadcasters in tandem with advances in audio-visual technology has meant people can now enjoy a superb, immersive viewing experience from the comfort of their own sofa. As operators, our venues need to match that experience at the very least and offer compelling reasons for people to keep returning. Customer expectations have clearly increased. People think carefully about where to spend their money when eating, drinking and watching sport – they want venues that can provide high-quality, memorable moments.

When it comes to watching the big match, fight or race, the shared experience of being alongside like-minded fans in the pub is second only to being at the event itself. You can’t bottle the electric atmosphere that draws people through the doors and provides the thrilling, communal buzz we all witnessed during last summer’s fantastic Fifa World Cup.

We believe Arc has been at the forefront of changing the game when it comes to sports bars. This is no more evident than at The Box in Leeds city centre, which opened in September last year.

Before opening we thought long and hard about how to evolve the concept. We wanted to create “the” place to eat, drink and play in the city – an antidote to the out-of-date sports pubs of the past. I spent a lot of time researching venues in the US (where they take their sports really seriously) and this heavily shaped our thinking around The Box.

The Box needed to be more than simply a great place to watch live sports, it had to deliver an unmatched experience. As a sports fanatic and someone with strong connections to various teams and clubs across Yorkshire, I was emotionally invested in creating a venue I knew those teams would enjoy as well as an inclusive space that appealed to a broad customer base seeking entertainment – not just guys watching football.

I think we’ve achieved that. In fact, I know we have. We’re thrilled the success and innovative approach embedded at The Box has been rewarded by it being crowned “best new bar” at the recent Publican Awards. It’s validation of our thinking as a business and huge recognition that we have created something special for our guests.

Of course this success wasn’t achieved by accident – it was incredibly hard work. We invested £1.3m in the site and a lot more blood, sweat and tears as the team debated and refined the design ahead of launch. I hired female designers to challenge our thinking and ensure the bar had a female-friendly and inclusive feel to it through the interiors, styling and colour palette.

The layout is flexible, with bookable booths and bar stools, sharing tables and relaxed “social seating”. The industrial-style furniture is designed with sharing in mind and for guests to get up and dance on the benches when the live music or DJ gets going. The solid wood oak floors and wall panelling with monochrome tiling details nods to a motor racing chequered flag theme.

Two full-size Maplewood European shuffleboards take centre stage, surrounded by sharing tables for groups to book. As you enter the bar there is an impressive ceiling-suspended television rig with feature lights and glitter balls to illuminate the dance floor in front of the stage. One of the bar’s hireable private dining rooms has its own darts lane with electronic scoreboard.

Our focus on experiences is reflected by the drinks-led innovation that features Budvar tank beer suspended above the bar, making it a real focal point. It sets the standard so when customers set foot in the venue they know you are dedicated to serving them a quality pint. It’s our best-seller on draught, averaging about 2,000 pints a week.

The Box also features exclusive cocktails on tap, our own-recipe Martinis to name just a couple, which is a real point of difference that drives guest loyalty and shows our commitment to running an inclusive venue offering entertainment for all in its broadest sense.

Our pizza oven is also on show in an open-style kitchen, offering a sense of theatre and inviting customers to enjoy being part of the overall experience. This means the bar transforms into an eating and socialising spot all at once.

We think we’ve created a blueprint for the modern sports bar. Feedback from our customers supports this and we see it in our sales figures with The Box trading well above expected levels and on track to be our first £1m profit site. However, we aren’t resting on our laurels. As we refine the offer and understand what is popular with customers, we’ll look to introduce new experiential activities while remaining focused on fostering that special atmosphere.

What particularly pleases me is The Box’s success is proof that our strategy of operating sites in clusters, with our core bar brands in close proximity and complementary to each other, is winning in our chosen markets. Next time you’re in Leeds come and see us – it’s a game changer.

Martin Wolstencroft is chief executive of Arc Inspirations, the Leeds-based operator of a number of fast-growing brands

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