Innovative Locations: WhirlyBall’s Adam Elias on Taking National a Game that Crosses Bumper Cars, Lacrosse and Basketball

WhirlyBall is a fast-paced, bumper-car-driving, lacrosse-like-ball passing-game best known for locations in the Chicago suburbs and the Midwest. As WhirlyBall Vice President Adam Elias puts it, “It’s the most fun you can have going 4 miles per hour.” Elias joined Eden Ames, host of ARCO’s Innovative Locations series, on the latest episode to give a lowdown on WhirlyBall’s plan to go from a locally-beloved game destination to a household name across the U.S.

For those who’ve never set foot into a WhirlyBall location, give us the walkthrough of what it’s like to visit. Apart from the game, what else is on the agenda for someone who comes through the doors?

Adam Elias: When you first walk in the doors, you’re most likely coming in for a party, whether it’s a corporate outing, a rehearsal dinner, a bachelor party, your son or daughter’s 10th birthday, etc. If that’s the case, you’ll be guided by one of our friendly team members to your private event space where you’ll be served food and drinks from our chef-tailored menu of small bites to full entrée options. We’ve also got two bars at our flagship location, serving a rotating menu of craft beers and cocktails. Activity-wise, apart from the game of WhirlyBall itself, we’ve got bowling, laser tag and event space for corporate meetings, rehearsal dinners and things of that nature. We’ve also got two bars at our flagship location, serving a rotating menu of craft beers and cocktails.

To elaborate on the centerpiece game of WhirlyBall, it’s the combination of basketball, lacrosse, and hockey all rolled into one, but you’re in bumper cars. Two teams of five. Red Team versus the Black Team. Games are typically 10-minute games, but groups are typically reserving the court by the hour for multiple games. Usually, groups can get between five to six games in an hour.

Apart from WhirlyBall, we also have bowling and laser tag, too, so there’s something to do if you want to stick around for other activities after your session.

So, you’ve got this great, unique game, what drove the decision to add some of those more familiar game options to between Laser Tag, bowling, etc.?

AE: Laser tag is not new for us. We’ve had laser tag over 10 years at this point, and it’s been something that can grab a large group of people, like 30 players at one time. And then bowling was brought in at our Webster location, and we did that for a few reasons. There have been times where groups say, you know, Mark, in the office has a really bad back and he can’t play WhirlyBall, or so-and-so is pregnant right now. So with bowling, Mark and whoever else wants to join him can bowl and still be part of the group and have fun. The other component is WhirlyBall’s great for large groups, so we would need to go find eight other people to play. With bowling, the two of us can go walk in, grab a bowling lane, grab a couple beers and have fun. And that is another differentiator– diversifying our consumer and who’s coming through our doors for different purposes, whether it be a two- or four- person group, or a larger group.

What does a typical week look like for you in terms of the breakdown of customers coming through the doors, and how does that look different in the middle of the day during the week vs. weekend evenings?

AE: We have a very wide lens of who we target. And the reason being is everybody can play WhirlyBall. So long as you’re 54 inches and taller, you can play. So we see everybody from all different demographics, ages, everything in between. That said, our weekday business is normally corporate outings starting as early as 8 or 9 AM, with breakfast meetings in our event spaces where they’ll come in, do a presentation, break for lunch, and then wrap up with a happy hour with food, drinks, WhirlyBall and bowling as a way to close out the day. We see sale team outings, summer team retreats, those things are happening all throughout the week. And then as we get to Friday evening, we start transitioning to 30th birthday parties, bachelor parties, a group of friends just saying we wanted to get out of the house and have some fun. Then Saturdays and Sundays starting first thing in the morning, you’ll see lots of kids’ birthday parties, and 9- and 10-year olds playing Laser Tag, bowling, WhirlyBall—all throughout the day. And then on a Saturday night, you could very well see a Bar Mitzvah happening and what you’d see similarly to Friday nights, too.

You do walk-in’s, too, right?

AE: Yeah, there are a ton of walk-ins, we just primarily do a lot of reservations because it is an event-driven concept. I mean, we have some events booked out for a few years from now. Same thing, large corporate outings, 2021’s holiday season, etc.

As you’re teeing up for nationwide growth, what other locations are catching your eye across the country, and what’s driving the decision behind a good market option for you?

AE: Well, in order to do this properly, our focus is using GIS mapping studies, and specifically mass mobile data to help understand our consumer base at our existing sites. Better understanding how far they’re traveling, who that is, how frequently they’re coming, and getting all of that data to then replicate additional markets throughout the US that we’re starting to identify as key areas of focus. We know a lot about our guests, we know a lot about what type of market is going to be successful. But taking this extremely focused data that’s around our business will help to confirm the best markets for us. We know we need to be around lots of corporate offices, and daytime population is a large focus for us, too. Using Chicago as an example, the CBD or the Central Business District downtown, we see a lot of those companies coming to us because we’re only now five, six miles from the city center. And it’s very easy for them to come to the northside of the city where we’re located. And it’s now finding those other markets where it makes sense, like Austin, Indianapolis, Denver. But we are starting to put together a full rollout plan of how we’re going to start adding additional units and stepping into that year-over-year annual growth.

As you’re gathering data and focusing on corporate-heavy locations for new sites, are there any concerns around companies still staying remote to some degree or another, and that affecting the corporate event side of your business?

AE: I do believe that, even though companies may allow flex work, I believe as humans, we are naturally drawn to social engagement, and gathering and getting together with our peers, our friends, our co-workers. And even if some companies are staying virtual and remote to some degree, they’re still going to want to get together periodically, and maybe it’s not at the office. We’re seeing companies that are saying, well, we’re not going to the office, or we’re out 50% still. So instead, we’re going to go to places like WhirlyBall, and have an outing once a month. In fact, at our Naperville location we have a group coming in every two weeks– they have an outing to WhirlyBall and the next week they go to Topgolf. So, they alternate between locations. Groups are definitely coming back, we’re seeing corporate events happening, off-site meetings at our venue starting to happen again. I do believe that by the fall things will start to really normalize in the entertainment world where we’re having trade shows, conferences, conventions, etc.

What kind of spaces would you say are ideal for WhirlyBall? Are you looking at brand new facilities as you’re entering new markets, or adaptive reuse and looking to occupy spaces that are currently empty?

AE: We’ve done a few different kinds of build outs. In Brookfield, the mall operator tore down the previous structure and partnered with us on building out our own ground up facility. There are tons of malls that we can look at throughout the country, some are great, some are not so great. The regional placement that malls typically have and the egress position that they have off of a thoroughfare or some large Interstate, which makes it really easy for guests to get to us. We also know as an entertainment venue like us, we can help bring foot traffic back to the mall space. With the amount of big box retailers that have closed during the pandemic or filed bankruptcy and are going to be shuttering stores, there’s a lot of large retail space available for us to occupy.

But one of the challenges that we have with existing retrofits is column spacing for WhirlyBall. The typical grid that we find is a 30 by 30 column grid for a department store, as an example. WhirlyBall requires a 72 foot by 45-foot width with a 16-foot-high ceiling. And obviously it needs to be clear because you can’t have a column in the middle of a WhirlyBall court– think if you were playing a basketball game and there’s a big I-beam in the middle of it, it’s going to be pretty awkward, you’re probably going to run into it, and it just doesn’t work. So those are some of the hurdles that we have with doing an existing.

And then a good example of a location that works that’s not at a mall is Naperville. It’s right off the highway. It has a large thoroughfare called Route 59 right next to it. You’d thinkthink with geo-fencing and everything, we can drive business dominantly from digital and that roadside visibility wouldn’t matter as much. But it does, it genuinely is a huge part of getting people to want to come to the space. I can’t tell you how many groups send us an inquiry saying I found you guys by driving by.

What do you think the future of entertainment is going to look like? You guys had been talking about growth prior to the pandemic, but what are you measuring as a good trigger for expansion?

AE: Weknow that the entertainment space is Internet-proof. This is not something that can be digitized, we tried, it doesn’t work. During the beginning of the pandemic, we looked at trying to find ways to monetize our business online, it’s nearly impossible. We were doing things like trivia online; we were doing our online beer programs and things like that. Some of it was working a little bit, but it can’t replace what we do on a daily basis. And that is why mall operators, for example, really like us– we’re not a retailer that will end up as an online platform in five years.

I do believe that social interaction is not something that we’re going to turn away from. People coming out of the pandemic have an appetite to gather more so than ever, there’s a lot of pent-up demand. Entertainment does have the opportunity to continue to grow, especially with fewer options as an unfortunate byproduct of the pandemic, it allows for those that are still operating to be able to gain larger market share than maybe what they could’ve previously.

We are seeing that volume is increasing, and this is a concept that people have loved and adored in Chicago for nearly 30 years. So, this isn’t something that’s going to go away. If you’ve played before, you know the fun that I’m talking about. There’s really two different people I talk to about WhirlyBall. There are the people who haven’t heard of it and say “What’s WhirlyBall?” and they look at me with these furrowed eyebrows thinking what’s this crazy name. Then there are those that know what WhirlyBall is, and they say “I love WhirlyBall, it’s so much fun, it’s so unique. I had the best time there!” And then they tell me a story about going there for a friend’s birthday, a corporate outing, their bachelor party. Even if it was five years ago, they’ll relive that memory like it was yesterday and it’s a really cool thing.

What knowledge would you want to impart to other entrepreneurs that are just starting out or beginning to grow in the sector of location-based entertainment?

AE: First and foremost, do your research. Top to bottom, every single line item that you can imagine, from, what amusements are you providing? What kind of labor would you need to deploy in order to properly run the concept? Finding a good GC is super important, depending on what you’re doing from a build out perspective, looking into municipality requirements, are you serving alcoholic beverages? Do you need a license? What does that license look like? Can you get zoned for that? Is the property zoned properly for what you’re trying to do? All of those components are aspects that if you miss those, they could become costly. If you’re not planning ahead of it all, it can really come back to bite you. I mean, there’s horror stories out there, of people who couldn’t open the concept because they ran out of money just trying to build.

So making sure you funded this thing properly, and that you really nailed down your budgets on all aspects. But be prepared for curveballs, there’s just no way to anticipate them, and you just have to work through them.

Watch the whole episode here: