Crazy golf. It’s that first date/family day out/team building-type activity that we think we’ve all done at some point. Sort of nostalgic, slightly kitsch, but not my idea of a night out in my 30s with my girlfriends. Then came Swingers. The tongue-in-cheek name gives an indication that this isn’t that putt-putt course your parents took you to on that Spanish cruise when you were 10.
Launched in 2014 by business partners and entrepreneurs Matt Grech-Smith and Jeremy Simmonds of The Institute of Competitive Socialising, Swingers now has two sites in London and has plans to open their first location stateside this year. What sets Swingers apart is that Grech-Smith and Simmonds set out to build a destination for socialising that happens to revolve around a crazy golf course – DJs, strobe lights, London’s top food traders and innovative cocktails are all part of the Swingers experience.
We visited the Swingers West End branch on a Thursday summer evening, a few weeks after their reopening. After a short walk from Oxford Circus, we spot the entrance and there’s a queue out the door. Track and trace procedures and sanitiser stations are all in place, as is a mask-at-all-times policy unless you’re sitting at your table. The clientele is largely made up of couples and friend groups in their late teens to 30s and there’s a real buzzy vibe in the air.
We were led to our table and given a call time for when our game was going to start. The Swingers team canvassed the capital’s top restaurants to develop a very impressive food and drink programme: tacos made fresh by street food kings Breddos, burgers by London favourite Patty and Bun, sweet treats from Hackney Gelato, and mouth-watering pizzas by new additions Slice by Pizza Pilgrims.
When our turn comes around, we try our best to conquer obstacles like a giant spinning wheel, ramps, drops, and winding paths to get the best scores. The mood is festive, with the DJ’s beats surrounding us as we compete against each other around the course. “I guess crazy golf is the hook for what we do, but it’s not the whole story,” explained Grech-Smith.
“What we create are theatrical, immersive venues with gourmet street food, delicious cocktails, and a fun activity that captures the imagination that we build a world around. As it happens, crazy golf is the perfect activity to combine with cocktails and street food, for a few reasons. Everyone has a nostalgic link to crazy golf, probably having played at some point in their life, you don’t have to change your shoes to play, you don’t get sweaty while you play, and it’s accessible – you could score a hole in one on your first ever go!”
LLM – Luxury Lifestyle Magazine writer Ina Yulo Stuve spoke with Grech-Smith to find out about how they tackled the challenges from the past year and got an insight into their expansion strategy for Swingers.
What were some of the lessons you learned from your youth events business, Rough Hill?
I learned so much running Rough Hill! I’ve come across a surprising number of people in the business world who started out in a similar way, promoting music events. It was kind of a crash course in business skills. This was back in the early noughties, when you needed enough capital for a print run of fliers, some DJs, the hire fee for a venue, and then the rest was pure hustle. If the event went well, you make really good money. And if it went badly – there is no worse feeling than standing in a club while the DJ plays to an empty room!
We went on to grow the business to a point where we were running upwards of 25 music events a week and we branched out into running experiences for brands who wanted to engage more with their customers. That overview of both the nightlife market and the growing experiential industry led to us creating Swingers.
What was the gap that you saw in the market that you were trying to fill with Swingers?
We could see that people didn’t just want to go out to eat and drink, they wanted something more – an experience. In addition, social media was getting more visual with the rise of Instagram and Snapchat. People wanted to show off where they were going. Swingers tapped into that perfectly with a fun activity and some great photo moments, accompanied by delicious food and drink.
Why was it so important to you to have an awesome food and drinks programme?
We always felt that when you went to an entertainment or activity venue that you had to compromise on the food. We’ve all been to a bowling alley or ping pong hall at some point and had some pretty dodgy fried food, right? We wanted Swingers to have exceptional food – if we were selling burgers or pizzas then they had to be best in class. For that reason, we went to Patty and Bun and Pizza Pilgrims when we started the pop-up. We wanted the food alone to be a reason to visit. Our guests love the food mix and both brands are still with us seven years later.
We also like to exceed expectations with the drinks programme. We know that some people think that they are coming to a crazy golf venue called Swingers and that it’s going to be pretty cheesy. We like to blow their expectations out of the water with a stellar drinks list. We’ve got some really fun party drinks – I love the frozen piña colada, but if you’re in the market for a world-class classic, perhaps a gin martini, then our bartenders will make something pretty special for you.
Did you come across any challenges when raising investment for the venture?
Raising money is never easy, but it was more straightforward for us than for many. We started out by testing the concept with a pop-up and persuaded a few friends and contacts to invest. The pop-up went viral and the whole five-month run sold out. It was obvious that we had a viable business on our hands, plus it was so easy for potential investors to understand. They could see that the concept was fun and they could see the commercial opportunity. From the point that the pop-up sold out, raising money got way more straightforward.
The past year has undoubtedly been difficult, but you’re still planning to continue with your international expansion. What made you decide to carry on?
When the pandemic hit, we were just hitting our stride on a big growth phase for the business. London was performing really well and we were headed to the US. Suddenly everything just stopped and we had an incredibly tough 15 or so months. We had put our hearts and souls into growing the business and building an incredible team, there was no way we weren’t going to carry on. We dug deep and hustled, probably using skills that we learned back in the club promoting days.
Is there anything you’re planning to do differently with your stateside locations to appeal to the American market?
All our venues are in very individual spaces and are very differently designed. So while you are clearly in a Swingers, you feel like you’re somewhere unique. Washington DC is our next venue, which is opening on the 18th of June. It’s our first one to have a ground floor bar, as opposed to first floor or basement, and it’s even got outdoor space.
For our US venues we will be keeping the business model largely the same but will be catering to local tastes through our food vendors and our drinks programme. Plus our staff are a huge part of the experience and so our DC team will bring a very different personality to the experience than you might experience in London.
You’ve grown your team quite rapidly over the past few years. How do you ensure that your employees understand and display your brand values in such a customer-facing industry?
Great question, and possibly the most challenging part of running a business. I guess the simple answer is that we talk to our staff a lot, particularly since the pandemic and we tell them what we are trying to achieve, what is going well with the business and what isn’t. If you just give the team instructions without context, you’ll struggle to keep the team engaged. If you explain the bigger purpose, then you can take the team on the journey with you. It sounds a bit cliché, but it’s true.
Photography courtesy of Swingers.