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Puttshack Atlanta

Puttshack: reimagining mini-golf for a new generation

The unique concept updates the game with innovative tech, food & beverage, and entertainment

Puttshack, founded by Steve and Dave Jolliffe (creators of Topgolf) and Adam Breeden (All Star Lanes, Bounce, Fight Club), reimagines mini-golf for a broad demographic.

The world’s first – and only – tech-infused mini-golf concept, Puttshack fuses tech, food/beverage and entertainment to reinvent mini golf. The gameplay is powered by its patented Trackaball technology.

The TopGolf days

Joe-Vrankin_Puttshack

Joe Vrankin, CEO of Puttshack since 2019, tells blooloop:

“I spent five years as the CEO of TopGolf, from 2007 to 2012. One of the first US test stores had been open for a little less than a year. At that point, there were the original three TopGolf locations in the greater London area, originally built by a different private equity company.

“After I came on board, we acquired those three locations, and the rights for everything TopGolf on a global basis, from the founder, Steve and Dave Jolliffe World Golf Systems, and then really built the foundation for what TopGolf ultimately grew to be. At the time we really didn’t know whether it was going to appeal to golfers or more on the social entertainment side.”

Building a successful concept

Vrankin had joined in 2007, shortly before the global recession brought the world to a halt.

He says:

“We were able to use that time to focus on who our guest is, and how to build out this concept. What became pretty clear is that, while it appeals to golfers, it’s really a social entertainment concept. Then we really built out a higher and casual dining food and beverage offering.”

topgolf colorado

“We created some game innovation that was able to help spearhead a lot of the growth as far as what a site was able to do and how people played the games, and then built the foundation for really rapid growth, resulting ultimately in having the ability to open 10 locations a year with TopGolf.

“A US location is about a 12 – 15-acre piece of land; around 68 to 70,000 square feet of space. It takes about 400 associates and 32 to 38 managers to operate.”

Leisure & entertainment experience

Previously, Vrankin was the chief operating officer for the Arena Football League, an indoor football league:

“I joined right after they did a partnership relationship with the NFL. It was great. I learned an awful lot, about leading development, broadcasting, and sponsorship; everything around operating the league fell under my purview. I sold teams to 13 NFL NBA and NHL owners, spent a lot of time with them, and got a lot of benefit from working with people who had typically made hundreds of millions to billions of dollars doing something else, and then decided to buy sports teams.”

Date Night Puttshack

He continues:

“After TopGolf, I did a couple of other things, then, in 2018, my former CFO at TopGolf called me. He’d had lunch with Steve Jolliffe, and said, ‘Hey, Joe, Steve’s going to call you. Take his call, because they’ve created this new concept and they’re really on to something.’ Steve called me, and we talked for four hours, just chatting. He and Dave are just such nice genuine guys. At the end of the conversation, he said, ‘Well, you get on a plane and come to London next week, and see what we’ve created.’ So I did.”

Puttshack: a new winning concept

Guest Having Fun Puttshack

He had heard many times that it would be impossible to replicate the success of TopGolf:

“I’ve been told many times, ‘I hope you enjoyed TopGolf because that was lightning in a bottle. It just doesn’t come around very often,’ – which is true. Then I walked into White City in West London. It took me all of 60 seconds to say, ‘Oh my gosh, they did it again.’

“This time, what was even better is that they partnered with Adam Breeden.”

Breeden (of Kindred Concepts)  has created or co-founded multiple concepts, including Flight Club, Bounce, Hijingo, AceBounce, and All Star Lanes, as well as Puttshack.

Vrankin comments:

“The Jolliffes are great at creating these games. They don’t pretend to be food and beverage experts or design experts. The reality is that those things are critically important to social entertainment concepts today.”

Expanding Puttshack

What Breeden has contrived to do through the ambience, lighting and design as well as the compelling game offering, is to create a space that is attractive to the broadest possible visitorship, appealing to families during the day, and switching the atmosphere at night to that of a high-end night club.

“It’s a really difficult thing to be able to do,” Vrankin says:

“He did a phenomenal job. I joined about six weeks later, in January 2019. Even before I came on, I was asking what they wanted to achieve; how they wanted to grow the business. Clearly, we believe there’s a huge opportunity in the US; all four locations we have in the Greater London area are performing incredibly well.”

Puttshack Oakbrook

“Our five-year plan was to roll Puttshack out across the UK, and then ultimately look at other parts of the world. We are now putting that plan together, focused on what we consider our ‘triple threat’.”

The triple threat consists firstly of the game, which is fun and engaging: mini-golf reimagined through cutting-edge technology; secondly, F&B: a creative mixology component with creative signature cocktails and a full bar, alongside a chef-created dining offering; and, thirdly, a great guest service experience.

ARCO/Murray, a leading design-builder specializing in national rollouts across a wide spectrum of industries is the general contractor for the new Puttshack locations opening in the US.

Tech meets mini-golf

Vrankin dives into the components, and the advantage Puttshack has over potential competitors:

“When you think about miniature golf you think about bringing your kids, and a course involving hokey pirate ships and windmills.

“The brilliant thing is the technology allowed the Jolliffes to completely reinvent this game. Part of the advantage we have, which is critical, is that we have intellectual property protection around the technology. We own a patent in the US, UK, EU, et cetera around automatic scoring within a miniature golf environment.”

Puttshack_Oakbrook

“It’s a concept patent, which means even if somebody else tries to use different technology in a golf ball, if it does automatic scoring, well, we own the patent around that concept. They’re brilliant inventors, and they’re brilliant at creating a barrier with the intellectual property.

“The great part about that is we’re the only place in the world that you can play this game, and it will stay that way.”

Food and drink at Puttshack

However, he adds:

“In today’s environment, you can’t just rely on your game and expect long-term success. You have to partner that with a really strong food and beverage offering. Our VP of global food & beverage, Mark Boyton, is a French-trained executive chef.”

Puttshack - Oakbrook

“He and I have known each other for some time. He created the original menu when I was the CEO of TopGolf and has lived in the States since. What we charged him with doing when he came on board was to create a high-end casual dining menu with food flavours from around the world, so that we can create a menu where the vast majority of it will work both in the US and the UK.”

Boyton understands the nuanced difference between the markets:

“This means we’re not taking a US menu and imposing it upon the UK, or vice versa.

“Of course, you partner that in today’s environment with really strong signature cocktails. We have, for example, in the US, a Spiced Pineapple Mezcal Margarita with a Jalapeño Hellfire popsicle. It took Mark almost a full year to create that recipe, to the point where he felt it was exactly right. It takes longer now to come up with some of those signature cocktails than it does a signature dish.”

Smoking-Negroni

The cocktails come with a side-order of theatrics:

“Some of our cocktails, such as the Smoking Negroni  – will come out in a smoke-filled treasure chest. Our guests love that, and will immediately Instagram it. Things like that add to the whole ambience and environment that’s being created.”

The guest experience is key

Then there is the guest experience:

Puttshack staff

“In hospitality, especially, post-pandemic, it is our associates taking care of the guests and tying the whole game, food, and beverage experience together, that really creates the memories, and which, from our perspective, enables the concept to be successful in the long term.”

While the game can only be experienced at Puttshack, and would-be imitators are foiled by the ingenious patenting policy, Puttshack’s R&D team continues to innovate:

“We can do a lot of things with the software to make the game more engaging, or to enable it to be played in different ways without having to physically change the infrastructure.”

The other element that was created from the start was the targeting of a core demographic. He comments:

“While we’re very accessible to any age from young kids all the way on up, our core demographic is that 18 to 39-year-old group, or, in the U.S, 20 to 39-year-old.”

Tailored games at Puttshack

The game is tailored accordingly:

Puttshack Beer Pong Hole

“There’s a beer pong hole; there’s a roulette hole; there’s a trivial pursuit hole. Here, soon as you put your ball down the hole,  you’ll get a true/ false question. If you think the answer’s true, you putt under a bridge that says ‘true’. Or, if you think the answer’s false, you putt under a bridge that says ‘false’.

“If you get it right, you score bonus points but if you get it wrong, you lose points. If you get a hole in one, you’ll get bonus points, and then there are hazards where you can lose points. The objective of the game now is to score the highest score possible, as opposed to the lowest score, as in traditional miniature golf.”

The real advantage of the game is that everything is done automatically:

“The scoring is done automatically. You don’t have to walk around with paper and a pencil. You don’t even have to think about how many times you hit the ball. Our guests can be totally immersed in the game, and in interacting with the people that they’re with. They don’t have to think about anything other than having fun.”

A winning team

Navigating the challenges of creating, marketing, developing, and scaling a brand like Puttshack comes down to people, he says:

“I am blessed that we have an unbelievable team. Susan Walmsley, our CMO also dates back to my TopGolf days. She was in London running the marketing for the three top golf locations when it was pretty clear that a lot of the TopGolf expansion in the upcoming years was going to be in the US.”

Puttshack Oakbrook The Game

“I knew we would lose her if we couldn’t challenge her, so I convinced her to move to Chicago in the middle of February. When I picked her up at the airport it was snowing like crazy. She led all of the marketing in the US for TopGolf from store five to store almost 50.”

He adds:

“Susan really understands social marketing. What excites her about Puttshack and its growth, as it does all of us, is that a lot of us on the team building the foundation were part of building the concept in a prior life. The idea of being able to do it again, having learned from all the mistakes we made the first time around, is just great.”

Marketing Puttshack

Marketing, too, has evolved rapidly:

“Now, it is all social media-driven,” he says. “That allows us to target our advertising.

“From our branding standpoint, if you’re 25 years old, you don’t want to think about Puttshack as a family location, but as a ‘Saturday-night-out nightclub with my friends’ kind of place. Because now it’s possible to target the market so tightly, they would never see any of the marketing that we would do to families. The way that Susan has been able to hone that has been fantastic.”

Puttshack Atlanta - Terrace

One example, he explains, concerns the opening of the Atlanta location:

“Before opening, we launched our loyalty program called Puttshack Perks. Before we even opened the doors, we had slightly over 10,000 people who had signed up for Puttshack Perks. In the first 90 days we were open, we had, on average, 2.3 visits per Puttshack Perks member. They were not only coming, but they were coming back.”

Additionally:

“The other thing that, for me, was exciting, was looking at the gender demographic of our guests, which turns out to be almost exactly 50/ 50. Within a golf-type concept, that is rare.”

Reaching a wide audience

Having joined Puttshack in January of 2019, this was an issue that interested Vrankin from the start. He explains:

“It was just a single data point, but I wanted to know how we did on Valentine’s Day. We can claim whatever we want, but we men are going to do whatever our spouse or girlfriend wants to do on Valentine’s. The fact that we did so well told me that guys know that women like Puttshack – and they’re also picking it because it’s something they enjoy doing.”

Date Night_Puttshack

“Hitting on a concept where both partners like to go equally in and of itself is pretty rare, and creates a nice kind of upward spiral opportunity, especially with how we target market the guests.”

The importance of culture

Culture, Vrankin says, is key to the Puttshack brand:

Guests Playing Puttshack

“At the point when we had three UK locations open, and before we had opened in the US, our head of operations in the US was working on all the training manuals. He said, ‘Joe, I need our branding done. What do we stand for? What are the key talking points? I can’t train our team unless I can tell them what our values are.’

“Most companies, at the early stage, take on the culture and the branding of the founder, then, typically, at five years in, realise they really need to get the branding down, because the founders just assume everybody knows it.”

The other part, he feels, is that, at an early stage, companies are often unwilling to invest the money necessary to do a thorough branding project:

“We did, and we came up with four core values that we instil in our team. We call it our BLOC: Bring your ‘A’ game; Lead the way; Own the fun; and Care deeply. Each one of those has its own subset of meaning: what does it mean to care deeply, for instance? For us, it means caring for our guests, caring for our associates, and caring for the communities that we’re part of.”

Puttshack and COVID-19

Every Puttshack venue is partnered with a local charity, and does events for it:

“When we talk about caring deeply for our associates, our reaction to the pandemic demonstrates that,” he says:

“When COVID hit and everything closed, as the CEO, suddenly there is pressure from the investors to make cuts. We very purposely said, ‘We’re going to wait. We’re going to assess what’s going on, and we’re not going to make a knee-jerk reaction.”

Guests Eating & Drinking Puttshack

When the UK government came out with its furlough system, Vrankin’s decision turned out to be the right one:

“We were able to ride it out without having to let our team go. There were a few structural things we needed to do centrally, but at our venue sites, we retained our associates and our managers.

“In the meantime, we saw what some of our competitors were doing. Within a couple of days of lockdown, they let everybody go. When the furlough scheme came out, they were able to hire many of them back, but by that point, they had sent the message to their associates that they were, essentially, expendable.”

“The best job in the world”

While the US didn’t have a comparable furlough team, the venues were not yet open, he explains:

“We were still building our central team. We collectively took a pay cut through the first six months, but we didn’t let a single person go.”

He adds:

“We are opening in Boston and Miami next. I was out at our Chicago venue very recently, where the Miami management team is, talking about the culture. They were excited to be opening up in Miami and to be a part of everything.”

Live DJs Puttshack

“What I conveyed to them is that I have the best job in the world. I’m having so much fun because it’s such a great concept, and our team is so good. The reality is that we’re creating this culture and the things we believe in, and I should be able to make sure that the people around me buy into that and believe it.”

If the culture is one of positivity and engagement, he contends, it should be one that is shared by everyone, from the CEO to every busboy, server and dishwasher.

 “The hardest job is the GM’s job because they’re the ones who have to take those same brand standards and make sure that everybody believes in it, whether it’s their summer job while they’re at university, or they’re living from paycheck to paycheck. Our job centrally is to take those brand values and provide everything that those general managers need to be successful at conveying the same thing to all the associates.”

A bright future for Puttshack

He tests the success of this policy:

“Some of my friends go to the venues, and give me feedback: after all, if I don’t know what’s wrong, we can’t fix it.”

The feedback attests to the success of the ethos:

“One thing I hear again and again is that the people who work at Puttshack are so full of joy. They’re having fun. If our people have that energy, then that is what ties everything together, makes people forget all their problems for the time they’re with us, and makes them want to come back. We don’t expect them to come every time they have a night out, but we do want Puttshack to be among the options they consider.”

Guests at Puttshack

The data shows people tend to return three to four times a year, on average.

Vrankin concludes:

“We are finding, as we expected, that our visit rates are a bit higher in the US, where the venues are a little larger. In the US we’re averaging between 450,000 and 500,000 visitors a year per venue, and are averaging close to 400,000 per venue in the UK.”

Puttshack has secured $60 million in funding for expansion to 11 locations across the US through 2023. Clearly, the gamification of golf has an upward trajectory.

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Lalla Merlin

Lead Features Writer Lalla studied English at St. Hugh’s College, Oxford University. A writer and film-maker, she lives in rural Devon with husband, children, and an assortment of badly-behaved animals, including an enormous but friendly wolf.

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