Park Playground | social VR concept expands to UK – blooloop

As the company prepares to open its first UK venue, we explore the winning formula behind its success
Words:  Charlotte Coates
Visitors to one of The Park Playground’s venues can play unique virtual adventures with friends, family, or co-workers. While taking on zombies in The Hallow, finding the mole The Snitch or travelling through deep space in Mission Planet X, players explore 200 m2 of free-roam virtual reality and complete a challenging mission, armed with VR goggles and a futuristic weapon.
The unique VR franchise has expanded to a total of 11 owned and franchised locations since its launch in June 2018, despite the challenges presented by the global pandemic. Now, the company plans to grow into new markets beyond Europe and will be opening a further three venues in the UK between now and the end of the first quarter in 2023. The first of these will launch in Leeds on 15 December. 
To find out more about the concept and its wide-ranging appeal, as well as its plans for global expansion, including the upcoming UK launch, blooloop spoke to Peter Vindevogel, CEO at The Park Playground.
When asked about the vision behind The Park Playground, Vindevogel says that the company is building the future of entertainment. 
“Our mission is to connect people through amazing, immersive experiences – that is what we think is the future of entertainment. Today, people are talking a lot about the metaverse, it’s the new buzzword. We often say that, actually, we’ve been working on the metaverse for years now. I was at a web summit last week and one speaker said that the future of entertainment is composed of three components: it should be immersive, it should be interactive, and it should be social.”
The Park Playground easily meets each of those three criteria, he explains:
“It is immersive, it has a good mix of the real world and the digital world. It is interactive, so you are not a passive participant. And our experiences are always experiences that you go into together, with a group of friends, your family, your colleagues. So, by definition, what we do is social. It’s about bringing people together.”
Many people, when they think of VR, they picture a personal experience, rather than a shared one. In fact, donning a VR headset can often feel quite isolating. Expanding on why the company felt that it was vital to bring a social aspect to its model, Vindevogel says
“In the first days of the new wave of entertainment and digital entertainment, people were talking mainly about individual experiences. But then, during the pandemic when people got locked down and were really on their own, we saw how people wanted to be together. For us, it’s a key element of what we do, to be able to bring people together in the physical environment. 
“The social aspect of entertainment is so crucial, in all aspects of entertainment. Even if you think about other sectors. For example, the coolest element of watching a good movie is being able to share with your friends and to go to the cinema together.”
The Park Playground began in 2018, and quickly found success:
“We got a lot of visitors in the first venues and started to ramp it up. Then, the pandemic came and there have been two very difficult years. At the beginning of this year, people were still talking about whether the pandemic was over and if people would go back to location-based entertainment.”
However, post-COVID numbers at The Park Playground venues showed that there was a demand from consumers to come back together and share social experiences. 
“We very quickly saw the visitor numbers coming back. We opened our venue in Amsterdam at the beginning of July 2022, which was the first new location that we opened after the pandemic, and it immediately became a hit. 
“After four or five months in business, it’s our third most successful venue and is growing very quickly.”
While the technology itself is important, Vindevogel also says that the content itself is crucial: 
“We now have seven experiences and we’re developing a new one at the moment as well. If you look at the experiences we offer, we are a concept that is talking to everyone. So, if you’re a gamer, of course, you’re welcome at The Park, but you’re not the only person that is welcome. 
“Often when we’re talking about technological entertainment, you see a lot of branding and design that is either focused on gamers or is very sci-fi and tech-fuelled. This is not the case at The Park Playground, where you come into this very light environment with experiences that are catering for people aged seven to 88.”
As well as the more competitive gaming experiences, The Park Playground offers content for children, families, and groups.
“You can choose zombies, but you can also go into an escape room. There is an offer for many ages and many age groups, and we see this reflected in the people that visit The Park. We get a good mix of 50% men, and 50% women.
“Almost half of our visitors come through team events, in groups with colleagues. Our average NPS is nine out of 10 and 60% of people come to The Park because of word of mouth. This means that they’ve heard from one of their friends, colleagues or family about how fantastic it was, and were encouraged to visit us.
The company operates some venues directly and also has a franchise programme. Speaking about why franchisees might choose to work with The Park Playground, Vindevogel says:
“I think it’s attractive for many reasons. If you look at being successful in this location-based industry and the concept that we bring, there are three key elements that should work and that should bring it together. 
“There is, on one hand, the experience itself, and we are confident that our experience is top-notch, and this is something that we will continue working on. We will bring out a new title on 15 December and we will also be looking at some more international IP titles.”
The second element, he says, is that is important to have an easily scalable model, from an operations point of view. 
“We have built some very data-driven tools that make the operational model light and scalable. For example, we have a booking model for hosts that is completely linked to the booking model for our clients. That didn’t exist at the beginning of The Park and there have been a lot of ups and downs in building it, but it’s now very consistent and we can easily duplicate it for every franchisee that has entered The Park. 
“We’ve also had many conversations with franchise partners and they’re always impressed about the operational side of the story. The model we offer our partners is both scalable and profitable in the location-based VR market”
“The third aspect in being successful is being able to build a good marketing mix around the venue,” he adds. “And then in franchising, there is also the cooperation that needs to happen between us as a global brand and the franchisee as the local brand owner – the partner that knows the local environment of the venue where he or she will open a new department.” 
Vindevogel explains that the franchise investment is small, and the return on this investment is rapid:
“We are a company that is in full expansion mode, we will be investing heavily in the experiences and so the franchisees will grow with us every time we bring those new experiences.” 
He adds:
“The idea is not to limit the concept to the venues themselves. What happens in the venue, that social interaction and connection that we’ve been talking about, is key. But as we build new experiences, we’re also looking at how we can expand our storytelling and further immerse our visitors in the narrative, beginning from the moment they book with us and carrying through to after the experience itself.” 
The Park Playground began in Belgium before going on to open branches in The Netherlands and soon, in the UK. 
“There are two reasons why starting the concept in these markets worked well,” says Vindevogel, “First, these are very digital savvy markets; there is a high penetration of technical devices, and these markets are at the forefront of technical developments. 
“The second element is also that they are quite multicultural markets. Different languages are spoken and they’re in the heart of Europe, which is a place where many cultures come together. That has helped us in crafting experiences that cater for all beings.”
On the imminent UK launch, he says:
“The UK is the biggest entertainment market in Europe, so we have been keen to come to the UK. While we have had a bit of delay due to COVID, we will now be launching in three venues in the United Kingdom. The first will be on 15 December in Leeds. We also have a second venue coming in Birmingham and the third venue will either be Manchester or Liverpool. 
“Meanwhile, we’re also having franchise discussions in the United Kingdom with several partners that are interested in the UK launch. The English market is a very entertainment-savvy market, so it is ideal for the virtual reality entertainment that we’re bringing. With the level of experiences that we bring and the level of engagement that exists in the English market for digital experiences, it should surely be a success.”
Visitors to the new Leeds venue will even be able to try a brand-new title called Don’t Scream, a terrifying haunted escape room in virtual reality. 
Vindevogel says:
“The whole aim of the game is not to scream, so you can already imagine what will happen! The new thing for this game is that for the first time we’re tracking the audio, so we’re tracking the screams of the players. The more the players scream, the fewer points they’ll get. This new way of really integrating the actions of a player into the gameplay is completely new because how the gameplay will continue depends on the sound of the player. Nobody has done that before.”
“We are also looking at other ways of bringing your emotions into the gameplay. For example, is there a way that we can get the game evolved in the function of your heartbeat? We’re not there yet, but it’s something we’re thinking about.”
The expansion story doesn’t stop in the UK either, as the firm is looking at expanding its footprint in several ways, firstly in Europe with both its own venues and with franchise partners.
“There is also heavy interest in our concept from the Middle East,” says Vindevogel. “When we look at markets like the UAE and Saudi Arabia, this type of immersive entertainment is popular in those markets. 
“We’re also talking with franchise partners both in the United States and in China. They are both quite different markets from Europe, so we need to prepare thoroughly, which is what we are in the process of doing right now.”
“As well as the model of own venues and franchise venues, we are more and more moving to a form of entertainment that is as mobile as possible. All our experiences today are delivered without the classical backpacks that you may be used to with a virtual reality experience. This gives much more freedom in the way of playing. But it also gives us a lot more freedom to deliver our entertainment in other ways. 
“We have a completely mobile setup available across all locations, which means that we can bring entertainment wherever we want. There is already a lot of demand for this, companies and events teams have asked if we can bring that entertainment to them, for example as part of a pop-up event or a company event. 
“That will expand the reach of our experiences even more – we’ll be able to bring our entertainment directly to our guests.”
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