It’s all food, fun and games as the ‘experience economy’ rides into Utah

(Francisco Kjolseth | The Salt Lake Tribune) Mathew Ailua lets it rip at All Star Bowling, which opened a new 70,000-square-foot, high-tech bowling and entertainment center at Valley Fair Mall in West Valley City. It has 32 lanes with luxury seating, laser tag and virtual reality games as well as old-school air hockey, basketball and bumper cars. Inside the center is the new Pins & Ales 21+ bar with more games, including ax throwing.

Life isn’t all fun and games.

Or is it?

Utah has a plethora of new venues where families, friends and co-workers can participate in high-tech — and retro — entertainment, from miniature bowling to bumper cars, ax throwing to air hockey and pinball to private karaoke.

Many of these fun spots — which also include restaurants with more refined food and drinks — can be found in downtown Salt Lake City with Dave & Busters and Punch Bowl Social at The Gateway; Quarters Arcade Bar on the corner of 400 South and Main; and Heart & Seoul Karaoke near City Creek Center.

There’s plenty to do in the suburbs, too. In November, All Star Bowling and Entertainment opened its fifth location, at Valley Fair Mall in West Valley City. The Utah-based business also has sites in Draper, Sandy, Tooele and West Jordan.

Add to those Topgolf in Midvale, Labyrinth Reality Games in South Jordan and Lindon and — if you want to get your mountain man on — nearly a dozen indoor ax-throwing venues between Ogden and Provo.

Who is driving this games-food-drink trend? A generation that is spending money on experiences rather than stuff. Retail experts and the national amusement and arcade industry refer to the growing phenomenon as the “experience economy” and “eater-tainment.”

“People are looking for an experience away from their homes and away from the internet,“ said Jenny Cushing, vice president of leasing for Vestar, which owns The Gateway. “They want something tangible — an experience they can’t get online.”

Ironically, though, some of the allure of going out and having “an experience” is posting on social media where you’re at and what you’re doing.

(Francisco Kjolseth | The Salt Lake Tribune) All Star Bowling has opened a new 70,000 square foot, high-tech bowling and entertainment center at Valley Fair Mall, in West Valley City. It has 32 lanes with luxury seating, laser tag and virtual reality games as well as old-school air hockey, basketball and bumper cars. Inside the center is the new Pins & Ales 21+ bar with more games including axe throwing.

More of these opportunities are coming.

This week, Game Pointe — a new entry into the Utah experience market — announced that it would open a 48,000-square-foot regional entertainment destination and restaurant in Herriman next year. Located at 12300 South on the west side of the Mountainview Corridor, it will boast bowling, interactive laser tag, virtual reality gaming arenas, more than 100 arcade and redemption games, and a multistory indoor ropes course with zip lines.

Aaron Osmond, a familiar name on Utah’s entertainment landscape, is Game Pointe’s managing partner and investor. “I can’t help myself,” he joked. “It’s a family curse and a family blessing.”

But Osmond said he’s not jumping into the industry on a whim.

“Across the country, we are seeing a trend around attractions that combine entertainment and food,” he said. “The experience economy is really changing business, especially for the younger generation.

“They’d rather have a selfie moment,” Osmond said, “than a car.”

Family, food and finances

Blame the economy, not millennials. According to a report by economists at the Federal Reserve, rising home prices, low wages and, for some, crushing student loan debt have kept young people from attaining the possessions that earlier generations were able to afford in their 20s and 30s.

It’s not just the singles crowd that is dropping down hundreds of dollars at these venues. Families are a major contributor to the trend, said Cushing. “Parents are looking to entertain their children and also be entertained themselves.”

Instead of taking a weekend vacation, she added, “they will spend their time and money having fun” at a place closer to home.

Businesses also are part of the boom, bringing in employees for team-building events or — in this tight employment economy — as an extra perk.

There have always been bowling alleys, arcades and miniature golf. But this new wave of venues is designed with tech-smart and food-savvy adults in mind.

“The food and beverage programs have been elevated,” Cushing said.

Rubbery hot dogs and cardboard pizza are out.

“People have higher expectations,” she said, “and their palates have changed.”

The entertainment landscape has evolved through the decades, said Brad Shepherd, who took over his family’s All Star Bowling business in the 1990s. In his father’s era, people participated in leagues and saw bowling as a sport.

When fewer and fewer people wanted the commit to being in a weekly league, Shepherd and his co-owners knew they needed to adapt. “We transformed from a traditional bowling alley to a bowling center to, now, a family entertainment center.“

In their older venue, they have removed some of the lanes and added other attractions.

But in All-Star’s new 70,000-square-foot center in West Valley City, the sky was the limit. It offers a high-tech, family-friendly bowling area with 32 lanes, luxury seating and a nighttime cosmic experience with lasers and black lights.

There also are interactive and virtual reality games, old-school air hockey tables, bumper cars, laser tag and a few ax-throwing alleys. Adjacent to the center is the new Pins & Ales bar — with its own bowling lanes — for those 21 and older.

The bistro-type menu has everything from chicken wings and gourmet burgers to salads, taco platters and miso-glazed salmon. Beer from Bonneville Brewery in Tooele, which Shepherd also co-owns, is available along with wine, cocktails and nonalcoholic options.

Cities are game

Not surprisingly, cities want these family-friendly entertainment venues, which lure tax dollars and jobs. All-Star’s West Valley City location cost $10 million to build and has brought about 100 jobs to the city with a payroll of more than $1.5 million.

During the October meeting of the state liquor commission, when there was a chance that Pins & Ales might not get a bar license, Jonathan Springmeyer, the city’s economic development director, stepped up to the podium.

“We are anxious to get this location open,” he told the commission, noting that it was an underserved area of the city (the only bar in the vicinity was inside a hotel).

But in the past 18 months, more than 200 multifamily residential units have been built nearby and another 200 are expected within the next two years.

And, if the entertainment economy continues, all of those residents will be looking for something to do — and a selfie.

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