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Funlab’s Blaise Witnish On the Australian Firm’s Holey Moley Plans Stateside

The acting U.S. CEO says the company’s first four locations for its competitive socializing venues are only the start. As many as 12 a year could roll out.

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Go to Australia, and all over the landscape you will see outlets proclaiming “Holey Moley.”

It’s not just a peculiarity of the populace in the land where marsupials thrive and folks call everyone “mate.” It’s a place where you can play miniature golf while quaffing a brew. In other words, it combines some of adults’ guilty and not-so-guilty pleasures: mini-golf, eating and drinking alcohol. 

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Now the company behind Holey Moley wants to bring that concept here. Funlab Ltd. — not to be confused with a Chinese company by the same name that sells souped-up consoles for home video games — just opened up Holey Moley outlets in the U.S. in Denver, Houston, San Francisco and Austin. It’s the opening salvo in a nationwide rollout. Funlab worked with brokerage JLL, which helped Funlab find these initial four locations.

To quote a JLL release, Holey Moley “takes the familiar and beloved mini-golf concept and transforms it. The spaces are an immersive world of fun with delicious bites, specialty cocktails and real-life connections. The concepts will feature super-vibey, multi-sensory experiences and new, iconic pop-culture themes woven into the golf holes.”

While the idea may be to introduce more fun into the lives of its customers, from a real estate standpoint it could not get more serious. Forced to contend with e-commerce, people who own or manage retail properties have placed a premium on experience-heavy concepts that can’t be reproduced at home. It’s an approach often called competitive socializing. Funlab, backed by private equity firm the Texas Pacific Group, hopes to be a part of it.

Blaise Witnish, the company’s acting U.S. chief executive officer, spoke to Commercial Observer in early November from Mount Martha, Australia, a beach town on the Mornington Peninsula south of Melbourne, where it’s a day later amid a 16-hour time difference with the East Coast. She took a little time out to jump on Microsoft Teams to explain the concept, and what Funlab is trying to do in a shifting American retail landscape. 

This interview has been edited for length and clarity.

Commercial Observer: Talk to me a little bit please about exactly what Funlab is, and the idea behind it.

Blaise Witnish: We’ve been around for 22 years, and we’re really an entertainment platform company. We’ve built eight unique brands. And those brands are anchored by a specific activity. So Holey Moley is obviously anchored by mini-golf. Our Strike brand is a bowling concept. Our La-Di-Darts brand is about darts, and so forth.

So you’ve been around 22 years, but in America it’s still brand-new. And kind of strange, I guess.
We just launched our first location in Denver. Our Holey Moley brand was launched there about eight weeks ago. And it’s doing really well. In the U.S., it’s still very early on. You know, we obviously have some competitors that are open throughout the country, but it’s very early on. 

We have 27 Holey Moley locations in Australia and New Zealand. When you think about the population of 25 million people in Australia versus 330 million In the U.S., you can see how early the indoor mini-golf bar category is in its journey in the U.S. So it’s super exciting for us and a great opportunity.

How big is your typical outlet?
Holey Moley can be between 12,000 and 25,000 square feet.

We give more space to the food and beverage areas and private function spaces. Our food and beverage menu is tailored for each local market. We select our holes for the market, and we have designed each site so every Holey Moley is never the same.

We also design and build at least three to four holes specifically for that venue. We design the interior for each location using inspiration from the area, the community and the building.

How do you find the U.S.? Do you find it a strange place to operate? Or do you think you are going to fit right in?

We obviously did a huge amount of research both on how to make it in the States, and how relevant our major brands could be, and how they’d be taken or adopted.

There was an unbelievable positive side. When you look at the Australian consumer and the American consumer, there’s a lot of differences, don’t get me wrong, but there’s a hell of a lot of similarities. And, so, there’s this real pent-up love for two things: entertainment, a unique guest experience, coupled with a post-pandemic world and this real love for competitive socializing.

That phrase — competitive socializing — you hear that a lot. Competitive socializing is on a massive trajectory that people are just loving. Going out, socializing with friends, family, workmates, date nights, having a few drinks, and then playing a game where you’re competing and trying to get a higher score. But you’re doing it in a really fun, and usually a pretty immersive, atmosphere. 

I guess that Americans are familiar with Dave & Buster’s as a place that offers games and things to eat and drink.
Absolutely. I think there’s the knowledge globally of just how much the U.S. loves to consume, how much they love to experience, how much they love to be entertained. And then Americans genuinely sort of love and embrace food and drink in general.

But doing that whilst playing really fun activities and putting it in a really immersive, unique environment — all those things combined, with some retail, that really drives consumer demand. And we see that in America. But, I’ll be honest, from a business perspective, I absolutely adore America, because a majority of people are really quite optimistic. They generally want to help you succeed.

So, basically, your customers not only want to play your games, but they want you to be there next week, next month, next year, so they can continue playing those games.

They want to keep playing those games because they’re competing, and they want to get better scores. But the other side to it is Funlab is a uniquely built environment that is super-inclusive to all ages.

When you look at our revenue splits, day into night, they’re very smooth. What I did see when visiting the U.S. was there were some fantastic entertainment brands, but they were either appealing and positioning themselves to the kids and family market, or to the adults, the millennial market and so forth.

You’re  creating environments where people are coming back, but they’re not coming back with the same group. You might go there for a work event. But then you’ll be there and go, “Oh my god, this is so perfect for my friend’s upcoming birthday party, I’m going to book it; we’ll all come here for the birthday.” And, then, at the birthday, somebody will be there saying, “Oh my god, this is perfect for, you know, the upcoming date night.” And so it rolls.

So you’re in Denver, San Francisco, Houston, Austin. What is the plan going forward?

We started with the South/Southwest because we’re based in in Australia. So that was the initial way of entering the market

But we have the ability, and we’ve proven that in Australia, to be able to open up to 10 or 12 locations per year. So, really, a big part of my role is working with the heads of property in the U.S. to build a really strong pipeline. We’ve done some due diligence and some research around how many locations we could legitimately have in the U.S. across the entire country, and it’s in the hundreds.

So our journey has just begun. But, as I said, we do have the ability to open up, like we have in Australia, up to around 10 locations a year. And we opened up these four, and we are aggressively in negotiation with three or four new properties at the moment. We’re trying to build a 10-location pipeline.

When are you coming to New York?
I’m not gonna lie to you. I mean, if I can move to New York, that would be really fabulous. I love New York. New York is definitely on everyone’s radar. I think we’ll probably put some more flags in the South/Southwest first and around California. We’ve got a few more locations we’d like to do in Texas. And then we’ll start to head over to the East Coast.

We do indoor entertainment. So cooler weather obviously plays into driving revenue and demand. So, East Coast makes a lot of sense for us as well. The locations like Boston to New York are all great, fantastic opportunities. Chicago, we’ll get to. But New York is super exciting for us. Not just because a lot of us are passionate about that city, and the density, but the lack of competitive socializing locations and brands there. There’s a huge opportunity for us to get to New York and do unbelievably well.

So I hear how much you guys love New York, but I don’t hear when. 2024? ’25? End of the decade?

It’s probably a 2025 thing. Being genuinely honest, it’s more 2025. 2024 for us is to look at some more locations that we’re looking to lock down in Texas and California. Then 2025 for us is really getting to those key cities on the East Coast.

I don’t know what it’s like in Australia, but in the U.S. there’s a lot of talk about experiential retail, and that retail landlords are especially looking for the kind of retail that gives people experiences that they can’t get out of e-commerce. So I’m wondering what you guys are learning about that?
Yeah, I think experiential retail is real. I’m really passionate about this.

There are two reasons. I think retail for a long time didn’t have to innovate, didn’t have to evolve and create really unique immersive spaces where consumers not only get even more attached to brands, but also have really unique experiences whilst they’re shopping.

For me, I get really passionate about where that needs to go. So, I think it’s real, and does need to stay because it’s two things, right? You know, we’re post-pandemic, but not even that — just online shopping is getting easier and smarter with technology like AI, the predictability of what I’m going to need. It is going to become even better at addressing what we want, at our fingertips. So creating experiences in retail is required. I think it’s here to stay; it’s very real.

From our perspective, it is different because you can’t stream us. You can’t stream a social entertainment venue, and the experiences you have within that. And, as consumers, as humans, in our top three hierarchy of needs, is the sense of belonging, and belonging is about being a part of tribes.

So, when I talked to you earlier about how and why people come to us for a number of occasions, you’re talking about in a family group, in a work team environment, as a date night with mates. And so there is this need, this desire to be together, to belong, and then when you put that into a competitive socializing space, you’re also playing into that natural competitive DNA we have since we were cavemen, right? We used to have to compete for food, to compete to survive.

When you’re putting all of that together, there’s a real need — a desire from landlords and a desire from consumers for our type of entertainment. And what we do is really create unique destination visits. Because, as I said, you can’t do what we do online. You have to get your butt off the couch, and you have to drive to that location, to come and have fun.