Hijingo! Believe in the bingo

There are no shortage of people who are enthusiastic about bingo and believe that as a core product it remains as fundamentally robust and valid with consumers today as it did over hundred years ago. However, there is a divergence of thought as to how the core product should, or could, be packaged and delivered. If the product remains robust can bingo be all things, to all players, all the time in a single venue?

As the leisure landscape has evolved and broadened, bingo venues recognise that food and beverage, and customer service are key to the delivery of bingo, with many more making the jump in mindset to viewing bingo clubs as leisure venues for delivery of entertainment. Operators with volume venues and larger estates are evolving and investing in their businesses and venues: Mecca just launched their latest iteration of Clubingo in Luton, reported on in our previous issue, but there are also newer, smaller licensed operators coming firmly from the entertainment sector who are shaking things up, and not just the bingo balls.

While many licensed operators have their historic roots in a time when bingo was ‘the’ dominant female led leisure activity, in a landscape that had fewer options than today, and bingo was, well, bingo, a new breed of operator is coming through from the entertainment sector. While bingo remains the driving force and permanent headline of their venues, in their offer it is just part of the mix, as the newer recruits to bingo want something broader, more experiential and more engaging, with food and beverage part of the offer. They want a show. Whether that should be a show more akin to a variety show, or one which is all about the drama of the game, there is no clear view, but both formats believe in the bingo and are not only finding their audience but success too.

Always eager to explore anything connected to bingo, Bingo Connect decided to experience one such venue and show, where bingo drama is served alongside a menu of Asian inspired street food and cocktails. We set off in search of Hijingo, bingo of the future, a ‘multi-sensory live entertainment experience, with epic prizes up for grabs every single day’.

Familiar with a wide range of bingo, from the educational to the competitive, via drag and prize bingo, we were not sure what to expect from bingo of the future. Located in London’s Shoreditch, the same area as other relative newcomer Dabbers, it made sense that these cutting-edge bingo venues be located in a city’s entertainment zone.

First surprise? We would need to book and probably at least a week in advance for a session on a Thursday, Friday or Saturday with a start time between 6pm and 8.30pm: not something that had ever been required for any visit any of us made to a bingo club, whether it was for earlies, main, lates or any party flyer in between! Could they really be that full?

We committed to a Friday night for a 20.00 start time, deciding to go all in and take up the option to play two games, rather than one, and to pre-order food, which would be served at our table. Booking was easy, online and all confirmed via email. It was suggested that we arrive thirty minutes early and have a drink in the ‘Lucky Cat Bar’ before starting. Not fans of bar queues or speed drinking, we agreed to arrive a good forty-five minutes before our allotted time, to take it all.

Hijingo is an intriguing venue. Located at street level in a modern building, with neon signs in the blacked out windows boldly proclaiming HIJINGO, surrounded by neon numbers. The sign above the door has been designed in an Asian influenced style, displaying the syllables of the name vertically: HI, JIN, GO. At a quick glance you could easily mistake it for an Asian restaurant, as the reception desk, cloak check and bar can easily be seen through the windows. But you would be wrong.

The vibe from the moment you enter is definitely future cities, and very much Asian future cities, though nothing specific – a little like the film The Fifth Element. While we were not checking in for a flight to Fhloston Paradise, the spaceship that cruises above the oceans of the fictional planet in the film, the experience was to be out of this world.

Arriving early, the check-in was efficient and the décor very Instagram-able, with neon lighting and signs glowing like a funky back alley in late night Tokyo or Seoul.

The fact that there were only two other people in the bar did make the pre-booking requirement seem a little unnecessary. Wrong. Within fifteen minutes the bar was packed, mostly mixed groups of four or more, in their early 20s, with very few groups of single gender. They were up for fun and ready for a great night. The opportunity to pre-meet before the main event certainly added to the build-up as well as being a good management tool, and allowed players to leave the world outside, engage with friends and focus on the experience and venue.

Right on time hosts approached small groups of people in the bar to invite them through to the main room. Leading us down a dimly lit corridor, we were not quite prepared for the great reveal of the main room, which was already in full swing: it was exciting, there was clearly something happening here. Players were shown to pre-booked seats, joining people who had arrived earlier and already played a game. The booking system and option for one or two games now made sense in terms of churn and duration of an individual’s visit based on how many games they were playing and the time they were joining and leaving.

Seated at carefully designed tables that provided an upper ledge for food and drinks, while also housing a light to directly illuminate your ticket was perfect – especially for those of an age where better lighting is needed for tasks at close quarters – without damaging the atmosphere of the room. We were ready to play!

Random flashing lights, occasional bursts from the smoke machine, banging beats, a small main stage, two robot-like performance assistants (Hijingo Bots) and all carefully navigated by staff who checked that your glass was full, that your food had been ordered, and crucially that you had your tickets ready. It was organised chaos. It was an event, a happening, and our games hadn’t even started yet!

There was no main stage caller, instead we had a virtual master compère booming announcements and then calling the numbers. While the pace of play may put many hard-core bingo players into a trance, there were multiple number boards around the room in case you missed a call and it was the player’s responsibility to stop the game. We played for one line, two line, pattern and full-house, but what followed each claim was pure theatre: there was a false claim or two, which was cheered, rather than boo’ed by players, as they were excited to still be in with a chance to win.

Traditional bingo players may find the prizes on offer less ‘epic’ than claimed, but Hijingo players were mad for them: this was about participation and the win. Hijingo branded merchandise (that included flip flops/sliders and sweatshirts), LED enhanced umbrellas and free return visits were all greeted with the same enthusiasm as the top prize, a weekend break for two to Paris. The theatre? How you won or lost your prize, all on stage in front of the audience. There are no anonymous winners here.

Every winner, regardless of prize was invited up on stage and escorted there by one of the human robots, who never spoke, but were there to facilitate proceedings and engage with players. There was cheering and clapping, then each winner had to decide on stage, with audience encouragement, whether to stick or twist. This was usually orchestrated through a simple hi/low, or the more dramatic choice of boxes. Either way the crowd entered into the spirit of it with great enthusiasm.

There was no top prize winner during out visit but no one seemed to mind and, based on audience reaction, I don’t think it would have made any difference to how most people felt when the session came to a close, other than to the individual winner. It was the taking part and shared experience that made it great.

Our pre-ordered food arrived during play, with minimal interruption and ordering top ups for drinks was easy. The food and beverage offer mirrors Hijingo’s ‘Asian cities of the future’ vibe and was a big hit with our group and for those who like something more traditional, there was a burger on offer. For big bingo fans in the group the opportunity to play was great, but could have been a little faster to increase the excitement, and for those less enamoured of bingo the choice of Asian inspired cocktails and food would be enough to encourage them back for another game with friends. As our session came to an end and it was time to leave, just before 10pm, the venue was packed with fun seeking revellers, very few of whom were above the age of 30. Could we imagine them swopping places or venues with traditional bingo players? No. Had we enjoyed the experience? Yes. Would we come back? Yes.

Hijingo is a licensed bingo venue also offering food, so in principle no different to a traditional bingo club. If you view many traditional bingo clubs, as bingo with a side of food, then Hijingo is food with a side of bingo. There is a clear demand for both, but from quite different audiences, both of which have an increasing expectation of the standard of F&B, some of whom – at some as yet indeterminate point in their future – may cross over, as younger players who discover their love of bingo through experiences like Hijingo move through a consumer cycle.
Believe in the bingo: it’s suitable for audiences of all ages.

A Vision Of The Future
If Hijingo is bingo of the future, who then is the soothsayer so clearly calling bingo’s future numbers? That would be one James Gordon, co-founder and co-owner of Hijingo.

A man who hails from the entertainment world, both events and broadcast television, James has worked in the USA (Kids Do The Darndest Things, Wife Swop USA), the UK (Big Brother, E4 and MTV) and China on numerous local studio shows, where, as in many Asian countries, audience and average Jo participation is key to being a hit with audiences.

Growing up between Islington, France and Sussex, James’ initial area of professional study and endeavour was Zoology: not the most obvious route into the entertainment industry, but what led him to work on making nature programs with production company Endemol in Bristol.

His relationship with Endemol flourished, as he discovered his natural talent for entertainment – not as a performer, but as a producer. We asked James about his bingo roots, Hijingo and the future of bingo.

“At the time I was at Endemol people wanted short clips from TV shows, as it was the beginning for the internet, so clips needed to be instantly engaging. As part of my work I moved to New York, which is strangely where I got introduced to bingo. A friend took me to the now legendary and sadly no more, Mo Pitkins, Monday Night Bingo. Located down town on Avenue A it was full of such diverse and larger than life characters and very social, but when the numbers were called for bingo, it all got very focused. I could not believe how the game just got everyone focused and how there was so much fun around the game: it just hit me how fun, sociable, and engaging it was and the community that grew up around it.”

With no previous experience or family connection to bingo, it was all quite a revelation for James, who started to explore bingo further, “I have played in numerous clubs and hosted people at bingo clubs, to show how fast the game can be.“

“My first foray with bingo was Rebel Bingo, a touring event, that provided great experience for me in getting a deeper understanding of the type of bingo I wanted to offer. I had been planning ‘my bingo’, now Hijingo, for over fifteen years, as the regulatory barriers are not small and I needed to ensure funding to make sure it was right.”

“During that time I played in plenty of commercial clubs and for me they are my commercial model; giving community a place to be and creating a community, through the opportunity to share an activity, with friends. This is my model for Hijingo, which in my eyes is an evolved bingo club, rather than a moment in time, or fashion.”

What was the catalyst for realising Hijingo and how did you settle on the design and location for the first venue?
“It all came together when I met Adam Breeden, who has had success reinvigorating pastimes like bowling and ping pong, who is also a co-founder of Hijingo. I have done lots of pop-up bingo events in bingo clubs and other venues, which did not allow us to control the offer. We knew that a custom venue would let us manage the full experience, which was fundamental.

“Location wise we needed to be in a city where there was an appropriate sized leisure market, and having travelled with Rebel Bingo we were open to possibilities. The key restraint was finding premises that were large enough and well located. As I grew up in Shoreditch when the agents found the space it was easy for me to see immediately how it would work for us.

“The club was been designed to be photo ready, playing to social media, so is almost a big television studio. As well as wanting the venue to be ‘camera ready’ we also wanted it to be futuristic, a little bit sci-fi, and it just seems that any city of the future has a cultural link to the Asian tech cities.”

It is never easy launching a new business, particularly one that offers something different, who did you believe were your audience and how did you find them?
“The audience for Rebel Bingo skewed towards female, and I felt that Hijingo would be the same: females, aged 20-30, playing in groups, both as friends and event-based attendance.

“Rather than defining and targeting we went for a more organic approach and with a big kick off, before we opened. We invited a number of key social media influencers down – unpaid, and others approached us. The environment was so original, they were totally up for it.

“I had already established quite a following on my personal social media accounts and a wide range of bingo/entertainment related contacts, so tapped straight into those. Lots of exposure through social media prior to opening really created a buzz for the venue, building up the following and customer database.”

Has Hijingo proved to be a success, how do you see yourself in comparison to competitors in the sector and online/mobile bingo?
“Hijingo has a capacity at any one time of only 200, but due to the model of game play and customer booking we are churning 1,200 admissions a day at timed sessions. This is a great level of attendance, which peaks towards the weekends, during which time we average 90-100% capacity, with attendance booked out weeks in advance. This is seeing us achieve around 3,500 covers a week, which is great performance.

“In terms of competitors, whether that be local (Dabbers) or nationally (Clubingo) and regular bingo clubs, I think that each is offering something slightly different. Some rely on additional games, and/or additional entertainment, others bringing in character hosts, some bring in celebs. Hijingo is just about the bingo – we don’t offer anything else, you can believe in bingo. We purposefully keep the pace slower at Hijingo to allow new players to relax into it and learn how to play. But we want to keep the excitement and hope to shortly be able to offer players the chance to play the National Bingo Game.

“All our players have mobile devices, but are out in a venue. That tells you a lot. Right now I think that online bingo is actually more traditional and transaction and data led than club bingo! I believe it has a bright future but needs to adjust to the fun world of entertainment – maybe that’s just my view, but watch this space.

Having conquered Shoreditch, what next for Hijingo and bingo?
“I want to be the number one bingo brand in the UK, so Buzz and Mecca look out! It’s ironic that the future of bingo is in many ways its past, though with more sophisticated venues and better F&B – it’s bingo as entertainment. Exactly how it started.

“There is little wrong with the product and no shortage of people who for whatever reason enjoy the process of marking off numbers and lots of research to explain why and how it benefits players, but they all want entertainment and they all want bingo. Just not in the same place at the same time, nor at the same speed.

“If people have not been to bingo they probably know someone who has or have seen it on social media pages, whether that is licensed or bingos bingo or some such.

“The fact is almost everyone in the UK has an awareness of bingo: there is a big cultural legacy attached to it and people have been waiting for a Hijingo type experience that resonates with current and future time. The fact that we get lots of return customers, who then bring their friends confirms this.

“As we have just completed a round of fundraising that will allow us to expand, there are lots of exciting plans, but it’s too soon to share. Certainly the response and audience in Shoreditch have shown the strong appetite that exists for bingo entertainment as a leisure activity.”

Finally, do you play?
Yes, but only casually. It’s a participation sport!
Nothing infuriates me more, than people who talk about bingo and the experience, when they are not in the game!

For further details visit www.hijingo.com