September 10, 2021
This growing concept combines bumper cars with hockey, lacrosse and basketball for something truly unique
Words: Lalla Merlin
WhirlyBall is a compelling LBE phenomenon. Invented in the 1960s in Utah by Stan Magnum, who owned an automotive shop, the game was then brought to Chicagoland by its owner, Sam Elias, 30 years ago.
Elias kept the WhirlyBall game at the heart of his first-of-a-kind “eatertainment” concept where food, beverage, bowling and laser tag were added. The concept had its beginnings in Lombard, Illinois in 1993. Three years later WhirlyBall opened a second location near downtown Chicago; eight years after that, WhirlyBall opened a third location in Vernon Hills, IL.
Its first out of state location opened in Colorado in 2017. It now has five locations across Chicago, Colorado and Wisconsin. With the rise of retailtainment, as WhirlyBall continues to expand nationwide, its popularity is growing faster than ever.
The concept, which has tapped into the zeitgeist, features a mix of bumper cars, lacrosse, hockey and basketball in one game. As the company plans its expansion nationally, the possibility of retrofitting empty mall spaces is also being explored.
Adam Elias, WhirlyBall Vice President of Strategic Planning, spoke to blooloop about defining the brand’s identity, elevating the food and beverage programme, and spearheading the effort to expand WhirlyBall nationally.
“WhirlyBall is my family’s business,” he says. “My Dad, Sam Elias started it nearly 30 years ago. So, it is something that I’ve been around most of my life. For us, WhirlyBall started in January of ’93 in Lombard, Illinois. This was when my father moved from Florida to Chicago to bring the people what they needed: 4,000 square feet to bump cars and slam dunk.
“About eight years ago, almost to the day, I started what could have been a short-term experience with WhirlyBall. But it turned into a full-fledged career. There is something really special to be said for creating an experience for people who then walk away with a memory that they respond to years after. That has always resonated with me, and kept me going through the years.”
WhirlyBall is played using a distinctive bumper car-type vehicle.
“The bumper car itself was featured previously in the Walt Disney parade; it was a gas-powered bumper car at that time. That was one of the first,” he explains.
“The bumper card itself is not really a bumper car in the traditional sense. We call it a whirlybug; it can go forward, backwards, sideways, and in any direction. So, it is much more agile than your traditional carnival bumper car. At the time, the manufacturer was creating this game that was played indoors with a gas-powered bumper car or a whirlybug. There are a lot of fumes when you have a gas-powered vehicle inside. Therefore, switching to electric at this point made sense.”
The game was as yet unrefined:
“At the time, they were passing the ball with their hand, pushing it or throwing it from person to person. That was a little bit more dangerous! Over time they moved to the scoops and Wiffle balls that are used today.”
A Whirlyball team consists of five players. Each player rides a Whirlybug and carries a scoop. This is used to pass the Wiffle ball to teammates and to shoot at the goal, a circular target above the two opposite ends of the court. A score in Whirlyball is called a ‘Whirlic’.
“We have taken our concept, and have three locations in the Chicago land area. There is one in the city of Chicago, one in the Western suburbs, one in the Northern suburbs. Then there is one out in Milwaukee, Wisconsin, and one in Colorado Springs, Colorado. From this point, we plan to continue to grow and expand our concepts, and to continue to evolve.”
WhirlyBall is a company-owned model and will continue to be so as it evolves, initially nationally and, in the longer term, internationally.
The concept has developed significantly since its inception, Elias says:
“When we opened our first location in Lombard, Illinois, we started with two WhirlyBall courts, a concession stand, some pool tables, and tables and chairs; it was very simple. The concession stand served Funyuns, Snickers, popcorn, pizzas on request, beer, wine and soft drinks. As time has gone on, we have listened to our guests. We have observed the market, so we understand what needs to happen for our growth.”
“We’ve added on more entertainment. This includes laser tag, bowling, ping-pong, and other large table games that can be set up courtside or laneside. In addition to that, we’ve elevated our food and beverage program to a full-fledged chef-driven menu with classic takes on American fare. We have paired that with our expansive rotating craft beer programme, and refreshing cocktails.”
WhirlyBall offers a full-service restaurant and bar concept, The Pivot Room, which complements the game’s energetic atmosphere. The menu, created by seasoned chef Larry Donahue, features inventive dishes including shareable snacks, handheld sandwiches and burgers, creative salads, larger format entrees and tasty sides.
The Pivot Room’s beverage program features a selection of over 24 rotating draught beers. It has an emphasis on local and regional breweries, including Goose Island and Revolution Brewing. Plus there are also other Midwest staples like Bell’s Brewery and Founders Brewing Co.
The game of Whirlyball blends bumper cars with elements of lacrosse, hockey and basketball, and requires little or no prior athletic ability. Booze is then added to the mix.
“It is the most fun you can have going at four miles an hour,” Elias says. “When people are driving, you very rarely see people not smiling. They’re usually laughing and having a very good day.”
In terms of safety:
“WhirlyBall is one of those unique areas where you are going slow, a referee is observing your game and making sure everyone’s playing safe, wearing their seatbelts, and that you understand what’s going on. At the same time, usually, you’ll be renting the court with, say 30 friends for an hour.
“Games usually last for ten minutes. So, you will play a game, then hop off the court and have something to eat or drink while a couple of your friends will go out and have some fun, and then you’ll get back into the game after. It’s a nice, fun activity for all types of different group events, corporate training outings, icebreakers rehearsal dinners. It’s a way to get a group of people together and have fun. It does level the playing field, and it keeps everybody having fun together.”
The game attracts a broad demographic, he explains:
“I would say the core audience is between the ages of about 25 to 45. But our corporate business is super important as well. Then we do birthdays from kids of eight or so up to people in their 60s, as well as anniversary parties, and everything in between – adult birthday parties, bachelor parties, things of that sort. Our bread and butter, though, is very much corporate outings and teams coming together. Especially now that everybody’s starting to do that once again.”
WhirlyBall’s success in the LBE sector can be explained, Elias contends, in one word:
“That word is WhirlyBall. No one else offers it. People will come from all over to play. And the memory that they walk away with ensures they keep coming back. We hear ‘Oh my gosh, that was so much fun, and I can’t wait to play again. It was such a blast’ again and again. If someone’s explaining WhirlyBall to a friend who hasn’t encountered it yet, their eyes light up and they have a big smile on their face. They’re very excited to talk about this game.”
No one else offers it. People will come from all over to play. And the memory that they walk away with ensures they keep coming back
“Coupling it with everything else I’ve talked about, the answer to our success is – WhirlyBall.”
Although the business model is around indoor entertainment venues, Whirlyball contrived to weather the COVID storm.
“We were impacted, just like everyone else in the sector, and just like anything tying in with the public was impacted,” says Elias.
“We found it was important, though, throughout, to be smart and strategic, and to take our time during the downtime. Most importantly, we focused on how to reopen properly. Although we may have been closed for several months, it was important to our guests that we reopened the same way that they remembered us before we closed our doors due to the mandates of the pandemic.
Safety was clearly paramount, but beyond that, he says:
“It was important also to make sure that our team was trained and ready to welcome the guests back with open arms, so they could relive their WhirlyBall experiences.”
Adaptation, change and evolution are key:
“In order to stay relevant, it is essential to be constantly evolving and adapting. As an example, through 2020 and 2021 we were continuously adjusting, pivoting and evolving our concept. We wanted to find new ways to improve our guest experience. This involved both adjusting to the parameters that were mandated, and finding new and innovative ways to elevate our service experience, our F&B offering and our overall guest interaction. Those are things that are always at the forefront, for us.”
The game requires an idiosyncratic space with specific elements, Elias explains:
“The important piece to focus on is the interior designer, Studiokcreative. I have worked closely with its principal, Karen Herold, for a very long time at this point. She and her team did an exceptional job of helping us understand our entertainment concepts, and in creating design elements that complement the space.
“We’ve created areas for groups to gather. But we have done it in a warm and inviting way that helps capture a larger, more sophisticated crowd, who may have gone somewhere else at a previous time. Now, however, our space looks like what it is. It is a premier place to host their weddings, corporate outings, kids’ birthday parties, large fundraisers and events of that sort.”
A nod to the ‘heydays’ of the 1980s, the design incorporates hints of nostalgia, embracing WhirlyBall’s retro nature, along with modern touches like open wood ceilings, exposed brick walls and patterned concrete floors.
In addition to indoor activities, WhirlyBall offers large outdoor terraces on the second floor. Plus, there are also spacious private and semi-private event spaces to accommodate groups of any size.
Concerning expansion, Elias and his team are currently occupied in identifying markets in the United States:
“That makes sense for our brand, as we look to expand nationally,” he says. “Right now we’re focused on getting everything to a good place with the existing locations. And we’re starting to take a look at what market makes sense to extend into.”
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