Pop-up Events for Bars and Venues: Interview with Mark Kwiatkowski from ‘Barcade’ Replay Lincoln Park
In this episode we talk to Mark Kwiatkowski who has owned and managed bars and venues for the past 25 years. Mark owns Replay Lincoln Park, a ‘barcade’ venue in Chicago that’s both a bar and arcade. Mark has a lot of experience working in hospitality and has great advice for venue and event managers.
Mark has had a lot of success running themed pop-up event promotions as part of the promotional strategy for Replay Lincoln Park. The venue gets converted with a new themed experience, such as their recent Game of Thrones experience. This pop-up ran for a few months and was highly successful, receiving significant media attention.
The pop-up events at Replay often promote themselves, gaining national media coverage that includes TV and radio spots, features on Thrillist.com, Travelandleasure.com, Lonlelyplannet.com and newspaper features.
- Pop-up strategies for a permanent venue
- Creating and running a short term themed event
- Broadening your market reach through themes that appeal to various audiences
- Running pop-ups in conjunction with ongoing weekly events
- Bringing a theme to life with a creative team
- Benefits of ticketing a pop-up event (for the venue and customers)
- Investing in a unique experience that attracts media interest
- What you must remember when running a hospitality event
Mark Kwiatkowski has extensive experience in hospitality, as an owner and manager of bars and venues for the past 25 years. Mark owns Replay Lincoln Park, a 'barcade' venue in Chicago that is both a bar and arcade. Mark has had great success running themed pop-up events as part of the venue's ongoing promotional strategy.
Lisa: Welcome to Ticketbud Tidbits. I’m your host Lisa Carson and today we’re joined by Mark Kwiatkowski. Who has owned and managed bars and venues for the past 25 years. Mark has been very successful running themed pop-up event promotions as part of the promotional strategy of a permanent venue.
Mark owns Replay Lincoln Park, a ‘barcade’ entertainment space in Chicago that’s both a bar and arcade venue. A key part of the venue strategy has been themed pop-up events. Where the entire space gets converted with a new theme for a period of time. Their recent theme was the very epic Game of Thrones, which was really successful.
Mark talks to us about this pop-up strategy, what goes into creating and running a short term themed event, and how it’s scheduled and promoted in conjunction with regular weekly events.
Mark has a lot of experience working in hospitality and has some great advice for venue and event managers. So I hope you enjoy the podcast.
Lisa: Welcome to the podcast, Mark. Can you start by sharing a bit about your background with our listeners?
Mark: Hi! Thanks for having me. For my background, I’ve been in the hospitality business for 25 years or so, as an owner/operator of various bars, nightclubs and restaurants. And currently, Replay Lincoln Park, I’ve been at that location since the year 2000, and have been running an arcade bar there since 2012.
Lisa: Replay Lincoln Park is in Chicago, and it’s like an entertainment venue. Can you tell us a little bit about it?
Mark: Sure. Replay Lincoln Park, 9,000 square feet, 65 to 70 vintage arcade games, pinball machines, skee-ball machines, air hockey, bubble hockey. They’re all on free play, so they’re free to play.
We specialize in craft beer, trying to embrace as much of the local craft beer here in Chicago. And then, we have specialty cocktails. Premium drinks abound!
Mark: I saw that you guys sort of promote as like a barcade. It’s like half bar, half arcade. Come in, and you’ve got the best of both worlds.
Lisa: Yeah, yeah. It’s a bar and arcade. It’s the perfect place to put your smart phone down and play some games, and engage with your friends. We play great music, DJs Thursday, Friday and Saturday nights, and regular events weekly.
Then, we do these amazing immersive pop-up events.
Lisa: Awesome! I’m definitely going to ask more about that. People can book parties in your space, but are people generally coming in groups, or is it mixed? What sort of audiences are you attracting, and what’s your target market?
Mark: It’s definitely a mixed crowd. We certainly get larger groups; birthday parties, especially. When you were a kid, you wanted to have it at an arcade or a bowling alley or whatnot. So now that’ you’re 21 – we are 21 and up – people really enjoy reliving their youth, and having a great party in an arcade setting.
Lisa: I think it sounds like fun. I’d be all over it! You mentioned that you run themed experiences at your venue. What are some of the different themes you’ve done.
Mark: Moe’s Tavern – the Simpsons’ Moe’s Tavern. Shortly thereafter, we did Rick and Morty, Blips and Chips A Space Arcade, we called that one. Then, we did Paddy’s Pub for St. Patrick’s Day – Paddy’s Pub from Always Sunny in Philadelphia.
May the Fourth be With You, and Wretched Hive Cantina. Then, we did Pokémon. Pokémon Go has a big festival here in Chicago every year, so we timed it with that. We did Pokémon Go. “You’ve got to drink ‘em all,” was the theme of that one.
Then, we kicked off The Office party. It starred Dunder Mifflin, from The Office. That one ran for six weeks. That was one of our longer running ones.
Preparing for Halloween, we did two separate pop-up events in the back room; South Park, Satan’s Sweet 16. Then, in the main room, we did Buffy The Vampire Slayer. Then, a Friends pop-up; so, the Central Perk, Rachel and Monica’s apartment, we did Joey and Chandler’s apartment. The Central Perk was the main bar area. Then, obviously, we had the iconic couch, great photo ops for that one.
A couple actually got married in our bar which was kind of cool.
We took the month of January off, during the polar vortex here in Chicago, and prepared for our grandest, most immersive pop-up, the Game of Thrones pop-up that we kicked off February 1st. That one lasted over three months. It was just wild, how well-received that one was. It just kept going and going. We kept extending it. There was so much pent-up demand for that one. That was amazing.
We had already planned the next one’s kicking off early May, and that was the Fyre Festival. That was based on the failed Bahamian festival, run by Ja Rule and Billy McFarland. So, we did that. That just ended last week.
Lisa: Nice! So, you’ve done quite a lot. I think I’m definitely going to have to get some photos from some of these events, that we can put online and share. Because I think it would be great for people to see some of what you’ve done.
How do you choose the themes? Is there a criteria you look for, that you think is appealing to your particular market?
Mark: A lot of it is we do polls on Facebook, asking people for suggestions. Then, maybe we’ll tabulate four selections, and let people vote on it. There’s no exact science.
Lisa: You hosted the – I think it was called Bucket List Game of Thrones experience, and there were over 3,000 tickets sold between February and April this year, which is great. Can you tell us about what you did to put this together, and what the experience actually was for the customers? What were they seeing, when they walked in the door?
Mark: We offered the experience to kind of alleviate pressures on people having to wait in line. We knew that a lot of the pop-ups, we ended up having long lines to get in, and we were kicking this thing off right after the polar vortex. February typically is bitter cold in Chicago.
So if people wanted to – we didn’t want to have them be scared to come to this event, and feel like they’d have to wait in line.
Lisa: Which is a very real concern in Chicago, standing outside!
Mark: Yeah. So, for $30, guests got a commemorative t-shirt, a $10 drink token, good for one of the signature Game of Thrones pink cocktails or one of the Ommegang ales that Ommegang brewed specifically for Game of Thrones.
Then, they got express entry, so there was no need to wait in line. They just showed up at the door, bypassed any line, and walked right in. Then, they walked right into a very immersive Game of Thrones experience. Of course, we had the iron throne, we had giant dragons in handmade paper mache and foam.
We decked out all of the different bars. We have four bars in the space. One of them was inspired by King’s Landing, one by Dothraki, one by North of the Wall. And then, the last one was the Wall of Faces, appears in the throne.
Lisa: Yeah, yeah. I know what you mean.
Mark: So, the backdrop of that bar was the Wall of Faces.
Lisa: That sounds awesome! That sounds really good. It was really comprehensive.
This was something people had to book for a specific day, to come and have this experience?
Mark: Yeah. If they wanted to book the Bucket List experience, they chose the date that they wanted to attend, bought their ticket, and then just presented either a printed copy or obviously, the app. And then, we also had a list at the door, just in case somebody forgot both.
Lisa: I’ve seen customer reviews about how they love all of the effort that you’ve put into converting the space, and really getting into the theme, and finding great props, and doing themed drink menus and that sort of thing. Can you tell us a bit about how you bring a theme to life, and where you find everything, and how you go about converting the space?
I know you mentioned to me that you’ve got a pop-up design squad, so maybe you can tell us a bit about that.
Mark: One of our bartenders is a long-time artist, a trained fine art artist. He led the charge for the first pop-up, the Moe’s Tavern, and then formally kind of put together a team. They call themselves “The Pop-up Squad.”
There are six core members, and then a few others that they bring on for some of the more involved pop-ups. Along with that, they create these prints, commemorative prints of the pop-ups, and sell those prints, as well.
Most of the experience is handcrafted. They all have their specialties, whether it’s painting murals or forming dragons. Watching the dragon get created was amazing. It started out as just a bunch of Styrofoam that they glued together, and then shaped into the general shape of one of the dragons. Then, paper mached it, and then painted it beautifully.
This thing was probably 20 feet long. The head itself was the size of the front end of a car. They obviously handcrafted an iron throne for us. That was, again, an amazing transformation. They took an Adirondack chair, a plastic Adirondack chair, and adorned it with Styrofoam and rubber and wood, and all this, and made it look like an exact replica of the iron throne.
I was worried, honestly, that it might not endure all of the photo ops that were going through, to be enjoyed by that. Literally tens of thousands of people sat in that thing, and it made it! We regularly had to touch it up and whatnot, but it was amazing that it lasted.
Actually, it’s traveling right now. A convention in St. Louis wanted to borrow it.
Lisa: The props were that good! I like it! Do you stick to a set budget for each theme, for production and for promotion? Or do you invest more in particular themes? For example, Game of Thrones, if you thought that was going to be really big, “We’re going to go big time on this.” How do you work that out?
Mark: Game of Thrones was definitely the most ambitious, and I knew that was going to be the most expensive. We often don’t transform the entire space. Very often, we do just the back room, which is 3,000 square feet.
This one, we realized that the epicness of the Game of Throne series required us to transform the entire space, so 9,000 square feet. It took a lot of money, a lot of time, two weeks.
Fortunately, or unfortunately, I guess, the build happened during the polar vortex. And by the way, we stay open during these builds. Sometimes, we’ll close down one room or the other, depending on timing and whatnot. But the polar vortex hit us just as we started the build for the Game of Thrones pop-up.
Lisa: Winter was coming big time!
Mark: Yeah, winter was coming. That was perfect timing. We didn’t lose a lot of business, because people laid low during that bitter cold. But the cons were that Amazon literally wasn’t delivering for three or four days, so there were certain things that we needed from Amazon.
Or Home Depot, they were delayed in receiving shipments of, for example, I don’t know – 100 sheets of Styrofoam that we needed to build a lot of the elements for the Game of Thrones pop-up. So, we had to wait on that. It made things a little bit challenging, but we were planning on opening on February 1st, and we made that deadline, just in the nick of time!
Lisa: Nice. How has using pop-up theme events as a promotional strategy impacted your business?
Mark: It’s been wonderful. There have obviously been some misses, but they’re mostly hits. The beauty of it is that I find that we attract different demographics, based on the different pop-ups. Game of Thrones, I think their audience is quite different than the Friends audience, and different than the Simpsons audience, for example.
I think those are three pretty disparate audiences that we are able to expose to what our core competency is, and that’s arcade games. So, we have, again, 65 vintage arcade games and pinball machines. Everyone loves those.
Pretty much everyone enjoys those, or maybe they had never played an arcade cabinet, or hadn’t played one in a long time. They obviously experience it, and will come back to play the games again.
Lisa: So, the theme can pull in people who may not have considered coming into an arcade bar. Then, once they’re in there, they get that experience, and you make ongoing customers from that.
Lisa: Do you use these events in conjunction with other promotions with your venue? I know you run things like Trivia and Bingo and Karaoke. How do the two go together?
Mark: Sometimes, we have to force them together a little bit. Sometimes, it just works out beautifully; serendipitously, almost. For example, Friends featured Karaoke prominently, in several episodes. So, Karaoke was a big hit for Friends, The Office. It did well for Game of Thrones, as well because we did cosplay Karaoke, and I kind of suspected and learned that people that like to dress up and participate in cosplay also like to do Karaoke. They’re theatrical. They like to show off their various skills. So, that was a good combination.
The Psycho Bingo that we do weekly, we call it “Not Your Mama’s Bingo.” It’s very loud and crude. The core game is still the same, Bingo, but for example, if you make a mistake and call “Bingo” incorrectly, you get punished.
There’s a Wheel of Pain, we call it, and they have to spin the wheel. And whatever it lands on, they have to do, whether it’s to drink some nasty shot, or to parade around the room while people throw their Bingo cards at you, or do different silly dances, or whatnot.
It’s hosted by a talented performer that really engages the audience. So, for Bingo, oftentimes the tie-in is just the prizes. The prizes will be a Game of Thrones DVD set or – I mean, obviously, we do t-shirts for all of the different pop-ups. So, t-shirts are some of the prizes.
But we always have a grand prize. The grand prize is typically valued at $200 to $300, so we try to tie that into the pop-up, as best we can.
Then, we obviously do the weekly Trivia, every Thursday. Those are easy tie-ins to the pop-up. For example, for The Office, the demand was so high for Office-themed trivia that we were running Trivia up to five times a week, to accommodate the demand.
Before The Office Trivia, we didn’t do reservations. We just did kind of an informal sign-up. And we over-sold that first one, where literally, we could not let anyone else in the building. People were waiting outside, and we had to tell them “I’m sorry. People are going to be playing Trivia for the next two hours. No one’s going to be leaving, so I’m sorry, I don’t think you’ll be able to get in.”
We then created up to five Trivia nights per week, to accommodate the demand.
Lisa: Why is it valuable to the business, to get people to pre-purchase tickets?
Mark: It was crucial for Game of Thrones, because we knew the demand would be tremendous. We did want to accommodate people, so they knew that they could get in, because we felt like people might be scared off. If they didn’t have that option, that they might show up, and not be able to get in.
People were traveling from all over the country. I don’t know if they were literally traveling just for our pop-up. Maybe they were coming to Chicago anyway, and they wanted to enjoy that. But people were certainly traveling from 100 miles or more away, just for our event. So, we wanted to give them a guarantee that they’d have a great experience, and not get stuck out in the cold. So, that was critical.
And then, the t-shirt aspect, we obviously can’t just get t-shirts made up in a day or two. We have to plan ahead. So, it was great to know that we were expecting 500 t-shirts for the upcoming weekend, so we could order them ahead of time, and make sure that we had them ready and available for the guests.
Lisa: So people could order their size, or something like that.
Mark: Yeah. That, too.
Lisa: What sort of promotion do you do? What channels do you use, to reach different audiences?
Mark: The greatest advertisement is the media. The media just eats these things up. So, almost anytime we announce one of these pop-ups, we are on TV regularly, we’re on the radio. Either they come to us and they do shoots inhouse, or I go to the studio. It just cracks me up.
For example, the Rick and Morty pop-up, French GQ wrote us up. It was just funny, seeing “Wubba Lubba Dub Dub,” and then translation in French, “Wubba Lubba Dub Dub.” I don’t know, it just cracked me up.
But the press is somewhat international, but certainly national, from Travel and Leisure to Forbes to Fast Company to the Philadelphia Enquirer writing up the Always Sunny pop-up, to the New York Post comparing us to a Game of Thrones event that happened in New York City.
It’s just been wonderful.
Lisa: That’s great!
Mark: Yeah. The press has been a tremendous driver of traffic. Word of mouth, obviously. And then Facebook and all of the social media channels are important. I can always get a good gauge of the upcoming success of a pop-up, based on how people are engaged with it on our Facebook page, on our Instagram page, and how many shares and reposts and likes that we get through that. That’s always a good indicator.
Lisa: What advice do you have for other venues, around integrating themes and unique experiences, or short-run promotions?
Mark: I feel like you’ve got to try it. My mom, strangely enough, – it cracks me up a little bit – she asks me “Why do you keep doing these? Why not just keep one that’s going well?” I said “Well, mom, it’s like a movie or a play, or something like that. No one is going to keep going to see the same movie over and over.”
I just feel like it’s pretty obvious that people want new experiences and new things. Instagram is a key thing to consider. You want to create great photo ops, because everybody wants to share where they’re at, their experiences on their social media channel. So, keep that in mind. Create very iconic Instagram-worthy photo opportunities.
That’s a key driver, because then, people are advertising for you. They’re taking pictures with the White Walkers or sitting on the Iron Throne, or on the Friends sofa, or on and on and on. So, that’s key.
Lisa: So, the work going into have those things there and available is going to pay for itself.
Lisa: What is your next themed event? Can you tell us a bit about that?
Mark: Friday, June 21st, we’re kicking off the Salty Spittoon at Bikini Bottom, a SpongeBob SquarePants pop-up. Jeremy, our lead artist, is a big fan. He’s been clamoring for this one for a while. We had to do it when it’s summertime out, basically. Obviously, it is under water.
I mean, it’s not going to be under water, but it’s beachy. People wear Hawaiian shirts. We have sand and palm trees and all of that, so it makes sense for it to feel summery. So, we wanted to do it in the summer, and on the heels of our Fyre Fest pop-up.
It was a no-brainer to do it next, because we already have six tons of sand in the building, and giant 20-foot live palm trees, and a lot of that beach feel, already. So, that’s what we’re kicking off next!
Lisa: Nice! The other thing I was going to ask is, is there any great advice that you’ve been given, or advice that you wish you had known at the start of your career?
Mark: I don’t know if somebody gave me this advice. I don’t think that they gave me this advice, but it’s advice that I’ve learned and realized, that there isn’t a lot of magic to hospitality. There’s a little bit. There’s some magic, I guess.
But the core of it is paying attention to the details, getting those things right, making sure that the venue is comfortable, that the air conditioning works, that the drinks are consistent, that the staff is friendly and accommodating, that the games, in this instance, are all working properly. We spend a lot of time maintaining that.
So really, paying attention to detail. All of the little details are what creates a memorable experience for the guest, and that’s something that sometimes you might lose sight of, when you’re looking at the big picture, whether it’s bringing in the big name DJ, or executing a 9,000 square foot very immersive pop-up.
You still have to pay attention to those details. Otherwise, all of that could be lost. All of that expense and effort that you put out for a big event might just fall on deaf ears, if someone is not greeted nicely at the door, or poured an unbalanced cocktail.
Lisa: That makes sense. Get the cocktails right! Don’t mess that up! Because we’re talking about events, and it’s an events podcast, can you tell us about a great event that you’ve attended, and what you loved about it?
Mark: I’ve attended a lot of great events, but Lollapalooza, they do a great job every year.
Lisa: I haven’t been to that. Yes!
Mark: I love taking the kids and the family to that. I’m often blessed with VIP tickets, through one of my vendors, and that takes the experience to another level. But they do a great job executing that event.
Last year or two years ago, I went to a pretty cool event in Indianapolis, for the Golf Championship. I can’t think of what they call it, but at the end of the season. The World Golf Championship, I think it’s called.
BMW sponsored the big VIP tent, and I was invited to it. It was just from A to Z, just an amazing experience. We met in Chicago, at the BMW dealership. They gave us use of one of their brand new 2018 BMWs, and then we kind of caravanned down to Indianapolis.
Then, just from the hotel, how they greeted us at the hotel and valeted our cars, to the experience. Like we got to park with the players at the golf course. Then, the actual hospitality tent, with just amazing food and drinks and massages and swag that you got to take home. And then, just enjoying the golf. That was a memorable experience.
Those are two recent ones.
Lisa: Nice! That sounds great! Finally, I have to ask you, are you a Game of Thrones fan? And did you like the ending?
Mark: I am a Game of Thrones fan. I didn’t watch after -. I watched the first season. My wife and I watched the first episode, back when it came out ten years ago, or whatever it was. She thought it was too violent. Most of our TV time is together, so other than, honestly, I watch TV alone, and I call it work, when I’m researching pop-ups.
Lisa: You’ve got research that you’ve got to do.
Mark: I tell my wife, when she’s going to bed, and I say “I’ve got to get to work. I’m going downstairs and watching The Office,” which is one of my favorite shows. And she laughs.
So, I tried to catch up on as much of Game of Thrones as I could. When the final season aired, I did watch a few of the episodes. But I actually was kind of lost.
Lisa: You were a little bit behind.
Mark: I still haven’t watched the final episode, but I’ve heard mixed reviews.
Lisa: I binge watched the last two seasons, to try and catch up, so that I could watch the final on time. So, I got there in the end.
Mark: Good. What did you think of the final?
Lisa: I don’t know how they could have done it to make everyone happy, but I wasn’t overly thrilled. I mean, it could have been worse. It wasn’t a depressing ending. It was just “Eh.” It wasn’t particularly exciting. They didn’t kill off my favorite character, so I’m fine.
Mark: Some of the most celebrated shows in TV history, very often end with disappointment. Like Seinfeld was one that I was like “What?”
Lisa: The Sopranos.
Mark: The Sopranos I enjoyed, actually. It left me wanting more. Even though it was over, but you thought “Wait! Did something go wrong? Did my DirectTV go out? What happened, exactly?”
But reflecting on that one, I thought that was a pretty good ending, honestly. I didn’t have an issue with that one. It’s hard to please everybody. That’s for sure.
Lisa: Well, thanks for chatting with me on the podcast today. I really appreciate it.
Mark: You’re welcome. Thank you.
Lisa: If anyone is in Chicago, living in Chicago or visiting the Windy City, be sure to check out Replay at Lincoln Park, which is on North Sheffield Avenue. I’m definitely going to check it out, next time I’m in Chicago. I think that would be great!
Lisa: Thanks for joining us! Until next time, this was Ticketbud Tidbits!
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