In an amusing—and sometimes surprising—twist on old television game shows, trivia nights are gaining steam in bars and restaurants across the country. They have often shown themselves to be winning promotions for bars and restaurants, in terms of boosting sales and attracting new customers.
“Trivia Nights have ramped up our business on Tuesdays,” reports Colin Laverty, owner of the Pour House, a neighborhood sports tavern in Washington, D.C. Many trivia game nights in bars and restaurants take their cue from the question and answer format of “Trivial Pursuit,” the board game that gained huge popularity in the 1980s and spawned a number of TV game shows, such as Jeopardy. However, bar trivia game nights also harken back to an older British pub tradition.
Whatever the origins, trivia nights have been ramping up in major cities across the country. Part of the answer to game nights’ growing popularity is a reaction to the isolating effect of modern methods of communication, according to some operators. TV, cell phones and social media don’t bring people together face-to-face like an old-fashioned quiz night in a neighborhood pub.
“It’s a change from watching TV and surfing the web; people want to get out of the house,” posits Matt Motyka, the self-styled “Trivia Jerk” who has been conducting game nights for the past two years at Finley Dunne’s Tavern, a neighborhood bar in Chicago. Motyka emphasizes the format’s social appeal. “People gather with friends, debate the questions and get to use their brain power.”
No Question About It
There’s also another driving factor to this trivia trend that’s far from trivial: operator economics—it’s a great way to boost business on slow nights.
“Right now, when weekend business may be down, bar owners are looking to make up revenue on other nights,” says H. Joseph Ehrmann, owner of Elixir, a single-location cocktail bar in San Francisco, commenting on why trivia nights are popular these days. Part of Ehrmann’s original business plan since opening in 2003, the Elixir Quiz has been a regular feature of Tuesday nights. “Trivia games are a solid marketing program for off-nights.”
The appeal of these themed evenings isn’t limited to single-unit locations. It’s a midweek promotional format that has worked successfully for large chains as well, mostly implemented on an individual location-by-location basis.
“Trivia nights are a good, affordable in-restaurant promotion,” says Mike McNeil, vice president of marketing for Atlanta-based Hooters of America, Inc. There is no chain-wide mandate; running a program is at the discretion of managers, but McNeil estimates that about half of the casual-dining chain’s 455 units run some sort of weekly trivia game night. “It’s a way to build capacity on a weaker night,” he notes.
Quiz nights have the ability to do more than just fill a bar with regulars. The wide appeal of the question and answer formats can draw a different customer base than the usual bar crowd. The game has a huge following among both young and old, as evidenced by websites like pub-quiz.com, which alerts aficionados to hundreds of trivia events arranged by locale and day of the week.
“Trivia Nights get people in who otherwise might not visit the Pour House,” affirms Laverty. “There are customers who just come in for the Elixir Quiz nights,” confirms Ehrmann.
Finley Dunne’s regular age demographic is late-20s to early-40s, according to proprietor Joe Kenny, but the trivia nights attract a different clientele. “It’s brought in students and older customers as well. Trivia players are an eclectic group,” he notes.
“There are people that just come in on those nights to play trivia,” points out McNeil at Hooters. And, he adds, even customers who weren’t aware of trivia night but just happen upon it find it hard to leave until the game is over. “So the game might extend a customer’s stay.” It may also up their ultimate food and drink spending at the end of the evening.
“New people show up every week along with the trivia regulars who won’t miss it,” says Nichole Mayorga, bartender at the sports-oriented Jimmy’s Old Town Tavern, in Herndon, Va., which has hosted a trivia night every Tuesday for 13 years. Not only locals attend, says Mayorga, the trivia events draw customers from nearby towns as well. “And teams bring their own cheerleading sections, which adds to the crowd.”
Not only that, but when properly set up, quiz nights are virtually guaranteed to bring those trivia geeks back in on other nights, which is never a bad proposition.
Getting the Word Out and the Real Prize
Remarkably, operators say very little promotion is required for pub quiz nights. Posters and other P.O.S. can easily publicize in-house trivia nights. Restaurant websites and Facebook fan sites often devote a separate, full page to quiz nights. For Elixir, Calanni emails trivia regulars a weekly teaser previewing some of the possible topics.
Many operators also offer “Happy Hour-style promotions” on drinks or food during pub quizzes. D.C.’s Pour House, for example, promotes buckets of Heineken, Heineken Light, Amstel, Amstel Light, Dos Equis or Sol beer for a discounted $15. During the Elixir Quiz, gamesters can get $2 off a pint of Fuller’s London Pride Ale.
Besides discounting buckets of Budweiser for $15 during trivia nights, Finley Dunne’s offers an early bird special of half-priced sandwiches. Players who come early can sign up for teams, secure a table and enjoy a snack before the game.
Prizes for contest winners vary. Some operators just offer swag like logoed T shirts or ball caps provided by suppliers. Most commonly, prizes are in the form of gift certificates redeemable at the establishment. Jimmy’s, for example, awards a first prize of a $25 gift certificate, with $10 for second place and $5 for third.
The prizes for Hooters’ trivia nights are at the unit managers’ discretion. They vary from gift cards good on next visit to appetizers and other food items, says McNeil. In states where it’s legal, vendors may supply units with beach towels, coolers or other merchandise as prizes.
The three top teams at the Elixir Quiz night win gift certificates of $30, $20 and $10, respectively. Ehrmann figures he pulls in an average of $800 on a quiz night, after investing $200, including the prize money.
But prizes are awarded with the caveat that they can’t spend the gift certificates that evening. The gimmick, says Ehrmann, “brings them back the next night or on a weekend, often with more friends.” In essence, the prizes prime the pump for more repeat business.
There is a cost involved to running trivia nights, concedes Kenny. “The payback is the exposure, getting new guests in the establishment and having them to come back on another night.”