Few bars or pubs can afford for business to slow down during the week, but it can be hard to entice guests to come out on a work or school night. Many businesses have found that trivia nights are a reliable way to draw in patrons.
Pub quizzes involve customers facing off in teams. A host emcee asks questions over a series of rounds, normally numbered two to seven, on subjects ranging from current events to pop culture to sports to science to the more arcane.
Most emcees play music between rounds or in the background. Some present the questions with visual, audio or video cues. The teams write down their answers, which are collected by pub or quiz employees who keep track of scores.
Teams that win or place highly receive prizes such as gift certificates to the bar—a source of repeat business—or branded materials. Rivalries form, as teams and players return each week for the fun competition.
“The people who come are from all walks of life,” says Alley Meeker of Big Boy Entertainment, a Connecticut company whose services include trivia nights. Meeker emcees Wednesday pub quizzes at Wood-n-Tap in Wallingford, CT. “Some people come every week and always lose, but they don’t care, because they’re having drinks and meeting new people.”
And that’s good for business. The Harp in Amherst, MA, sometimes sees 10 times the normal number of patrons show up for its Tuesday pub quiz. O’Neill’s Pub & Restaurant in South Norwalk, CT, achieves at least twice its ordinary business during trivia nights.
Putting on a show
Liam McAtasney was among the first trivia night vendors when he founded San Francisco-based Brainstormer in the mid 1990s. What was then a cottage industry has become more common.
Pub-quiz vendors tend to employ numerous part-time “quiz masters” to host their services throughout the country. These people, who tend to be trivia buffs, will emcee the event, taking charge of the technical and organizational aspects; advertising and prizes are usually left to the bars.
“What people don’t realize is that doing good trivia is a ton of work,” says John Dicker, owner of the Denver-based trivia company Geeks Who Drink. “People think that anyone can get questions from the internet. But that’s doing a mediocre job.”
The pub-quiz industry standard is 20 to 25 questions, with a song played between each question, according to Dicker. “Our quiz has 70 questions, with pictures handed out that are professionally produced, and several audio rounds, and sometimes a video round.”
Oliver O’Neill, owner of O’Neill’s, initially attempted to come up with questions himself when starting trivia nights five years ago.
“I was working on the first batch and realized that I was only asking questions relevant to me,” he says. “That’s not fair and balanced, so I went out and found a vendor for a source of questions. It’s been working out really well ever since.”
DIY trivia events
But at The Harp, owner Harpo Power has written all the trivia questions himself for the past 14 years. He also stills emcees his own quiz each Tuesday.
Power comes up with 50 questions each week. Only in the past year has his 20-year-old son started chipping in, providing questions on the subjects of math and technology.
“The first year we used a vendor,” Power says. “But I decided his questions were either too generic or too esoteric. It’s really important for our questions to be tailored toward the college crowd from [the University of Massachusetts]. We’re very attuned to that crowd.”
On average, Power spends six hours per week writing questions. And he does this without the internet—he consults his library of reference books and 12,000-plus previously used questions.
What makes for a good trivia question? “The answer has to be irrevocably, unambiguously clear,” Power says. “There can be no room for argument or discussion.”
For instance, a bad question would be: “Who of these baseball players was the best to ever play for the St. Louis Cardinals?” A good question would be: “Who of these St. Louis hitters had the highest career batting average?”
The Harp, which uses its website, social media and flyers at nearby UMass bus stops to promote the trivia nights, has built a tradition of community service from the event. It’s channeling money raised from trivia nights into local charities, funds and causes, such as the North Amherst Children’s Library Fund. “We raise $7,500 to $10,000 each year this way,” Power says.
To catch a cheat
With most every customer now toting a smartphone, there would seem the possibility for rampant cheating. Googling an answer on mobile internet takes seconds. Apps like Shazam–which can identify music playing in the background—allow cheating even during media-specific rounds like Name That Song.
But while cheating with smartphones or other methods is easy to do, it’s looked down upon and often tightly regulated. “If someone sees a person with their phone out doing something suspicion, they’ll tell the host, who is also keeping an eye out,” Dicker says.
“And it’s a little bit harder to cheat during our quizzes, because there are so many more questions asked,” he adds. “People aren’t necessarily going to have time to cheat.”
Meeker of Big Boy Entertainment believes cheating is counterintuitive. “Much of the time they’re Googling the wrong thing,” she says, “or it’s really obvious from their answer that they used Google. And if we catch you once, you’re done.”
Cheating at trivia is not uncommon at The Harp. “It’s rare that we go through a week without someone trying to do something,” says Power.
Accordingly, Power and his staff are on the lookout. “You can see the reflection of a cell phone underneath a table, especially smartphones, because of their larger screens,” he says. “If they try to use an electronic device, they almost always get caught.”
If a team is under suspicion of shady activity, Power will require all of its members to put their cell phones in a Ziplock baggie. “It’s only a couple of hours,” he says. “They can do without their phones for that long.”
Cheaters get one second chance at The Harp, he adds. “After that, they’re out, and they forfeit their entry fees into our charity pool. And there are usually 95 or so other people in the pub hooting at them as they leave. It’s a form of shaming that works very well.”
Kyle Swartz is the associate editor of Cheers Magazine. Contact him at firstname.lastname@example.org
Test Your Knowledge
Here are five sample questions and tidbits from pub-quiz service provider Brainstormer (no cheating!):
1. Which Indian-American actor and comedian first gained recognition on the MTV sketch show Human Giant before gaining fame for his role as Tom Haverford in NBC’s Parks and Recreation?
2. What fast food restaurant uses square hamburger patties instead of round ones?
3. Standing at 6 ft. 4 in., the tallest U.S. president elected to office was Abraham Lincoln. Who was the shortest U.S. president elected to office? (Note: Wheelchairs don’t count.)
4. Put these Florida sports franchises in order of when they first established as a team in Florida, starting with the earliest and ending with the most recent: Tampa Bay Buccaneers, Miami Dolphins, Jacksonville Jaguars, Miami Heat. (Note: You earn a total of four points for listing all teams in the correct sequence. You can earn partial credit for listing any of the teams it its correct place in the sequence.)
5. What European currency recently jumped in value by more than 40% against the euro after its national bank scrapped its currency cap with the euro?
1. Aziz Ansari (Before going into show business, Ansari got a degree in actual business from NYU.)
2. Wendy’s (This is the restaurant’s “signature” rather than having a signature sandwich like the Big Mac or Whopper.)
3. James Madison (5 ft., 4 in. tall)
4. Miami Dolphins (1966, in the AFL), Tampa Bay Buccaneers (1976), Miami Heat (1988), Jacksonville Jaguars (1995)
5. Swiss Franc (The move prompted Swiss tennis star, Roger Federer, to say, “Does it mean I’ve got to win now?”)
A League of their own
Some bars will host in-house trivia event leagues, which provide a reliable source of weekday customers. Rather than start fresh each time, bars and pubs keep a running score over the course of a season or year. Rival teams return each week, hoping to gain ground or further distance themselves from the pack.
The downside to this setup is that it risks dissuading teams from joining mid-season. That’s why bars will typically allow new teams to enter competition with points equal to the lowest-scoring team in the league.
Among bars that use trivia event vendors, larger leagues have formed that take place across multiple businesses. San Francisco-based pub-quiz service provider Brainstormer hosts three seasons of competition each year in the Greater Bay area. About 150 to 200 teams take part, playing at bars and pubs that use the vendor’s product. The champions from each location then contend in the finals. The grand prize for the recent season was $500, with $1,500 in total prizes.
Brainstormer is also experimenting with online quizzes. “We’re trying to do something web- or mobile-based, as an add-on to bar trivia night,” says owner Liam McAtasney. “The problem with doing it over the web is that people might cheat. So we’re looking at options like holding it through a video feed, where you would use your phone as the buzzer. That removes the element of cheating.”–KS