TOCA Social operator profile

Now that TOCA Social’s debut at The O2 in London has found its feet, expansion looms for the competitive socialising brand. So, who better to talk to about the business than roll out director Oliver Clifford? Last month, Tristan O’Hana up with him on a building site in Birmingham, where TOCA Social mark two was being built.

P&B: We appreciate your time, Oli. To kick off, can you explain what the TOCA Social concept is all about?
OC: TOCA Social is something completely unique. If you look at the sport of football, you need a certain amount of fitness traditionally, you might need 21 mates to play alongside or nine others to be able to get involved. I think a lot of people hang up their boots at quite an early stage when it comes to football due to those reasons. What we’ve managed to do is condense the game down to a 4.5-metre-wide box so anybody can play. That comes down to two things. One is the difficulty levels that are attributed to the game – you’ve got beginner through to advanced. Then the second is our approach to the sport. We’re not about goalkeepers or free kicks or penalties, which I think is what people think we’re going to be about. But we’re about kicking balls at zombies and targets, or your digital friends’ faces as we play ‘Eliminator’. That’s brought a whole new crowd. We knew the football fans were going to want to get involved with what we’re doing, but it is also about the non-football fans and how you actually talk to that audience and engage with them. Our slogan is ‘everybody plays’ and that’s absolutely what we have been able to deliver. Our demographic split is 60/40 male to female, which speaks volumes where there is still, in the UK, a bit of a stereotype attached to the sport. I think we’re helping to drive that narrative of it being a lot more accessible and a lot more inclusive. 

Oliver Clifford alongside gameplay and drinks at TOCA Social, O2

P&B: How did TOCA Social begin?
OC: The company was founded by US World Cup and former MLS and English Premier League midfielder Eddie Lewis, and is led by CEO Yoshi Maruyama, a leisure industry veteran. 

Eddie originally started TOCA Soccer, a performance business that was all built around the Touch Trainer, which is our ball delivery machine. His whole nuance was around having a small size of football that would help improve your skill level when it came to sport. And then Eddie met Erik Anderson, who’s the modern founder of Top Golf. Eric obviously achieved huge things with Top Golf worldwide. Erik then saw the opportunity with the world’s biggest sport, which has 4bn fans. So they took a performance business and the competitive socialising boom that we could see happening, and brought those together to open our first site in The O2 in August 2021. 

P&B: So, we’ve arrived at The O2 for the TOCA experience. What happens next?
OC: We have experiential football touchpoints, which, if you know and love the game of football, you’re going to know about. For example, when you’re walking through our tunnel, it’s trying to replicate that experience as if you were coming out onto the pitch at Wembley. If you don’t know the game as well, it’s a whole load of strobe lights that you’re coming through and the sound of the crowd and it’s just a super-cool, immersive experience. Then we have installations across the venue like multicoloured stud walls and fun wordplay from ‘strike a pose’ to ‘shots you won’t regret in the morning’. 

Then the food and drink is an enormous part of what we do. I think this sets us apart, as we want the food, drink and the game to all sit alongside each other at the same level – what we actually talk about internally is creating a great day or night out and that involves pulling all of these things in. The first thing you actually see in The O2 site is this super-imposing, high stack bar with a massive range of spirits on. That says to the guests that we’re just as much about sitting at a bar and having a great cocktail as we are about our games. We’ve got a tequila bar upstairs. We don’t go down that traditional competitive socialising route – we want everything we offer to talk to one another. 

Target practice at TOCA Social

P&B: You’re only just about to open your second site in Birmingham’s Bullring. Why has it taken so long to get from one to two venues? 
OC: Firstly, because we opened around Covid-19, our first year was not a normal year. Secondly, a lot of these other brands that you see go after crazy fast growth, they’re not necessarily doing something that’s completely new – we do not have anyone else to our left or right at the moment who is doing what we’re doing. That meant that we really wanted to refine and make it as best as it possibly could be. It also takes us about six months to build a site. But, we’ve got Westfield London already announced as number three and we have signed a franchise out in Mexico where they’re going to open 20 sites in the next 10 years. We’re also looking across the pond and thinking about the States. 

You want to have really solid foundations, know your guests, make mistakes super-fast. There’s no bad thing in doing that. We’re sat here in a construction site in Birmingham with so much confidence. Our game boxes are filled a month ahead from Friday to Sunday, so we know that if we can increase the number of boxes as a business model, it starts to really turn. We’ve also completely turned our food offering on its head – the offer that we kicked off with, we ripped up and started again. That’s because we realised that we need to do something unique, it needs to integrate with the game, handheld, no cutlery needed, built for sharing. We wanted to stop doing the same beige American food that everyone else is and now we’ve got a whole Asian and Latin American offering. You only work that out from data and knowing your guests. 

P&B: Do you think it is possible to be truly hospitable in the competitive socialising space?
OC: That’s really important to us. Just from a recruitment perspective, we talk about 49% and 51%. So the 49% is for the core skillset that you would expect, say, a bartender to have, to understand classic cocktails. The 51% is the charisma and the personality that they can bring to what they do and how they can engage with guests and drive that experience. And the reason that’s 51% is because that is more significant to us. We don’t talk about servers or waiters, we talk about ‘box hosts’. That’s because we want them to host your box like it’s a VIP experience in a corporate box at Wembley. You know exactly who’s looking after you. You only win from a sales perspective if you get that bit right. Hospitality is 100% dialogue; it is not a transaction. If you approach it with just technology and hope the guests will find their own way, you will limit yourself and you will not be as successful. I couldn’t stress enough how important that is. 

The food offer has become a key part of the TOCA Social experience

P&B: Sounds like you know what you’re talking about. What’s your background, Oli?
OC: I was brought in at the beginning of 2021. Previous to that I worked for Soho House for a long time. I started in their management training programme and then worked my way up to GM. I was looking to move over to White City House, but then met Alex Harman, president of TOCA Social. He talked about wanting to create a competitive socialising concept that brings that level of service and hospitality, something like Soho House does. For me, that was really exciting. I looked at all of the other competition, and I think there are some great activations out there and we absolutely learn from them. But, for me, being able to deliver the level of service that you’d expect in a prime private member’s club, with food that is fantastic and amazing drinks, and you can sit down and ask for a great gin martini – that’s really what we want to deliver and that’s what we’re going after. I have been trying to bring that skillset to our operational experience and I was really given carte blanche at The O2 to go and do that. 

P&B: There are plenty of copycat operators out there. How long before we see ‘Soccer Social’ or the like? 
OC: There’s Ballerz, who are opening up in Bluewater, and there’s Metrix who opened up in Westfield. I think it’s only a bit of a confidence boost for us that we’re in the right space. We’ve got quite a unique approach to the sport of football and how we’re taking it on. Everyone else has seemingly done the obvious thing of talking to the football crowds. You know, ‘take a free-kick like David Beckham!’ OK, we can do that and we may do that. But I think we feel we’re still in our own space and don’t particularly see any other competition. But look at mini golf now and how many brands there are. There is definitely space for everybody, without a doubt. Gen Z and millennials don’t just want to go to a restaurant anymore. Not many of them. Everyone wants something different on a night out. And that’s why competitive socialising is booming.

P&B: How much does a TOCA session cost and how are sales going? 
OC: You’re looking at about £12.50 per person for 30 minutes. The O2 continues to grow and it has been the unlock for future sites. No business is able to grow in hospitality anymore unless you can deliver when it comes to EBITDA; it can’t just be revenue. You’ve got to grow revenue and you’ve got to show that the demand is there, of course. Visitation for us has gone from 300,000 to 350,000 over the last year. Box revenue has grown by over 20% since we opened as well. You’ve got to deliver on the bottom line. Despite the fact that our location is around the back of The O2, we are consistently the number-one venue within The O2 versus the big high street restaurants in there. We know this because The O2 gives us a premier league table of where we sit. 

P&B: So, growth is on the cards. Is there a number that you’re trying to achieve in a certain timeframe?
OC: There isn’t a number, but I think growth comes in various chunks. There’s the bedding-in stage and getting your foundations in place. Following The O2, I think we’ll move from one to five relatively quickly. After that is when you hit supersonic and you start to do builds at the same time. We’re sitting on the world’s biggest sport – there’s Asia, there’s Australia, there’s America, there’s Europe, so I think there’s a huge amount of opportunity out there. I think the States, with the World Cup coming up there and also what the women’s game is doing – it’s a really attractive market. We’ve definitely got one or two eyes looking across the Pond. There will definitely be more announcements on new openings beyond Westfield London very soon.  

You may also be interested in…