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Giving it Large - The Rise of Bongo's Bingo

Giving it Large - The Rise of Bongo's Bingo

Dale Shelabarger

Traditional bricks and mortar bingo providers have had a tough time of it in recent years. The impact of world events, not to mention the rise of online bingo has forced most of the major chains to rethink their approach. As well as embracing web-based play, a popular strategy has been to target younger players by pairing bingo games with elements of nightclub entertainment such as dance and live music.

For the bigger brands, the results have been mixed. Attendances continue to decline while venues continue to close. But the same strategy is proving wildly successful for smaller outfits willing to infuse more risqué elements into their shows. At the forefront is Bongo’s Bingo – a company that’s given rise to a phenomenon called Rave Bingo.

What is Bongo’s Bingo?

Bongo’s Bingo features multiple rounds of bingo played by hundreds of baying youngsters. The action is regularly interspersed with dance-offs, sing alongs, cavorting drag-queens and a whole lot more besides.

Despite the many distractions, games are taken very seriously. Anyone who makes a false call is summarily humiliated by Jonny Bongo – a bingo caller-cum emcee who’s effectively the glue that holds everything together.

Accompanied by cross-dressing sidekicks, confetti cannons and the occasional celebrity, Mr Bongo is a far cry from your typical blazer-clad bingo caller of times past.

While ensuring that there’s absolutely no let-up in the pace, Jonny Bingo doles out insults and banter along with a curious assemblage of prizes consisting of Henry Hoovers, cardboard cut-outs and inflatable toys. In terms of sheer escapism, there’s nothing quite like it. So how did it all begin?

How did Bongo’s Bingo Begin?

Bongo’s Bingo was created by Jonny Lacey and Joshua Burke in 2015. Recognising how stale land-based bingo had become, the pair set about revitalising the bricks-and-mortar game by creating an event that also incorporated elements of dance and rave. Explains Burke:

“Jonny and I realised early on that people were really craving something different though…in the early days we could see a lot of people were bored with ‘normal’ nights out – bars, a club, a gig. They wanted more from going out and also something they could all share on social media, not sweaty, shadowy pics from a dance floor at 6am…”

Armed with a laptop and a bingo machine, Burke and Lacey held a trial event at Liverpool’s Camp and Furnace with the aim of attracting the city’s student crowd. The event proved such a success the pair decided to introduce Bongo’s Bingo to Manchester and Leeds. The shows were sell-outs.

Further expansion followed within two years with events held in Glasgow, Newcastle and London. As attendance figures grew, the prizes became bigger and the show’s notoriety increased. Celebrities were soon included on the bill including the likes of David Hasselhof and the Cheeky Girls.

Made in Liverpool

Today, Bongo’s Bingo is held in more than 120 locations around the world, among them Ibiza, Amsterdam and Paris. But despite the international appeal, both Lacey and Burke are mindful of where it all began: Liverpool. In recognition of the event’s roots, they set up company HQ in the Baltic Triangle. They also constructed a purpose-built venue on former waste-ground in Cains Brewery Village.

“It’s been an amazing journey going from our weekly show in Liverpool to 130 shows a month at venues across the world…I’m particularly proud how we got Content, our own Liverpool venue, built in eight weeks.”

“The site was literally a wasteland in Cains Brewery Village, and we designed it and then got it constructed into this brilliant purpose-built space for all of our shows in the city. As well as our own venue, we work with heaps of venues around the world and thankfully we’ve got an amazing team of people both at our Liverpool HQ…”

Live Streaming

However, things came to a screeching halt in 2021 due to world events. In an effort to overcome the impact of lockdown measures, the team decided to host Bongo’s Bingo parties online. Not surprisingly, they proved a huge success with more than 2 million viewers tuning in to enjoy the show. As restrictions now ease, both Burke and Lacey are once again focused on expanding the company’s land-based presence. So how’s the future looking?

The Future of Bongo’s Bingo

Expansion certainly seems to be back on the cards. A series of XL spectaculars have been held in Manchester and more recently Newcastle. Instead of nightclubs and theatres, these events are hosted in arenas and attract thousands of players. Although something of a step-up from previous Bongo’s Bingo instalments, the XL versions are also sell-outs. It seems then that the future is extremely bright for this innovative, uproarious bingo hybrid.

Bongo’s Bingo Official Website: https://www.bongosbingo.co.uk

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