Experiential Mania

Axe-tossing Tuesdays to board game bliss.

Watching axes soar through the air towards wooden targets is just a typical Tuesday night for regulars at Blue Ridge Axe Throwing in Roanoke. In 2019, the unconventional experience destination opened its doors to those looking for an activity with a little edge to it—literally. But in a space like this, throwing an axe isn’t just for thrillseekers anymore—and neither is escaping wizard lairs, hunting down hidden treasure, or getting caked in an “Art Attack” of glow-in-the-dark paint. 

Photo courtesy of Blue Ridge Axe Throwing

The past few years have seen an explosion of businesses presenting immersive, imaginative experiences. Looking for entertainment still means go-karts, amusement parks, and movie theaters, but now it could also mean a board game café with nearly every tabletop game around or an escape room with an elaborate backstory and setup. Across the state, experiential exploits abound, inviting patrons to not only be visitors, but also interactors in the operation. 

One possible explanation for the newer hands-on, group-based activity businesses popping up and succeeding could be the in-person draw. Graham Henshaw, Assistant Provost for Entrepreneurship at William & Mary, posits one potential hypothesis for the recent establishment of so many experiential businesses: a reaction to the current abundance of digital products and entertainment. Perhaps, Henshaw says, this new influx is gaining traction “because it’s analog, and it’s in the real world.”

And from hurling axes at bullseyes to settling down for a relaxing, or even intense, game of Scrabble, there’s no shortage of places to have old fashioned fun in new ways. 

Unplugged Games Café in Midlothian takes playtime seriously, with a collection of board games to rival a superstore—1,306 to be exact. Purchasing a Play Pass—$6 Monday through Thursday and $8 on weekends—allows guests to pick from the huge array of game choices, snack on classic American fare, and play. Board games include Codenames, Clue, Terraforming Mars, and many variations of Ticket to Ride. 

For those looking for a game with higher stakes, escape rooms offer a more daunting escapade. Visitors might become shipwrecked pirates, prisoners of a cursed tomb, or a wizard’s apprentice at Gnome & Raven in Richmond. The series of escape rooms focus on wonder, magic, and fantasy coming to reality, and clues and codes bring the truth to light in a new level of immersive play. 

The massive escape room complex at Bonds Escape Room in Arlington features its own range of kooky adventures, with a Western style saloon, elven forest, and a unique experience known as Art Attack, where guests don plastic capes and goggles and splatter one another with globs of colorful paint. These experiences leave visitors marked—with both memories and paint stains. 

Meanwhile, a guided tour, issued through the Roam app in Norfolk, leads tourists looking for a whimsical journey through the city’s gems. It provides them with an exceptional way to get to know a new place through trivia, challenges, and ridiculous photos. 

Though these endeavors seem to fit into a niche of hyper-specific communities—like board game geeks or treasure hunt enthusiasts—they’re not necessarily meeting a new demand based on consumers’ spontaneous desires or whims. At the heart of these immersive pursuits are the same basic human needs behind movie-watching, family dinners, and campfires. 

Fundamentally, Henshaw says, “these businesses seem to be resonating around the value proposition of entertainment, of community, of connecting with one another. Those are pretty deep needs that we have, and they’re also not new. Those needs have been known to entrepreneurs for all time.”

These experiential concepts may confuse or surprise initially, but deep down they satisfy the familiar, simple cravings everyone has for fun and togetherness. 

This article originally appeared in the June 2024 issue. 

Hope Cartwright
Hope Cartwright is associate editor of Virginia Living.
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