The Canary Wharf funfair founder on his fast-growing thrill ride

Fairgame, Canary Wharf (handout)
Fairgame, Canary Wharf (handout)

Most of us leave a family trip to the fairground feeling poorer: kids full of candy floss but parents drained of cash. When Richard Hilton visited Hampstead Fair with his four children back in 2018, however, the waltzers and whack’a’moles triggered his second successful business idea, Fairgame.

This adults-only, neon-imbued, Instagram-friendly indoor fairground, with tech-infused funfair games plus cocktails, craft beer and street food, opened in Canary Wharf a year ago. It’s been packed ever since, with 300,000 visitors providing a £13 million first-year turnover. As Fairgame gears up to opening asecond London site and overseas expansion, Hilton looks set to leave this fair with more than just a consolation prize.

The entrepreneur, 52, has form. He started fitness chain Gymbox in 2004, and spent12 years building it to ten sites and a £6 million profit when he stepped down in 2016, selling most of his shares to investment fund BGF.

“I had the option of not having to go back to work,” Hilton says of the sale. He was 45 and “excited for retirement. I went to the gym, walked the dog a lot, played golf. I thought it would be great to have time with the kids, and my wife. But she didn’t want me at home, the kids didn’t even acknowledge me, and the excitement wore off. I was bored.”

Hilton had been approached to be chairman of a competitive socialising business - at that time London had crazy golf venues, dart bar Flight Club had just launched, and table tennis venue Bounce was around. “I was staggered by the numbers. I thought - ‘there’s a gap in the market for a competitive socialising concept that also has a sense of nostalgia.”

Then came his local fair visit, followed by a lunch with Paul Campbell, ex-boss of restaurant group Clapham House who’d worked with Hilton as former chair of Gymbox, and entertainment lawyer Andrew Myers. “We stumbled on the idea of those brilliant fairground games - at fairs everyone hates them because they’re over so quickly and you feel like you’ve been ripped off, but the games themselves are brilliant, and there are tons of them. Could we do it in a different way?”

Hilton, together with Campbell and Myers, put £1.5 million behind the idea, to developthe technology, cover legal costs and find a lease. It was March 2020, they had picked a site in Farringdon, and were “hours away from exchanging, when we started hearing more and more about Covid and said, ‘let’s hold off a bithere.’”

They carried on paying a tech team to develop Fairgame, but walked away from the lease until moving ahead again in January 2021. “It was a brave call - but they’d just announced the vaccine, and it would take us a year to build out a site, so we said, ‘let’s do it’.”

This time they picked Canary Wharf: “our site had previously had three pubs on it, but they were struggling in the pandemic and we got it. It’s right next to Crossrail.” This time they had £5 million firepower, with £1.1 million from investors and a funding round from BGF.

“The biggest challenge was to get modern tech - from Brazil and the US - for scoring and team leaderboards, into fairground games which had existed for over 100 years.”

Not everything went to plan: “the boat shipping the games to us from Florida broke down. We’d been avidly tracking it, because the whole business was basically on that boat, and saw it stuck in the same spot in the ocean for five days, then get towed back into port."

It caused a four-week delay. “We were really nervous, but luckily we hadn’t announced a public launch date yet.” The founders also spent £40,000 on 15,000 wristbands that, it turned out, didn’t work. “They did well when tested in the US, but once people wore them at the games, the readings weren’t registering. We had to abandon it and then call all over the country to get enough cards to get us through the first week. That caused several sleepless nights.”

Once the site did open, last October, success came swiftly: an influencer event in the first week saw Fairgame’s Instagram page go from 25 followers to 25,000 in days. “Since then, we’ve pretty much been at full capacity,” Hilton reports. Fees start at £15 for a ‘course’ of nine fairground games.

The trio are now wavering over two 23,000 sq ft leases, one in the City, one in the West End, for their second site, funded via cash generation. US expansion is next on the agenda; “it’s too early to think about exit; the business has hugepotential,” Hilton adds.

Will this be his last corporate baby? “Definitely. I’m 100% sure this is my last one,” he nods firmly. “Although, if you’d spoken to me in 2016 I’d have said the same thing then too.”

Founded: 2021

Staff: 130

HQ: Canary Wharf

Turnover: £13 million projected this year