Ax Throwing Cracks the Mainstream
Surprise quickly set in when Scott Emley first heard fellow family entertainment center (FEC) owners and operators buzzing about ax throwing at a recent industry meeting.
“That’s crazy—who’s going to do this?” he recalls. “I’m thinking about the insurance and how dangerous is this for a FEC. But here we are, over a year later, and it’s in both of my facilities.”
The owner of High 5, with two Texas locations, is in good company. While considered merely a fringe attraction by many folks a short time ago, a growing number of attractions have added ax throwing to their list of entertainment options.
“I love that FECs like ours are taking risks on new verticals,” Emley says.
Looking to hit a bullseye with guests craving a unique time with friends, family, and coworkers, standalone ax throwing centers have popped up around the world as well.
The mystique of offering something different, especially in the southern United States, eventually turned Emley around, as he debuted the attraction earlier this year at his bowling-centric centers in Austin and Lakeway, Texas.
“There’s this thrill of throwing an ax and euphoria when you stick it on the target,” he describes.
Creating an exhilarating, novel experience also drew Samuel Tey to open Axe Factor in Singapore—another place not traditionally known for hurling axes at wooden boards 14 feet away.
Both owners see the corporate crowd and millennials as some of their strongest demos.
“There really isn’t much to do for corporate functions in Singapore other than bowling and barbecue, so they’re turning to us for something fresh and exciting,” says Tey, who will host an ax throwing competition this year, complete with prizes, to further attract new guests. “And like me, millennials are spending more and more on experiences these days.”
By adding the social media-friendly attraction, Emley has “unlocked” audiences that perhaps would not visit his facility otherwise, he says, noting ax tossing generates a competitiveness and camaraderie similar to bowling. (He plans to start a league this year to build on the interest.)
Throwers open their wallets, too, Emley says. Virtually all guests buy food and drinks as they attempt to the hit the target, boosting per cap spending.
Well aware of the perceived risks of selling alcohol and throwing sharp metal objects, Emley requires all servers and staff (dubbed “axeperts”) undergo training by the World Axe Throwing League and certification through the Texas Alcoholic Beverage Commission—just one of several levels of safety at High 5.
Dedicated staff members instruct the players on proper technique, keep score, and oversee the lane pairs whenever in use. (See p. 107 for more safety management tips.)
“As conspicuous as it seems, we still have to tell people to not pick up an ax by its head,” Emley says. “We get it: They’re excited, especially if they’ve never done it before. We have to grab their attention and ensure they understand safety and the importance of ax handling, throwing, and retrieval.”
A wooden barrier also separates players, keeping spectators at a safe distance and curious children out of the area, Emley says. In fact, guests must be at least 18 years old to participate.
“Always remember that safety comes first,” Tey adds. “Ax throwing is a growing sport, and without a great deal of effort put into maintaining its reputation, the public will be quick to criticize. We must never be complacent about safety.”
Chopping Down Risks with Ax Throwing
The way Ryan Gillenwater slices it, ax throwing shouldn’t be any more dangerous than swinging a golf club, throwing a bowling ball, or stepping into a batting cage at an FEC.
“In this industry, I haven’t seen any lawsuits, losses, or injuries related to ax throwing,” says the vice president of McGowan Amusement Group in Fairview Park, Ohio. He offers four main ways facilities can minimize their risk when considering opening an ax throwing attraction.
- First off, owners should check with their current insurance carrier to make sure ax throwing will be an acceptable risk. “While ax throwing is catching on in the FEC world, carriers have been slow to react to the trend,” he says. “Many won’t cover it yet.” For those facilities struggling to find insurance options, some companies—like McGowan—will write a standalone policy to cover just ax throwing.
- For the setup, Gillenwater recommends two targets side by side, preferably with a hard divider between. In addition, a dedicated staff member should monitor both lanes at all times. Plus, a barrier should be placed between the players and spectators. This layout greatly reduces the risk of someone accidentally crossing in front of another thrower or inadvertently getting hurt. “As an insurance person, I like ‘bubble-wrapped’ everything,” he says.
- As long as facilities responsibly monitor alcohol consumption (including having certifications like ServSafe), Gillenwater has no problem with FECs selling adult drinks as guests throw some axes. However, serving alcohol can be fraught with issues, especially underage consumption. “It’s so tough to control and regulate,” he says. “In the event of a loss, you don’t want to be caught up in a scenario of a minor drinking alcohol and something happens. If it’s the only option, you really need to put together policies and procedures to make sure proper controls are in place.”
- Finally, let common sense rule: Guests shouldn’t throw two axes at a time; store hatchets when not in use; and replace the boards often to avoid splinters (having customers wear gloves can help prevent wood slivers under the skin, too).