“Game of Thrones” has no difficulty driving viewership. HBO’s sprawling epic fantasy series started out with a relatively small audience when it premiered in April of 2011 — about 2.2. million people tuned in to watch the pilot. But viewership picked up rapidly from there, and ballooned in each of the show’s seven seasons, such that “Game of Thrones” isn’t just HBO’s most watched show today — it is its most watched show ever. The Season 7 premiere broke network records with 10 million viewers — a record that was then broken again at the end of the season when the finale brought in 16 million viewers.
That “Game of Thrones” has spawned in its wake a host of retail concepts and products in unsurprising — where there is success, there is merchandise, and there is no shortage of GoT branded items out there. Clothes, cookbooks, goblets, toys, board games and beer are just some of the literally hundreds of merchandising items up for the truly dedicated fan.
But for Replay Lincoln Park, a popular arcade-bar in Chicago, the forthcoming eighth and final season of “Game of Thrones” is more than an opportunity to sell some Arbor Gold and Fire & Blood beer (the officially licensed “Game of Thrones” beers brewed by Ommegang Brewery). It is an opportunity to create an entire retailing event.
It is an unusual move in general, but not for Replay, where the specialty-theme pop-up bar is well-worn territory. Previous pop-up efforts have included themes such as “It’s Always Sunny In Philadelphia,” “Friends,” “Rick and Morty” and “The Office.”
Owner and operator Mark Kwiatkowski noted in an interview that his journey into the bar business was something of an accident — he had been working in bars after college part-time as a bartender and came to the conclusion he was not meant to work for other people.
“And I looked around and thought, well I can do this. Which was a bold statement since I’d only ever been a bartender. My wife was a real trouper ... doing this when our kids were very little.”
Now with over 25 years in the bar business, Replay is his longest-running venture, and home to the series of speciality pop-up bars the business has done starting in 2016.
“The first one was 'The Simpsons, Moe’s Tavern.' That was a lot of fun — we had Duff beer koozies so you could Duff any beer.”
The secret, he said, is a great team. His bartenders, he notes, in some cases do more than mix drinks — one of them is in fact a great artist who is bursting with vision for these specialty pop-up bars. Sometimes too much vision, Kwiatkowski said, as in design ideas that would look amazing but would consume all of the bar’s revenue for the next several years. But on the whole, he said, the pop-up team is really behind a lot of the magic in the specialty bar installations.
“We engage them to do a lot of hand-painted items and various awesome details,” he said. “We call them the pop-up squad and they do truly outstanding work.”
The “outstanding work” this time around seeks to create a fully immersive installment designed to make guests feel just a little bit like they are drinking in Westeros, the fictional setting for “Game of Thrones.”
“With this pop-up in particular, we were really trying to transform the space so people will feel like they’ve stumbled upon a fantastical world where they can escape the cold, hang out with a life-size dragon, and grab a couple drinks,” Raquel Hung, one of the artists behind the concept, told Forbes. “We love the idea that a space can attract so many different people to come together and collectively enjoy and connect with the environment that we’ve created.”
That immersive experience includes the chance to be served drinks by the Night King behind the bar, or to gaze upon an ice dragon hanging from the ceiling. Kwiatkowski said that there will be many photo opportunities with characters of one kind or another.
Admission to the bar is, as always, free. There is no cover to gain admission. But those who pay $20 for a VIP ticket will get an exclusive GoT goblet, $10 toward a drink of their choice, a commemorative T-shirt and a spot at the front of the line for character photos.
As for how long the installation will stay open? That remains an open question, as Replay has as of yet not announced any official end date. There are some speculating it will last about a month — but since the new season of the show it is commemorating doesn’t start its last season until April 14, we suspect the bar may be open a bit longer than a month.