How pop-up bars are bringing customers back to the nightlife scene post-pandemic

Calgary’s nightlife industry has gone under a transformation over the past few years with the industry having to change things up to keep a steady customer base and get us off our couches.

Expert says establishments have to try harder now to get us off the couch

Pop-up bars have become more the norm in Calgary's nightlife scene. One in the northeast took over a cidery with its Alice in Wonderland theme. (Sofia Katherine)

Calgary's nightlife industry has transformed over the past few years after the pandemic made it difficult to maintain a steady customer base — leading to many having to get creative.

One of the newest strategies being employed is "pop-up bars." 

These are themes that occupy spaces for several months to spice up establishments and attract customers. It's a creative way for businesses to get customers back into bars after COVID-19 steered many people away from gathering at establishments across the city.  

It's proven to be popular as these venues have operated in a variety of ways.

Recently, an Alice in Wonderland themed popped up in a northeast cidery, SunnyCider.

The establishment had opened in May 2019 — giving them just under a year of normalcy before the pandemic hit.

"Obviously, the pandemic and opening and closing of businesses and all that sort of thing has been another challenge added on top of having a new business," said Dennis Scanland, one of the owners at Sunnycider.

They tried bringing in a variety of entertainment, such as live music, drag shows and bingo, so that they could get more customers in. However, it still was hard to keep the momentum going.

"We had a hard time getting right to the end of January because January was the worst, worst month, I think, out of the whole pandemic, that we had," he said.

However, in the fall, their business was approached by a global company, The Alice Cocktail Experience, which was interested in bringing the pop-up bar to their space.

"First off, they pay rent. So we basically have our tap rent covered with their rent … they're also doing something like 15 shows a week. We get that many people coming through our taproom."

The Mad Hatter's Tea Party has so far been a hit with Calgarians, and by the time it's over, Scanland estimates up to 9,000 people will have gone through their space.

"We're getting cider sales, we're getting awareness. People actually find out about us and where we are."

Short-term leases popular

Rob Campbell, a real estate agent in Calgary, says short-term leases for bars and restaurants have become pretty common in Calgary.

"During the pandemic, it was hard because you couldn't have people out, so you saw pop-up kitchens opening up where people were doing takeout and delivery," he said.

"I think that [pop-up bars] are just an expansion of that side of it."

He says it can still be difficult to find landlords interested in a short-term lease, but there can also be a gap in the market where it works in their favour.

"There's always vacancy in the market … for the number of spaces that have closed, the equal amount or more have opened up."

He also thinks that short-term leases for pop-up bars isn't a bad business model — especially for a young entrepreneur.

Calgary's Fairmont Palliser Hotel has turned a part of its space into a pop-up bar called Tipsy Parrot Rum Shack. The plan is to run it until the end of April. (Natalie Valleau/CBC)
The goal of the pop-up bar is to reintroduce Calgarians to the hotel. (Natalie Valleau/CBC)

"If it doesn't do as well as we thought it was going to do, it's only six months. Now you tweak your business model and you open up another one and go, "OK, what did we do wrong last time?'"

Or for people already in the industry, trying a pop-up theme may help bring either new clientele or give something special to the regulars, he said.

That's exactly what Ken Flores at the Fairmont Palliser is hoping for with the new Tipsy Parrot pop-up bar located in the hotel.

"The idea is again to energize the community, bring them into the hotel, and through that discovery, they'll see that there's other things that we have year-round that they can continue to enjoy."

It's no secret the downtown hotel has struggled during the pandemic due to restrictions and border closures.

However, the general manager of the hotel says what's been uplifting through all that is seeing the locals give back once restrictions were lifted last summer.

"These are always activations to thank the community and to welcome them into the hotel."

"Just takes being discovered again."

Why this will stick

AnneMarie Dorland, an associate professor in marketing at Mount Royal University, has some opinions why this trend has become so popular and how the pandemic is part of it.

"We all have a bunch of new habits that we're following now in this post-pandemic world, and some of those new habits don't involve those old bars anymore."

Having a hard time being convinced to get off your couch these days? Well, the professor says this is part of the reason why restaurants and bars have to try harder now to re-insert themselves into Calgary's market.

"People are more demanding than ever when they are deciding whether to leave the house."

"Providing an experience that's novel, that's unique, that's a limited time so it's not forever … that's a bit of a shake-up from the regular expected experience that you're going to have with that brand."

She says that's why having pop-up themes in these spaces will likely succeed and be on trend for a while.

"Providing these experiences is really a chance to lean into a new habit for both consumers and also for the bars that are providing the all-out kind of escapism for people who need it so badly right now."