How Should You Host a Trivia Night at Your Bar?

By Andrew Turnwall


Andrew Turnwall

June 22, 2017

Posted in Restaurant Management, Industry & Culture

From a slow Tuesday night to the busiest night of the week, bar trivia can pack the house and create a loyal local fan base.

We love bar trivia night. From the ridiculous team names (shoutout to my adopted team Glitter, Sparkles, Magic & Stars) to the competitive atmosphere, bar trivia night is a great way to draw in dozens of patrons for a few hours of eating, drinking, and good times.

Recently, we sat down with and interviewed managers and trivia bosses Stacy Getz, Mark Higgins and Jennifer Reid of Gene McCarthy’s Irish Pub in Buffalo’s famous Old First Ward about their trivia night that packs in the house. And then we prepared to do battle.

The Upside of Useless Knowledge

One of the first things we discussed was what kind of benefits they saw from running a weekly trivia night. The first thing that came up was the incredible customer base they had managed to build through trivia. Not only did they have teams that came back weekly, Mark told me, but teams came from more than twenty miles away specifically because of their trivia night.

Our trivia night was described to me as “slow” by their standards, and it was standing room only. Customers confirmed what Mark, Stacey, and Jennifer told me: some nights, the crowd stretches out onto the patio and stands shoulder to shoulder. The week before I interviewed them, they had 27 teams compared to the 10 or 15 when we were present.

Another benefit, and one that became even more apparent during the competition itself, was the sense of team and camaraderie the night brought out, not just in the patrons but in the staff as well. We came originally to interview and observe, but were invited to join a team almost immediately, something that the staff expressed happened all the time. The teams joked with one another and begged staff for answers as Mark kept the patrons, bartenders, and servers in good spirit.

Finally, the patrons that do come for trivia stay the duration, which for Gene McCarthy’s is two and a half to three hours, spend more money on food and drink, and bring new customers in through word of mouth.

Triumphs and Travails of Trivia Night

Here’s a few things to remember when starting your own trivia night, according to Mark, Stacey, and Jennifer:

Don’t leave it up to just the MC.

To run a successful trivia night, everyone needs to be in on it. An atmosphere like the one Mark, Stacey, and Jenn have cultivated relied on everyone joking with one another, talking up the crowd, and making the environment feel welcoming.

The three of them told me, “When a new team comes in, everyone cheers when they win or politely chides them the rules when they mess up. They buy them a drink and everyone has a great time.”

Do know the ups and downs of hiring an outside company or arranging the night yourself.

Hiring an outside company costs and standardizes the experience, but you’ll likely be guaranteed a quality night. Arranging trivia night in-house allows you to better get to know your patrons, tailor the experience to your establishment, and saves on paying an outside company, but requires more work.

Don’t let it get rowdy.

A short answer format with answer cards keeps everyone from screaming answers, upsetting non-playing customers, and removes judgement calls that could leave teams feeling slighted over who shouted what first. Make it known that any answers in dispute are up solely to the judge, and make sure your judge is as affable as can be.

Do make each night unique.

From Mark, “I try to keep it fresh. Every night might have a base or theme like history or geography, but those could be anything.” Mark handles all of the questions for trivia night, and never takes anything premade off the web. This allows him to scale difficulty and topic every week.

“It’s one of the harder trivia nights you’ll come to,” he says with a knowing smile. Reader, they were. And it added to the night to see only one or two perfect scores for any round all night long, rather than everyone getting seven or eight of eight answers every single time.

Don’t attach weird conditions to your prizes.

Gene McCarthy’s offers the standard gift cards to the top finishers of their trivia night. What they don’t do that we’ve seen other places do is attach conditions as to how those cards can be used and what on. Nothing says “Congratulations on winning, please come back soon” like “Your card can’t be used on appetizers or after nine at night or only when Mercury is in retrograde.” After spending a lot of time and work on making a great night memorable, don’t sour it at the end with fine print.

Do advertise.

From Jennifer, “I do all the social media. We post free questions and categories so teams know what they’re getting into.” That lure of advance knowledge keeps teams checking in regularly, to the point that they call her out when the events don’t post. “They let me know, even if I spell something wrong everyone lets me know.”

After the final round, Glitter, Sparkles, Magic & Stars finished one point off the podium. We still had a blast. We still ate great food and drank great beer. The bar packed in the customers on what they described as “a slower trivia night” and everyone had a great time. Gene McCarthy’s has put in the work of developing a style, promoting an atmosphere, and building a customer base, turning their trivia night into a reliable driving force to get customers in, and ensure they have a memorable night that they’ll talk about with their friends.

If nothing else had told me that these folks did it right, it would be this: I can’t wait to round up a team and come back next week.

Do you have any more tips on how to run a great trivia night? Let us know in the comments below.

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One comment so far... Add your thoughts?
  1. Great article. I love trivia night! I have written a free tool for hosting / moderating a bar trivia game night. You can use the site’s questions, there are thousands, or create your own questions. Check it out at

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